Renters: Another Month, Another Neighborhood



Another Month, Another Neighborhood

Before landing on the Upper West Side, a family from Germany spent a year moving around New York City.

Christina Horsten and Felix Zeltner, journalists from Germany, spent a year moving to a new neighborhood every month.CreditCreditRobert Wright for The New York Times

Christina Horsten and Felix Zeltner tried not to panic when they were hit with a $400 rent hike on their Park Slope, Brooklyn, apartment in 2016, and realized they would have to move for the second time in two years.

But rather than despair about the unanticipated upheaval, they hit upon an unconventional idea: Why not embrace the disruption and move to a new neighborhood every month for a year?

The more they thought about it, the more sense it made. Since Ms. Horsten’s work as a journalist for German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur had brought them to New York in 2012, she and Mr. Zeltner, a freelance journalist and a founder of Work Awesome, a company that organizes conferences, trips and workshops, had both loved the long days they spent exploring far-flung corners of the city.

Moving to a new neighborhood every month would be something of a logistical nightmare, especially with their toddler, Emma, in tow, but it might also transform an unavoidable hassle into an adventure.

“And then the weekly FaceTime call with our parents came up, and the responses were not so good. They hated the idea,” Mr. Zeltner said.

“But all our New York friends loved it,” Ms. Horsten said. And a friend’s generous offer of a free month in a Long Island City, Queens, loft building that he owned tipped the scales in favor of the experiment.

The family pared down their possessions to little more than a few large boxes and pieces of furniture — which they would store at the Long Island City building for the year — and took along one suitcase each and a milk crate of toys for Emma.

“My favorite day was when we got rid of all the stuff in our Park Slope apartment,” Mr. Zeltner said. “In Park Slope, there’s this culture of putting things out on the stoop. In one year, we’d ended up with so many things.”

Ms. Horsten added: “We put it all back out on our stoop, and it disappeared in minutes. It was so liberating.”

Long Island City charmed them, so much so that as the end of the month neared they wondered if maybe they shouldn’t just stay. “Long Island City is such a strange place, but living there, this area of taxi depots and Chinese cake factories really came to life,” Mr. Zeltner said. “We discovered the village underneath it.”

But the success of their first month pushed them to continue. “Waking up someplace is so different from visiting,” Ms. Horsten said. “You get a much better feel for it.”

They decided on a few terms: They would try to live in all five boroughs. And to get to know each new neighborhood, they would have a dinner party in their apartment, as they had in Long Island City, inviting local business owners, neighborhood activists, people mentioned in newspaper articles and any other likely candidates who crossed their paths.

After living in all five boroughs, the couple settled on a two-bedroom with a roof deck on the Upper West Side.
CreditRobert Wright for The New York Times

$3,900 | Upper West Side

Occupations: Ms. Horsten is a New York correspondent with a German news agency; Mr. Zeltner is a freelance journalist and a founder of Work Awesome.
Children: Emma, 4, and Lily, newborn
Rents during the project: On average, $2,800 a month — including $2,700 in Harlem; around $4,000 in Chinatown and Dumbo, Brooklyn; a free month in Long Island City, Queens; and a free two-week sublet in Hell’s Kitchen.
Favorite neighborhood: “It’s really hard,” Mr. Zeltner said. “But the neighborhood that maybe stuck to our minds the most was St. George. You could see the ferry coming as you walked down the hill and estimate how much time it would take to get there.”

At first, things went remarkably well.

They found their next apartment, a beautiful loft in Chinatown, on Listings Project, a free weekly email of real estate and related opportunities, serving artists and the creative community.

The loft “was like something out of a movie,” Mr. Zeltner said. And while the price was substantially over their $2,900-a-month budget, they figured they could even things out over the course of the year, paying less for subsequent apartments.

Befriending a family in Chinatown, they also found a comparatively affordable preschool for Emma: a bilingual Mandarin-English center that she still attends.

The next months brought stops in Staten Island (a house in St. George, where they lived with the owner, an Antiguan immigrant who had gone to school across the street from the property as a child and vowed to buy it one day) and Harlem (a studio, where the idyllic summer days and their good luck so far lulled them into a sense of ease).

As September approached, their next sublet proved difficult to find. “We started out in a time when people were leaving, so it was easy,” Mr. Zeltner said. “But work really picks up for New Yorkers in the fall.”

When their Harlem sublet ended, they bided their time by taking a road trip, then fell for a scam in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, when an apartment they found advertised online wasn’t actually available to rent. (They eventually got their move-in fee refunded through PayPal.)

“That was rock-bottom,” Ms. Horsten said. “Fortunately, we have good friends, and we crashed in Long Island City while we planned things out.”

Rather than just responding to ads, they decided they to submit their own post to Listings Project, describing what they were doing. They also started a newsletter for friends and family. A flood of offers followed.

Over the remainder of the year, they spent time in a townhouse in Mott Haven, in the Bronx, as well as apartments in Chelsea, the East Village, Hell’s Kitchen, and Williamsburg, Bushwick and Dumbo, in Brooklyn. They lived in an oceanfront home in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, and amid thousands of books in a garden-level apartment of an antique bookseller in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Hamilton Heights.

“In the end, we were like, ‘Why should we even stop doing this?’” Ms. Horsten said.

But then a lease takeover on Listings Project caught their attention: a two-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex on the top of an Upper West Side townhouse.

“It was more than we thought we could afford, and more than we’d ever paid,” Ms. Horsten said — $3,900 a month. “But we saw the roof deck, and after all the crazy moving, we thought, ‘Let’s just enjoy this oasis for a while.’”

Since they moved in, a little over a year ago, they have written a book about their experience, Stadtnomaden, which will be published in Germany in April.

A second daughter, Lily, was born in January. And with a newborn, they have no intention of moving again anytime soon. Still, many aspects of their adventure have remained with them.

“In the same way that we’ve tried to keep minimalism in our life, we try to stay in touch with all the people we’ve met,” Ms. Horsten said.

“We realized it was a lifelong project to try to get to know New York City,” Mr. Zeltner said.

But there is one member of the household agitating for a repeat: Emma.

“I think she loved it the most,” Ms. Horsten said. “At all the places we stayed, she found stuff I never noticed: children’s books, a dollhouse, a drum set. Even now, she’s like, ‘When are we moving to a new home?’ And we’re like, ‘We kind of like it here.’”

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Published at Mon, 18 Mar 2019 09:00:08 +0000