Looking for an Apartment

“Vicinity of” and Other Real Estate Lies

October 1, 1999

Despite a tight real estate market and a widespread refusal to rent to lawyers or pets, we’ve managed to find a new apartment, and now we don’t have to drive through Manhattan from our old place in Brooklyn to get to our vacation home in the Adirondacks.  In the process, we learned and relearned some things about finding a place to live in New York.

It begins with language.  The ads are mysterious and arcane, as if they’re bad translations from the Ouagadougou Daily Blotter.  The best way to find out what the terms mean is by covert trial and error.  To ask a leasing agent directly what “Jr.4” or “Convertible 2” means would be a tactical error.  Revealing ignorance in that way would give the other side an advantage, a thing to be avoided if at all possible, since the relationship between a potential tenant (especially two lawyers and a cat) and a New York City leasing agent is apt to be somewhat adversarial.  Something like Custer and Sitting Bull.

Accordingly, I led a realtor lady to believe that though Ann and I have rarely let ourselves even dream of living in a “convertible 2” — that would be real estate hubris — I’d be pleased to view one anyway.  Now I can report that a “convertible 2” is a small 1 brdm cube with an L-shaped living room/dining room combination that can easily be turned into a living room/bedroom combination by putting up a wall or a screen across the foot of the L.  The more highly evolved convertible 2’s are advertised as “Conv 2/WALL UP.”  Such a floor plan gives the notion of breakfast in bed a special New York meaning.  All other meals, too.  Especially if the apartment has a bathtub in the kitchen, as some do.

“Barefoot in the Park,” means the apartment in question is within a couple of miles of Central Park, and no matter how tiny the apartment, because of its location, it’s so expensive you’ll have to sell your shoes to pay the broker’s fee and go panhandling in the park — barefoot.

“Low fee” means the leasing agent either doesn’t know what “low” means, is a liar and a thief, or both.  (By custom tenants pays 15% of a year’s rent to be allowed to live for a year in a place where the rent will be raised so much at the end of that period that they have to look for another place.)

“Vicinity of” means nothing, except that the ad writer wanted to use the name of a desirable neighborhood.  For example, an apartment in the “vicinity of” Brooklyn Heights (a posh enclave on the East River with a dramatic view of lower Manhattan) might be located anywhere from deepest Bedford-Stuyvesant to somewhere out by Coney Island.

“Easy commute” is similarly unreliable.  If there is public transportation anywhere near the apartment so described, it is an “easy commute” to Wall Street.  In the view of New York real estate operatives, Nairobi, since it has an airport, is an “easy commute.”

Not to go all negative here, I did see one truthful ad: “2 bdrms, 690 sq.ft.”

We’ve danced this New York City apartment-rental jig five times now, and we’ve pretty well learned the language, the neighborhoods, and various tactics.  So the experience wasn’t too trying this time around, and we’ve successfully avoided feelings of defeat as we begin a new adventure in urban living — this time in the Bronx.  Not the real Bronx, but a garrison of middle class and rich people called Riverdale.  Riverdale is bounded by the Harlem River,  Van Cortlandt Park, Yonkers, and the Hudson.  Until we went up there a few weeks ago and took a walk, we’d never been in it except to drive through on the Henry Hudson Parkway.  We have found it to be not at all what we expected.

It’s one of the city’s five boroughs, but it feels suburban (even though it’s not afflicted with shopping malls).  It has sprawling, single-family residences on tree-shaded streets, the Metro-North (a commuter train), and a supermarket with a big parking lot.  Sometimes Riverdale seems as remote from the manic life of Manhattan as its name suggests.  That isn’t the whole picture though.  Riverdale also has large apartment buildings, the usual handy supply of lox and bagels, some traffic problems, and around the edges, poverty and the threat of violence.  Remarkably, the drive from our building (at 231st Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway) to midtown takes only about 12 minutes (except of course at rush hour).

Our building was constructed in 1928, so it has thick, relatively soundproof walls and period charm.  We have more room than in the past and three exposures.  Great ghosts, too.  We look out the front window at a statue of Henry Hudson himself.  Boss Flynn, a commanding political figure for thirty years or so beginning in the 1920’s, lived in the penthouse.  Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have been a frequent visitor.  But then, as someone explained to us in the elevator, “everyone visited Boss Flynn.”



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