The Hunt: At Home, With Memories, in Brooklyn

The Hunt

At Home, With Memories, in Brooklyn

After a family tragedy, a writer seeks a new apartment with room for his thousands of books.

Benedict Beckeld at his apartment in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.CreditCreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

Five years ago, after an academic career in Europe, Benedict Beckeld gave up teaching for writing and returned to New York, where he had spent his teenage years. The timing was fortunate. His older brother, Baltsar Beckeld, was newly divorced and living on the ground floor of a two-story, two-family brick house in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Dr. Beckeld, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, ancient Greek and Latin, moved in with him.

His brother, an actor and former museum director, transformed the unkempt backyard, planting shrubbery and adding strings of solar lights that went on at dusk. The location was close to Dr. Beckeld’s mother and stepfather, who also rented in Borough Park.

The brothers paid a monthly rent of around $1,400. The landlady, who knew their mother, “gave us a friendly price,” said Dr. Beckeld, 39, who was born and spent his childhood in Sweden.

Last summer, after suffering from sudden stomach pain, Baltsar Beckeld received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Two months later, he died, at age 42.

“My brother was the person I loved more than any other,” Dr. Beckeld said.

He knew he couldn’t stay in the apartment. “It was too emotionally difficult for me to live in the place we had lived together,” he said.

So he prepared to move. He aimed to find a one-bedroom rather than a studio, preferring not to sleep in the same room as his thousands of books, which collect dust, though he dusts often. He wanted a separate kitchen, too, so cooking residue and odors would not permeate the pages.

Dr. Beckeld’s library encompasses thousands of books.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

With a budget of up to $2,200 a month, Dr. Beckeld thought he could find a place on the Upper East or Upper West Side of Manhattan. As a musician — he plays the violin — he was eager to be close to the city’s cultural and arts institutions. An agent took him around.

“This was my first time” apartment hunting in New York, he said. “I realized that when they say a one-bedroom, they don’t really mean a one-bedroom — they mean a glorified studio.” Some listings referred to a “real” one-bedroom, he added, “but that still includes a kitchen area in one of the rooms rather than a separate kitchen.”

He visited a fourth-floor walk-up, for $2,000, in the West 80s, across from a schoolyard. “The moment I walked in, I knew it was no deal,” he said, as the kitchen and living room were one. “I would have had to cook, work, read and do everything in the same space, and the space wasn’t large enough anyway.”


The apartment hunt began in Manhattan, at a fourth-floor walkup in the West 80s, where the kitchen and living room were a single space.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

For $1,800, a ground-floor apartment on Park Avenue near East 98th Street was comparatively large. But the area seemed rundown and loud; directly outside, Metro-North train tracks emerged from underground.

“I probably should have used Google Street View to rule out neighborhoods,” Dr. Beckeld said. Seeing what his money would buy in Manhattan “definitely took the wind out of my sails.”

He learned that a suitable place would cost around $3,000. And without a regular job, it would be tough to meet a strict Manhattan landlord’s income requirements. Dr. Beckeld writes primarily on philosophy (which he used to teach, along with classics); he also gives violin and foreign-language lessons.


A building on Park Avenue (center) was too close to the Metro-North tracks.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

So he decided to return to Brooklyn, where he could get sufficient space for a lower rent. He would be near his parents, too.

“Since I lived away from them for 10 years on a different continent, I enjoy having what remains of my family not too far away,” he said.

Dr. Beckeld turned to Craigslist, and found a place in Ditmas Park that seemed suitable: The one-bedroom, in a four-story brick building dating to the 1920s, had 850 square feet, high ceilings and a separate kitchen overlooking an interior courtyard. The rent was $1,750. The building didn’t have a laundry room, but there were plenty of other advantages, including big closets and updated appliances. Dr. Beckeld signed on in the fall.

In the meantime, his mother, Simonne Beckeld Hirschhorn, had also been considering a move. She and her husband, Mordechai Hirschhorn, who were living on the third floor of a house in Borough Park, wanted more space. Maybe they could move into the Beckeld brothers’ old place. It was bigger, and Ms. Hirschhorn could build a beautiful sukkah, the temporary structure constructed for the Jewish festival of Sukkot, in the well-tended yard. Also, the apartment made her feel closer to Baltsar.


In Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a 1920s building had a one-bedroom that filled the bill.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

“I asked Benedict, ‘Would you feel creepy if we came to live here?’ He said, ‘No, on the contrary, you will make the place look so different anyway,’” she said. Ms. Hirschhorn, the director of a recreational program for Holocaust survivors, enjoys interior decorating.

So in the winter, the Hirschhorns moved, too.

“It made me feel this was my son’s legacy to me,” Ms. Hirschhorn said. “I felt a certain comfort in that. The grief is going to be with me the rest of my life no matter where I live, but here I feel the closeness of him. Here, he was happy.”

As for Dr. Beckeld’s new home, he finds it quiet and well suited to his work. Bookcases line the living room walls. “I am fairly introverted, so sitting quietly in my office space and working is appealing to me,” he said.

And he barely recognizes his old place, which is an easy bicycle ride away, or a two-bus trip. “My mother has a very different style,” he said. “All shades of pink are welcome.”

Still, Dr. Beckeld has a tough time there. “Walking in there is like visiting a haunted house,” he said. “My brother’s shadow is everywhere.”


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Published at Thu, 21 Feb 2019 10:00:10 +0000