In 1991, as I finished grad school at NYU and the lease was expiring on the apartment I shared with 3 guys from school, I began to look for my own apartment. Having to share an apartment killed the joy of living in NYC - especially with 3 straight boys from Wall Street to whom I wasn’t out. Even back then, the financial reality of Manhattan was a bitch.
Fortunately, I had started dating a real estate broker. Yes, he was 38 and I was 22, but it wasn’t all about the real estate. I kind of liked older men growing up. In part because in my late teens/early20s, pretty much all the guys were older. And it was just easier being with someone who was more mature and comfortable in their skin when I definitely was not.
Anyway, I had the good fortune of:
1) dating a real estate broker who had been in the business for a while, knew NYC and managed the rental department of a shady real estate management company.
2) looking for an apartment in the early 90s which was the nadir of the real estate market in the past 25 years and before the skyrocketing gentrification of the Far West Village
With that in my favor, I remember seeing a lot of crappy stuff which was all under $1000 but looked it (which would be $3000 today). I considered the Upper East Side and the East Village, but I knew I ultimately wanted to be in the West Village.
I almost took a studio on the top floor of a 5-story walk-up on Gay St. (Un)fortunately, I was just coming out and my gay panic set in and made me question if I wanted to tell all my coworkers, family and friends that I lived on Gay Street. So I waited another two weeks until my boyfriend found a small 1 BR on West 10th Street - FAR West 10th Street.
FAR is relevant because in 1991, “the Village” for straight people was east of 7th Avenue. The FAR West Village hadn’t been fully gentrified and was still considered a “gay” neighborhood. It also wasn’t particularly hip in a straight sense.
The 5-story building was at the corner of 10th Street and Hudson. Though it wasn’t the prototypical tenement building (having been built in 1945 with an elevator), it had all the characteristics you would associate with a tenement –all studio or 1BR units, a front door of battered steel with a small chicken-wire window, an abandoned ground-level storefront with bricked-over windows and metal grates on the apartment windows.
It being 1991, crime was an issue. Not that it affected me particularly, but it was constantly in the news which created a sense of paranoia (that Giuliani capitalized on so well). So one of my concerns about being so far west was the relative desolation and frontier-like neighborhood. In retrospect, this is exactly what I miss most about the neighborhood – walking around deserted streets and derelict piers that no one else cared about. But in 1991, I found comfort in the presence of a police station down the street.
The way I got my apartment was as follows:
- The building was in bankruptcy (due to the crashing real estate market).
- The bankruptcy court trustee appointed my lover’s company as the managing agent.
- Two men died from AIDS and their apartments became available.
- I paid $2000 “key money” to the owner of my lover’s company. “Key money” is basically a bribe to get the under-market lease.
I thought at the time that I would stay here one or two years until I started making more money or moved to San Francisco. Almost 18 years later, I’m still here. Which is a little depressing if I compare it to my dreams of the future when I was 22.
But what I’ve come to appreciate is that I don’t need a lot. I did get a big loft in Soho for a few months, then a bigger loft in Williamsburg and then an even bigger house on lots of land in Connecticut. But all that really changed was my monthly bills. Yes, it was nice to live in a big space. But you adapt to your environment. After a few months, coming home to a 2,500 square foot loft didn’t give me the high it once did. Those 4 walls were the same 4 walls and it felt kind of lonely. And it required a lot more maintenance. And a lot more furniture. Which meant staying in a soul-sucking job on Wall Street. The only real satisfaction came from having parties there. But that satisfaction was more about impressing people than enjoying my everyday life.
Now, I’m back where I started. I sometimes wonder if this apartment is preventing me from moving on with my life. But the freedom to live my life without a crushing financial burden, yet with the pleasure and privilege of living in the West Village, means I’m not likely to walk away anytime soon.
Especially since I just found out the apartment below me is renting for 5 times what I pay. I’m too cheap to ever give up such a good deal even if it is a little small for two grown men and a cat. I’ll end up one of those crazy old Village people who are carried out on a stretcher at 80. But it will have been a life well lived in a place that I consider home.