A snug studio apartment in a tenement building in Alphabet City in the East Village served as our ‘home away from home’ in New York City. You know, those buildings you see in the movies with fire escapes snaking down the exterior. You don’t? Picture Audrey Hepburn strumming Moon River on her guitar on her fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Got it? Well, accommodation doesn’t get more New York than that!
When we first visited New York some 17 years or so ago, we stayed in a petite room at the Philippe Starck-designed, Ian Schrager-owned Paramount Hotel. We could barely get around the double bed and forget about being able to open our bags, but, hey, we saw Drew Barrymore saunter across the lobby, the bar blasted early Bowie, and the hotel staff wore black (rare in those days). What a special moment in travel history that was — the birth of the boutique hotel as we know it today. Aside from the teensy size rooms the only downside was the touristy Times Square location.
On another trip a couple of years later, we stayed with our friend Scott, a hip-hop producer-cum-jazz muso who lived in Williamsburg before the hipsters moved in and the neighbourhood became fashionable. In those days, taxi drivers asked us for extra money when they dropped us off at Scott’s. “We’re in Williamsburg!” they said in their heavy accents, “How are we going to get a ride back to Manhattan from here?!” My how things have changed.
Our experience on this, our third visit to NYC, took us back to those early stays in some ways. We weren’t sleeping on our friend’s couch this time, nor were we checking into a cool boutique hotel, but it was somehow something in between…
Until Lil, the owner of our building, moved us up to a three-room studio on the third floor that she had just finished renovating, our home for the first few days was a one-room, ground-floor studio. We couldn’t open our bags properly, though we could easily get around the bed, however, while the room may have been compact, it cost half that of an equivalent size space at the Paramount. It also had a kitchen and tables for each of us to work.
While the downstairs studio would be fine for if you’re travelling light and out most of the time, the light-filled studio upstairs was much more spacious and better-suited to a couple spending time in the place. We are working after all.
The style is eclectic shabby chic. Vintage furniture and fittings, such as a distressed wooden kitchen sideboard, sit comfortably beside vibrant striped cushions and rugs, and kitschy lampshades and shower curtains. There is fast Internet access and a big TV, and in the kitchen, there’s a big fridge, a decent stove, and enough pots and pans and other bits and pieces in case you fancy doing a bit of cooking. While the hallways are looking a bit tired, everything is scrubbed shiny and clean inside.
And while there are Schrageresque accommodations nearby, it would seem at odds to be checking into such flashy sleeps in a such a down-to-earth ’hood. The modesty of the digs themselves — which remind us of our old inner-city Sydney terrace houses we used to live in as university students with their chipped paint and worn carpets — are in keeping with the gritty vibe of the ’hood.
Whenever we meet New Yorkers, they inevitably ask our address. Initially a little taken aback with our choice of Alphabet City as a location, when they ask the nearest cross streets – “Oh, we’re between Avenue D and C,” we say — they nod their heads, clearly impressed with our selection.
Alphabet City — a section of the East Village identified as such due to the names of its streets, Avenue A, B, C and D — still has the edginess and authenticity that Williamsburg has lost. It also boasts a rich, colourful history that rivals that of any other ’hood. After all, this was the home of Bebop jazz, the Beat Generation and punk rock.
But for a while, it also happened to be one of New York City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, with drug dealers openly trading on the streets, gangs operating out of the projects, and Tompkins Square Park serving as a shanty town for the homeless.
Despite the East Village’s increasing, and generally unwelcome, gentrification — restaurants, bars, cafés, and boutiques line its streets — Alphabet City still has a local flavour and authenticity that you won’t find in other neighbourhoods. You’ll still see homeless people and the occasional druggie, and you probably don’t want to be walking down Avenue D too late at night (not everyone is going to feel comfortable here), but it’s a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone, and you probably wouldn’t find that in Williamsburg, and definitely not on Times Square.