April 16, 2004

where I grew

When I read about Manhattan apartment prices nearing a million dollars for a two bedroom apartment (here and here, via Apartment 11D) I canít help thinking about my childhood.

I grew up in what they call a prewar building, which I think means built before World War One. One of those stately buildings with gargoyles and cornices that line West End Avenue on the Upper West Side. The building had an elevator man to operate the old fashioned elevator. I knew all their names, of course, and they asked about school and my friends as we went up to the ninth floor. They were kind of like a set of uncles, always smiling down at me.

In retrospect the apartment feels huge to me though at the time it was just right. A hallway that went on forever, with rooms on either side, an eat-in kitchen with a pantry and a maidís room complete with bathroom (but no live-in maid), a heavy swinging door from the kitchen to the hall, the door the servants used once upon a time to bring the food to the big dining room down the hall. A echoingly big living room. Three bedrooms in the back half of the apartment. Sunlight streaming through onto the hardwood floors. Quiet above the traffic, quiet above the tiny people walking their dogs, stopping to gossip, holding hands as they went into their buildings lining the side streets. Quiet above all that life. I used to gaze out and make up stories about all the people I saw, imagine the intrigues and heartbreaks of their lives. My bedroom looked out on rooftops and windows. I watched pigeons and tried to see into rooms. The kitchen and the back bedrooms looked out over the Hudson River and the green Palisades mountains. It seemed like another country out there. The wooly wilds of New Jersey.

Itís a long time ago now. Iím forty two years old. My father gave up that apartment when I was around sixteen. An eon ago. But I still remember it so vividly I can see the dust rising in the sun and the way the fruit-decorated tiffany lamp looked over the claw-footed kitchen table. I can see the lavender color of my bathroom walls and the pale blue in my bedroom. I can hear the steam burble through the radiator and feel the squeaky softness of the old black leather armchair in the living room. It still feels like home. My home. As if I can turn the page and walk back into that life, sit at that kitchen table and invite my whole family over for dinner.

Whatís stranger than the fact that I canít is that I canít afford it, not in my wildest move-back-to-New-York dreams. If a two bedroom nine hundred square foot apartment in a not quite as desirable a neighborhood is worth a cool million, my childhood home Ė that $400 a month rent controlled apartment in one of the best parts of town Ė must go for what? Two million? Five? It stuns me. It makes my childhood feel impossibly far away. Unreachably far. And that makes me sad.

Posted by Tamar at April 16, 2004 10:31 PM

It definitely was (and probably still is) a beautiful apartment. Actually, the rent was $332.74 a month, heat included! The building is coop now, they put in a self-service elevator, fixed up the facade and probably more. I took a photo last time I was in Manhattan. I too still dream about it.

Posted by: Leya at April 17, 2004 12:09 PM

Don't forget the rugged beauty and huge space) of your Soho place, either -- I featured it in one of my novels!

That million-dollar average is of course dispiriting to us who live here still, but didn't manage to slip in before the specter of unaffordability swamped all available space. And I'm using over-formal language to not sound as despairias the subject makes me sometimes.

Posted by: Chris at April 17, 2004 06:49 PM