"The Toys Are Gone, but It’s Still Home"
October 21st, 2011
The New York Times
October 21st, 2011
The New York Times
DAN GEIST, 44, grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Morningside Heights, the only child of artist parents who had arrived as renters in the late ’60s. He pedaled his tricycle around the living room and swung from a tension bar in a doorway. From babyhood on he gazed from his bedroom window at a tapestry of brick, a view that looked especially moody on rainy mornings.
When Mr. Geist went off to college in 1984, he assumed that he would return to the apartment only for school vacations and the occasional family dinner. But nine years later, long a graduate and overwhelmed by the challenge of finding affordable housing in Manhattan, he came home for good. The building had gone co-op, and his parents, who still owned the apartment and were happy to bequeath it to their son, had separated and moved out.
He returned largely because apartment-hunting proved so traumatic. “It was nightmarish,” said Mr. Geist, who is the senior editor of Tehran Bureau, a news Web site. “Like so many people who grow up in Manhattan, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But I was appalled at the idea of having a roommate who wasn’t a close friend, which is what I would have to have had to stay in the borough. It didn’t take long to convert me to the idea that moving back home was a splendid notion.”
Mr. Geist belongs to a small and exclusive club of New Yorkers, largely Manhattanites, who live literally on the footprint of their childhood. They sleep in their childhood bedrooms. They are greeted in the elevator by people who have known them since they were born. Family snapshots have a comforting familiarity. Some of these people have had the same telephone number and permanent address their entire lives. If they left town for college or a job, it wasn’t for long.
The apartment in question is typically a co-op or rent-controlled, and the child inherits the space after the parents have died or moved away. Returning to such a setting generally has an emotional component as well as a practical one, according to architects and social scientists who have studied the psychological impact of the childhood home.
Such a home can represent a source of warmth and strength. “That explains why some people are so devastated about selling the childhood home,” said Clare Cooper Marcus, a former professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the book “House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home.” “They knew it was there and that they could go back and revisit the place.”
These feelings can strengthen over time. “The places where people grew up can become deeply meaningful as we get older,” said Sandy Isenstadt, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Delaware and the author of “The Modern American House.” “They make you realize how spatially based so many memories are and how deeply we’re imprinted by our childhood homes.”
There can be downsides to reclaiming a childhood address, among them the nagging feeling of not having achieved a traditional marker of adulthood: establishing a home of one’s own. Family memories can be bittersweet as well as nourishing. But especially in Manhattan, where housing can be so expensive, financial benefits usually far outweigh emotional reservations. And with financial benefits may come a reassuring sense of being rooted in a particular place. For some people, being able to live in a childhood apartment is like winning the lottery. They wouldn’t move for the world.
Mr. Geist’s apartment is worth many times what his parents paid for it several decades ago. But he has no intention of leaving. He realizes that had he not inherited this place, he almost certainly would not be living in a borough, and a neighborhood, that he loves, amid his 3,000 books and nearly as many CD’s and LP’s. The apartment’s old-fashioned foibles serve as a link between generations. When the temperamental pilot light in the old stove goes out, Mr. Geist’s mother pays a visit to relight it, after which her son takes her out for dinner.
Yet at times he ponders the wisdom of staying put.
“I’m still very ambivalent,” said Mr. Geist, whose mother lives in Greenwich Village and whose father died in 2005. “I appreciate how much space I have compared to many people, but it’s an odd mix of cozy and entrapment. I look out the bedroom window and see the same view I’ve seen for as long as I could remember. I can alter the space, I can rearrange the furniture, but there’s very little I can do about the view.”
One of the best-known people to have followed this route is the writer Tony Hiss, who lives with his wife in the Eighth Street walk-up where he grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. The apartment is a character in “The View From Alger’s Window,” his memoir about the years that his father, Alger Hiss, spent in prison after being convicted on perjury charges during the cold war.
The place is wreathed with memories. When Tony Hiss’s son, Jacob, was young, he slept in what had been his father’s bedroom. When Mr. Hiss looks through the rear windows, he can see the view he saw as a child — the same expanse of sky, the same 19th-century row houses with low rooftops and black chimney pots. For Mr. Hiss, the apartment became “a kind of time funnel,” and the experience of living there like “peering into a living mirror.”
“Staying on in this apartment seemed like a terrific and obvious thing to do,” he said. “I’ve always loved the shape and size of the rooms, the light from outside, the communal garden out back and the fact that Washington Square is only a block away. We feel very lucky to be living here.”
Lex Haris, 40, the managing editor of the Web site CNNMoney, has lived in a second-floor two-bedroom apartment on East 72nd Street ever since he was brought home from Doctors Hospital in 1971. His parents purchased the apartment in 1975 for about $30,000, but his father moved out five years later when the couple divorced.
Mr. Haris and his brother inherited the place when their mother died in 1990. That year, right after graduating from college, Mr. Haris moved back (he inherited the other half when his brother died in 1996). The decision allowed him to live well in a neighborhood he loved, despite a modest salary, and he never saw a compelling reason to leave.
When he married in 2001, his wife, Helen, entered the place on tiptoes. “In the beginning,” she recalled, “I felt I was stepping into history. I was very shy about putting something on the wall, or even moving a piece of furniture. I didn’t know what emotional attachment Lex had to things.”
But although he kept a few family heirlooms, the wall-to-wall carpeting, some of it green shag, is long gone, and the gold bamboo wallpaper has been replaced by works by young contemporary artists.
Rarely does he even think about leaving. “There are a few things I hate,” Mr. Haris said. “I hate living right above a bus stop, with the noise and the cigarette smoke. I like the idea of outdoor space. But where would I go?
“I’m very aware that I wouldn’t get to live in this lovely home if I hadn’t inherited it,” he added. Seeing the homeless man who sometimes sleeps near the bus stop underscores his sense of good fortune.
The reverberations of familiar space can feel especially powerful when a new generation enters the picture, as will soon be the case for Reid Maclean. Mr. Maclean, 38, grew up in a sprawling apartment on West 92nd Street to which his parents had come as renters in 1966. A family snapshot, taken when Reid was little, shows him standing in front of the living room fireplace, dressed for Halloween as a combined cowboy and Indian.
Mr. Maclean, a musician and contractor, returned after college and settled in for good in the late 1990s. Today, he lives in the apartment with his wife, Damaris, and the couple are expecting their first child in January. The baby’s nursery may be Mr. Maclean’s childhood bedroom, complete with a sign on the door bearing the name Reid B. Maclean, in white letters on black plastic. The room has a panel of stained glass, and Mr. Maclean remembers how his two older sisters used to creep down the hallway and make shadows on the window with their hands to scare him.
Though in his youth the West Side was a troubled part of the city, he, like many of its residents, past and present, feels a deep allegiance to it.
“There’s history all around me, and I really value that history,” Mr. Maclean said. “The character of the neighborhood has changed so much, but living here reminds me of the West Side that I loved.” He is already looking forward to taking his child to his boyhood playground in Riverside Park, though he is glad the area has long been spruced up and reincarnated as Hippo Playground.
Constance Lowenthal, an art historian who consults on provenance and estate art sales, was 6 when she moved with her parents and sister to a three-bedroom apartment on the 12th floor of Queensview, a middle-income co-op in Long Island City.
In 2004, she left a one-bedroom rental on the Upper East Side to return to her childhood apartment — “the ancestral co-op,” as she calls it. Both parents had died, and the apartment had been left to her on the condition that she live there.
“I was paying $1,600 on the Upper East Side and I knew the rent would only rise,” said Ms. Lowenthal, 66. She expected to miss the convenience and liveliness of the neighborhood, but that proved not to be the case. That her sister and her children lived in the next building was an additional attraction. The place had not been redecorated in any substantial way since her family’s arrival in 1951, and Ms. Lowenthal went to great lengths to make the time capsule her own.
“I hated the gray and white bathroom floors which I could never get to look clean,” she said. “I hated the sliding steel doors on the closets, which made this ugly screeching sound. They all reeked of an era I didn’t want to return to.”
Ms. Lowenthal now has sleek marble bathrooms and wooden doors on the closets. She got rid of the yellow countertops but kept her mother’s extra-deep sink. One bedroom serves as an office, a boon for a person who works from home.
“People told me that I’d feel isolated and unhappy,” Ms. Lowenthal said. “But my psychology is that wherever you go, you’ll have wonderful memories of your parents and sad memories of their later years. The memories aren’t built into a structure.”
Despite the lure of childhood homes, the attraction sometimes wears thin. This is what happened to Andrea Wolkenberg, a physical therapist who grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in the Wyoming, a French Renaissance-style building on Seventh Avenue at 55th Street. The century-old building was home to many people in the performing arts, and the apartment included such amenities as French doors and a maid’s room. But Ms. Wolkenberg had a complicated childhood. Her mother died when she was 10, and her father remarried seven years later.
Though she moved out after college, she returned in 1989, a year before her father’s death. “I decided to keep the apartment because of the size and the location,” said Ms. Wolkenberg, who is 54 and currently pays $3,700 in rent. “I was also dealing with my father’s stuff, and he was kind of a pack rat.”
Over the years, she grew increasingly attached to his many possessions, among them museum-quality paintings and a considerable library. But what kept her here was not just the generous square footage and a rent she managed through a succession of roommates. “It was emotional timidity,” Ms. Wolkenberg said. “If change were easy, everyone would do it.”
Over the years she watched with growing unhappiness as the building aged and the neighborhood became ever more deluged with tourists. Last April, she bought a one-bedroom co-op on Cabrini Boulevard in Upper Manhattan, for which she paid $320,000. She will move at the end of this month.
The prospect is exciting, daunting and bittersweet.
“I’m having to divest myself of so many possessions,” she said, “and there was a little of my dad in every one. I didn’t know where my dad ended and I began. But I’m now letting go of everything and it’s very freeing. I still don’t feel like a grown-up, but I think I’m moving forward. I know that when I leave, I will weep, but every day you have to kick the ball forward.
“I probably should have done this 20 years ago.”