When I told a friend, several weeks ago, that I was moving from the heart of the East Village to a town across the Hudson River, she looked puzzled. “Union City? Is that, like, Jersey City?” she asked.
Then, like other die-hard New Yorkers I’d broken the news to, she bombarded me with questions: ‘How long is the commute? How do you get there, exactly? Will I ever see you again?’
During college, I lived in a 300 s/f alcove studio near Astor Place, on the sixth floor of a century-old walkup. It had aging fixtures, creaky wood floors, and a tiny kitchen, but it was larger and brighter than other apartments I’d toured.
And at nearly $1,700 a month, it was one of the better deals out there; an apartment on Sullivan Street, listed for $1,800 a month, was no larger than a walk-in closet. A second-floor studio down the block faced an alleyway and had a shower in the kitchen, next to the refrigerator.
As a student, I spent much of my leisure time soaking in New York’s cultural offerings. So the occasional cockroach and lack of storage space at the East Village walkup seemed like a small price to pay for living in the center of the universe.
I made do by cramming cooking supplies and winter jackets into a single closet, stuffing clothing into an Ikea wardrobe, and chopping vegetables on a wheeled cart. My daily hike up and down six flights of stairs, which I jokingly compared to climbing Mt. Everest, was a source of pride.
When I graduated and started working, reality hit: Manhattan was too expensive to afford on my own, at least without squeezing into a tiny apartment with roommates.
At the same time, the city itself had lost a bit of its charm. On my walk home from work, I found myself irritated by the crowds of fashionistas and harried professionals that once seemed to give the sidewalks energy.
When film crews transformed stretches of Sixth Avenue or Washington Square Park into movie sets, I was only reminded of how unreal my own Manhattan existence felt: I was a writer on a budget, living in a world of wealth and glamour, million-dollar condos and upscale boutiques.
It was time, I decided, to move to a larger yet affordable apartment, with a real kitchen, friendly neighbors, and breathing room from Manhattan’s chaos.
I set a budget of $1,200, and concentrated my search in Hoboken and Jersey City. My office is just steps from a PATH station, so the commute, I figured, would be a breeze.
After browsing through Craigslist, I quickly ruled out the Mile Square City; listings for one-bedrooms were popping up in the $2,000-range, nearly on par with Manhattan prices. Anything cheaper seemed small and dingy, hardly the upgrade I hoped for.
One afternoon, after touring condo developments in downtown Jersey City for an article I was working on at the time, I wandered up to Hamilton Park. With its brownstones and leafy green space, it reminded me of a slightly grittier West Village.
I spotted a for-rent sign in the window of an elegant rowhouse across from the park. At $1,100, the price tag seemed too good to be true. Every time I called the management company to inquire about the property, the receptionist was out of the office.
So I turned to a local brokerage firm for help. I called up Dawn Chiorazzi-Roda, at Del Forno Realty, about a $1,200 one-bedroom on Fifth Street. She warned me that the bedroom was small. “Are you sure you still want to see it?” she asked. I figured it couldn’t be much smaller than the alcove I currently slept in.
I arrived on a Friday evening, just as commuters were beginning to stream out of the Grove Street PATH station. The area was lively, with music blaring from an art festival next to the station. Fifth Street, like many blocks in still-gentrifying downtown Jersey City, was a bit grungy.
But the apartment seemed charming: there was a working fireplace, a large eat-in kitchen, and a bit of outdoor space next to the fire escape. The landlord lived in the neighborhood, Chiorazzi-Roda explained, and was invested in maintaining the property. Then, she opened the bedroom door. The room was so small that the bed was pressed up against the wall, leaving only a sliver of space to walk through.
For a brief second, the views, which extended to the luxury towers lining the waterfront, made the place seem worth it. But I figured I’d regret the decision later.
I asked the broker what else I could find in the neighborhood within my price range. “This is rare for downtown Jersey City,” she said. Most decent one-bedrooms in the neighborhood, she explained, rent for at least $1,500.
Prices in Weehawken, a town just north of Hoboken and Jersey City, seemed more reasonable. And as with other parts of New Jersey’s gold coast, the commute to midtown would be considerably faster than that of middle class enclaves in Brooklyn and Queens. Because the Lincoln Tunnel approach bisects the town, buses can arrive in midtown between five and 15 minutes, depending on traffic.
After strolling along Boulevard East one evening, soaking in views of the Manhattan skyline, and passing children at play on residential blocks, the area seemed like a relaxing place to call home.
I made note of for-rent signs in the windows of quaint Victorian houses and redbrick apartment buildings lining Boulevard East and the blocks behind it. Most rentals had three or four bedrooms, or were beyond my price range.
The only possible match was a two-bedroom at a brick midrise on Highwood Terrace, a cul-de-sac bustling with children, some playing tag, others riding bicycles. I made an appointment to meet the building’s manager the next day. When I arrived, he was caught up in a meeting.
“The super will let you in,” he said. “Just buzz 5A.” When I reached the apartment, a young woman, perhaps in her late teens or early 20s, greeted me at the door.
Her father wasn’t home, so she offered to show me around. The elevator was slow, so the teenager led me, barefoot, up a staircase that reeked of mildew and cigarette smoke. The apartment was spacious, but something about it didn’t click. The appliances were old, and the floors were coated with dust.
I asked the super’s daughter about maintenance. What happens if there’s a problem? If there are mice? (After tiny visitors began appearing in my East Village apartment, securing a rodent-free apartment became a top priority.) She looked at me blankly. “If there’s a problem someone…” she trailed off, and pantomimed an exterminator spraying the floor.
Next, she pointed out a basement alcove with a set of washers and dryers. “People don’t really do their laundry here,” she said. “They just hang out.” I left without asking what she meant.
It was time, I figured, to call a broker again. While browsing Craigslist that night, a listing immediately caught my eye: a $900 one-bedroom on Highpoint Avenue, a desirable block near Troy Towers, an upscale condominium in Weehawken.
The broker, Andrew Botticelli of De Ruggiero Realty – a local agency that handles everything from cheap studios to $9,000 waterfront luxury rentals – urged me to visit as soon as possible. “It’s not going to last long,” he said.
On a Friday night, just as a thunderstorm was passing through the area, I trekked up a hill to Botticelli’s office in Union City, a town just west of Weehawken.
A magnet for Spanish-speaking immigrants, the city once boasted the largest Cuban population in America outside of Miami. It had a safe, family-oriented vibe, and a wide range of affordable options. Botticelli offered to show me a handful of listings in the area, in case I didn’t like the unit on Highpoint Avenue.
We set off in his car to a three-story brick rowhouse on Palisade Avenue, to the south of the Lincoln Tunnel approach.
The apartment, a two-bedroom on the top floor, was recently renovated. The kitchen appliances were new, the floors were lined with plush gray carpeting, and the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan gleamed outside the living room window.
The landlord and his wife lived in the building, on the ground floor. The only catch: the listing was slightly above my budget, and the landlord, an elderly Italian immigrant, didn’t speak English. I was hoping to adopt a cat down the road, so I tried to ask him whether he allowed pets.
He barely understood me, and eventually shook his head no. When I asked about the downstairs neighbors, he stared at me blankly, and I started to wonder whether he even knew his tenants’ names. I was afraid the language barrier would become a problem if something went wrong in the apartment.
So Botticelli and I moved on, at last, to the $900 listing on Highpoint Avenue.
With its hardwood floors, tall windows, and loads of character, the unit reminded me of my old apartment – only twice the size. The kitchen could have used some updating, and the last tenant had left behind a bulky, mirrored cabinet that seemed to belong in the 1970s, as well as a television set mounted above the refrigerator.
Still, the space seemed decent enough, especially for its price. I told Botticelli I would consider it, and asked, by chance, if the landlord would be willing to remove the outdated furniture.
Botticelli still had one more listing to show me, on Cottage Place, an alleyway-sized block in the northwest corner of Union City.
We drove down Bergenline Avenue, a retail strip famous for its discount clothing shops. I asked Botticelli, who also leases commercial space in the area, if the neighborhood was on the verge of gentrifying, as Hoboken had in the last few decades.
The blocks around a new light rail station on 49th Street were becoming desirable, he said, but not enough for tapas bars and beer gardens to replace the neighborhood’s dollar stores.
The apartment had colorful walls, a kitchen with granite countertops and even a skylight. But its location near Kennedy Boulevard, a major thoroughfare marking the border of Union City and North Bergen, where the palisades slope down towards the Meadowlands, seemed a bit remote. And the neighbors didn’t seem too friendly: groups of rowdy teenage boys loitered on the street.
Before dropping me off at the PATH station in Hoboken, where he lived, Botticelli showed a Rutgers University professor and his wife a condo being rented out in West New York, the town just north of Union City. Like me, they were apartment hunting on a budget, in search for a two-bedroom in the $1,500 range.
Though farther from Manhattan than Union City, West New York was becoming popular with young professionals, Botticelli said. In the last few weeks, he’d helped several young women rent apartments there.
Later that night, I checked with Botticelli if the $900 listing was still available. Someone else, it turned out, had beaten me to faxing in an application.
Over the next few weeks, I kept up the search. One evening after work, Botticelli showed me a small one-bedroom in an ornate prewar building on Boulevard East, in West New York, that seemed overpriced, considering the lack of light, outdated fixtures, and dead cockroach lying on the living room floor.
An apartment on 44th Street and Palisade Avenue, in Union City, was bright, with views extending in all directions. But the building itself wasn’t well-maintained, and I left in a hurry after spotting baby cockroaches crawling inside the fridge.
A recently renovated two-bedroom on Palisade Avenue, near City Hall and the town police station, seemed promising. The landlady was friendly, and loved cats; we spent over half an hour chatting while I inspected the spacious eat-in kitchen and newly carpeted bedroom, which had two closets. The unit sprawled over the top floor of the three-story building, and had additional storage space in the hall. When Botticelli and I left, I had a feeling that the apartment might be it.
The price was slightly above my budget, at $1,250. But it was well-maintained, and the only other tenants were the landlady and her sister.
While I thought it over, Botticelli showed me a couple more rentals on the market. With its landscaped grounds and location opposite a large park, Woodcliff Gardens, a cluster of brick garden apartments in North Bergen, was peaceful, but too suburban. And besides, the only unit available in my price range was a tiny studio in a state of disrepair.
Back in Union City, where I’d narrowed my search by this point, a one-bedroom in a low-rise apartment complex on 33rd Street, near the last bus stop before the Lincoln Tunnel entrance, was conveniently located – perhaps too much so. The bedroom’s thin windows rattled every time trucks passed along Marginal Highway, just outside the building.
Ten blocks north, a $1,100 one-bedroom ten blocks north was shabby, and overlooked an overgrown field stacked with barrels.
At that point, I made my decision: the two-bedroom on Palisade Avenue was the one. The neighborhood was close-knit, vibrant, and well-lit at night. As quickly as possible, I faxed in my application, and negotiated a slightly lower rent.
Not long after signing the lease, the landlady gave me a tour of local shops: the hole-in-the-wall Italian place, the gelato shop, the park where a German food festival takes place each summer.
At my East Village apartment, the closest large supermarket was a Whole Foods; here, a Pathmark was a five-minute walk away. And rather than find myself tempted to browse Bed Bath & Beyond or Manhattan’s quaint boutiques for home goods, as I had when I first moved to the East Village walkup, the landlady offered to drive me one weekend to Wal-Mart.