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My Name Is Rebecca, And I Have A Problem

30 May

Obsession.  That is my problem.  Not like psycho-stalker obsession or addicted-to-drugs obsession.  It’s more of a Type-A, fixate-on-any-little-task-at-hand, make-myself-insane kind of obsession.  So, apartment hunting can really turn me into a crazy person.

Basically, my recent existence involves every moment of my spare time spent glued to my laptop.  I have so many apartment listings floating around in my brain that they are all turning into one giant glob of photos, addresses, brokers, costs, features….blehhhh.  Agent Owens is ready to throw this computer out the window, but I really feel like I have to give it my best shot at finding a more reasonably priced abode.  If there’s nothing better out there, oh well.  At least I will have given it the old college try.

Eventually, though, I do need to remove myself from the laptop long enough to eat.  So, yesterday, we used mealtime as an opportunity to go outside and get some fresh air.  There is a restaurant in our “backyard” called Merchant’s River House, and the reasonable prices, good food, waterfront dining, and proximity to home make this one of our most frequented eateries.  If you ever find yourself walking along the waterfront in Battery Park City, I would definitely recommend giving River House a try.

The problem for us, though, was that sitting outside in the finally-spring weather, feeling the breeze off the water, was a glaring reminder of why we love where we live.  In the winter, Battery Park can be brutal, due to the wind that blows up from the water.  Turn a corner and you’ll feel the blast of an Arctic-like chill.  However, during the spring and summer, you could not find a better spot to be, in NYC.

Along the promenade you will find…

Walkers, joggers, bikers, and rollerbladers.

A marina boasting beautiful yachts…

…and a sailing school

Parks for families and sun bathers,

Outdoor dining,

And even on the street-side of the buildings, there is a peaceful, almost suburban feel to the neighborhood.  I stood in the middle of the street to take this photo, without fear of being run over:

People walk their dogs and stop to chat:

They let their kids run around without holding tight to Mom or Dad’s hand, and they leave their puppies tied up in front of stores while they run in to get their groceries:

For all these reasons and more, Battery Park City has become one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city.  After working in midtown and battling crowds on the subway, there is a sense of serenity to coming home, here.  I’m still close to friends, bars, restaurants, shopping, and transportation, but when I walk up my street, I’m also a world away.

At one point, during my bellyaching about apartment hunting, Agent Owens reminded me that BPC is not going anywhere.  Goodness knows I move quite often, and if I ever find myself in a position to move back to this area, everything I love will still be here.  And who knows?  Maybe there’s another neighborhood that will be an even better fit for my lifestyle.

With that newfound positive outlook, I am back to the hunt.  You can find me glued to my computer, if you need me.

Images:  Rebecca for Happy City Living


Fight the Power

5 May

…yea, I don’t think renter woes were exactly what Chuck D and Flavor Flav were talking about.  Nonetheless, management companies and landlords are the powers that I’M fighting right now.

When I first started writing Happy City Living, I thought I’d only be telling stories that had happened to me and to my friends, in the past.  I thought it would be useful for folks to hear, after the fact, about classic city renter situations and to see how they could be handled or resolved.

However, Agent Owens and I recently found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of a VERY common situation for renters, and I thought it might be informative for other city dwellers to watch it all play out.  Here’s what’s going on…

We got an envelope in the mail a few days ago from the management company at The Gate, and it was the dreaded lease-renewal form.  Lease renewals can be unnecessarily frustrating. If landlords always renewed leases at a fair market price, the process might not cause so much agita, but let’s face it, real estate management is a business.  And in this city, it’s a booming business.  So, landlords do everything they can to squeeze all your money out of you, and “fair” flies out the window.

Nine times out of ten, your lease renewal form will show a higher rent than you paid under the terms of your previous lease.  Understandably, the landlord wants to earn more money in rent each year (even though you, as the tenant, probably wish you could pay less!).  This conundrum was the case with the renewal form we received here at The Gate.

When we moved into the apartment last year, the real estate market in the city was at quite a low point.  At the time, landlords were offering all kinds of incentives to entice new tenants.  So, even though The Gate is considered “luxury” (I could tell you a dozen NON-luxurious things about it, but that’s not the point of my current babble), we were able to afford to sign a lease here.

But now, the city is in an upswing, economically (a good thing, overall!), and up comes the real estate market!  So, even though we currently pay $1857 (the net-effective of a $2000/month rent with 1 month free, over a 14 month lease – if your brain just got befuddled, scroll down to the bottom of this post) for our studio apartment, we were suddenly staring at a much higher number when we scanned the new lease proposal.  How much higher, you ask?  Well, for a one-year lease, they offered $2200/month, and for a two-year lease they offered $2310.  These were our faces when we saw those numbers:

Theoretically, we were supposed cut a monthly check for $343-$453 MORE than we’ve been paying this past year.  The management office must have collectively bumped their heads.  Are they nuts?  Who can afford that kind of a price hike?????

So, what are our options?  I’m glad you asked.  Here they are:

  1. Accept the price.  (Oh, hell no)
  2. Move out.  (I really do NOT feel like moving everything we own, AGAIN, after just one year of living here)
  3. Fight the power. (Seeming like the only option)

I HATE negotiating.  Hate it.  Cannot stand it.  But here we are, backed into a corner.  We don’t want to move again so soon.  We love the neighborhood, and we love the apartment, itself.  However, we simply cannot afford the rent increase.  So, we really don’t have a choice – it’s negotiation or bust.  And since physically busting doesn’t sound so fun, I guess we’ll be negotiating.

Now, I’ve got to run off to try to explain in 10,000 words or less why Agent Owens and I deserve a lower rent.  Then, I have to call the management office, speak to someone about how I want to negotiate my rent, and send my sure-to-be-lengthy plea off to the leasing director via email.  Can you tell how excited I am about jumping into this process?  The excitement is literally oozing out of my pores.  Sike.

Stay turned for the top ten reasons why The Gate owes us a better rate.  (Rhyming.  Loves it.)

Oh, also, before I forget:

TIP!:  You might be wondering what I meant earlier when I mentioned our “net-effective rent.”  Basically, if a management company is leasing you an apartment and offering a free month, there are two payment options.  1.  Take the first month for free, and pay the full rent price for all the other months, or 2.  Divide the cost savings from that free month throughout the entire term of the lease.  Here is an equation for figuring out a net-effective rent:

full rent x (term of lease – free period) / term of lease = net effective

Our initial payments at The Gate were calculated like this: 

$2000 x 13 months / 14 months = $1857

Feel like you’re in 8th grade algebra?  And you thought those silly word problems would never come in handy!  If a train travels at 40 mph for 500 miles…ah memories.

Image:  Rebecca for Happy City Living

Video:  YouTube-kfidgs

The Sky Is Falling!

20 Apr

For the first 6 months that I lived in my Harlem apartment, I was happy as a clam.  I loved everything about the place (except the washer).  My bedroom was bathed in light and cooled with a cross-breeze, thanks to windows on two walls.  The living room and dining room were perfectly separated by the L shape of the main room.  The kitchen had brand new appliances.  And, during my morning shower, I could look out the bathroom window (which was actually IN the shower) and laugh at the people on the commuter train, coming over the train bridge outside the window, because they’d had to wake up WAYYY earlier than me.  Meanwhile, my commutation had been cut in half, since jumping the Sunset Park ship.  Yup, life was good.

Happy Rebecca, in her happy, holiday, Harlem home!

But December was fateful that year, for my home and me.  Well, for my bathroom, anyway.  See, I loved my bathroom.  I love bathrooms, in general (home ones, not public ones, of course).  A bathroom is the one place on earth where no one bothers you.  When you’re taking a shower or a bath, or even just sitting on the john, your time is your own.  No one is asking you for anything, and the world is at peace.  So, one morning in December I was merrily sticking my arm out the shower window to catch snowflakes when I noticed a crack on the ceiling above the showerhead.  Now, when I moved in I’d noticed that there had been a crack there in the past, and it had been spackled and painted.  I figured the issue was taken care of (Wrong wrong wrong!).

Not a great shot, but you can see the thin line where the crack was forming again. The other small lines were also cracks, but seemed less offensive.

Upon seeing that the crack was wack back, I called up my landlord, like a good tenant should, and I asked that someone come take a look at it.

TIP!:  If you notice any problems with your apartment, you should let the management company know ASAP.  This way, you will not be held accountable for the damage.  Anything that needs to be fixed, and was clearly not a tenant-caused problem, should be taken care of my the landlord right away.  One of the few benefits of being a renter is that someone else takes care of the electrical, plumbing, foundation, walls, floors, etc.  If YOU caused a problem (i.e. had a party and your friends tore the apartment to shreds), you must fix the damage.  In either scenario, the faster the fix, the better.

Before I go any further, I ought to give you an idea of the building management I was dealing with.  The ownership at Riverton has since changed, but back then, old Stellar Management was anything but stellar.

When I first called to submit a maintenance request, it took me about four tries to actually get the right person on the phone.  Then, that person told me they’d schedule the maintenance crew to come up the following morning.  Theoretically, the maintenance staff began their day at 8:00 AM, and I was to be their first stop.  However, they didn’t make it up to my apartment that day.  And at 9:00, after several calls to the unresponsive management company, I was officially super late for work.  I had to bail.

So I called Stellar again at lunch.  They apologized and said a guy would be up there “first thing” the next morning.  That next day, he showed up just as I was getting ready to jump ship again, right before 9:00.  The guy who came to look at the situation told me it just needed some spackle and paint.  In my brain, I was thinking, “If the last spackle-and-paint job didn’t do the trick, how will this one be any different?”  But I was running late and just wanted the whole thing to be done with.  So we set up yet another appointment (of course the maintenance man who evaluated the problem was not capable of FIXING the problem on that day), and someone came up to take care of the crack.

Fast forward to January, and the crack showed up again.  At first I thought to myself, “Oh well, they can’t seem to fix it and it’s not bothering me, so I’ll just live with it.”  But then it grew.  And grew.  And grew.  And then pieces of the ceiling started crumbling down into the bathtub.  So, I called my friends down in the management office, and they sent someone up again.  In case you were wondering, he showed up late, of course.  He told me the issue was likely stemming from the old pipes in the bathroom upstairs (“NO!  You don’t say!”).  The problem was that we then had to coordinate getting into the apartment above mine.

Getting bigger...

Thar she grows!!!!!  The ceiling begins to crumble.

You can see where this might get messy.  It was hard enough for these guys to work around my schedule.  Now, we’re supposed to accommodate someone else’s schedule too?  But then a little God-send came along, in the form of my friend, Spike.  Spike was the one guy on that maintenance team who made sure I was taken care of.  Any time he was assigned to do work at my apartment, it was done right.  Unfortunately, he was not always assigned to me and my bathroom troubles.  Boo hiss.

I’ll spare you the ceiling-repair-debacle details that spanned the next year and a half (!!!!!) of my Harlem life.  Rest assured, that year and a half was full of inconveniences, yelling at people over the phone on my lunch breaks, taking days off from work while repairs were being done, etc.  Overall, it was an extremely unpleasant process.  The management company just did not seem to value my time at all, which was beyond frustrating.

In the end, it was decided that we’d need to jack hammer out most of my ceiling, above the shower.  It was quickly discovered that the whole ceiling was soaked, which made the repair process even slower, since we were always waiting for sections of the material to dry before they can be patched.  Try drying out a ceiling above a SHOWER.

On jack-hammer days, my entire bathroom was splattered with the brown/black gook that came out of the old clogged pipes and bits of rotted plaster/insulation.  Apparently, when my apartment had been renovated the year before, the maintenance team had recommended that Stellar open up the ceilings, replace the old trap pipes (about 60 years old), and put in door for future ease of access to pipe issues.  The people in charge said no.

Note the shmutz on the floor. This was the scene in my bathroom one day during the "repairs."

Here's the hole that remained once the pipe was changed out. You can also make out all the water stains that appeared once maintenance tore away layers of the ceiling. Did they leave the ceiling this way, and did little bits of crap continue to fall onto my head while I was showering, for months? Why, yes!

When the guys pulled out the old pipe, there were holes and leaks all over it.  What should have been about a 2-inch diameter pipe was clogged so badly that the space for water to pass through was about the diameter of my pinky finger.  They replaced the trap and actually put in an access door for future issues.  However, there were obviously problems with other sections of the old pipes  (which were left in place) because even after the access door was installed, drips continued to fall from that area.

Shortly thereafter, I moved out.

There is always a chance of problems occurring within your apartment.  And, as a renter, you’re paying the landlord that monthly rent check to take care of those problems.  What I would recommend, having been through this ceiling debacle, is that you document EVERYTHING.  Log all the calls you make to the management company, the visits (or missed-appointments) from maintenance workers, any time you had to miss work, and any money that you lost because of the situation.  Take photos of everything, too.

When all was said and done, I let the management company know that I was not happy at all with the way things were handled, and they gave me 1/2 month of free rent.  This made me feel a little bit better and made for one nice month after all the hassle.

Be a smart renter, and stand up for yourself.

Anyone else have an ongoing apartment problem?  Did it get taken care of?  Were you compensated?

Images:  All Rebecca for Happy City Living

Moroccan Oasis: Kiosk

17 Apr

While we’re talking about Harlem, I have to tell you a little bit about my food situation while living uptown.  I love soul food, and I love Caribbean food.  I could eat either of those for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And, I did so for quite some time while living at Riverton.  My favorite spots were Miss Maude’s, Margie’s Red Rose Diner, Sister’s Cuisine, Under D Tree, Louise’s Family Restaurant, and Edmond’s Cafe (the last two of which have since closed).  However….my waistline hated me because I’m the kind of girl who can’t leave one single bite on my plate.  Plus, Agent Owens got sick of my constant suggestions that we go somewhere for dinner where I could order meatloaf or fried chicken, with cornbread, collard greens, and mac & cheese.  When I tried to interject that I’d be willing to eat something else, he’d say, “And no brown stew chicken or beef patties!”  What can I say?  I like what I like.  Still, I understood his desire to branch out.

Margie's Red Rose Diner, one of my Harlem standards.

Now, there are PLENTY of places to get a good non-soul-food/non-Caribbean-food meal in Harlem.  The problem is this:  “Harlem” actually refers to a huge area of Manhattan.  It’s not a neighborhood in the same way that Battery Park City is a neighborhood (small and compact).  “Harlem” is one of those all-encompassing terms that actually includes many smaller sub-neighborhoods.  And the struggle in our household was to find non-soul-food/non-Caribbean-food places to add to our restaurant repertoire, within the parts of Harlem that we frequented.  This usually ranged from 116th St (where our gym was) to 135th St (where our apartment was), and it spanned from Lenox Ave to Lexington Ave.  We had friends who lived in Hamilton Heights and down in the lower part of Spanish Harlem (see this map for a layout of these areas), so we did sometimes branch out to other parts of Harlem.  However, when we started feeling hungry and searched for restaurants within our stomping grounds, they were few and far between.

I should take a minute to mention that since we’ve moved away, many new restaurants have opened up in our old area.  For example, there is a new Applebees on 125th and 5th; there’s a French spot called Chez Lucienne on 125th and Lenox; and Top Chef, Marcus Samuelsson, recently opened his American fare restaurant, Red Rooster, also on 125th and Lenox.

But back to my point.  I did, in fact, find a place in Harlem that remains one of my all-time city favorites.  While I was milling around on MenuPages (my NYC food go-to) I stumbled across a Moroccan eatery called Kiosk.  The menu looked good, and the prices were right (entrees in the $15 range).  Plus, it was getting good reviews from diners.  So, one evening after finishing up at the gym, down on 116th, I convinced Agent Owens we should try it out for dinner.

Kiosk Restaurant and Lounge

You might not notice Kiosk, even if you walked right past it.  It is located in the midst of a number of other storefronts on busy 116th Street, between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue.  You’re just not expecting to find sit-down restaurants on that block.  But let me tell you, you SHOULD go in and sit down.

When you go inside, you’ll find a cozy and inviting dining room, divided into two parts.  There is a front area that looks out onto the street, and has the added benefit of a nice breeze in the warmer months, when the windows are opened onto the sidewalk.  There is a bar behind the tables where you can belly-up for a drink and a chat with Kiosk’s owner or their wonderful waiter/bartender.  The restaurant’s “divider” is a raised seating area, where small groups lounge and relax, puffing on hookah.  If you continue to the back of the establishment, you’ll find a newly-expanded rear seating area perfect for larger groups or romantic twosomes.  The whole interior features walls covered with hand-drawn North African murals.  Colorful paints and fabrics peek out through the dim lighting, and Moroccan music floats through the air while you dine.

The only things better than the atmosphere at Kiosk are the delicious food and the owner of the neighborhood gem, Mounir Najd.  From the minute you walk in the door, he makes you feel like he is inviting you into his own home.  And it is that welcoming vibe that keeps you coming back.

Mounir, the owner, and my Dad.

But on to what you really want to know about:  the food!  I’m going to just go ahead and say that you cannot go wrong here.  Anything you order is going to be delicious.  Since finding Kiosk a few years ago, I’ve brought my entire family and many friends to try it out for themselves.  What can I say?  I’m Italian.  My hobbies are feeding people delicious food and then hearing them tell me how delicious it is.  Kiosk never fails me in that respect.  Everyone I’ve introduced to the place has raved about the food and the ambiance.  At this point, my parents are completely obsessed with Kiosk, too.  They come down to East Harlem from Connecticut for dinner about once a month, and they’ve brought numerous friends along.  Everyone has their favorite dishes.  So, here’s the rundown.

For appetizers, we always choose the Middle Eastern Platter, which includes hummus, babaganoush, taboule, and toasted pita.  The hummus and babaganoush have the perfect texture, and the taboule is the best I’ve ever had – fresh tasting and loaded with cucumber.  We also order the Goat Cheese Arugula Salad (try this even if you’re not a huge fan of goat cheese – the cheese is mild and melts in your mouth) and the Garlic Shrimp in zesty citrus sauce.  I love shrimp, but it is the sauce that makes this starter so irresistible.  It is FULL of garlicky goodness and has the perfect amount of citrus tang.  Soaking up that sauce with warm pita makes you feel like you could go home happy, even before your entrée arrives.

For the main course, my personal favorite has always been the Seafood Couscous.  It features either salmon or tilapia on a bed of the fluffiest couscous, with perfectly cooked vegetables and a delicate broth on the side.   This past week, I branched out and tried the Lamb Couscous, which was equally sumptuous.  For those who can’t make up their minds, the restaurant also serves a Couscous Royale, which includes lamb, chicken, and fish.  It is technically offered as a special, but it can be ordered just about any night of the week.  The beauty of this small eatery is that they’re always willing to go the extra mile to make food just the way you like it.

The staple meal for my parents is the frequently-offered special of Pastilla:  savory lamb in a puff-pastry, seasoned with cinnamon and Moroccan spices.  We arrived for a late-night meal once and I thought my mom and dad might duke it out over the one remaining Pastilla that the kitchen had left.  Aunt Betty loves the Lamb Kabob, which is served with saffron rice and tzatziki sauce.  She always asks for some of that delectable taboule on the side, and they always oblige.  Several other family members regularly select the Lamb Shank Tajine, which practically falls off the bone.  And last Thursday, when my parents and I introduced my friends, Henry and Bernie, to Kiosk I drooled over my mom’s Kofta Tajine – minced lamb and beef that sits in the most delicious Moroccan tomato sauce.

When the meal is over, Mounir brings out dessert.  Depending on the night, you could be staring down at a mouth-wateringly good brownie, the most heavenly strawberry shortcake known to man, or whatever else the Kiosk kitchen has whipped up.  No matter.  You will not be disappointed.  The dessert also typically includes Moroccan herbal tea, with just the right amount of sweetness.  The tea is poured from a beautiful metal pot, into traditional Moroccan tea glasses, and it is divine.  The perfect way to end a perfect meal – every time.

I should point out that Kiosk is also a lounge.  Agent Owens and I like to spend our Friday nights going out for dinner, so that’s how we stumbled across this local hotspot.  But if you prefer a happy hour cocktail or some midnight hookah, Kiosk can deliver that, too.  Some Saturday nights they even spice things up with belly dancing.

So, if you’re living in the East Harlem area, looking for a neighborhood hangout, or if you just want a reasonably priced, delicious meal, stop in and give Kiosk a try.  I can promise you a great meal and a great experience.  Tell Mounir I sent you.  Then come back here and tell me what you had and how much you loved it.  Happy eating in East Harlem!

Images:  (1), All others Rebecca for Happy City Living

Schmutz and Grime Could Save a Dime

12 Apr

This past weekend I found something gross in my apartment.  But I think the find will save me some money.

Confused yet?

I was cleaning my apartment and noticed some dust hanging out of our heater/AC unit.  So, I vacuumed what I could see, and it seemed to just keep producing more dust bunnies.  Clearly, I would need to dig deeper, here.  I couldn’t see a way to remove the front panel of the unit, at first glance, so I sat down to inspect the whole machine.  Eventually, I discovered that there were two plastic pieces I could pull up to reveal…filters.

The secret, hidden filters in my heater/AC unit.

The filters were CAKED in dust and lint.  I was over-anxious to vacuum that sh*t up, which I did before I thought to take a photo.  You’ll have to trust me that it was disgusting.  The dust was ½ to ¾ inch thick and it was truly gummed up on that filter.  DIS-GUS-TING.  I hate to think what we were all breathing in.

The cleaned filter panel. Picture this COVERED in a half inch of fluffy lint and dust. Yuck.

I’d always heard that cleaning your AC filter could save some money on your electric bill, but I had no idea just how nasty these filters could get.  Mine looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years.  The rewarding thing was that the second I vacuumed the filter, we noticed a heat efficiency difference right away.  The heater, which is normally pretty worthless (aside from racking up costly bills), suddenly warmed up the room in minutes.  The room became so hot, in fact, that we had to turn the darned thing off.

So, I tell you this:  as a renting tenant in NYC, we scrounge to save every penny.  You can save a LOT of pennies by vacuuming out the filter in your heating/AC unit.  It’s like finding change in the couch – except now you’re finding DOLLAR BILLS in the heating and cooling device.  No one – NO ONE – throws away dollar bills.  Seriously (like Mer, from Grey’s Anatomy, would say).  Seriously.  Just do it.  Clean your filter, and save some bones.  (Mom, “bones” is slang for money.)

Pull up; reveal fiters

Ok?  Happy money saving!

Anyone out there could have an air conditioner that needs cleaning.  However, the heating part of this post is only for tenants who have electric heat.  If you have steam heat or old-fashioned radiators, you really shouldn’t be paying heating bills at all.  Only tenants with electric heat should pay a heating bill!  If you do have an old radiator and it seems to be inefficient, the valves may be installed incorrectly.  See my post here about my Sunset Park heating nightmares.  If you’re freezing your butt off, but you can hear your heater working as hard as it possibly can, check in with your landlord.  Suggest that they call in a plumber.  You have a right to a heated apartment, and the landlord could earn himself a lower heating bill.  Everyone wins!

Images:  All images Rebecca for Happy City Living

I Like the Way You Move

10 Apr

Last week, I told you about my first real city moving experience here.  I explained that in my humble opinion there were really three options when moving in the city.  I strung you along with the first two obvious, but sucky, options.  And I promised that if you came back I’d share the real key to moving success and happiness.

Ok, here it is.  Here is the secret to painless moving days in New York City.  Drum roll, please…Mr. Wong!

Oh you didn’t get that?

Not what you were expecting me to say?  Well, trust me, Mr. Wong was not what I was expecting, either.

You’ll hear me mention my friend, Gail, from time to time.  The reason, simply put, is that Gail knows people.  Not like celebrity people (at least I don’t think she knows celebrity people, but maybe she does).  What I mean is that if you mention ANYTHING to Gail, she will inevitably know someone who has something to do with the topic you broached.  Literally.  Any topic.  She’ll know someone who can help you out or hook you up.

So, when I mentioned that I was moving from my Harlem apartment last year, Gail said I had to call Mr. Wong.  I thought she was nuts.  Let’s be realistic here, I had a lot of crap belongings packed into my 1BR in Harlem.  And here she was telling me that some middle-aged Asian dude was going to get ‘er done.  Can you hear my skepticism?  What convinced to go ahead and try Mr. Wong was that Gail had used him the last THREE times she’d moved!  So, I knew he must be good.

I’ve never looked back.

My pile of crap on moving day. This is actually at the new place. Everything was gone so fast from the old place, that there wasn't even time for photos.

Now, let me tell you about Mr. Wong, the urban moving guru.  Do not be fooled by the fact that he is middle aged and fairly non-intimidating in stature.  The man has bullish strength.  He works with one other guy, who is equally freakishly strong for his size, and they get your move done in a fraction of the time it should realistically take.

Here is the Wong process:

  1. Call (718) 888-7743 and ask for Vivian.  If she doesn’t answer, just leave a message, and she’ll call you back.  When you speak with her, she’ll ask about your moving date and time, and she’ll have you give her a rundown of everything you’ll be moving (furniture items, quantity of boxes, etc.).  She’ll then give you a quote, and she’ll call to check in with you a week or so prior to the move.
  2. On moving day, be ready early.  Gail had told me that she was caught in her PJs without having had a chance to take a shower, when Mr. Wong showed up at her door the first time.  I assumed this meant that he’d be at my place 15-20 minutes early.  However, on my moving day, I was booked for a 10:00 AM start, and Mr. Wong arrived around 9:15.  Seriously.  Be ready.
  3. Mr. Wong will come inside and survey everything, to plan his attack.  He’ll have you sign off on the initial quote, and then…it begins.
  4. Stand back and watch in utter amazement. Mr. Wong and his partner will get everything set up so that they can begin their assembly line.  Basically, Mr. Wong packs everything onto dollies or into carts and brings it downstairs.  Then, his partner grabs the load from him, hands over an empty dolly or cart, and packs everything onto the truck.  Despite the fact that I had about a 2BR’s worth of stuff crammed into my 1BR (and some of it wasn’t packed very well…oops), the moving OUT part of my moving day (granted, I was moving out of an elevator building) was completed in under 2 hours!
  5. Please note that legally, Mr. Wong cannot drive you to your new location.  So, make sure you plan a way to get to your new digs.
  6. When it was time for the move IN part of my moving day, I had a scheduled 3-hour block of time to use the service elevator – noon to 3:00 PM.  When we arrived, the couple that had the 9:00 AM – noon slot was running late.  Mr. Wong was concerned that we might lose time because someone else was still using the elevators, but he reluctantly agreed to share until the couple was done.  The plan was just the opposite of the move-out.  This time, Mr. Wong’s partner would take everything off the truck and pack it onto the dollies and carts.  Then, Mr. Wong would take the pile upstairs and off-load into the new apartment.  Again, they moved like a well-oiled machine.  Even with jockeying for elevator position, Mr. Wong had everything moved into my new place before 1:30!!!!!  The other couple’s moving team continued to use our remaining elevator time for the next hour and a half.  Man, was I a happy camper to be on Team Wong.
Midway through the move-in.

Since the move-in finished at 1:30, I had time to go back to Harlem, clean the old place before inspection, and start unpacking at the new apartment. Still, several hours into unpacking, the place was FULL of stuff. Have you ever heard the saying about 10 lbs of sugar going into a 5 lb bag? I had 10 lbs.

I guess I should give you some financial details of this move, rather than just saying it was a good deal.  My initial quote from Vivian was $385 to move everything I owned.  As I was beginning to pack a few weeks later, I realized I had about double the quantity of boxes that I’d originally estimated.  So, I panicked and called Vivian to tell her.  She gave me a new quote of $420, which was fine with me.  Looking back now, I highly doubt that it would have been a problem had I not called to change the item list, and I really don’t think Mr. Wong would have charged me anything extra on the spot.  However, I felt better having accurately portrayed my move, and the Wongs were worth every penny.

Having done a DIY move in the city once before, I knew how much time and aggravation the Wongs had saved me.  I was almost giddy as I heard the man say “this is the last of the boxes.”  I was so happy, in fact, that I gave them a $100 tip and gushingly told Mr. Wong that I’d call him any time I ever moved, ever again, and I’d tell my friends how amazingly, wonderfully, spectacular he was.  He sweetly listened to my rambling and then rushed off to do two more scheduled moves that same day.

And so, my interweb friends, I’m passing the good word along.  Call Mr. Wong.  You can thank me later.  And I’ll pass the “thank you” along to Gail.

Got any good moving stories?  Any other un-insured but unbeatable city movers you know?  Share them in the comments section so that others can share in the splendor of an easy move.  Cheers to that!


Note:  I have not been compensated in any way for this post.  I simply had a great experience with these movers, which I wanted to share.

Images:  All images Rebecca for Happy City Living.

Video:  YouTube

How Happy is the Living?…in Sunset Park

5 Apr

After barraging you with tales of my first apartment in Sunset Park, I figured it would be appropriate to provide a neighborhood recap.  At the bottom of this post, I’ll link you to some overall neighborhood profiles, but here’s how I felt about the place after a one-year stint in this corner of Brooklyn…

The Ups

Maybe the best feature of the neighborhood of Sunset Park is the actual park itself.  When I lived in the area, a few years back, my favorite thing to do was bring a bottle of wine and a blanket to the grassy hill and watch the city skyline in the distance, turn pink.  The park features winding bench-lined paths, playgrounds, lush grass and trees, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and the most beautiful view.  If you head over to watch the sunset on any given evening, you’ll find families kicking around soccer balls, dogs dozing in the grass next to their owners, and couples sharing in the romantic atmosphere that dusk brings.  You’ll experience a certain peace that is not common in a bustling city.

Sunset Park at dusk

The streets of the neighborhood initially drew me in.  Brownstones line each block, and most of them come with my coveted apartment feature:  the stoop.  While the avenues tend to be busy and traffic-filled, the streets are quiet and almost suburban in feel.  Neighbors know each other, and I was most often awakened on weekend mornings by the hammers and drills of homeowners, rather than sirens or honking.

Another notable plus of Sunset Park is the cultural feel that you get the second you step off the train.  There is a big difference between this neighborhood and it’s adjoining, predominantly waspy area of Park Slope.  My friend, Gail, who once also lived in Sunset Park, told me she was the whitest white girl for miles when she lived on 46th Street.  So was I.  In a New York Times article from two decades ago, the writer says that when you arrive in Sunset Park, you feel like you should have brought your passport. 20 years later the neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic and Chinese, but the melting pot feeling still comes through.  The alluring smell of Puerto Rican food draws you up the blocks, Mexican music plays on an almost consistent basis, Chinatown engulfs 8th Avenue, and the grid from the Prospect Expressway to 65th Street is peppered with eateries ranging from Italian to Eastern European to Vietnamese cuisine.

5th Avenue & 48th Street in Sunset Park

For renters, the apartments are large and affordable, and if you like the pre-war style of apartment, Sunset Park is the place to be.  Rent is much lower than SP’s Park Slope and Bay Ridge neighbors.  The cost of living is also low, with grocery stores, restaurants, and shops priced considerably lower than their Manhattan counterparts.

The Downs

The real estate world will tell you that Sunset Park is a “quick 30-minute subway ride to Union Square.”  In the spirit of honesty, let me give you a more realistic picture of your potential commute, if you move to SP.   That 30-minute subway ride is an estimate from the time you step foot onto an express train.  Train service is Brooklyn (and all the outer boroughs) is slower than it is in Manhattan, nine times out of ten.  Where you might take the B, D or F train in Manhattan, the lines split in Brooklyn, and you find that your apartment is really only near one of those three trains.  Additionally, factor in a long-ish walk from apartment to train station, and a damning hill if you live near 5th or 6th Avenues.  Plus, there is no guarantee that you’ll live close to the express subway stops.  Local lines present an even slower mode of transportation – I would know.

The N train, which runs through Sunset Park

My commute to work took about an hour at peak times (I went from the 48th Street R train, to the 36th Street express N or D, back to the local R or W from Union Square to 28th Street in Manhattan).  At night, coming home could take up to an hour and a half or more, if service was slow.  Getting to friends’ houses uptown was regularly an hour and a half travel.  This also meant my friends were not eager to trek out to my place (a bummer for someone who likes to entertain).

One other downside for me was that when I walked home at night (I used to work at a record label and come home quite late from concerts in the city) the streets were often deserted.  I tend to be pretty cautious about the routes I take to walk home, staying on main streets and avenues so that I’m walking amongst people at all times.  I like to avoid dark side streets.  However, that wasn’t really possible in Sunset Park.  The side streets (like the one my house was on) are extremely quiet, and my imagination would run wild as I walked up my block each night, always expecting someone to jump out of the bushes at me (I worry about this type of thing in the quaint little West Village in Manhattan, too).  It never happened, but I learned that ideally, I like busier areas of town, where people are out as late as I am.  Sunset Park is very much a family neighborhood.  In the early evening, commuters and workers head on home, and by later in the night, there are only a few stragglers left on the street.  If I had followed the advice I offered in a previous post, I would have visited the neighborhood at night and realized that my neighbors were all on a completely different life schedule than me.

Finally, while Sunset Park offers the conveniences that you’d need for day-to-day life (banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, shopping, food, and recreation are all within walking distance), it does not always offer the little luxuries that one becomes accustomed to in Manhattan, for better or for worse.  For instance, the grocery stores tend to carry food used Hispanic cuisine.  As someone who cooks mainly Italian dishes, it was impossible for me to find Romano cheese.  There are also no Starbucks or little coffee shops anywhere near the area where I lived, and upscale shopping and dining is pretty much non-existant.  But, in truth, if you’re a Starbucks fiend with a penchant for fancy restaurants, you probably wouldn’t want move out to SP anyway.  It’s the kind of neighborhood where the best idea is to enjoy what is offered, because the offerings are quite unique.  And, there’s no need to speed up the impending gentrification of the area, which will surely eventually take over much of what makes Sunset Park special.

My mom and me, enjoying one of the great features of Sunset Park.

The Decision

I really struggled with writing this post.  My first inclination was to conclude, as I had when I left Sunset Park, that the neighborhood was not for me.  But, as I’ve written the posts over the past week or so, I quickly remember all the great things about my time there.  In the end, I’d have to say that Sunset Park was not the best neighborhood for a 22-year-old, right out of college, with all her friends in Manhattan, and with a habit of coming home late.  That said, I think that as I get older, SP is the type of neighborhood that becomes more appealing.  I do love the park and the diversity and the peace and the space.  And, now, my friends are older and dispersed all throughout the 5 boroughs, so I wouldn’t be the only one living “way out.”  Now, I work 9-5.  I enjoy being at home in the evenings and walking around my neighborhood on the weekends – and Sunset Park is a great place for these walks.

If I ever do move back to Sunset Park, I will certainly do my best to experience more of what the neighborhood had to offer.  I didn’t make great use of the local markets (on the Hispanic side of town or the Chinese side of town) that put Whole Foods to shame.  I didn’t eat enough “street meat” – what’s better than inexpensive, delicious empanadas?  I didn’t try enough little restaurants in the area, and I didn’t go to the neighborhood’s bowling alley, Melody Lanes (in fairness, I also had no money at this point in my life).  If I moved back, I’d try to spend less time running back to Manhattan and more time enjoying my surroundings.

A local empanada vendor in Sunset Park

That said, plenty of people HAVE made great use of their time in Sunset Park, and if you’re considering a life there, you should certainly check out the following links to articles and great photos:

Have you been to Sunset Park?  What did you think of the neighborhood?  Would you choose to live there (again)?

Images:  (1) Rebecca for Happy City Living, (2) Bridge and Tunnel Club, (3) Huffington Post, (4) Rebecca for Happy City Living, (5) Sunset Park Chronicled

The Good, The Bad, and The Smelly

1 Apr

My very first apartment, in Sunset Park, was a great place to live for a lot of reasons.  As I’ve said before, I loved the apartment itself even when I moved out.  You saw all the space I had – a bedroom, an office, a catch-all room.  Plus, there was the bay window and, of course, my beloved stoop.  Nearly every spring, summer, and fall day that I spent in that apartment, I could be found sitting out on my stoop with a beer after work.  Speaking of beers and stoops…I thought I’d share a story about a sticky predicament my old co-worker, Kimber, was in, a couple of years ago.  Read this NY Times piece on that principled debacle.

This is Kimber, on his stoop, where he was ticketed for drinking. He fought the case, arguing that he was on his own property, and the cause-celebre made him the man of the hour with beer-drinking-stoop-sitters throughout the borough of Brooklyn.

I was certainly on Team Kimber in this debate!  Sitting on a stoop feels like an inherently Brooklyn thing.  When you’re there, it just seems right.  It was relaxing, and I liked to just sit and watch the world go by.  Of course, I’d also chat with neighbors and passers-by.  But one person I did NOT chat with was Dorothy.

Since I’m not still living in Sunset Park, you may have guessed that there were some major drawbacks to my living situation.  Hiking up the hill on the way home was no fun.  Navigating my way down the hill in the mornings, especially in the ice and snow, was even less fun.  As for the apartment itself, there wasn’t too much to complain about.  Yes, it was old.  Yes, the outlets were badly placed, resulting in a bird’s nest of cords and cables around the TV and computer.  And yes, the kitchen was completely separated from the rest of the apartment, making it a challenge to talk with company when entertaining.  However, none of those points were deal breakers.  The deal breaker was my little old Chinese landlady (I lived on the border of the Brooklyn Chinatown), Dorothy.

This typical Sunset Park street doesn't look steep, but photos can be deceptive. Try this hill in heels, and then come talk to me.

As a first time renter, with my parents backing me as a guarantor, I was extremely nervous about doing anything “wrong” with regards to the apartment.  You’re probably sitting there thinking “Honey, ya don’t live in a dorm room anymore.   There are no RA’s.  This is your HOME!”  And you’re right.  But I’m a rule-follower, and at the time, I was nervous.  So, when Dorothy initially seemed to be “monitoring” my lifestyle, I’d get myself all worked up in a tizzy with anxiety.  Well, let me tell you:  by the end of my year in Sunset Park, I wasn’t in a tizzy anymore.  I was flat out pissed.

The first problem with Dorothy was that she’d seem to wait by the door and run out into our shared entryway when I came into the building.  And then, the interrogations would begin.  Picture a chubby old Asian lady, with a sourpuss on her face (always) and a thick accent, shuffling out of her apartment in sweats and slippers.

Example 1:

  • D:  “Do you have another girl living upstairs?”
  • R:  “No, Dorothy, my friend from out of town just spent the night last night.”
  • D:  “Are you sure?”
  • R:  SERIOUSLY? “Yes, I’m sure.”
  • D:  “Bye.” (hurries back into the house)

Example 2:

  • D:  “You left early this morning.”
  • R:  “Yes.”
  • D:  “You’re coming home late now tonight.”
  • R:  “Yes.”
  • D:  “…”  (blinks at me)
  • R:  “Ok, see you later!” (runs upstairs as fast as humanly possible)

See what I mean?  She literally monitored my comings and goings.  And, I was too nervous and naïve to put her in her place.

I still believe, also, that she went into my apartment when I wasn’t there.  I never walked in on this, but once or twice I came home to find my apartment door unlocked.  Locking the door is something I’m fanatical about, and call me crazy, but my home just felt like someone had been in it.  Creepy and rude.  Oh, and illegal.

To make matters worse, I once left my keys at work (an hour away) by accident, and when I knocked on Dorothy’s door to ask if I could borrow her key, she said she didn’t have one.  She’s the landlady.  It’s her home, and she DOES have a key.

TIP!: As a renter, you are your landlord’s TENANT.  You are not a guest in their home.  The apartment is YOUR home, so long as you’re under a lease and paying rent.  You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, play Spanish Inquisition with your landlord or building-super, as long as you are clean, quiet, minding your own business, and not doing anything illegal (basically, adhering to the terms of your lease).

TIP!: The only time your landlord can enter your house without your permission is if the police come looking for you, or if something hazardous, like a fire, is occurring in the building.  Any other “check-ins” should be scheduled ahead of time and agreed upon.

Dorothy’s second annoying habit (after meddling/hovering), was that she would cook food that smelled horrific, and the odor would completely permeate my apartment.  Now, let’s get one thing straight.  I love food – ALL kinds of food.  I’ve traveled around the world, and there is nothing that’s too weird for me to try.  But whatever Dorothy was cooking smelled like fried moldy greens.  Most people who visited me at the apartment can attest to the smells – they induced gagging.  And, to add insult to injury, the rest of my neighborhood smelled like delectable Spanish food, as I’d walk up the street at dinnertime (Sunset Park is about 99.9% Hispanic, except for the streets that border Chinatown).  Fair?  No.

The final and biggest problem with Dorothy was that she deprived me of heat for an entire winter.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In the cold of winter, the only heat my apartment got was the residual heat rising from her home below me.  The average indoor temperature at my place was 53 degrees.  I walked around bundled in blankets and fleece sweatshirts, and my guests kept their coats on when they visited.

No, that is not legal.  NYC (I later learned) has strict guidelines for landlords.  After a certain date, if the temperature drops below a given level, your landlord must provide heat.   More to come on 311 in future posts.

The magic number for New Yorker advice.

Now, in fairness to Dorothy, she THOUGHT she was providing heat.  Her thermostat was on.  However, in fairness to me, I told the old hag 15 times that I was frozen and the apartment was not heating up!  She even came up one time to “see for herself”.  She touched the radiator, said “Oh, that’s cold,” and left.  You don’t say!

I insisted that I thought there was likely a problem with the heating system.  The entryway near her apartment was warm!  The heat just wasn’t making its way up to me.  Finally, I told her I was going to be calling a plumber myself and that she should expect to receive the bill.  What a surprise when the plumber found that Dorothy had put on the wrong valves, so that NO HEAT WAS ABLE TO COME THROUGH!  Additionally, he told her that the thermostat in her apartment was incorrectly situated.  Basically, she’d created a situation where she was roasting in her apartment (and paying a ton in heating bills), but she was not actually heating my apartment at all.  And this continued, all the way through until March, when I finally couldn’t take it anymore and called that plumber, because she didn’t want to pay someone to come look at the system.

My radiators' cousins.

At the end of the whole heating debacle, Dorothy huffed past me in the hallway and groused “I’m not renewing your lease.  You complain too much.”  Riiiiiiight.

I wish I could say my situation with Dorothy was unique.  However, the more people I meet who live in buildings owned by single landlords, the more I see how common Dorothy’s behavior is.  My dad tells me this is just the way old ladies are with their homes – they want (or need) the rent money, but they still want to control everything that goes on in “their house”.  Apparently, my great-grandmother was an equally incorrigible  landlady at times!

Still, that does not make it right.  Stand your ground as a tenant.  In considering your new place, it is smart to weigh the options of choosing a building run by a management company, versus a single owner.  There are pluses and minuses to both options, but I can assure you this:  by the time I left Dorothy, I’d sworn off single landlords for good.

Ok, somebody regale me with a good landlord/tenant story, in the comment section.  There are sooo many of these tales out there!  Life as a renter.



Images:  (1) The New York Times, (2) Time Out New York Kids, (3) 311, (4) Portland Salvage