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SO HOW’S LIFE in Bushwick?” a man asked me recently. He’d read an essay I wrote about living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was from nearly a decade ago.
I don’t live in Bushwick now. I live in Bay Ridge.
“Oh,” the man said. “Are they very different?”
He was clearly not from Brooklyn.
I had only moved to Bay Ridge several months earlier, and it hadn’t been the most thrilling prospect. It took a lot of talking through with my therapist — whose general purpose is to assert the validity of whatever I say.
I told him about my decision to move.
“That’s good,” he said.
I was going to sign my own lease. No sublets. No more roommates. I was tired of that shit.
“That’s valid,” he said.
Except my credit was crap.
“That could be a problem,” he said.
And the only decent neighborhood in this city, considering my budget (very low) and my primary needs (privacy and space) was Bay Ridge. Even that, barely.
My therapist nodded sagely. This was something he understood. This was something we New Yorkers understood.
The frenzied hunt that is apartment searching in New York is familiar to many. But it’s especially familiar to those committed to being here, but can hardly afford to do so. It’s a tough thing to admit; our society extracts a lot of shame for the inability to afford life’s essentials. But these were my choices.
I am a writer now, and for the privilege of calling myself thus, I have chosen to live frugally — which in reality means having more maxed-out credit cards than the term “frugal” should allow, but let’s not split hairs. Living frugally also meant being a lot more itinerant than I would have liked. In a nine-year period, I have moved seven times, many of them to less-than-ideal living arrangements.
As a child, I had lived in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, but then spent a decade and a half doing the adult thing in the suburbs, 30 miles north of New York City. In my 20s, I owned first one home and then another, drove a decent car, commuted to work every day at a midtown Manhattan office, putting in 12-hour days writing computer code. My boss was an Orthodox Jew whose catchphrases were “Don’t be such a fucking smart Jew,” and “If you fuck this up, I will fucking fire you.”
I had the comforts of middle-class living, as well as its complement: a soul-crushing occupation that I despised. I wouldn’t have given it up, though — the money was too good. It was only after I got laid off during the recession of 2008, saw the equity in my home disappear, went through a bad divorce, and found a city with few programming jobs left for an autodidact with no college degree, that I decided to move back to Brooklyn and go for the slower pace and creative satisfaction of the writing life. I was never a great coder anyway.
It was on my first return to Brooklyn, in 2009, that I landed in Bushwick, the nation’s “murder capital” of the 80s. I was 34, with dreams of being a writer, and it felt like the right place for turning an elusive dream into reality. Bushwick was filled with the unconventional. Bars with clever names but no sign to indicate it — you just had to know. Back-alley pizza joints, and lots of street art, and body piercings that made you look away, then look again. A place where at 34 you could still be doe-eyed. It was filled with people from elsewhere, who had come to find the weird.
For six months, I lived in an acquaintance’s unused apartment. It was sweet, and rent-free, but it wouldn’t last. He called on a Thursday and said, “I need you out by Monday.” A couple of young professionals in search of grit and grime were willing to pay a premium for it and ready to move in. I could hardly complain after the unearned luxury of it, but I had no way to pay rent on a proper place. I hadn’t figured out how to live off writing, and the door-to-door search for work had been fruitless so far.
“You can live in my church,” another friend said to me. “Until you figure shit out.”
It wasn’t his church, it was his dad’s, who was a Hasidic real estate developer. The church was a grand structure on Bedford Avenue in Bed-Stuy, built in the late 19th century, and once home to a congregation of well-heeled, German-speaking Lutherans. A century and change later, it had fallen into disrepair. My friend’s dad bought it at foreclosure, intending to turn it into condos but in the meantime, it sat empty. Its spire had disappeared, but the belfry was intact, and the bell still gonged if you climbed the ladder to the pigeon-shit-encrusted chamber and shoved your body against it hard.
The church was not exactly habitable. No heating in winter, and rats ran brazenly all over the place. Still, it had its charms. I moved into a spacious, high ceilinged former executive office, with considerable square footage. I tried to avoid the rats, and sealed up the windows in winter and slept in my winter coat under three blankets. The three space heaters did barely any good in that enormous room with drafts coming from everywhere.
I eventually found a minimum-wage job as a store clerk in an art framing shop. There was no way I could afford a proper home on those earnings, and so the church seemed as good a place to live as any. During the day I worked at the shop, and in the evening I worked on my book — the only thing that truly mattered to me then.
One day, after two years in the church, an avalanche of plaster from the nearest wall collapsed right onto my bed. Some construction work was being done in some other parts of the church, but I hadn’t realized to what purpose. No one was telling me anything. Turned out, my friend’s father decided to begin gutting the interior. The wall caving in on my bed was his way of saying: I need you gone. Subtle he wasn’t.
Thus began a transition to relative conventionality: a four-bedroom share with friends in Bensonhurst, and later subletting a friend’s spare bedroom in a basement unit in Crown Heights. They weren’t very comfortable, but they were the cost of trying to be a writer. When I fell into a relationship that seemed serious enough, I sojourned across to river to my girlfriend’s Upper East Side condo, only to call our relationship a failure five months later, and so ended my experiment with domestic partnership as well as civilized living.
Back in Brooklyn, a friend of a friend bought a two-family house near Ditmas Park, and one entire floor stood empty. I was welcome to it, he told me, and offered a rate that would be a steal for a small studio in a bad neighborhood.
“It’s not about the money,” he said while showing me the place. “I like to deal with people I know.”
My landlord only vaguely understood the concept of privacy, and he and his guests would regularly wander into my apartment and rummage through the fridge, like it was an office cafeteria open to all. But it was cheap and spacious and he didn’t run a credit check nor did he need me to sign a lease, which seemed ideal.
Until eight months later, he said, “I need you out in two weeks.” He was renovating the entire building, turning it into high-priced rentals. It was about the money after all.
I was tired of wandering. Tired of packing and unpacking, tired of combing through listings on Craigslist and Gypsy Housing and StreetEasy, tired of running around the city, from one overpriced hovel to another, cramped spaces with prospective roommates who looked seedy or who thought I did. The options were mostly out of my budget anyway.
And so Bay Ridge beckoned, sending the twinkly lights of the Verrazano Bridge and the smell of ocean saltwater across the borough, to where my search for something spacious, private, and affordable in more attractive neighborhoods was proving fruitless.
I considered the prospect of Bay Ridge.
“Do you even know anyone there?” friends asked skeptically.
“It’s a really long train ride,” one very knowing friend said.
“You’ll be practically in Staten Island,” another said. And Staten Island, of course, is practically New Jersey.
“You’re going to become a hermit,” the woman I was then dating said with troubling conviction. (It’s no surprise we are no longer dating.)
New Yorkers, it appeared, were barely able to admit that Bay Ridge was actually part of the city. I could barely admit it either. Just looking at a map gave me a shudder. It looked so far!
But then, so far from where? The parties I rarely went to? The overpriced bars and restaurants? The population of overachievers I was both jealous and resentful of?
I just wasn’t sure.
Getting an affordable place comes with another downside: it involves making a home in which you intend to stay a stretch.
“This means I’d have to, like, buy furniture, and stuff,” I told my therapist.
“Yeah,” he said. “You gotta think about the furniture part.”
Over the decade, I had resisted buying furniture, deeming my cheap but reasonably comfy bed sufficient, along with a small kitchen table and chairs. This was partly because I always felt on the verge of another move and didn’t want to be laden with possessions. Still, I wondered what it would be like to have a proper home again, a living room sofa, nice rugs, and the kind of television cabinet one finds among the well-nested. And bookshelves. Bookshelves that go around the room and continue into the next. Bookshelves that go up and around the TV. Tall bookshelves with a ladder affixed to reach the books up high.
Is this what I wanted?
I decided it was. And if it was to be anywhere, it was Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where an apartment large enough for two scraped by just within my budget.
A friend with good credit agreed to be my guarantor, and I signed a lease on a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walkup, two blocks from the shore of the Verrazano Narrows, that gateway from the Atlantic Ocean to the New York Harbor through which my own Russian Jewish ancestors came over a century ago, escaping pogroms and persecution for the good life in New York City.
I bought the sofa and the rug and the coffee table. I made friends with the building super. I gave myself a thorough neighborhood tour. It’s quiet. It’s pretty. It’s right by the water. To get home from anywhere, I have to take the R train to the very end of the line, then walk five more blocks. The lights on the bridge glisten so brightly, that I rarely need extra motivation to go for a night run by the shore. “Thank you for coming here,” I say to the ghosts of my great-grandparents.
Bay Ridge has endeared itself to me the way old Italian guys sometimes do — seeming at once shady and avuncular and charmingly ordinary. Bay Ridge has bars with fire engine themes. It has its own St. Patrick’s day parade, complete with kilt-wearing bagpipers. Among the old families, there’s at least one cop or firefighter per household. The older folks seem like out of an 80s Brooklyn movie. The one place in the world where tracksuits never died.
Among immigrant families — Palestinians and Yemenites and Jordanians — an aspiration for Americanness is paired with old-world traditions. Even the young women in hijabs have thick Brooklyn accents.
I did not turn into a hermit. In Bay Ridge, I’ve had strangers on the street wish me good morning — and I thought that doesn’t happen in New York. Also, as it turns out, the distance to any other point in the city is only slightly longer than from other places I’ve lived. For all our grousing about the MTA of late, this train line here is fast and reliable.
I appreciate the local offerings more than I expected to. The Irish pub half a block away is run by a friendly, thick-accented Irishman who allows no food except for Irish potato chips. The bartender is a blond Russian girl who pours generously. The Touchtunes app works fine here, and no one’s so snobby to judge me on my music choices.
On a recent Friday night, a young woman approached me outside the bar. She was dark-haired, in her 20s, wearing a yellow dress and round black eyeglasses that gave her a fetchingly bookish look.
She extended her hand. “Stephanie,” she said, then asked for my name. “Shulem,” I said. She looked at me quizzically, then asked me to spell it, all the while holding that handshake firm, then fixing me a gaze for an unnervingly long time.
It was two in the morning, and I suspected she was at least a little drunk. I wondered if she’d had more hopeful plans earlier in the evening. This did not usually happen to me, but this woman, I’m pretty certain, wanted to get friendly with little preamble.
I was more soused than she, and my drink of choice tends to be whiskey. Past experience has taught me not to seek humiliation and turn a fine woman’s night into a disappointment. Still, the boost to my self-esteem was not inconsiderable, and it gave Bay Ridge another notch of desirability.
Bay Ridge is the place I settled for at 43, a writer after all, and having had my fill of the bohemian life. Unlike Bushwick, which ultimately disappointed, Bay Ridge and its conventionality suit me. It makes no pretense of being hip or trendy. It’s neither gritty nor upscale. It’s your all-American town in a tucked-away nook of New York City, with no blight beckoning to gentrifiers, and too ordinary for realtors to sell very hard.
There is something I now know that many New Yorkers don’t: there’s a place within New York City that has all the benefits of moving away while still remaining within it. That’s not what I call far. It’s what I call pretty damn close.