This rather humorous article originally appeared as “Mayoral Candidates Recall the Days of Tiny and Grimy” in the September 9, 2013 edition of the NYTimes, shortly before the November mayoral election that put Bill de Blasio in office. While some of the candidates’ names may already be fading into history, these New Yorkers’ first apartment memories fit right in with the other stories found on this site, using the familiar phrases “dark and tiny,” “bathtub in the kitchen,” “cheap,” “illegal sublet,” and “eviction.”
Most interestingly, the reporter accompanied some of the politicians back to their first apartments, and the takeaway was that “all of these neighborhoods have changed tremendously since the candidates were in residence, in terms of safety, expense and the culinary options.”
I found the same things when I went back to my first place in then-grotty Tribeca. My old warehouse loft sublet now has a cafe and a spa directly across the street from it.
Have you gone back to your first apartment recently to see how the neighborhood has changed?
(« see the photo slideshow on the NYTimes website)
One apartment did not have space for a bed. Another had an exposed brick wall that had been left unsealed, and so spread a fine sprinkling of dust around the apartment. A third apartment had a bathtub in the kitchen.
What these places have in common, aside from a touch of the peculiar, is that they were the first New York City apartments, after college, of the people now campaigning to live rent-free in Gracie Mansion: the major candidates for mayor.
Asked to describe the first place they lived as young adults, most of the candidates recalled with fondness the small spaces where they started out — in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, with two Republicans in the dark blue of the Upper West Side — even if some had difficulty remembering precisely where those apartments were.
“It could’ve been this one, or it could’ve been — no, definitely not that,” Joseph J. Lhota said on a recent stroll down his old block, on West 87th Street, as he looked for familiar landmarks to jog his memory. “Nineteen eighty was how long ago?”
His fifth-floor walk-up was the apartment prone to wall dust. He finally recognized the building by its entryway.
John C. Liu spoke affectionately of his first apartment, a studio in Woodside, Queens, that he shared with a cat he called Psst. (His was the place too small to fit a bed, so he slept on a foldout futon.) John A. Catsimatidis lived in a two-bedroom at 333 West 86th Street, first by himself, beginning in 1970, and later with his parents, whom he persuaded to move in with him. Anthony D. Weiner started off in a one-bedroom apartment at 2276 Homecrest Avenue in Brooklyn, which he described in an e-mail as “plenty big for a skinny kid.”
Not all the candidates were enamored of these memories. William C. Thompson Jr., who moved into a studio on Prospect Park West and 14th Street in Park Slope in fall 1974, lasted there only three months. He said he left because his apartment was robbed.
Mr. Lhota lived in a one-bedroom apartment at 42 West 87th Street for two years, when he was working long hours as an investment banker. He recalled making frequent trips to Barney Greengrass for bagels and lox, and dropping off his dirty clothes at a laundry nearby to be washed and folded.
He also recalled what he described as a crack den across the street, and an empty lot just next door to it that was used as a “shooting gallery.”
“You didn’t walk on that side of the street,” Mr. Lhota said.
When he found the building on that recent tour with a reporter, he also found its owner, Michael Kaner, who happened to be walking toward his car out front. Mr. Kaner’s father, Simon Kaner, owned the building when Mr. Lhota was a tenant.
“He was a pretty old guy at the time,” Mr. Lhota said.
“He wasn’t that old,” Mr. Kaner said.
“I was young; everybody at the time seemed old,” Mr. Lhota replied.
Mr. Kaner took a moment to do the math.
“He was 58 then,” he said.
Mr. Lhota is 58 now.
Mr. Lhota could not recall what he paid in rent 33 years ago, though his guess of $1,125 per month seemed high to Mr. Kaner. According to StreetEasy, a real estate Web site that tracks listing data, one-bedrooms in the building have recently asked about $2,500 per month.
The “shooting gallery” across the way is now a lush garden, spotted with bee balm and hostas, a fig tree and a sign at the back that reads “drug free zone.”
Bill de Blasio also had some trouble recalling his first address at a walk-up building in SoHo, but managed to pick it out on sight.
“I was close,” he said, standing in front of his old building, at 174-6 Spring Street, late last month, with his children, Chiara and Dante, and his brother, Steven Wilhelm.
Mr. de Blasio moved into a small apartment in the building in 1983, he said. It had lime green walls, a bathtub in the kitchen and a view of an air shaft. He couldn’t remember the apartment number, nor how much he paid, because he wasn’t able to stay there very long.
Unbeknown to him, the candidate said, the apartment was an illegal sublet. He was evicted.
“I called her up,” Mr. de Blasio said of the woman who held the lease, “and I was like: ‘Hey! I rented from you in good conscience, you never said anything about this, now I’m going to be out on the street.’ ”
The woman was “very penitent,” Mr. de Blasio said, and gave him some bar stools and a futon as compensation for finding himself temporarily homeless. He said that he used the futon for years, and that it was still in the family. That futon is now his daughter Chiara’s bed.
“I’ve only ever known futon bed,” she said, when asked if it was comfortable.
“This is where your futon was born,” her father explained.
Uptown, across the park, and a few years later, Christine C. Quinn had her own introduction to New York City adult living. She just didn’t have her own bedroom.
A portion of the cramped apartment at 410 East 89th Street was partitioned off with a flimsy, free-standing wall that did not quite reach the ceiling, offering “privacy” from her roommate, a high school friend. (The wall was installed by a boyfriend of the roommate.) A tiny kitchen had no room for counters; in the bathroom, a temperamental tub occasionally refused to drain.
It was a 500-square-foot one-bedroom-turned-two Yorkville pad that she lived in between 1988 and 1989. The rent was less than $900, split two ways.
Stepping into the building’s foyer on a visit, Ms. Quinn marveled at the recent additions — “They fancied it up!” she exclaimed, examining the trim and painted walls in the hallway — and recalled being terrified of the building’s then-creaky elevator, the condition of which has since improved.
Did its proximity to Gracie Mansion factor into its appeal at the time?
“No, cheap factored,” Ms. Quinn replied. “Cheap was the driving factor.”
Ms. Quinn said that in the 1980s, when she called the area home, “it was much more Yorkville than the Upper East Side.” And indeed, all of these neighborhoods have changed tremendously since the candidates were in residence, in terms of safety, expense and the culinary options.
“Oh my God, my diner’s gone!” Mr. Lhota yelped, stopping in his tracks at the corner of 87th Street and Columbus Avenue. “It’s a Starbucks! Unbelievable. It was my diner right there.”
Mr. Lhota quickly regained his composure to greet passers-by, offering handshakes and saying hello to those who recognized him, not as a neighbor, but as a candidate.