Magic Jewball

all signs point to no


Sunlight on the lino

Filed under : Life in general,New York City
On April 23, 2012
At 11:30 pm
Comments : 3

Here is my new strategy: stop avoiding the blog because I’m never inspired to write the posts I have on my agenda (and add to that my Blogoversary… I missed that, too) and just write posts as I’m inspired. You know, like I used to. In that spirit…

I’ve talked a lot in the past about the notion of home and even given a tour of places I have lived in two different cities. Last week marked my tenth year as a homeowner and specifically as an owner of this place. And even though my head has always told me to find a place to settle forever, because that’s what made me most happy, I have been really itchy lately to move on. But let me back up a bit.

Have you discovered the 1940 census? You should! Apparently, after 72 years, the census specifics are released and this time, they’ve been put in a searchable (by address) database online. It is awesome, both to find out who your ancestors were and what they did (my grandfather sold hats in Brooklyn but I’m not sharing his salary!) but also to find out the history of your own home, if it’s that old. In the city, mine is. I knew that. It dates from 1898 and it was gutted and renovated in the 60’s, so there’s no telling from this census who lived in my exact space, but only in my building. For whatever reason, the census people put down building numbers, but not apartments or even floors. This is what I knew about my building but had forgotten: it has six floors and when originally built, had six homes (cue the drooling over an apartment that encompassed the entire level). Some time in the 30’s, it was converted to SRO’s, or single room occupancy apartments. I don’t really know what that meant practically in terms of size or amenities. Then in the 60’s, it was completely redone to its present configuration of five 1-bedroom apartments per floor. Sometimes, I look at my window layout, which is a little odd, and try to imagine the original design of the rooms, but I really can’t.

What the census inspired me to do, because there were so many names listed for my small building, was to look up the occupancy permits online. I found one from the 40’s which declared that my floor, which, if you recall, originally had a home for one family and nowadays for five singles, couples, or tiny families, had thirteen SRO’s. I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute. I cannot even conceive of it. Certainly, some of them had no windows; there just aren’t enough. Some of these what had to be teeny-tiny apartments had several unrelated people in them. The census parlance calls them lodgers but I think that would mean if you were my roommate and not on the lease, you’d be my lodger. Still, how did they all fit? Did these places have kitchens? Was there a common bathroom? One of my projects this summer, which I may or may not get to, is to go to the library and find some of the records that would tell me how my place was set up. But I can tell you that most of these folks were born in NY, unlike in my father’s sprawling building in Brooklyn, and they had all kinds of trades. Then, as now, there was a subway right nearby which would have taken them straight downtown to jobs.

I never found my mother’s family. They were clearly never home to answer the door. Actually, when I recall how utterly persistant the census workers were when they came here two years ago, it’s hard to believe, but they skipped both my grandparents and a couple of the neighbors my aunt remembers in two or three passes at the neighborhood (you can see them circling back with later additions at the end of the book). I know my aunt is not recalling it wrong because I always remember my mother’s utter dismay that her beloved house in Massachusetts was now a convenience store parking lot. When I go to Google Maps, I can see that it still is. That would really haunt me. I totally get her.

After my previous post on my birth house (literally), you can believe that I have never gone back. I did look it up in the census but knew it was a post-war house. It was; it had been a farm which had a railroad station on the old New York, Westchester, and Boston Railway. I knew about this railroad growing up but never that it had been so close and that a station had been pretty much down the street. In fact, the path of the railroad is now some kind of trail through the woods known as “the Greenway.” I wish I could go back and look at it with fresh eyes but Google Maps is as close as I’ll go.

So you can see how sentimental I am on the notion of home. Or see further. This is the longest I have lived anywhere since I was a child. Ten years, wow! The longest between my childhood house and now previously had been four years. I think when you’re single and without children and remaining in the same city, there’s no clear indicators on when you should move. When you can afford a larger place? When your neighborhood changes? When you just get plain tired of it? I have been tired of my place for a little while now. There are issues which have become more irritating. The noise, for one thing. I don’t know how thick the walls were for those folks in the SRO’s but the renovation in the 60’s was done with paper-thin versions and a lack of insulation between floors. I am tired of hearing the thunderous footsteps upstairs…. and the fighting. I am tired of hearing the guy next door’s actions in the kitchen and the guy on the other side flushing the toilet. Most of all, I think it’s the light. I’ve been away a couple of times in the last month and each time, I was in a place with a lot of light. I miss that. I face a wall and get two hours of natural light a day. In the beginning, this did not bother me. I was too enamored of the great location of my place and the storage it had. If I want light, I will have to give up location (my salary has gone up but so have real estate prices), but I think it’s worth it.

So, as you can see, I am looking for a new place. Doesn’t mean I really will move, of course, but I am looking. I have a real estate agent coming next week to look at my place and tell me what he thinks I can get. I was going to do this over the summer but then I remembered how long this took last time when I was only doing half of the process (just buying, not selling). I have summers free but the fall will be busy. Better to get the bulk of the work done over the break, I think. People always ask about my kitchen: how can you move when you put so much work into the kitchen! There are many things that would be hard about moving. For starters, moving itself is such a bear, particularly when you’re as settled in as I am. Last time, my mother stayed with me all night and helped me move. Her method would be to pack little things inside big things and I remember finding hidden things for months afterwards. Oh hey, this empty cookie jar has a box of pasta in it! I’ll miss that. And my pharmacy where everyone knows me. And these built-in bookshelves which are the focal point of my home. And, yes, the kitchen. But if I find a place that needs a new kitchen, I’ll know exactly what I like. And if I find one already done I’ll know I don’t have to go through that awfulness again anytime soon. And whoever buys my place, I’ll try to imagine that they like the kitchen, too, and aren’t going to rip out my creation.

Of course, none of this may happen. Maybe I won’t find anything better enough to justify all this. But I do know that my notion of what’s home is really different than I thought. Unless I move to a rowhouse in Baltimore. That would be forever.

Title comes from:
Squeeze – Goodbe Girl


3 Comments for this post

  1. Lydia says:

    Oh, you totally inspired me to check out the 1940 Census. Thank you for that!

    The idea of moving is a daunting one, but I also like the anticipation of a fresh new space. It’s like a new start.

  2. Elena says:

    I hear Derek J is selling his apartment–surely you can manage that on a teacher’s salary!
    Those crowded apts sound like the Soviet system, where several people/families shared a flat and took turns using the small kitchen, and had a toilet down the hall for the whole floor to use. I don’t know how people lived like that,but it was all they knew. I need to look up the census. I’m not even sure where my parents were living then. Texas, I think. The first 2 sibs were born there and the 2nd one hadn’t been born yet in 1940. Sounds like really fascinating info on there.

  3. Becca says:

    Lydia, yes! A fresh start, exactly.

    Elena, it really is… check it out. I asked relatives for addresses, which really helped.

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