Brooklyn Apartment Odyssey

It has been approximately 2 months since my last post. No apologies. There was no way I was going to write during the storm I was living through. You see, for the past 4 months, I have been living in Brooklyn, on the lam.

No, I was not exactly homeless, but we were without a home of our own. It is a Brooklyn real estate nightmare. One which most will not tell. It has been difficult, anxious, surreal and in many cases, just down right crazy.

My story starts back in February. For the past 6 years I have lived on an idyllic street in Ditmas Park. We occupied the second floor of a wood frame house on Stratford Road. The place was not perfect, but after having lived in Bay Ridge for the previous 6 years, it was a positive change. We were living in a neighborhood that was at the start of a renaissance.

Back before 2006 when I moved to DP, I started the practice of making what we call ” vision lists.” These can be done for anything in your life, but in this case we focused on our housing situation. On this list you write out what you want from your next home. I even placed pictures of houses and situations. It may be that what is important is a nice landlord, spaciousness, live in a house etc. I made my list before moving to DP and then promptly forgot about it.

After I moved to DP, I found the list several months later. When I went over it, many of the items I desired had been fulfilled, down to the fact that I was living in a house very much like the one I pictured.

Here is the downside: The landlord had customs that conflicted with ours. After two years, there was an escalation of parties. His large family would often eat and leave food on the veranda. His sons collected dozens of sneakers which lined the common spaces. His repair work was constant and shoddy. His wife was loud and shrill with a voice that could cut through anything. They lived in their house like it was a tenement yard, with family members fixing their cars on the weekend over the concreted driveway. In short, our quietude was often shattered by a lack of respect for privacy.

On the upside, we were pretty much left alone. In 6 years they never raised our rent. We lived in a neighborhood where we forged new connections, established ourselves in different respects such as art, education, blogging, music and community activism. But once we became subjected to the overwhelming experience of a Hindu wedding, I knew the end would be coming soon.

With the tough economy, we tried to stay put, but it was not to be so. Our landlord came to us in February, and told us he needed to take back his house for his family. His daughter was now married and needed a place and his sons wanted their own apartments, but could not afford what was to be found out in the Brooklyn Market. So with a 4 month rent holiday granted to us, we began to search for a new place to live.

The first thing you do when you are looking for a new apartment is talk to everyone. EVERYONE. You never know who is going to give you a good lead, so talking to people is the best thing. Also, there is the dreaded Craig’s List. To be fair to Craig’s list [CL], they provide a wonderful service. But seeker beware. Lurking behind many of these ads are shady and unscrupulous characters. You will find apartments that fit your price range. Upon calling to see them, you will be grilled as to your finances, credit rating, employment status and the frequency of your bowel movements. And then you will be told to hurry up or the piece of shit will get taken. And this reminds me of an old joke.

A lady goes into the butcher and asks to see one of the chickens in the display case. She takes the chicken and begins to smell it every which way. She smells under the legs, the wings etc. Then she throws the chicken back at the butcher and says, “THIS CHICKEN STINKS!” To which the butcher replies “lady, could you pass a test like that?”

And this is exactly what you feel when you meet many of these shady brokers. Could they pass such a test? (One broker confessed to me that she would need a guarantor to get an apartment.) They want to know everything about you, but they themselves have no clue on how to conduct business in a reasonable and straight forward way. In one instance, I was shown a place on Ocean Avenue for $1800. It was called a three bedroom. The only thing they did was sand and polyurethane the floors. The refrigerator, which was old and unclean, stuck halfway into the doorway of one of the most disgusting kitchens I had seen so far. I was tempted to ask “Does the crack whore in the lobby come with the apartment?”

Come May, we had not found anything we felt we could live in. At the same time, my wife and I were so busy with large projects. We knew a couple who were vacating their place for the summer, so we jumped on a sublet in Crown Heights, where we stayed until end of August. Then our search began anew.

What you learn in all this is that Brooklyn is undergoing an unusual change. In the past, rough neighborhoods were first discovered by artists, who would move in and begin to create their own networks. In time, this movement would invite a café, or a bookstore or some other hip business. Eventually other counter cultural types would flow into the area. Park Slope [PS] is a good example. It took almost 30 years for PS to become what it is now. The same is true for Carroll Gardens, Boreum Hill, Fort Greene and Williamsburg.

In Crown Heights there is something we had not seen before. Some people call is “social engineering.” This is where realtors try to tailor their clients to the “types” of people THEY would like to see in the neighborhood. I have spoken about Crown Heights in a previous post. It has been a Hasidic, West Indian and African American Community for some time with little change over the decades. But suddenly you have a flow of white kids who seem to have been bussed in from somewhere else. And they live in their own world. These are not creative types. These are the entitled children of upper middle class mid-westerners and New Englanders. It feels like an invasion. And by all counts it is. And if by chance you are one of theses white entitled invaders, SCREW YOU! You are a parasite and you are destroying the cultural diversity of this city.

One summer evening, we sat sipping wine in a brand new café on Franklin Avenue. Across the street was a row of several houses which looked to be Section 8 housing. Men were outside shooting dice, drinking rum and just hanging out in loud conversation. Into our view, three white ladies stroll by with one saying ” and this is our health food store, and this is our café, and over there… The incredible disconnect between the two scenarios was startling.

We were turned down for a 3 bedroom in a marginal neighborhood on the border of East Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts. The management company did not reject me on my credit score, or my income. We had the cash to get it.  But because of the fact that somewhere in my past, I had an incident with a previous landlord, which was settled in court, we were rejected. SETTLED. And what you learn is that if you have had any incident with a landlord that is buried in the public record, then these management companies will dig it out and you are now blacklisted—FOREVER!

There are ways around this (like paying double security), but what has happened to Brooklyn real estate according to those who work in the business is that sales of homes have gone still. There is little movement on sales. Nobody has the money to buy, after the previous disasters of our global economy. So it is a landlords market because there are kids flooding into the city who want to rent. And they are willing to share with a few of their friends. Which means that Brooklyn is turning into one giant dormitory.

Picture this: an old building with ‘Section 8’ and welfare folks hanging out in front on a hot summer day. The building is posted with “NO BALL PLAYING” and NO LOITERING” signs. By all indications, this could be a dangerous environment to live in. And here come the dainty white kids unloading their Bianchi bicycles. I feel for the poor folks who live there, because they may be forced to move. I have heard that evictions are on the rise in Brooklyn.

So with this sad picture before us, we moved into friends places and continued our hunt. We had a deposit on another large 2 bedroom on E 21st and Caton. But “cognitive dissonance” set in. I began to hear that this very block was redlined by the local precinct as a “dangerous, drug and gun corridor.” The broker, tried to find us another place, but nothing was appropriate. Either the building was questionable, the apartments were 1 bedrooms transformed into two, or the neighborhoods I was being shown, were too remote for us. We were at our wits end.

And to boot, our temporary share, became even more temporary when we were told we could only stay to the beginning of October. So we got out the vision list again and began to make notes. The very night we were told we had only 8 days left at our current location, my wife found a listing on CL. It was for a 3 bedroom on E 26 and Ave D. This is the very location we identified at the very beginning of our search which is one block over from “The Greenest Block in Brooklyn.”  With a bit of persistence, we got to see the place in 2 days. We had already put it in our mind that “we are getting this apartment.” We were lucky to find a broker who did not want all the fees that the management companies wanted. They did not want to know every detail of our personal lives. We showed up as a family. We met with a family. The apartment is the MOST finished space I have ever lived in since I moved to Brooklyn 27 years ago. Everything is finished. The plumbing is new, and excellent working order. The neighborhood, although does not have the amenities of DP, is quiet and friendly. And we are a short walk from our favorite places in DP such as Qathra or the The Castello Plan. My wife strolled through this apartment with a huge smile expressing her joy at finding such a great place.

Greenest block brooklyn-first place, 2011

What you begin to realize is that living in all those places that were depressing, run down, un-repaired etc, that those things have an affect on your psyche. When the place is cared for, you feel like you want to rise to the occasion. We feel that we are in front of a whole new cycle of life. A new beginning. And there are things in the air that verify that. As the final Jewish holiday winds down toward sunset today, I feel my self breathe easier and deeper. It feels like there are no accidents. That somehow we got the place we wanted, but we had to pay an emotional price in order to deserve it. Life is for learning and I feel blessed.


2 Comments on “Brooklyn Apartment Odyssey”

  1. bobby byrnes says:

    HI Bruce ,
    Loved it had the pleasure of living in Sheepshead Bay for sometime not far from where my mother grew up
    Peace and whole lotta love

  2. Bruce and family – I am so happy for you! And also very happy that you’re back in the hood. Not quite as close as your previous place, but close enough that I’ll get to run into you all now and then. Nice piece!


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