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Peeping Toms

A history of real estate voyeurism

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

There is nowhere left to live in New York. Trust me, I know. Fewer apartments are on the market today in the city than at any time since records began, and if you want one you’d better be able to put up the cash. Manhattan, converted these past 20 years into an antiseptic (that’s Giuliani’s doing) luxury goods emporium (that’s Bloomberg’s), has long been out of reach; the leafier areas of Brooklyn were colonized in the last decade by brunching hordes willing to pay seven figures to live in ironic imitation of their immigrant grandparents. Even Brooklyn’s drearier northern stretches have become the territory of the 1 percent over the past five years. The first to fall was Williamsburg, a character-free, formerly working-class neighborhood now populated by bankers who pay more for the privilege of living in a gritty outer borough than they would for a place downtown. Then came nasty Greenpoint, which sits alongside a fetid, carcinogen-spewing creek. Now it’s the turn of apocalyptic Bushwick, which you should avoid visiting at all costs and where otherwise professional people pack themselves cheek-by-jowl into spaces that resemble badly administered refugee camps, but with an artisanal ramen shop next door. 

Bushwick, Bushwick, Bushwick! Sam Lipsyte, in his 2010 novel The Ask, describes one character’s Bushwick hovel, stuffed with two dozen occupants who all have iPhones, as “a homeless shelter for people with liberal arts degrees,” and Michael Cunningham, who published By Nightfall the same year, was crueler still: “Bushwick … is pretty close to nowhere. Its founders didn’t take much trouble with it; even the oldest of the buildings were obviously put up as quickly and cheaply as possible. ... I mean hello, Bushwick, hello, America, hello, mega-malls and feed lots.” Earlier generations of striving New Yorkers may not have had it easy, but at least they weren’t stuck in Bushwick; at least they got to be down and out in the Village or SoHo, places whose vibrancy justified the struggle. As recently as 2001, when Claire Messud set The Emperor’s Children, a 30-year-old freelance writer (and a character disconcertingly similar to myself) could still manage a one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. 

That’s all over now. Worse is still to come. As of March 2013, an average one-bedroom apartment in Bushwick rents for $2,800 a month.

Constance Rosenblum, long of The New York Times, knows well this hellish terrain, wherein all that stands between you and Gotham exile is a trust fund or spectacular luck. Formerly the editor of the paper’s City section (dead) as well as Arts & Leisure (a shell of its former self), she’s now on the real estate desk, where she covers everything from brownstone renovations to co-op politics to buildings’ pet policies to that perennial favorite New York Times concern: how to afford your first apartment in a city whose average rent is now $3,536 a month. (Hint, ask your parents!) But the signature Rosenblum piece is the visit to some unimagined home, soaring aerie or hipster loft, whose delighted residents reveal how much happier they are than you.

These have been collected in Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City, a revealing but unrelentingly depressing book that confirms, if you had occasion to doubt, that everyone in New York has a nicer apartment than you do. Like the Times’s City section, the Habitats column from which this book is drawn is defunct, too—which, on the evidence of this book, is a shame, though its demise has a biting irony. One of the central reasons that daily newspapers are now living on borrowed time is the evaporation of classifieds and specifically of apartment listings, which now appear on Craigslist or on brokers’ own sites. The Times magazine, in my adolescence, was three times thicker than it is today, stuffed with ads for luxury properties, while listings for more demotic apartments padded out two whole sections of the Sunday edition. Those are all gone now, with well-known consequences. Live by real estate, die by real estate.1

For a collection of newspaper columns, Habitats is a surprisingly cohesive book with little literary flourishes here and there. Rosenblum’s nimble portraits are written from the perspective of a sharp outsider, and personal details bleed between the individuals she interviews and the spaces they inhabit until you realize that there isn’t any border between them. The person is the apartment, and vice versa, though if you had to say which one has primacy, it’s clearly the home. In her introduction, she mentions that when visiting unmarried women living alone she thinks “of Wharton’s Lily Bart,” and indeed you could tell the entire plot of The House of Mirth through Lily’s successive dwellings: first her aunt’s mansion on Fifth Avenue with its “glacial neatness,” then an apartment, then a hotel while working as a social secretary, and at last rooms in a boarding-house that today no disinherited heiress could ever afford.2

Indeed Rosenblum’s stated goal is “biography through real estate”: an appealing idea but ultimately, perhaps, a redundant one. In New York, biography is real estate. In the eight years since graduating from university, I have lived in no fewer than ten apartments—the entire story of my twenties is one of cardboard boxes and mattress deliveries, bleary-eyed Craigslist hallucinations, Hunger Games–style sabotage at oversubscribed open houses, and key money paid to usurious brokers who tell you to meet them on street corners like in a drug deal. At last, after far too long, I now live in what passes for civilization in New York City, on the unfashionable but at least functioning Upper West Side. But it remains beyond my reach to find an apartment with a bed behind a closing door; a washing machine is an unimaginable luxury.

Of course biography is real estate. What isn’t, in this town? Politics is really about real estate, as Jimmy McMillan of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party perennially reminds us. Food is really about real estate. Nightlife is really about real estate. Culture is really about real estate. (Have you seen David Zwirner’s new gallery on 20th? The concrete-and-teak facade, the giant skylights, the endless oak floors! Five stories!) And sex, too. Sex in New York, it’s sad to say, is really little more than a matter of real estate; marriages are effected in order to get people’s names on leases, and now that the once heaving west side piers have been superseded by a lifeless Copenhagen-on-Hudson bike path for the millionaire denizens of the West Village’s new glass condos, young men look for love on their smartphones and judge prospective partners based on the location of their homes. Bodies are transient; real estate endures. One particularly astute broker recently ran a campaign across Chelsea with the slogan: “I don’t remember his name. But his apartment…”

In Habitats we visit 40 apartments and houses across the five boroughs, to see the lives we usually can only glimpse through windows. If you have the fortune not to live in New York, you may appreciate these visits, not least when Rosenblum turns her eye to the city’s dwindling bohemian number. But if you’re stuck in an overpriced New York rental, Habitats can feel downright sadistic. We meet, for example, Catherine Fitzsimons, who owns a nineteenth-century two-bedroom house in Brooklyn Heights that she bought in 1985 for under $60,000. (Average cost of a two-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights today: $1.18 million.) The small garden bursts with color. “In spring,” Rosenblum writes, “Ms. Fitzsimons’s neighbors stop to admire the brilliant gold forsythia and the profusion of rosy azaleas and rhododendrons.” There is no brilliant gold forsythia in Bushwick.

Habitats goes on like this, and it does not get easier to take. Perhaps you have heard of the writer Roxana Robinson, author of Auchincloss-lite novels that chronicle the troubles of east coast WASPs? Robinson writes in a small home office within her “Classic 8” (that’s five bedrooms, three for you and two for your staff, if you’re not up on your old-school housing jargon), located in an Art Deco building just off Park Avenue. Naturally, she and her husband bought long ago. In the living room, inevitably described as “sweeping,” hangs a massive oil painting of Robinson herself, dressed as Madame X of John Singer Sargent fame. “Her characters,” Rosenblum explains, “would feel at home among all these lovely things.” So would I, if you’re offering, though that painting just has to go.

Even when Rosenblum ventures to less tony neighborhoods, it’s hard not to be jealous. Meet Barbara McCall, “a retired nurse with a round face and a halo of curly hair,” who lives in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Soundview, you might recall, was the home of Amadou Diallo, the innocent, unarmed Guinean immigrant shot 41 times by the police; when the officers were later acquitted, Soundview and many other New York neighborhoods were rocked by weeks of angry demonstrations and 1,700 arrests. But this part of Soundview sounds frankly bucolic. Children play in the parks, everyone shops at the local supermarkets, and there’s no shortage of parking. McCall’s three-bedroom on the 22nd floor (rent $1,150) has sweeping views of the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Sound, you name it, and on the Fourth of July the sky fills with fireworks in all directions. “I’m spoiled,” she tells Rosenblum.

Habitats is expressly not a book about décor or design, and yet all the same, everyone has a better apartment than you, with handsomer furniture and nicer neighbors, blooming gardens, killer views. Even the folks in shoebox studios are maniacally joyous. But that is not the worst of it, not by a long shot. Not only is everyone here living better than you, thanks to rent control or having bought a lifetime ago, they don’t even pay for the privilege. Market rents are for suckers. A studio on West 47th Street, tricked out with tin ceilings, pine floors, and art deco furnishings, belongs to an actor who pays $900, about a third of the average rent for the neighborhood. A fabulous walkup on Lafayette Street across from the Public Theater cost just $350 a month, so obscenely low that the tenant felt guilty and increased his own rent, to $500. Mary McCarthy’s stepdaughter is paying $700 for her light-filled pad on East 29th. A 2500-square-foot loft smack on Broadway, with glorious beaux-arts half-moon windows, rents for $1300 a month, one-tenth the market rate. The curator of a Staten Island museum gets to live upstairs rent-free. Then there are the artists in a SoHo loft the size of an airplane hangar, bought for a song in the 1970s. “Our lives were simply never about making money,” the owner tells Rosenblum. Nice work if you can get it. And just when you thought that Rosenblum’s eye was trained on the dwindling population of bohemians who lucked into spacious digs, she lands the coup de grâce: the Brearley-educated daughter of a Goldman Sachs stockbroker living in an Upper East Side penthouse “thanks to the miracle of rent stabilization.”

There are two ways to conceive of lives like this. A few, at least, know they have got extraordinarily lucky. But most of the inhabitants in Habitats figure themselves to be members of a sort of real-estate Calvinist elect: the chosen few who through some internal goodness have fallen into the apartment they deserve while the rest of us peer through the windows in envy. (It is possible, I realize, that the newspaper may have killed the Habitats column for the precise reason that the chosen few are now fewer in number than ever, and that Constance Rosenblum has already interviewed every single person in New York who actually is happy to be living here.)

You and I will never be the subjects of a book like Habitats, and with rent now at such extortionate levels, with the quality of life in New York so low and the cost so high, the only way to read this book is with a kind of masochistic gratification. These are the exceptions that prove the rule, that remind you that you are not insane, that life in New York really is this bad. In that way Rosenblum’s book is ironically reassuring: The only people who believe otherwise are the lucky ducks within these pages and the new arrivals still naive enough to believe what they read in The New York Times

  1. The days when New Yorkers could comb the obituaries for possible real estate leads are fading too; the paper’s paid death notices have been outsourced to a giant digital operation called, which has pioneered online obituaries complete with flickering candles and a guestbook.

  2. While Wharton never gives the exact address of Lily’s boarding house, we know that it lies downtown, on “a New York street in the last stages of decline from fashion to commerce.” Lily lives west of Sixth Avenue, the location of the pharmacy where she buys her lethal sleeping drugs, and on one occasion she walks down the street and turns onto Fifth Avenue—meaning she lives no further south than Waverly Place. It’s therefore safe to assume that Lily’s final end comes in rooms somewhere in the West Village, where the average one-bedroom apartment now rents for an eye-watering $3,769 a month. (And while we’re on the subject, this footnote seems an inconspicuous enough location for me to grouse that I too used to live in the West Village, until a hedge-fund manager bought my entire building and tossed every tenant onto the street so that he could convert it into a gigantic single-family home. In the year since, no discernable work has taken place on the building, and the front door is padlocked.)