Your Open House: Murray Hill U. in the Great Recession

200east36th Your Open House: Murray Hill U. in the Great RecessionSkinny college grads in pale blue or violet robes once strode across the stage straight into an apartment in Murray Hill. But as 21-year-olds now stumble instead into an uncertain job market, you could hear a college pin drop at Sunday’s open houses.

Back when these seniors were freshmen, an apartment at 200 East 36th Street, with a newly renovated kitchen and a price recently reduced to $379,000, would likely have been flooded with moms eager to give their young the gift of an alcove studio.

Or, “maybe mom would like a nice pied-à-terre?” said Damon Powell, with the hopeful beam of a broker 20 minutes into an open house. Probably not, unless it can be purchased at the 24-hour convenience store, where pajama-clad co-eds drifted early Sunday morning in search of flowers and off-brand chocolates.

The classic Murray Hill starter apartment features a crevice for the bed, Japanese folding screens and a display of school colors to put a football stadium to shame. But the apartment’s owner, Ralph Vizcarra, who works in the fashion industry, has instead infused his sunlit corner unit with oil paintings and a huge vintage table he admits was a squeeze to fit.

Ten years ago, Mr. Vizcarra came to Murray Hill when the only thing cool about the neighborhood was that Andy Warhol used to hang out around here. Now at 43, he outgrew his apartment when he got married and needed space for two people, plus a nearly 13-year-old chocolate Lab.

The dog isn’t the only senior citizen in the building, true to Murray Hill’s lingering reputation as Manhattan’s answer to Boca Raton. But in the past decade, the neighborhood has filled with young families, college students and newly minted professionals working in everything from fashion to finance.

“You see a lot of school emblems in the bars, which tells you a lot,” said Mr. Vizcarra. The moneyed young also bring restaurants and a more upbeat, casual feel. Murray Hill is not just Curry Hill anymore—though that’s still the only cuisine that rhymes.

A few blocks west, at another studio alcove, at 104 East 37th Street, Susan Nash, with her two 20-something children and a future son-in-law in tow, made up a significant portion of the day’s house-hunters. “This was my Mother’s Day gift,” said Ms. Nash, referring to the children’s reluctant company, rather than the $369,000 apartment. Instead, the neighborhood resident was looking to buy a place for her 85-year-old father, who lives in Yonkers.

But no Mother’s Day would be complete without a friendly disagreement over religion or real estate. The kids loved the modern studio, with its 12-foot-high ceilings and an elevated alcove for the bed. Ms. Nash, on the other hand, objected to a kitchen so conveniently three feet from the bed.

In the past 30 years, the family has watched shiny condos replace gritty brownstones. But after the college baby boom began, mom stuck around while the kiddies fled.

“It went from quiet and residential to fratty pubs,” said her 28-year-old son, Eric Weinschenk, who now lives on 15th Street. “I wanted to leave.”

But Ms. Nash relishes the yearly arrival of freshmen Wall Streeters, even if they haven’t yet learned how to walk and use a BlackBerry at the same time. “They’re constantly upgrading the services,” said the mom, in her 50s. “There’s a lot of new money thanks to all the preppies—or whatever you call them these days.”  

But generation my-pad is more hesitant lately than when it was considered reasonable to buy a midtown apartment before you could legally buy a beer. Jeffrey Dyksterhouse, a broker at 201 East 37th Street, has had two deals fall through on a spacious studio alcove since January, and said other real estate agents in the building have seen similar “weirdness.”

“Murray Hill was hot, with a lot of young people. But it seems to have been hit especially hard,” he said, because young workers have suffered more in the recession. And he doesn’t expect the market to pick up with the next wave of gangly grads, who appear more inclined to rent until they know what the future holds.

“That age group, even if they have a job, they don’t have certainty,” said the broker. “They no longer think everything’s going to be O.K. forever.”