Photographed by Erica Gannett.
If you moved to New York City right after graduating from college, chances are good that you started out living in a shitty apartment. It’s a rite of passage of sorts — if you can make it here, through cockroaches and mice and schlepping Trader Joe’s home on the subway, you really can make it anywhere.
For me, that first apartment was in Bay Ridge in southwest Brooklyn, almost an hour and a half by subway from two of the three jobs I was working at the time. Luckily, we didn’t have any issues with mice, but it was still, by the standards of most non-New Yorkers, a completely terrible apartment. We had some cockroaches. My roommate also had a large dog, which, while cute, didn’t make the already-crowded space feel any less small.
Several out-of-state friends visited that year and asked to stay with me. At the time, I was mortified to have people see the tiny, dirty, isolated place I called home. But two (markedly better) apartments later, I don’t regret living there. (Though I do wonder what my guests would have thought if they knew the monthly rent at that first place was a whopping $1,500 — which, of course, is low by NYC standards.)
When I moved into a new studio apartment after leaving that cramped “two-bedroom,” I was thrilled. I had more space to myself, and I filled it with decor I thought was pretty tasteful. Plus, I was in a better neighborhood that was a lot closer to work. Still, friends and family who weren’t from New York didn’t see things the way I did.
My sister-in-law noted that my entire apartment was likely smaller than her bedroom. Friends lamented my bathroom’s lack of ventilation (good luck finding any affordable NYC apartment with a bathroom window; this one was $1,200 a month). And no one liked the fact that it was a fifth-floor walk-up. I was so happy living there — but no one else could understand why. After my wedding this summer, my dad remarked casually that he was glad I could finally move into a “real apartment” with my husband.
“We don’t have room for a pumpkin-shaped pie dish or 10 spare wool blankets. So what?”
Still, when we FaceTimed our soon-to-be roommate (who had never lived outside of our home state of North Carolina, let alone experienced New York City real estate), we were excited to share the great unit we’d found within our price range. His only comment was that he couldn’t believe how small the bedrooms were. Where we saw a dishwasher and plenty of counter space, he saw a cramped first-floor shoebox, with few (if any) redeeming qualities. Of course, I can’t blame him for that. He’s not wrong.
Living in New York skews your sense of what a “deal” is, and it forces you to learn the value of small-space living, fast. The $3,163 rent we pay for our little abode is more than the monthly mortgage costs for a relatively massive house back in North Carolina. One of our closest friends just bought a home. And as older family members love to remind us, when you rent an apartment, you’re just forking over money rather than putting it toward an investment. At the end of the day, it’s not really yours.
But while it might be impossible for non-NYC friends to understand, I wouldn’t trade small-apartment living for a bigger place somewhere else. Sure, we don’t own anything, but do we really need to? For now, none of us have kids. When something goes wrong in a rental apartment, we’re not responsible for the cost of repairs — even if we do have to call our landlord more than once to come deal with it.
And while our apartment might be small, it’s the perfect size for what we need. We have enough cabinet space for our dishes and glassware, and a linen closet for our towels. We don’t have room for a pumpkin-shaped pie dish or 10 spare wool blankets. So what? We don’t think of it as limiting; in fact, having less space helps us keep clutter in check.
Oh, and less cleaning. With just one bathroom and a shared living room, it’s very easy to knock out the weekly vacuuming and scrubbing routines. At this point, the thought of cleaning a two-story house is unimaginable to me — keeping one room clean is plenty for me, thanks.
Of course, I’m also biased in my love of New York City. When I first moved to that small, dirty apartment, I told my parents I felt like I was a “part of something” here. Like many other small-towners who move to the Big Apple, I was instantly lost in everything the city has to offer. (Three years later, I’m still caught off-guard by how much I love the skyline.)
No, our kitchen doesn’t have an island, and our bedroom can’t fit a king-size mattress. But we have Central Park as our backyard. Literally. We have access to some of the world’s best food. There are Broadway plays and indie comedy shows every night of the week. And if a favorite band or singer is on tour in the United States, there’s definitely going to be a New York concert. To me, that’s worth far more than having a spare bedroom.
I may never be able to afford a New York apartment with as much space as the houses in the neighborhood where I grew up. But that’s just fine with me.
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