Going the Extra Mile
I arrived in New York with no job and an arthritic black Lab who could not climb stairs. After six weeks at Grandma's in Larchmont, I emptied my savings account to move into a dank ground-floor studio beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expwy. Eight months later the dog went to Texas (and then on to Jesus), and I got out of there, moving to Park Slope, then Clinton Hill, then, just last month, to Woodside, Queens. With each move I've gotten more space for less money. I believe that with patience and a pioneering spirit, you can still find great deals in New York real estate.
The first step toward apartmental bliss is overcoming your phobia of neighborhoods you've never heard of. Take Kensington, Brooklyn, for example, a little-known neighborhood that was once part of Flatbush. Comprising a mix of Russians and other immigrants, religious Jews and a more recent influx of bohemian types, Kensington is nestled on the F line between the Ft. Hamilton Pkwy. and Ditmas Ave. stops.
Last December, Emily Pierce and her husband, Adam, bought a two-bedroom apartment in Kensington, in a large art-deco building on Ocean Pkwy. "Park Slope was too expensive to buy," Emily says. "It's outrageous. I looked and immediately knew there was no way. I started talking to people who were like, 'Look at Lefferts Gardens and Kensington,' and I'm like 'Kensington? Where's Kensington?'"
The Pierces paid $152,000 for their co-op apartment, which Emily estimates is 1150 square feet. (Prices listed in the April 19 New York Times for comparable apartments in Park Slope ranged from $269,000 to $639,000.) It is a comfortable home, with a huge master bedroom, parquet wood floors, a sizable foyer and elegant archways. The area in Kensington around the Church Ave. F stop has some conveniences, but where the Pierces live, near the Ft. Hamilton Pkwy. stop, it's very suburban.
"It's not developed at all," Emily says. "There's not a lot of stores, not any restaurants? All the locals are like, 'Oh, we go to Bay Ridge.'" I ask why the locals don't just go to Park Slope. "It's a very lovely, working-class mentality [here] and Park Slope?the chichi-ness?they don't go for that, to pay three dollars for a coffee?
"To get to the good grocery store I trek with the dog and the cart and just deal," she continues. "There's one bar, which is actually really awesome, it's called Shenanigan's. It's totally Irish. They buzz you in?I guess they've had problems with crime?but the guy's totally nice? A bunch of us went over there after the Super Bowl?Adam's a Patriots fan?and we all went over there buying drinks, and we tipped, and he was like, 'Oh my God, you're tipping me? Who are these people?' So he's always very happy to see us.
"But other than that there's nothing. It's sort of weird. And I realize it when I have visitors. They're like, 'Where can I go out to get a bite to eat?' and I'm like, 'Honestly, you have to go to Windsor Terrace or Park Slope. Or go to Manhattan.'"
Kensington might not be the hippest place to live, but that's not why people move there. "Once I got married, I was like, 'Okay, it's time to buy the house and make babies,'" says Emily. "That's what the second bedroom is for?it's for the breeding eventually."
For those seeking the comfort of the outer boroughs without leaving Manhattan, there's Inwood, located at the northernmost tip of the island, above Fairview Ave. The intersection of Broadway and 207th?at the final stop on the A train?teems with activity: there's a Rite Aid, a C-Town, a laundromat, a Dunkin' Donuts, a pizza place, a barbershop and plenty of other businesses. The area east of Broadway is predominantly Dominican, and the streets rumble with traffic and conversation. The west side is quieter, with rows of condos and apartment buildings and tree-lined streets.
Hank Wagner, a 33-year-old actor and musician, has lived on the west side of Inwood with his wife, Sarver Bajina-Wagner, for five years in a one-bedroom apartment at Seaman and Academy.
"I'm from the Upper West Side of Manhattan," Hank says, "and Inwood has the sort of feeling that the Upper West Side had when I was growing up in the 70s? It really is a melting pot. There's a lot of neighborhoods in New York that're supposed to be a melting pot, but really people are still ghettoized?the black folks are over here, the Jewish folks over here, the Hispanic folks over here. And this really is healthily mixed. Every apartment building has a mix of every culture and we all get along.
"The thing about the neighborhood that stands out for me is that while sometimes it's lacking in things that we're used to downtown, like coffee bars and Internet bars and more restaurants and stuff like that?it does have things like, you can get your shoes fixed at the shoe guy; you can go to the butcher and get meat that's not dyed red and is healthy; you can order your Christmas turkey with him a month in advance."
Hank and Sarver's rent-stabilized apartment is spacious, with wood floors, a sizable living room and an eat-in kitchen ("In the East Village it would be an apartment," says Hank). The rent when they moved in was $670 and is now about $750?cheap even by Inwood standards. "The big moving-up into this neighborhood, like people really getting it, happened at the end of the 80s and throughout the 90s," Hank says. "And now this neighborhood's getting as expensive as any other. It's a little bit cheaper so it's really worth looking it up?but almost all of Manhattan now is becoming a high-rent zone. We're one of the last bastions of lower rent?and having a nice home for that low rent."
Hank's day job?he works with a company called Readers Theater Workshop, which helps facilitate creative programs in public schools?requires him to travel by car most of the time, but public transportation to and from Inwood is not bad. The A train runs express, arriving in Midtown in as little as 20 minutes, and the 1 train is also nearby. Late nights, though, are another story. "If I'm coming back late at night, a car makes?an hour, hour-and-a-half journey?potentially, with train delays?a 15-minute car ride. That's why I drive, but the train is great."
Where I've settled, in Woodside, Queens?after seeing 20 disappointing apartments in Brooklyn?is 15 minutes from Grand Central, and has all the amenities I need. There are grocers, hardware stores, restaurants (including Sripraphai, perhaps the best Thai restaurant in the city) and a rather insane number of Irish bars. I have two bedrooms (I converted one into a home office) in a big three-bedroom apartment that I share with one other person. For this I pay $712.
Michael Quiñones is a copy editor at US Weekly and has lived in a studio in Woodside for about a year and a half. His rent is $650 for an 11-by-19 room with a mini-kitchen and attached bathroom. He lived with a roommate in Astoria for a while before a friend tipped him off to the studio. "I had the chance to live alone and jumped on it," he says. "I had no idea, no clue, what Woodside was like? I got out of the train and I was just like, 'Wow, crazy.'"
Woodside does make a strong impression. Beneath the elevated tracks of the 7 train at 61st St. is a bustling community of recent immigrants from Ireland, Korea, China, the Philippines, India and probably dozens of other countries. It is also a neighborhood that, aside from shifts in demographics, seems not to have changed much in many years. The Mom 'n' Pops vastly outnumber the fast-food franchises.
Michael works near Rockefeller Center, and his commute takes 20 to 40 minutes, depending on train connections (he transfers from the 7 to the N/R) and time of day. He sometimes takes the Long Island Railroad, particularly late at night. "You just go to Penn Station and Woodside's the first stop. There's so many trains that even if you're there at 3:30 the next train will be leaving at 3:45 and it takes 10 minutes to get here."
I mention that the first thing I noticed about Woodside were all the Irish bars, and Michael weighs in: "I thought [Woodside] was gonna be more of a hangout spot, but there's really nothing going on in that way, especially because?and this is the craziest thing for me?it's just because I'm not Irish. And it's totally off-the-boat Irish?hardcore, like they all know each other. And so it's really weird. There are a couple of hip places here, but when I go in nobody looks at me, everybody kind of knows each other and I feel like an outsider."
We go to one Irish bar, Saints & Sinners (formerly "The Bridge"). It's around 8 p.m. and we have no problem getting served, but I'm dismayed that the clientele consists primarily of middle-aged men. The following weekend, however, I go to another bar, Kilmegan, late on a Saturday night. A band with two singers "all the way from Brooklyn" competently plays 80s hits ("Blister in the Sun" segues into "Come on Eileen"), and the crowd?more women than men?is having a criminal amount of fun.
I order a Guinness and try to fit in, reckoning that I am between 1/16th and 1/32nd Irish. It doesn't work; everyone else drinks Bud. No matter. Practice makes perfect. I'm never leaving Woodside.
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