Christopher Gray writes the much-beloved “Streetscapes” real estate column in the Sunday New York Times, which answers people’s questions about the stories behind NYC’s wonderful and weird buildings and landmarks. Back in February 2014, he wrote a classic “My First Apartment NYC” essay, full of details about his railroad flat and his early job as a taxi driver in 1970. An interesting aside is to read all the witty and wistful reader comments to the story, along the lines of “A time when young up and comers could afford a place in Manhattan. Those were the days.” Read Gray’s essay at The New York Times, or see below:
My First Apartment, Guiltily Remembered
I was lucky in 1970, when I backed into my first apartment, a $45-a-month railroad flat built in 1887 at 1422 Third Avenue, south of 81st Street. It was with apartment 2C I learned how to circumvent the rent laws and that when it comes to housing in New York, even a friend will stab you in the back.
I was 20 and living with my mother in her co-op in the East 70s when she moved to Virginia without much warning. I needed to find an apartment. Almost simultaneously I dropped out of college, concluding that driving a cab was an honorable profession for which I was already highly trained. Alec Ulmann, a friend from boarding school, had introduced me to one George Hoff, who dealt in vintage pocket watches and kept a motorcycle in his bedroom. He had moved out of No. 1422, but had continued paying the rent so as to hold onto it. Now, he was willing to let the place go.
The original plan was that Alec and I would share the apartment as a sometime crash pad, which sounded attractively Jack Kerouac. However, when my mother’s co-op sold, I crashed a bit harder than expected and essentially took over 1422, which had a 12-by-13-foot- square living room, a kitchen half that size, and a bedroom perhaps 6 feet by 10, along with a small closet with a toilet.
I sent my first rent check to the owner, Raynes Realty, with trepidation, because at that point I could be challenged as an illegal tenant. But I never heard from my landlord, and under the law, I was now the authorized tenant. Such is the justice rendered by housing court to owners.
The five-story building had four apartments to the floor. It had been designed by Mersereau & Hamilton for Joseph F. Baker, a feed merchant also in the real estate business. Specifically, he was in the business of railroad flats, the name derived from the straight-line arrangement of the rooms. These were also called dumbbell tenements for the lozenge-shaped interior courts that provided some light to the middle apartments.
Mr. Baker’s properties were cold-water flats with toilets in the hall, two to a floor, just as at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street (although it also has the old-style layout of rooms with no windows). In 1910, 42 people inhabited No. 1422, only 14 native born; 12 tenants did not speak English. It appears that the toilets were moved into the apartments in the late 1930s; the rents were then around $15 a month. Originally, fire escapes ran across the facades of No. 1420 and No. 1422, but with no access to the street — in the event of conflagration, you were apparently supposed to knock on the windows of the neighboring building and introduce yourself.
I drove a taxi for the Terminal Cab Company from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. or so — a fair living, except that at 2 a.m. travel by bus from the taxi garage at 11th Avenue and 56th Street to Third and 81st took over an hour, and the taxi fare was an hour’s wage. Somebody had painted my bedroom black, the shower — in the kitchen — was grimy, and the stove was a two-burner hot plate perched on a radiator. (Recipe for Chicken à la Christopher: boil rice until almost done; put butter and chicken breasts into frying pan with lemon juice; when almost done, dump in the rice to get it crispy.)
While at No. 1422 I refined my interest in old things, especially weekend forays to demolition sites. One block south, from 79th to 80th, some tenements were being torn down, and I slipped in on a Saturday to rescue old wall-mounted can openers, green glass juicers, other eBay-type things that had been left behind. In one, its roof leaking for months, the flooring gave way, and one of my legs went down between the joists to the top of the thigh. Fortunately, my leg hadn’t traveled past a set of exposed nails, which would have probably freed up my apartment.
The continuing replacement of nice if tired-out buildings like these tenements with colossal ugliness began to rankle, and one weekend in 1971 I sneaked back onto the site, by this time cleared to rubble, where a giant billboard announced the coming of what became Peter Kalikow’s impossibly awful Kenilworth, designed by Philip Birnbaum. I got a large piece of plywood, spray-painted “Another Ugly High-Rise” or words to that effect, and hung it over the builder’s placard. I was stickin’ it to da man!
Well, da man must have been in the Hamptons for the weekend, but on Monday the sign promptly disappeared. Aesthetics has little impact on New York housing economics.
Although a lapsed preppy, I was a pig in clover on Third Avenue, then the Boulevard of the Thrift Shop. There I found beautiful Savile Row tweed suits for $5 or $10, herringbone jackets and lots of spats, of which I amassed half a dozen pairs.
After two or three years, I moved in with a friend, but was desperate to keep my unethical-but-legal occupancy as a safety net. So I let a friend from school move in, and kept paying the rent with my checks — it was probably $65 a month by then.
This went on for a year until one month he said, without embarrassment, that he had paid the last two months’ rent, and was now the legal occupant. Someone stole from me what I had stolen from someone else! A good lesson. But at that point the saga of my first apartment closes.