Welcome to my East Village apartment of three years; I just signed my fourth lease. It’s a 425 sq. ft. 2-bed 1-bath that we squeeze three people into, and – believe it or not – it offers a lot more than any other apartment we’ve seen at a similar price point! We toured a handful of apartments with our broker – many with no closets, no light, or no living room – before we found this place. We signed on the spot and we haven’t moved since.
Our building was built in 1930 as a tenement and was converted to market rate apartments in 2009. We consider ourselves lucky to have two large bedrooms that both have windows, closets, and enough space for a dresser! That is unprecedented in Manhattan. Our bedrooms are our havens; they are spacious and bright, have views of the quaint East Village street that we live on, and make great homes for our plant friends.
The trade-off, however, is that our living room does not have a window, making it very cave-like when both of our rooms are occupied and the doors shut. Great for sleeping in and movie nights, not so great for mental health. We have a “kitchenette” off the living space that provides us with the bare essentials – sink, stove, microwave, dishwasher (bonus!). What it doesn’t provide us is any counter space, any drawers, or any cabinet space for storing dry goods. We supplemented this by installing a rod and hooks beneath the cabinets for hanging pots and pans, putting up shelving to create an open concept pantry, and adding a 4-drawer system from the Container Store that fits in the strange nook off the back. Every nook and cranny here is exploited to its fullest potential. We don’t have a coat closet or a linen closet, so a jag in the brick wall houses our umbrellas, the space behind the couch hides our vacuum and step stool, and the broom and swiffer are hidden behind the fridge. And we installed shelving with hooks in the bathroom to fold and hang our towels. We measure everything before buying to make sure it just barely fits, including pizzas because a normal size won’t fit in our New York-sized oven!
Starting mid-March this year, all three of us began working from home due to shelter-in-place mandates in New York City. We were challenged with turning this 425 sq. ft. apartment into a space that not only serves all of our living needs (a challenge to begin with), but also provides three office spaces. For our work as architects, my partner Anshul and I both require a dual monitor setup and an ethernet connection, so we bought a desk for the living room and use our TV as a monitor while working.
We take turns working there or working at a standing setup in our bedroom. We ran a second ethernet cord from the living room through the closet to our dresser where we propped my old monitor from school on a stack of books. Jacey, our roommate, works in publishing and can operate from her laptop over wifi, so she bounces between her bed and her dresser for a sit/stand situation in “office #3.”
New Yorkers pay an extraordinary amount in rent for the tiny spaces that we’re given, but we do it for the joy of living inside the melting pot. Typically, we spend most of our time out in the hustle enjoying everything NYC has to offer (I hope to write more on NYC in a future article!). However, sheltering in place has shed light on the shortcomings of our living situations, most notably our lack of light, air, and space. Most living situations here do not provide any green space – a backyard, a patio, or even a balcony. We get that experience from our city parks. I consider my neighborhood park to be an extension of my apartment. That’s where I go when I need some time with the sun and the sky, and I consider my access and proximity to it as part of what I’m paying for with my rent. The same can be said for any city that we choose to live in. What are some of the characteristics of your city that you feel like you’re paying for? Are you utilizing your city’s services to your full advantage?
The Community Pool(s)
Parks are acts of urban generosity that provide the city’s people with an opportunity for rest and relaxation. However, unlike a private backyard or balcony, parks are public places, and that gives them an added layer of vulnerability and power. The success of a neighborhood park hinges on the way people use it. Some parks are anchors for their communities and others are destitute places to be avoided – or both, depending on the time of day. Think about the park closest to your home – which one is it? The function of a public space depends on the rhythms of our daily lives and how we interact with these spaces. For example, I typically frequent my neighborhood park between the hours of 6-8pm on weeknights or between 12-4pm on weekends. School children typically visit during the day before 3pm. Joggers populate it between 6am-9am. This mixing of different pools of people creates a diversity of use that is critical to the success of the park and to the success of the community. The park needs to be used fairly continuously and by a diverse group of people in order to feel safe. This means you need people from different walks of life with different routines to live near it and populate it. On my way to the park I walk from my street – mostly young professionals and college students – through a low-income housing complex, to the great melting pot that is the East River Park. This rhythm exposes me to the routines and customs of the people that live around me and the mixing of different people contributes to the safety of the community. The presence of different witnesses with different backgrounds populating public space is the great democratic equalizer.
How can you shift your rhythm? How can it contribute to your personal growth and to the benefit of your neighbors? Now more than ever, it is important to step outside of our comfort zones, to educate ourselves, and to understand the experiences of others. It may be easiest and safest to stay in your backyard and frequent the same grocery store, the same gas station, and take the same routes to do so; however, there is a danger in sameness. Seeing your particular way of living mirrored back at you validates your point of view and your opinions. And though those opinions are likely not wrong, they are also not the only ones out there. There are billions of people in the world with billions of different ways of living, and all of them are valid.
I was born and raised in Grand Forks, ND and lived in Fargo, ND for 5 years before moving to New York. Here, I come across thousands of people from different walks of life every day when I take the subway, walk to the grocery store, do my work, and enjoy public spaces. I find it incredibly exciting and fulfilling to learn what people are up to and to see the best and brightest innovate in their fields. I hear stories about where folks come from and what they’re dealing with. Representation is fundamental to understanding and acceptance. I see modes of living that didn’t exist in North Dakota, and getting to know the people that live those lives – to get into their world – creates an awareness of, and an empathy for, the challenges that they face.
In the cities I’ve inhabited, I have also seen a phenomenon of weak citizenship, an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. However, the recent events of COVID-19 and racial injustice have shown us that we can only survive if we work as one. Other countries demonstrated a respectful support for one another by singing and cheering from their balconies. Every night at 7pm, we still do so in New York to thank essential workers as they return home from their service. We stick our heads out of our windows, cheer from the fire escapes, and ring our bells. We do so because we all have been affected by this pandemic. But shouldn’t the same show of support be given when our brothers and sisters are suffering a pain that we do not necessarily see or feel? We are deeply connected as a human race, and as the world becomes truly globalized we are beginning to come in contact with all of the “pools” of the globe. Taking a walk through a different neighborhood may seem like a small act, but seeing and hearing the members of your community is crucial to strong citizenship and social justice wherever you live.
Read more about architecture, urbanism, and life in the city on Carmen’s blog.