There’s a revolution going on in New York City: It’s called micro-living, and refers to those who live large in the smallest of small apartments. In fact, books and magazines themed around tiny space/big decorating ideas now abound. Where were they back when greed was good and hair was big, and I left the Bronx to make my life in Manhattan? Yes, I was a pioneer when it comes to diminutive dwellings, and honestly admire those who are content in their undersized home-sweet homes—but I am glad to have long ago left behind my 300 square-foot roots. I’ve had a good life as a New Yorker, and think part of the reason is having started out small and made all the right “moves.”
“Tudor Closet.” That is what my husband, Neil, dubbed my first Manhattan apartment back in 1985, when we were still dating. (Yes, I married him anyway!) I lived in the Turtle Bay complex, across from the United Nations, in its pre-co-op/renovation years, when it still possessed all the charm, and dust, that it had when it was built in 1927. My studio went for $398 a month, but there was one caveat: a waiting list that stretched from 42nd Street to the Bowery—not unlike the crazy demand for New York’s first micro-apartments.
Facing those odds, I began my six months as a stalker. I filled out an application, and called the rental agent every Friday after lunch, to the point where she’d answer her phone: “I knew it would be you.” Then, one day, she called me. From there, I echoed all the rationalizations that you’ll hear current shoebox residents espouse: It was small, but it was mine; space was so limited that it forced me to cut way back on acquiring stuff; and it didn’t matter that there was no actual kitchen, since I worked until ten every night at my entry-level advertising job—stove be damned!
WEST 4TH STREET
Same minuscule digs, different neighborhood. This studio sublet was a mirror image of Tudor Closet, except it had a real kitchen, which I still never used, as well as better furniture than I’d yet to own. My six months shoebox-ing it in the West Village allowed me to get out of my system a latent Boho-hippie-chick phase, for which I will be forever grateful. Although I love to shop, dine and generally hang out in lower Manhattan, I realized I can’t live more than a ten-minute walk from Central Park or I go into withdrawals.
EAST 74TH STREET
This was my first apartment as a married woman. As I have a penchant for all things past, I insisted on pre-war. Neil and I found our dream home in a doorman building between Second and Third Avenues. It was a one-bedroom co-op, with an entryway the size of the “Closet.” We let from a rather eccentric man who didn’t care what we did as long as we paid the rent on time. The clincher, though, was its sunken living room. After five years of living small in Manhattan, I felt I had finally arrived, as I associated the living room, in which one entered by walking down two steps, with wealth. How did I ever make this correlation? 1930s Fred Astaire movies I used to watch with my grandmother, where he’d dance in a tuxedo and top hat, bouncing his walking cane off the sunken room’s top step. Ah, the things from childhood we remember!
Among The Ansonia’s famous guests were Babe Ruth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enrico Caruso—and the Merkls! When our former landlord decided he wanted to sell, I needed to make our relocation as easy as possible, since Neil would rather have root canal on multiple teeth than follow around a real estate broker. We responded to an ad for the Upper West Side Beaux-Arts landmark, which opened as a hotel in 1904. It was there, in the early 1990s, that we graduated to a two-bedroom. Our neighbors called our 2,400 square-foot residence, with its oval foyer, “The Ponderosa.” It really was a world away from my shoebox days. Aside from striking architectural features like round corner-towers, floor-to-ceiling windows, and an open stairwell that swept up 18-stories, the building’s corridors are extra-wide, hence why many a movie/music video was shot there. I stepped out into the hallway one morning and was almost mowed down by Ron Howard, Michael Keaton and the rest of the crew of The Paper. That doesn’t happen in a micro-apartment! This is still the most glamorous place we ever lived, and also the home where Neil and I became parents to our son Luke, who is now 21. I have few regrets, but topping off the short list is leaving The Ansonia.
EAST 77TH STREET
I began my Second Act as a stay-at-home mother and freelancer back on the East Side, this time between Third and Lexington. With a growing family, and now only one steady paycheck, Neil thought we needed to reduce our overhead. I agreed, because, even though I was going to be nanny-free, I would still need help now and again from my mother and aunt, who lived in the Bronx, and my mother-in-law, in Queens. The UES was an easier commute. To make up for the fact that we had downsized to 1,600 square feet, our Art Deco two-bedroom came complete with, yes, a sunken living room.
EAST 86TH STREET
In 1997, our family expanded to include a baby daughter, Meg. We then needed a third bedroom, and decided it was time to have equity in our home. We became owners of a place off of East End Avenue, with Carl Schurz Park as our backyard and the mayor as our neighbor. It took a few years, but eventually the word “renovate” became part of our lexicon, since the owner prior to the people we bought from had no sense of design and made some, ahem, adjustments to the lovely, original layout. I have made more positive physical changes, making sure our home retained all of our memories as a family.
Lately I have been suggesting to Neil that, since Luke is almost finished with college and Meg is on her way next year, we should think about our next place to live. “Never again,” he always says, adamantly. “I’m never leaving here.” Honestly, you’d think I was asking him to move into a micro-apartment.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels FAT CHICK and BACK TO WORK SHE GOES.