When New York Apartments Stop Being Polite and Start Being Real

This Sunday, for the first time, I set off into the world of New York real estate as a participant rather than an observer.

I have spent this summer, my first after graduation, writing about real estate and house-sitting on the Upper East Side—essentially, I have been on a safari through various ways of being wealthy, none of which I expect to experience again. Fourteen rooms of books, houseplants, and beautiful prewar wallpaper: a friend characterized “my” apartment as “like The Real World house, but for old people.” It’s been unreal, and it’s ending. The lady of the house returns just before Labor Day. I need a new place to live.

My standards are necessarily low. I just want to find an apartment that I can imagine living in: plausible neighborhood, plausible living space, plausible transportation. My mail-order bride of a roommate arrives from Harvard next month, and in her absence, I’m doing the Craigslist and the visits. Brooklyn is my default setting—the only peers I know in Manhattan are either bankers or parentally underwritten. After some good word of mouth on Crown Heights (So cozy! So cheap! A real neighborhood!) and some pleasant weekends in Park Slope, Prospect Heights seemed as good a place as any to start.

Prospect Heights two-bedrooms for $1,600: There were ample offerings for anyone willing to do the Internet sifting. But were they bogus? Secretly ugly? Actually tiny? And how squishy and useless was “Prospect Heights” as a label? So, with an older and more legitimately adult companion in tow, I sallied forth.

Our first impressions: positive. We start the day on Vanderbilt Avenue; we browse used books, contemplate brunch options, feel good about Prospect Heights. We set off along Bergen Street.

‘Is this still Prospect Heights?’ my companion asks. ‘Is that a prison?’

We keep walking. In a few blocks, we’ve gone from used books to bodegas to industrial detritus.

“Is this still Prospect Heights?” my companion asks. “Is that a prison?”

This seems unlikely. But it does have narrow window slits, a fortress-like wall, and a whole bunch of barbed wire.

Our destination, 891 Bergen, is an unprepossessing red structure with green trim. Across the street at 892 stands a shiny tower of condos: If—if—I were here on behalf of The Observer, that’s where I’d be; I’d feel out of place but also well air-conditioned and clean. Instead, I’m scuttling around in the rental tide pools like the cheap little scavenger crab that I am.

Several brokers scramble for custody of confused prospective tenants outside 891, but the apartment inside hardly warrants their anxiety. It’s a dark womb of kitchen/living space, tiny and totally window-free, flanked by bedrooms on either end. There’s a single small closet, and lots of exposed brick. This seems intended to convey the impression that grit is a great aesthetic choice rather than a neighborhood liability.