This may be cheating a bit, since these stories were not submitted to this site but rather to The New York Times 4 years ago, but here some doozies of first (and worst) apartment stories. To be enjoyed with a side dollop of schadenfreude.
When Constance Rosenblum wrote about several 20-something New Yorkers who were struggling to live comfortably in the city’s rental market she asked readers to share their stories and photos of terrible New York apartments.
Some moaned, some chastized and some gloated — someone even sent in some haikus. Lack of heat, leaking ceilings and vermin were common nightmares, as were loud prostitutes.
But despite it all—and, for some, because of it—most people recounted their horror stories fondly; remembering a younger self, and a more liberated life.
Here is a slide show of the best photos, as well as a collection of the best of the worst stories, lightly edited.
My first apartment in Manhattan was quite literally a closet. It was on the first floor of a pre-war walk-up in the West Village and I believe it was previously used as the janitor’s broom closet. I had a futon which doubled as the bed. While sitting on the futon you could open the oven door and use it as a footstool, it was so close. At night I could hear chefs cooking in the kitchen restaurant next door. It was 1998, my first year of law school, and I had to fight off seven other applicants for the privilege of living in the closet. Two days ago my husband and I just closed on a 2 BR 2 bath apartment off of CPW, but I love our new place as much as I loved that broom closet.
After I broke up with my live-in boyfriend, at 22, I wanted the camaraderie and company of roommates above all else. I thus chose to live with eight people in a “duplex” (read: first floor and dank, dark basement) on 6th and Avenue C after they wooed me with a backyard BBQ. My 8 x 8 subterranean room was $500 but also wet and cold, and one morning I woke up to find an ant line marching from the window (which was near the ceiling and looked out into the dirt of the garden) across my duvet over my chest, to a muffin on my nightstand. I did have company, though after all: A giant African bullfrog one of the roommates had freed in the garden would mush itself against the windowpane at night, and croak to me at all hours. Unfortunately, not the prince I was looking for.
One summer I lived in a poorly built room in a warehouse next to a toxic waste dump in Bushwick. There was a baby doll factory downstairs and there would often be dumpsters filled with doll parts outside. It was so hot in there that I would sometimes sleep on the roof and be awoken in the morning by the blazing sun, the smell of chemicals and garbage, and helicopters hovering overhead.
I grew up in suburban New York and moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I was 18 years old. I lived in an SRO (single room occupancy), which is government-subsidized housing for the poor. I lived there with two other people. The total rent was $445.36, which we split three ways. I had a female roommate and a male roommate. We all lived in one room. We had a twin trundle bed and a small futon. At night when all of our beds were open there was no empty space in the apartment. We had only one closet. We hung our clothes from the window and used them as curtains. We had a small refrigerator and a microwave, but no kitchen. We would shower with our dishes to wash them. We did have a private bathroom, so in that respect I guess we were more lucky than most. We may not have had much in the way of space or material possessions, but we had a lot of fun!
— Jacie Jacobowitz
My first shared apartment was a good deal, however, my roommate never told me during the initial interview he was a practicing nudist. Wasn’t too bad and occasionally I joined in but his friends were a little over the top. Being only 23 years old and just out of college, it was an interesting first apartment experience in the city.
2002, South Side of Williamsburg.
The apartment looked great, 3 bedrooms, eat-in-kitchen, one bath and a walk-in closet! Except:
– It was a former crack house. People would come by and reach through our windows asking for god knows what.
– Water pouring from light fixtures because of leaks in the building.
– No heat (my shampoo would freeze in the winter); I would turn the stove on and sit on top of it with the door open for heat.
– No super. One awful winter our window was stuck open for a month.
After splitting up with a girlfriend in December ’85 (we lived in Bed-Stuy) I sublet a very narrow Murray Hill floor-through for $300. The next week the temperature dropped and I discovered that the apartment was completely uninsulated and unheated. I stapled plastic sheeting to the walls, hopped around in a sleeping bag when home and left the oven on all the time . . . even so, the toilet was frozen solid every morning.
In my first term in grad school, I rented an amazingly cheap “penthouse,” at the top of a brownstone on 103rd Street. It was 13′ x 13′, and that included the kitchen, bathroom, and entry hall. Not only was it tiny, it was in terrible shape as well. It also had tons of roaches, which were unfazed by the piles of boric acid and traps that I put everywhere. One night I awoke to roaches crawling on my face! It was horrible.
I moved to NYC in 1969, right out of college. Shortly after arriving, I got married. Our combined income was $18,000 – at the time good for 2 college grads. We needed more than just a small studio, but could pay no more than $200 per month. Our find – a 3rd floor walk-up railroad flat on E. 80th for $195 per month. The width of the entire apartment was 8 feet, and within those 8 feet, the floor sloped 6 inches. The closet was 4 hooks on the wall, and there was no sink in the bathroom or a shower. The electrical circuits could not handle a window air conditioner. Did we love the place? You bet! Across the street was a 24-hour bagel store, the Lex was 3 blocks away, and a Chinese laundry did our laundry and dry cleaning for $10.
— Aina Harkey
My worst apt was 410 square feet of illegal basement living that I shared with 2 roommates and Sasha, the 17 year old incontinent New Foundland Labrador, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We also shared the space the family of very large mice. Hey, it was $723 a month. It had the usual: small spaces, cramped bath, and a long narrow hall to the only bedroom that 2 could barely pass. Included in the apt were all of 2 windows; one faced the ankles of strangers on the sidewalk and the other a bedroom airshaft that received sunlight only during the equinox. I was more excited by the idea of the equinox than one should be. Off the airshaft was the neighbor who was very fond of two things: Placido Domingo and very cheap hookers. The tenor was loud and the hooker louder. And in his estimation the hooker was always overpriced. The haggling after the fact generally took much longer than actual transaction. And that was a normal Saturday. If it wasn’t for our reversal of fortune and the presence of a very shady landlord we might still be there. Sometimes I still miss that dump.
Meditations on Apartment Living: Haikus — Bonnie Eisenfeld
Today no water
No chance for leak from above
Reflect on dryness.
Elevator shut down
now take time to climb higher
Consider thigh strength.
Electric power out
Darkness brings calm and quiet
Contemplate full moon.
Dripping faucet now
Tomorrow big flood may come
Rejoice in water.
My husband and I sublet an 8×10 room in a downtown loft. No windows, no a/c. The cockroaches owned the place — I got in the habit of covering my glass or beer bottle with my hand whenever I wasn’t actually holding it, a habit that is still with me 15 years later. And two roommates belonged to a swingers’ club and regularly hosted parties for the group, which meant that on certain nights every horizontal space in the common areas was covered with, well, very busy people. Who must have just LOVED the cockroaches.
— Still In Therapy
In 1998,when I was in grad school, I rented a “share” on West 21st. The primary tenants were a couple. She was 7 months pregnant, and he was an ad exec. They rented the back bedroom to a baker who worked 3am to 3pm. My “room” was a shelf in the hall airway. My face was a foot from the ceiling with the light fixture in the bed with me. The upstairs neighbors walked around all night. I had a curtain that hung down in front of the underside of the bed, so that was my room. Could not cook, but could keep stuff in the fridge, only in box marked with my name. I was allowed to shower ONLY from 6am to 8am. All this for $400/month. Hey it was only 2 blocks from school. What a deal!
— James Spica NY
it was 1962 and there was nothing called the east village then. we lived on east 5th street ibetween avenue a and b. this location was considered quite toney compared to 5th between avenue c and d (where no one ever dared go).
it was a floor thru with the requisite gates on the windows, no bathroom just a toilet with a pull chain.
the rent was $34. a month. sometimes we didn’t have the rent and the landlord would knock on the door.
it was okay, except that this particular tenement, constructed in 1900 or prior had gone up one story too high.
therefore, we lived six flights up. friends would call and find out if we needed anything. yes, always. a container of milk, cigaettes, stuff like that. because you couldn’t go up and then down and then up again even at 18.
i don’t miss it. we were robbed of our meager possessions and they took one of two identical tops. the red and left me the green one.
that still annoys me.
Currently in a temporary room share arrangement in a rent-controlled apartment with little old lady on the Upper East side between Park & Madison. Building good, apartment not quite up to expectations. The veneer of the apartment looks clean, however the gloss is due to a light covering of grease on just about everything – including table, chairs, plates, knives and forks.
Organized a professional cleaner to help sort that out. Came home this weekend after cleaner had finished their work. In my bedroom, I thought that the cleaner had bumped something that looked like one of my white shoeboxes under a wooden cabinet that is taped up. When I tried to remove it, I realized it wasn’t a shoe box and thought perhaps it’s rat poison trap. Then I saw a ‘Notice’ sticker on it. The sticker stated that the box was for the use of cremated remains. Now I know where the old lady’s husband is. With me.
Got my worst NYC apt 2 months after moving to NYC — a studio 3rd-floor walk-up, the darkest apt I ever lived in: not ONE glimmer of sunlight, EVER, not even reflected!
But… it was 1 block from Zabars, and 1-2 blocks from the Hudson & Riverside Park! It was also a furnished temporary sublet and rent was cheap ($85/mo – 1974), as were all my NYC apts in 6 years living there (all sublets; rents ranged from $85-$175-$325/mo — for 6 yrs!).
I’ve lived in many studios (sometimes 2-up) & homes; that was the most depressing home ever! BUT… living there exposed me to the Upper West Side, Zabars, Riverside Park, the Frozen Hudson River, Central Park…. LOVED ‘em all; learned tons!
Subletting fully-furnished (inc. food!) apts all over Manhattan for 6 yrs (usually rent-controlled/stabilized) let me explore many different hoods, learn so much. What a treat. It also kept costs really low: never bought furniture, linens, towels, drapes/decor… Was making good $$$, so saved & aggressively invested tons.
Continued that pattern when I moved to San Francisco.
I really wanted to live in the East Village but made little money in the mid-90′s working for nonprofits. But I happened upon this seemingly charming partially renovated railroad flat apartment on St. Mark’s with lovely roommates. What I didn’t realize is that they must have cleaned like mad before I got there. And quickly what seemed quaint devolved into a filthy mess where the shoddy partial renovation (chunks missing from the wooden floor), nearly unusable kitchen, tub with rotting wooden molding etc. complemented my closet-sized room. Truth be told the place was just too damn hard to clean regularly. But the worst was when I came home one afternoon and pieces of something fell in front of me as I climbed the staircase. I went up to the roof and saw that it was on fire – flames licking around the doorway toward the wiring. I ran back down knocking on all the doors and called the fire department. Later when the landlord showed up she announced that there had been no fire – just smoke…
Have been living in the city for 16 years. For the 1st 8 years I lived in an apartment that was 170 square feet ($630/month). It had its own bathroom, but no kitchen. For the next 8 years, I lived in a studio that was 270 square feet ($1,500/month). It had a bathroom and kitchen, but was very small. I’m now 39 years old……..and finally fairly successful. I just moved into a 1BR that’s 525 square feet. Me and my girlfriend think it’s HUGE!!!! We love it. Finally have a normal size fridge. Doorman building with washer/dryer. I work for a hospital in Manhattan and got hospital housing at a discount 😉
Moving into a floorthrough in park slope in 1982 — before it was chic and back when its “borders” were Flatbush, 6th Ave, and 9th Street — we were four guys in our early 20s in our senior year at NYU. The “floorthrough” aspect was terrific – space was not an issue. We lived directly over the Back-to-the-Land health food store, right next to Snooky’s Pub where cops and firemen met nightly to drink and fight over who was truly finest and bravest. Being organic, the health food store had foods without pesticides, and bugs pervaded. Small roaches, large roaches, in shapes that I had never seen before.
We all kept odd hours between school and part-time jobs, and when we entered the kitchen in dim middle-of-the-night light, the stacks of dirty plates and pots in the sink seemed in shadowy motion as the bugs scurried over and around them, foraging for leftovers. For amusement, one of us hung a picture showing how to identify the different roach species. American roaches were thick fat waterbugs, German roaches were tiny, fragile, slender and black as onyx. And so on. Guessing the species provided a sense of amusement as we stormed and swiped them away each night.
We also had a vermin problem. Small black football shaped mouse poops turned up frequently on counters and along the baseboards. One night after working late I came into the bedroom, which I shared with a college buddy. Not wanting to wake him, yet needing to crank up the heat on a frigid winter night, I reached in the dark for the thermostat box which was affixed to the wall near the doorway, just at the end of a shelving unit. Instead of the box, I felt fur. Not a lot, a tiny little thing. The squeak it made was more startling, and when I did turn on the lights and woke my roommate, we saw by the trail of poop along the shelves that the top of the thermostat box had been a favorite resting place. The thermostat hummed with electricity and apparently that night, the mouse, too, was just looking for a little warmth.
I didn’t realize how much I loved that apartment and the two years I spend there until this very moment.
When I first wanted to go to college in NYC, the mother of an associate of mine tried to get me to share a space on West End avenue in the 90′s with her friends. The woman had a beautiful 4 bedroom prewar with great views. I would have had a bedroom, a half bath and a room for my studio BUT the apt was in massive disrepair. She wanted me to help her paint and patch holes, to grocery shop for her, do some cooking and pay $300 in rent. The friend also wanted me to lie and say I was her niece from Israel but I had to take the servants back staircase to come and go and my fiancee at the time (who was much darker African American than I am) would not be allowed in at all.
I said no. Why? Because when I told my southern black grandmother (whom had been a domestic her entire life) about it she was angry as hell. Her premise, why would you let some crazy old lady make you her hired help and you had to pay to stay there? Either I pay my rent or she pay me to work. I saw her point but I do regret not taking the space as maybe one day I could have talked her into putting me on the lease. The place had really great views.