Apartment Hunting In New York City
MR PORTER’s US Editor scours the listings (and obituaries) in search of a new Manhattan home
“Do me a favour, for your own good, put your name in your books right now before they get mixed up and you won’t know whose is whose. ’Cause someday, believe it or not, you’ll go 15 rounds over who’s gonna get this coffee table. This stupid wagon wheel ROY ROGERS GARAGE SALE COFFEE TABLE!”
Harry Burns, When Harry Met Sally, written by Ms Nora Ephron
We didn’t fight about furniture after our breakup; it was all hers. I’d chucked all mine when I moved in with her two-odd years before. So now I had nothing. I was untethered and unbound. Our split happened the first week of January, too, so new year, new me, right? Ugh. Well, if I was unencumbered by worldly possessions, I was also now suddenly unhoused. In the middle of a freezing winter cold snap. I was alone and exposed to New York. Short on friends. Shorter on funds. And flailing.
Without a home of your own, or at least a rental, New York can feel like a vacuum in space. Indeed, it can seem even more malicious than an indifferent void – when you are without a place to hang your hat, New York and all of its inhabitants can feel like they are in direct opposition to you and your survival. When I first came here as an adult, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s hotel room, I had a dream that the city was a porcelain-walled cauldron, constantly cascading with a torrential rain – a steadily flushing toilet – and all the people who hoped to survive there were stepping on one another’s heads and hands to stay above the event horizon toward the bottom. Whatta town!
So, to work – or at least to couchsurfing and dreaming of the apartment to be. Which… where… even to begin? If it is at once a merciless maelstrom of expense and small hardships, apartment hunting in New York promises limitless possibility. The app StreetEasy, for its part, offers the same Sisyphean enticement to good-better-best questing of all capitalist enterprises. Or at least of all (dating) apps: down this rabbit hole, your true soulmate/dream home awaits. Maybe on the next swipe, the next, the next…
New York real estate gives you room (and reason) to really let loose the mind: Mr Johnny Depp and Ms Kate Moss’ Greenwich Village mansion topped by a skylight the size of a school bus? For rent right now ($21,500/month). Mr Edward Albee’s former loft in TriBeCa? Also available to buy (a cool $9m). The palatial five-bedroom apartment where Ms Nora Ephron lived in the Apthorp building on the Upper West Side, and about which she wrote her classic apartment essay? If you follow Ms Ephron’s example, it could be yours for $24,000 key money – and then there’s the rent…
It’s bananas, I know, but apartment hunting is not an entirely (or even minimally) rationalist enterprise. What we are looking for in an apartment is emotional. It is... ineffable. An apartment, we think, is our soul incarnate. And it is the most direct portal into the fantasy world of New York.
That fantasy, like many of our earliest associations with the city – if we didn’t grow up here, or within visiting proximity – come from the movies. The movies, in which people live in impossibly elegant, well-appointed apartments full of charm and crown moulding, with enormous fireplaces and soaring windows. Like, I mean, did you ever see Big – LOL? We are all little Joshes moving to the big city looking for an industrial loft in which to trampoline.
Even on the mean streets, while walking around the city – or, indeed, fleshing out a backstory while trawling StreetEasy – at least a portion of the mind is always scanning through the fantasy library of New York-set cinema. That’s the bar where Mr Cary Grant was abducted in North By Northwest, the restaurant where Ms Meg Ryan faked her orgasm... (That, before we even get into the real-life nostalgia of the city, is the apartment on Crosby Street where Mr Jean-Michel Basquiat died, here the building on Fifth Avenue where Mr Sam Shepard lived, and only a few blocks away, Ms Patti Smith’s townhouse...). It is a ghost town, to be sure, and wildly more alive and animated for it, in part because we project ourselves into the ghosts’ world as well as into the real world we’ve built atop them. In my next apartment, for example, do I want to go to paranoid pieces, as elegantly as Ms Gena Rowlands does in her massive (but also somehow windowless?) Fifth Avenue apartment in Opening Night? Or would I be better suited to the skylit atelier-ish aerie occupied by Mr Chiwetel Ejiofor in Melinda And Melinda? (And, to the latter point, though their creator is altogether cancelled, Mr Woody Allen’s Manhattan-set movies remain the ne plus ultra of apartment fantasy.)
Beneath that highlight reel of nostalgia and gene-deep associations with the city and the moments that made us (and made us move here), beneath our very noses, we have Instagram and all of its very present tense provocations of perfect-presenting lifestyle artists sliding across our mobile devices one square and story at a time. These power-users’ apartment-scapes, so well adorned, so full of character and non-bodega-flower arrangements are an attack, obviously. Surely, no just god would place us within platform proximity to these people if not to compare us – unfavourably, it hardly needs be mentioned.
And it’s not only that our friends, or friends’ friends, or just the people we follow have utterly enviable apartments, with utterly ridiculous herringbone floors and an entire closet for the shoe collection that makes our own search so fraught. It’s because of what an apartment means. Especially now, when the presentation of tastes and predilections have come to stand in for personality traits, have come to replace even life, really, not to mention become a central revue stream for some. In this context, an apartment is not just the main enchilada of our moral universe – it is the backdrop for our most personal content creation.
A case in point: you’d be able to glean at least a bit about who I am (or, at least, present myself to be) if I carried around a New Yorker tote, say, or wore a Grateful Dead tee. Go deeper on the ’gram to find that I am a native Angeleno, a Cabana fan, a Blue Bottle-CentrFit-Elder Statesman-KCRW-Kiehl’s-Casa Dragones-kind of guy, and you probably know whether or not we’d be life-compatible. But imagine if I added another brand, like, Fort Greene. Or Chinatown. Or the Upper East Side. If you could then see all the signifiers on display (and not) within that apartment, you could probably draw a fairly complete profile, right?
In deciding on which of those most holy indicators to select – where to live, in what sort of a place, with what sort of innate character – I just about had a breakdown. And not just because of the home’s classic positioning as the ultimate metaphor for our minds, our selves, but because I began to think of the apartment as a potential content-scape for my lifestyle dramaturgy: think of the sunset-over-Manhattan pics I could take from my place in Brooklyn Heights, or the grooming videos I could shoot in my marble bathroom in Harlem, the gym selfies in my FiDi fitness arena, the dinner parties in my Carroll Gardens garden.
I’m not embarrassed to admit (which is a way of saying that I am, in fact) that I made mention of these ambitions to various realtors around town, hoping to secure some type of Ms Tavi Gevinson-style spon-con situation, or at least a break on rent in a new development. Alas, I am not the prodigal actress-tastemaker-heroine-voice-of-her-generation. Just me, paying full price, and a broker’s fee, if I’m lucky.
Long after I lost count of the number of apartments I’d seen, I started throwing around the number 50 in conversation. Fifty apartments, which seemed both insane and conservative an estimate. So in the retelling, the number grew to 60. Sixty apartments, or eight apartments more than there are cards in the deck Harry is tossing into a top hat in his new, empty, and egregiously airy apartment at 55 East 11th Street after his divorce in When Harry Met Sally. As if anyone could be so forlorn in such sunny splendour.
The mention of Harry is, of course, not incidental. Because not only is Ms Ephron’s script (and Mr Rob Reiner’s film of it) the most romantic depiction of life in the city imaginable, it is also rife with residential anxiety. “But, really, what’s so hard about finding an apartment?” Harry says to Sally after her breakup. “What you do is, you read the obituary column. Yeah, you find out who died, and go to the building, and then you tip the doorman. What they can do to make it easier is to combine the obituaries with the real estate section. Say, then you'd have Mr Klein died today leaving a wife, two children, and a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a wood-burning fireplace.”
That, when he is in a particularly good mood. When he is not, you get the saga of Mr Zero – which is just about the stage of grief I was to experience when, about a month into looking for a place, I came across a somewhat decent little studio on a cobblestone street in the West Village. Wandering around it on a chilly night with a broker who suggested she should collect $2,500 or so for deigning to show up with keys and an application form, I went a little numb. I did in fact go through the motions of applying, even putting down a deposit (although, for the second time in the search, after I put down money to make sure that I had first dibs, the apartment was given to someone else), but I wasn’t really invested. I couldn’t tell any more what I wanted, who I wanted to be, why any of it mattered. My decision fatigue turned to paralysis.
And still, somehow, I kept going. Unstoppably. Insatiably. One apartment after another, five in a day. More. To what end? Would I even be able to close on “the one” if I somehow found it? I’d made too much of a deal out of this, not enough. I was killing myself to find solid footing in the city, and turning it into quicksand as I did so.
Because, really, what did I want, even, my friends asked. Well, it changed moment to moment. For a while, I thought I might like a view, for the aforementioned pictures, or a gym, so that I might stay fit conveniently fit, or a doorman for deliveries, or charm and mouldings for the romance. I wanted to save money. No, I wanted to make a home, and so splurge. I wanted to be close to work. Ugh, I didn’t care, I’d rather commute from a paradise. I shopped and shopped, resetting the StreetEasy criteria again and again.
When I was disconsolate, I looked up dream homes to (hopefully) reignite my love with the city – like, why, after it all, was I killing myself to live in a place I couldn’t afford to live in, after killing myself to do so? I pulled up heart-tugging pictures of the artist lofts atop Carnegie Hall, where Messrs Don Shirley and Bill Cunningham used to live, with their giant, Rear Window-style window skylights. I looked up the big, beautiful, unique apartments in the Hotel des Artistes on Central Park West, one of my favourite buildings in the city, where my favourite movie, My Dinner With Andre, is set (though it was filmed on location in Richmond, Virginia). I found all sorts of dreamy, magnificent, perfectly charming, perfectly located, perfectly me places – scanning the secret interiors of the city the way a tourist might a souvenir store, callously, recklessly, checking another stop off the list – all for the low, low price of, like, $34,000 a month or so. And still I kept looking for more (slightly) realistic places, in a fugue.
Not that my visits to the apartments, of all sizes, in all areas, were half-hearted. Within moments upon entering those that I loved (three, maybe), those I loathed (call it five), and those where I couldn’t tell the difference (the rest), I began laying it out, decorating it, furnishing it with a lifestyle, an inhabiting spirit, a vibe, a personality of the me I would be if I lived there. Whole Russian novels of love and life unspooled in an hour. And then rolled right back up on entering the next spot and the next.
Until... well, did I give up, or did time run out with my team behind on the scoreboard? I kept going until I stopped, I guess, until I had an apartment. For better or worse.
Home, for now.
“...The old Clairol ad – ‘If I’ve only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde’ – reverberated through my brain, although my version of it had nothing to do with hair colour. If I have only one life to live, I thought, self-pityingly, why am I living it here?”
Ms Nora Ephron
Well, because, where else are you going to go?
In the end, I went down the path of least resistance. I took over a friend’s lease on a little one-bedroom on the Upper East Side – way up, and as far east as it goes; in a subway-tiled, pre-war building that another friend described as looking “like Paris”, but which I thought looked like a high school.
So what then, I was left to wonder, did my behaviour during the process, and my inevitable apartment, say about me? What did this settled-upon, three-room, 5.5-floor walk-up apartment mean? That I, like it, dress myself up in imitation of old-world glamour, but am really sort of cheap in a vinyl floor sort of way? Perhaps it also means that I am safe, or a poor planner, that I am hidden away, very remote, and lack the sort of vision or wherewithal to manifest my dream situation. Am I, in other words, easily defeated, quick to surrender, to take the easy way out?
Well, whomp whomp. But the conditions by which I came to surrender may tell another story as well. On the one hand, yes, this is a compromise by inertia, but, price-wise, it is also relatively sensible – a new for me. Maybe, my thinking goes, I can even chip into my whale of a student-loan debt, or at least not have a nervous breakdown by the 14th and 30th of every month? Maybe, if I don’t go too deep into the dinners out, I can even save a buck or two? Or, nah, I’ll end up blowing it on taxis up to BFE.
I don’t know, maybe the apartment and the search, like, life, is meaningless? I mean: what you make it. What you make it. This little interstitial bit is over, and the new chapter that I’ll set here has just begun. And, who knows, maybe I will remain me even in this new living space. Maybe my projections, my fantasies and associations will make the new place more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it will make me a new me.
Now I just have to decorate it.