I finally had to face facts—I have been completely priced out of Brooklyn. So I’m moving to Manhattan. I hear it’s nice.
The County of Kings has been my home for seven years. When my husband and I were ready to settle down and have children, we knew we didn’t want to do it on the youthful yet oh-so-pricey Lower East Side, where our love had first blossomed. Brooklyn, everyone informed us, was the place to go.
Despite the general wisdom that Park Slope was the ideal breeding ground, we fell hard for the traditionally Italian enclave of Carroll Gardens, and nested into a full floor in a wide brownstone on a tree-lined street. They must be putting Clomid in the water on this side of the Hudson, because it wasn’t long before our vocabulary expanded to include words like Zutano and Whoozit. We became, like everyone else in the neighborhood, the stroller-pushing parents of two.
As our family expanded, so did our ambitions. We loved our apartment, but longed for the stability of home ownership. We grew fed up with hauling our laundry to the ignobly named Bleach House, and worn down by a building whose plumbing system was more volatile than our 2-year-olds.
“Someday, we’ll live somewhere we can have a dishwasher,” I told my mate, “and when we do, we’re going to redirect all the time and energy we spend sudsing cutlery into screwing.”
We also dreamed of something with a more sensible layout than the open-floor plan we inhabited—something that might give our clan some measure of privacy. I was tired of hiding in the bathroom when I needed to get away, weary of cranking up the white-noise machine to hurriedly grope my spouse in the dark while my children slept close by. Basically, I was willing to spend our combined life savings for a goddamn door.
We knew we couldn’t afford a house in our neighborhood, though it didn’t stop us from looking at a few. But our budget capped around the $400,000 mark, roughly a million less than the going rate for South Brooklyn brownstones. We looked at houses further out, spending weekends pushing ourselves to the furthest limits of the borough. We saw dumpy little shotgun shacks located on the expressway, places with termites and noisy neighbors who eyed us suspiciously as we filed optimistically into open houses. We lowered our sights to condos and co-ops, our eyes glazing over at an astonishing array of identical cabinets and countertops contained within outrageously priced, dismal buildings in corners of the borough where the orange line doesn’t run.
And yet, every week it seemed some magazine article was still trumpeting the discovery of Brooklyn. Be not afraid, Manhattanites! they reassured. There are wine stores, and places to buy ironic T-shirts! If it’s good enough for Steve Buscemi, you can handle it, too! But when Heath Ledger is buying a $3 million brownstone in your hood and housing prices go up 35 percent in one year, maybe it’s time to rethink the whole poor-relation shtick. There was a time when living in Brooklyn seemed like a radical step. But like independent films and Ikea, the alternative was rapidly morphing into the big-budget mainstream.
“Call me when you’re ready to look in Montclair,” a friend had said. “All the Broadway people live in Maplewood now,” my husband’s co-worker had crowed. But we didn’t want to go. We’re the kind of people whose quality of life directly correlates with our ability to run out and buy individually wrapped fig bars at 2 a.m. We were Brooklynites, true and true, as my 718-bred daughters say it. We clung to our self-image as borough-dwelling renegades, even as a condo with single units going for a million plus slowly rose a block away.
We knew we couldn’t handle the suburbs, but when the local papers began trumpeting shiny new developments in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, we realized our days here were numbered. We had combed from Prospect Heights to Greenwood Heights and never felt the slightest tug of connection. We had pondered the hype of Bushwick as the next big thing, but reconsidered when we saw the public-school test scores. We had gone to Sunset Park and Midwood, only to find ourselves staring at sad patches on the highway that were all our money could buy. All we wanted was to throw all our money into someplace not completely hovel-like, in a neighborhood we could venture out with relative assurance we wouldn’t get shot. Or worse, be bored. And now that the last scraps of land on the borough were on the block, we’d come to the end of the line. Nowhere to go but the Atlantic.
So instead, we did the only thing you can when you reach the edge: We turned in the other direction. One Saturday, we dragged ourselves to the furthest end of Manhattan and got out of the train at the very last stop. We found a dismal strip of Broadway dotted with dollar stores and Dunkin’ Donuts. But we also found, to our great surprise, dramatically sloping streets, blocks and blocks of lovely old apartment buildings, and a heart-stoppingly beautiful park, full of caves and woods and marshes. Inwood lacks the pristine grandeur and Zagat Guide destinations of our current habitat. Instead, it has a ragged charm that seduced us instantly. I used to think the city stopped somewhere around Columbia Presbyterian. I was thrilled to be wrong.
It was not a smooth search. Our budget still couldn’t carry us into “sprawling” or “sun-drenched” territory, even there. Noise was a factor. Fixer-uppers were not uncommon. And the standard-issue second bedrooms in most units were roughly the dimensions of something out of Prison Break. One realtor, with a 900-square-foot apartment to sell, informed me, “Your children would grow to hate you if you put them here.” Yet of all the reasons I’ve ever heard for hating your parents, being raised in New York isn’t one of them. We kept looking. And then we stopped.
The apartment is smaller. I’ll lose my middle-room office and have to get rid of a ton of our possessions. My daughters will no longer have sunlight streaming in through their bedroom windows. We still have to pass the co-op board. There’s no Starbucks, no Barnes & Noble, no theater, no gourmet shop where Dutch cheese is called “how-dah.” I have broken out in rashes trying to figure out the schools. And the A train ride to Century 21 is sufficiently long enough to merit meal service and a movie. It is, in many ways, a highly impractical choice. But then, falling in love usually is.
A few yards away from the spot I hope to call home in a few months, there’s a rock. On it is a plaque commemorating the alleged spot where, in 1626, Peter Minuit purchased the island of Manhattan. The location, it seems, is an auspicious one for real-estate transactions. For less than the cost of a handyman special in Flatbush, I’m going to live in a two-bedroom prewar apartment on a park in Manhattan, and that’s not too shabby. It’s like getting turned down by the community college and finding out you can go to Oxford.
If we’d left and gone to West Orange, we’d be home now. But that wasn’t going to happen; we’re city people through and through. I’ll have to redefine my self-image as a trailblazing Brooklynite, but that’s O.K. My husband says we can think of Inwood as “Manhattan with an asterisk.” And while I love that the forest will be at my doorstep, I love that there’s a deli around the corner (right near the secondhand shop selling leopard-print coats) even more. Because, for me, the only thing harder than finding a home in New York City was the thought of ever living anywhere else.