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.
MY APARTMENT-HUNTING VIRGINITY is gone and I’ll never get it back. Onward and upward. We venture deeper into Brooklyn and away from any sense of neighborhood familiarity.
“We are near the auto zone, though,” says my companion.
“JESUS CHRIST IS THE LORD,” says the hugest storefront church in the world. (this church : regular storefront church :: Costco : corner store). Soon we arrive at apartment number two, on Fulton Street, right above Hoopz Lounge.
This apartment sprawls but makes no sense: it is maze-like. Three entrances, two windowless common spaces, two bedrooms, one with a small antechamber—a dressing room? Quarters for secret roommates? I don’t know. I don’t need it. I don’t own much stuff, so I’d rather have less space in a better neighborhood. We depart.
On the Franklin Avenue shuttle we fly above the barbed wire and possible prison like majestic birds or something. When we emerge at the Botanic Garden stop, comforting sights greet us. Trees! The Brooklyn Museum! A big school for deaf people! Awesome.
We meet a broker at her office on Washington Avenue and set out for apartment number three. As we walk farther and farther from the Brooklyn Museum, the tantalizing promise of subway convenience begins to slip away. The broker points out a beer garden. The broker points out a bakery. We lose all sense of spatial orientation. All that exists is small talk, heat, and our feeling of purpose.
The Prospect Place apartment we arrive at is fine but unremarkable: a bedroom in front, a bedroom in back, wide kitchen, narrow hallway, and a living room as dark as I’ve come to expect. It has windows, I guess, but they face a brick wall. I could look out into the airshaft and think about my tenement-dwelling forebears.
We trace a more direct route back toward the subway, and realize that our final apartment lies just a few blocks beyond. We pass bodegas galore, markets, and restaurants. The neighborhood seems welcoming and not yet bougie; it puts a spring in our sweaty steps.
The wide lobby of our final building has ornate moldings and appealingly decrepit tile work. It may not be the geriatric Real World, but it’s a level of opulence more suited to my station.
Inside the apartment, the ceilings are high. The rooms (all spacious) bear totally normal relationships to one another. The current tenants show us their many closets, and the back fire escape where a neighbor-lady bums cigarettes. Glorious, angelic light floods every room. No dishwasher, but what are you going to do? I can scrub.
“Get that one,” says my companion. I think I will.
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