It’s Hip to be Square On the Upper East Side

The Most Happening Neighborhood That Isn't Actually Happening

Your New Neighbor? (ThomasThomas, flickr)

WITH ITS REPUTATION for stuffiness and snootiness, the Upper East Side may not be the most obvious frontier of affordability, but it is one of the few left in Manhattan (alongside Manhattan Valley and Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood), and it’s also surprisingly young, with 36.4 percent of its population between 20 and 39.

Between Lexington and the East River, 59th to 99th Streets, the median rent for a studio apartment is $1,900 (median size of 500 square feet), according to data from In Williamsburg, the median studio is going for $2,800 a month, although it will get you a slightly larger space of 602 square feet. (More expensive even than the East Village, where the median studio runs $1,940, with a median size of 452 square feet).

With rents in the city hitting record highs—last month, the average monthly rental for a Manhattan studio was $2,025, a 3 percent increase from the year before, according to Citi Habitats—rental brokers are increasingly advising those without trust funds to consider a place that is seen as the traditional stomping ground of those with trust funds.

“Young people say, ‘I need to live in Union Square for $1,200 a month,’ and that’s just not going to happen,” said Mark Menendez, the director of rentals at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “For a while that alternative neighborhood was Williamsburg, but we’ve actually had transplants back to Manhattan because they’ve been priced out of Williamsburg.

Where does one go? “You can still find good value on the Upper East Side,” Mr. Menendez said.

It’s not that the Upper East Side is some vast, empty expanse waiting to be populated (neither is any other place in New York)—Community Board 8 presides over some of the most densely-packed space in the city. But unlike historically industrial neighborhoods like Soho or the Meatpacking District, it has a lot of units in a wide variety of housing types.

The downtown housing stock is simply not as robust, said Citi Habitats president Gary Malin. “People might not want to live on the Upper East Side, they don’t think it’s cool or young or hip. But if you want to live in the West Village, it’s expensive.”

It also helps that for years, the far East side was snubbed because of the lack of train lines east of Lexington, a fact that almost seems quaint given the increasingly “acceptable” treks of outer borough residents.

In fact, cost has been driving creative, penurious types to Yorkville for decades. Linda Rizutto, the owner of the very Villagey coffee shop Java Girl on E. 66th Street, moved to the neighborhood some 30 years ago.

“I would have preferred living in the Village, but it was cheaper to live up here,” said Ms. Rizutto. She turned briefly wistful, musing on what Soho was like before it became like an outdoor shopping mall, then shrugged. “This is my home home now.”

And although on average the Upper East Side is among the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city (an average twisted out of proportion by the spectacular wealth of Fifth and Park and Madison Avenues), it’s also more socially and economically-diverse than anyone gives it credit for, and has been for a long time.

Hunter Armstrong, the director of local group Civitas noted that there are hundreds of thousands of people living on the Upper East Side.

“There’s not one prevailing character, it’s so diverse,” said Mr. Armstrong. “There’s every kind of person.”

Still, it can be a hard sell.

Citi Habitats broker Morgan Turkewitz persuaded two clients, who happened to be friends, to consider moving Uptown. “If that was the first apartment that we went into and they liked it, I knew they’d say, ‘O.K., but what about Downtown?’” said Ms. Turkewitz. “So, I waited until they saw Downtown and got frustrated with it, then I took them to the Upper East Side.” They wound up in a two-bedroom apartment on 60th Street between First and Second Avenues for just under $2,000.

Ms. Turkewitz’s client Kathleen Clark, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2009, admits that she didn’t look at the Upper East Side and think Oh, that’s my ideal neighborhood. But the other apartments she saw just couldn’t compare to the small, but charming and newly-renovated two-bedroom in a fourth-floor walkup with stainless steel fixtures and granite countertops.

“I love some places in the West Village and Gramercy, but that’s sort of a dream,” said Ms. Clark, who works as a designer at Levi’s. “As much as you want to be hip and live on the Lower East Side, you can’t afford it on a base salary.”

Asked if she had considered Brooklyn, Ms. Clark said that she was sure she would love the vintage shopping and the beer gardens if she lived there, but it wasn’t great for her commute.“And that’s why I came here—for my work.”

Not that she’s been able to convince any of her friends to take up residence.

“Once people are set on not wanting to live on the Upper East Side, they do pretty much all they can to try to find an apartment somewhere else,” she said. “It has kind of a bad rap. I think it might be the most uncool neighborhood in Manhattan.”

Nor are all of its residents converts.

“Young people don’t want to live here, but they end up getting funneled in,” said Matthew Smith, a Yale law student who looked at more than 30 apartments before settling on his current place, a spacious one-bedroom with exposed brick on 93rd Street between First and Second Avenues that costs $1,500 a month.

“I would rather be in Hell’s Kitchen, there’s a lot more going on,” Mr. Smith admitted, noting that Yorkville could be kind of “frat-tastic.” But while his friends’ Hell’s Kitchen rent had gone up by $400 last year, his had gone up just by the price of inflation.

Even though he’d seen more young people moving Uptown, he didn’t think that the neighborhood would be transformed by waves of hipsters desperate to remain in Manhattan. Not that Greenpoint or Bushwick are all that cheap anymore, but the next place, wherever it was, would be.

It’s Hip to be Square On the Upper East Side