I am not a native New Yorker, but as a long-time (now former) resident of the South Village, I had the distinct privilege of getting to know many people who had actually spent their entire lives there. Some say that Greenwich Village, unlike most other New York City neighborhoods, really is like a little village in some ways. It seems that in the Village, it’s just easier to get to know your neighbors or have a first-name relationship with the local merchants.
Let me take you back, way, way back, to the 1980’s. The city was in a kind of crisis mode. It seemed that there was at least one homeless person living on every block. Crime was rampant. Most everyone I knew had a story about being mugged or burglarized or both. You could own a bicycle, but not for long. If you knew the right people, you could buy a stolen bicycle cheap. A subway token (a subway what?) cost 75¢. The Yankees weren’t so good, but the Mets were gaining momentum. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment was listed in the $700 – $800 range. If you were looking for an apartment, your best bet was to get the Village Voice late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning and scour the classified ads. After circling the possibilities, you would set out to the addresses for the open house, where there were already dozens of people waiting. Then you would enter single file, do a “once-through” and leave thinking, “What a dump.”
My co-workers told me how lucky I was to find a one-bedroom in the Village for under $500. I knew they were right, of course, because I also saw what was in the classifieds, but somehow I didn’t feel so lucky because paying that rent gobbled up most of my disposable income. But I did like the neighborhood; I liked the variety of good, cheap, ethnic food; I liked the big windows that allowed for sunlight and fresh air and unobstructed views. And I liked the good access to the subway, at West 4th Street and at Houston Street.
One day, sitting up on the roof (which we weren’t supposed to do), I was joined by one of my neighbors, who had lived in the building most of her life. She told me stories of what it was like growing up in the South Village in the 1950’s and 60’s. There was only one doorbell for the whole 5-story tenement building. If you heard the doorbell ring, and you were expecting someone, you had to walk downstairs to open the door. The old dumbwaiter shaft had been removed, but some apartments still used a “water closet” toilet (or “commode” as they called it) in the stairwell outside the apartment.
The building had gaslight fixtures instead of electricity until 1950. That was the year that some of the tenants asked the landlady to call ConEd and have the building “wired”. She refused, so the tenants offered to pay, so she relented. The reason they wanted electricity was that they wanted televisions.
The rent back then was $65 a month. But they didn’t have to pay rent in July and August. That’s because all the families would rent a summer bungalow upstate, and the landlords knew they couldn’t afford both the bungalow and their apartment rent. The landlords thought that if they tried to collect rent in the summer, the families would move out!
The weekend of the 4th of July, the families would take the train upstate to their vacation bungalows. They only brought a few clothes, towels, and linens, and the kids brought their bicycles. The fathers would come back to the Village apartment and stay there during the week, and on weekends they would join the women and children upstate.
Even up until the 1970’s the owners would charge lower rent on the higher floors, and higher rent on the lower floors, as an incentive to fill the “undesirable” walk-up apartments. After the 1970’s there were few buildings owned by individual owners, as management companies began to take over.
When I heard these stories, I pictured it all happening in black & white. I couldn’t imagine a New York City where a landlord gave any tenant any kind of break at all, much less 2 months free rent. I couldn’t imagine a landlord who was afraid that tenants would move out. My experience was that landlords love it when tenants move out, so they can increase the rent!
When I tell these stories now, in the days of $2000 – $3000 rents, it doesn’t seem possible that rents were EVER that low.
To read more about the current status of the South Village, click here.