Beautiful Brooklyn Heights

It might surprise you to learn that the first neighborhood to be protected under the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law in New York City was not in Manhattan – it was Brooklyn Heights. I have had the pleasure of being in the area several times in the past few months, and regardless of the time of day, I find it to be an extraordinarily beautiful and gracious neighborhood. Since I love to take an unplanned walk in the city (a dérive, see my initial post about it here), one of my daughters and I took off on a beautiful warm early spring day to enjoy a walk in Brooklyn Heights.

Brooklyn Heights

Surrounded by Dumbo (see my love letter to this neighborhood here) , Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Downtown Brooklyn, getting to Brooklyn Heights is quite easy via public transportation. You can take the 2-3-4-5-N-R-W to Court Street-Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn, the A-C-F-N-R-W to Jay Street-MetroTech, or the 2-3 to Clark Street.  Before setting off on our walk, we had wood fired pizza at Dellarocco’s, which I highly recommend (214 Hick’s Street, off Montague Street). On the way there we walked past block after block of beautiful townhouses.

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I always find myself drawn to the water, and was unable to stay away from the gorgeous Brooklyn Heights Promenade. One of the more recent additions to Brooklyn Heights, the promenade was completed in the 1950’s.

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Rows of of lovely townhouses and apartment buildings face the promenade and gaze toward lower Manhattan.

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The promenade ends at the Brooklyn Bridge (for instructions of how to walk across the bridge from Brooklyn, see this post). John A. Roebling, the 19th Century engineer and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, lived in Brooklyn Heights.

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The views from the Brooklyn Heights can be incredible. Here is a view toward the Statue of Liberty at sunset.

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Benches line the promenade for relaxing while strollers, both pedestrians and those containing children, move along the pathway.

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The view of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights is extraordinary.

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The Brooklyn Heights Promenade eventually merges into Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Jane’s Carousel, dating from 1922, invites all to stop and take a ride on a hand painted wooden horse, to the sound of authentic calliope music.

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Brooklyn Heights has attracted writers and artists since its inception, and walking around the neighborhood it is easy to see why. Benjamin Britten to W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman to W.E.B. DuBois, Arthur Miller to Lena Dunham – all have found inspiration in the quiet beauty of Brooklyn Heights. Truman Capote, another resident, wrote Brooklyn Heights:  A Personal Memoir, in which he famously states, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” More and more people have made this choice over the past two decades. which has made this one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City.  The average price for a two bedroom apartment is $1,712,000 (compared to $1,149,000 for Brooklyn on the whole), and for a three bedroom it is just under $4,000,000. Townhouses can go for considerably more than that, but most people who live here consider the neighborhood well worth the cost. Brooklyn Heights has come a long way from Capote’s 1950’s description of street gangs and alley cats, but the allure of the area endures.

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City Island, the Bronx

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Most of us lucky enough to live in New York City love the aspects of the city that make it unique – the tall buildings, the pace, the endless array of entertainment. However, we may also seek out a chance of pace every now and then, travelling to the Caribbean, the Berkshires, or the New England coast. What I recently discovered is that it is possible to take a mini-vacation to what seems to be a small New England fishing village – but without leaving the five boroughs. As I remarked in my posts about Coney Island and Governors Island you can feel as though you have left the city for the price of a swipe on your Metrocard – and that is true for a trip to City Island in the Bronx.

Driving to City Island is easy, but to get there via public transportation (as I did), take the 6 Pelham Bay subway train to the last stop, Pelham Bay Parkway and catch the Bx29 bus for a quick ride to City Island Avenue.

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Originally settled by the Lenape and later by Europeans in 1654, it was connected to the mainland by ferry until the building of a bridge in 1873. From about 1860 to 1980, City Island was a center for boat building and yachting, and three yacht clubs remain on the island to this day.

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City Island Avenue cuts down the middle of the island, lined with quaint shops, art galleries, and restaurants. At every cross street, you can look in either direction and generally see a block of houses or low-rise apartments leading to the water.

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On the first Friday of every month, there is a free trolley to pick up visitors from the subway stop and take them to City Island Avenue. They give out a discount card valid for that evening, and often shops and galleries will have free treats to hand out along the avenue.

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City Island Avenue is just over a mile long, so an easy and pleasant walk. At the very end, when it dead ends at the water, there are two competing seafood restaurants with ocean views.

 

City Island has a resident population of just over 4000 people, many associated with nearby Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The brilliant neurologist and author Oliver Sacks lived on City Island until his recent death, and some of the film based on his book Awakenings was shot on the island. City Island is a real estate bargain (due in no small part to its remoteness) – houses selling for under $300/sq ft, on average, and a three bedroom house can be rented for about $3000/month.

Alice Payne wrote about the history of City Island in her book Tales of the Clamdiggers. Clamdiggers are people born on City Island (Musselsuckers are those living on the island born elsewhere!). The rest of us are, I suppose, simply visitors, ready to take a break from the everyday and experience one of the most unique corners of the great city of New York.

It’s terrace season!

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Gorgeous view of midtown Manhattan from a private rooftop terrace on the Upper West Side

I have recently been working with several buyers who either require private outdoor space, or have been lucky enough to find it included in an apartment they love for other reasons. Spring and summer are definitely “terrace season,” as outdoor space takes on a special appeal on sunny, warm days. In fact, one buyer I was working with lost out in a bidding war on an apartment with a large terrace directly facing Central Park, after months of little interest while it was listing during the winter. The listing broker even told me that we would have definitely gotten the apartment if we had been bidding the same amount back in the cold and gloomy months of January and February, but in late March/early April, the same apartment had a much broader appeal.

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A peek into a Beekman Place private terrace from a terrace at Southgate

Other buyers of mine, while not looking specifically for an apartment with outdoor space, found one with two large terraces, one with East River views, and fell in love. I have written before about the value of a view of nature from an apartment, as well as the value of a city view, and those intangible emotional benefits are heightened when the view is not contained behind glass, but rather experienced while also taking in the information obtained from other senses. To be on a terrace and seeing the East River, while also feeling a warm breeze, smelling the flowers you have placed in planters, and hearing the sounds of the city, is to be immersed in the experience.

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Ready for an al fresco dining experience in midtown Manhattan

There are multiple types of outdoor space, and some people have strong preferences for one type over the other, while others just want any opportunity to experience the outdoors from within their home. The least versatile is a Juliet balcony – enough to step outside and check the temperature or take in a few deep breaths of the summer air after a storm, but not enough to even place a chair. Larger than that are balconies, commonly boxy squares in postwar apartments, often with enough space for a few chairs and a table. The larger outdoor spaces tend to be true terraces (outdoor space with the building underneath it instead of something jutting from the building) or private gardens. Gardens tend to be most common in townhouses, or in the garden level apartments in converted townhomes or brownstones. Garden level apartments have the disadvantage of not being the sunniest apartments, with some exceptions, but for people who like the idea of children or pets playing in a ground-level garden, they can be highly valued. Large terraces are perhaps the most prized outdoor spaces, and relatively rare. A terrace with an iconic view – of Central Park, of a river, or a spectacular city view – can greatly increase the value of an apartment.

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A look at several of the terraces in the Beekman area with a view of the East River

So how much does outdoor space affect the value of an apartment, if you have one – or how much more do you have to pay to get a place if outdoor space is a priority to you? As with everything else in NYC real estate, it depends upon so many variables – the location, the apartment itself, whether the building is a condo or a coop, walk-up or elevator, etc., etc. However, the value of outdoor space is often about 25-50% of the apartment’s price per square foot – higher if the terrace has a great view or is attached to a spectacular apartment, lower if it is on a lower floor or attached to a small apartment.

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Even on an overcast day, it’s a killer view from this private terrace on Central Park South

The most valuable outdoor space is the very one my buyer lost out on this spring – unobstructed views of Central Park (enough to increase the value of an apartment by 50% even from park-facing windows with no outdoor space) from a large terrace. Is outdoor space worth such an increase in price? As with so many other aspects of NYC real estate, that is up to you – for some, they may feel that they wouldn’t really use outdoor space and don’t want to spend the extra money, while for others, outdoor space is the most important aspect of their home search and they won’t consider a place without it. What I have learned this spring, though, is that timing is extremely important. If I am representing a seller who has an apartment with outdoor space, I would strongly recommend trying to list during the warm weather months if at all possible. Conversely, if looking to purchase an apartment with outdoor space, jumping on something during the winter can lead to a relative bargain compared to getting into a bidding war when the outdoor space is showing at its best. If you are interested in buying a home in NYC with outdoor space, or if you have one to sell, feel free to contact me (with no obligation) at julie.brannan@corcoran.com.

Lincoln Square

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Just as the larger neighborhood known as the Upper East Side has many smaller neighborhoods within it, such as Yorkville, Carnegie Hill, Lenox Hill (yes, lots of hills on the UES!), the Upper West Side – on the opposite side of Central Park – also has subdivisions. Recently I have had two customers interested in looking for homes in the area of the UWS known as Lincoln Square, the southeast corner of the neighborhood – roughly bounded by Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue to the east and west, and 59th to 66th Streets to the south and north.  Interestingly enough, the area was characterized in 1940 as the “worst slum in New York City” by the New York Housing Authority, and the urban renewal efforts in the 1950’s and 1960’s led to the development of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. This anchored the residential redevelopment of the area into the vibrant neighborhood it is now.

As I have written before, my favorite way to experience a neighborhood is by taking an unplanned walk within the area (a dérive), so on an overcast but not terribly cold February day, I started at Columbus Circle and began my stroll.

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At Columbus Circle, you stand at the intersection of the Upper West Side, Central Park, and Midtown West. The shops at Columbus Circle house a Whole Foods as well as specialty stores and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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Turning around to look at Central Park for a moment . . .

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Just north of the statue of Columbus, a subway hub that can get you quickly to virtually any location in the city.

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Walking north a few block on Central Park West, I can’t resist stopping to admire 15 Central Park West, a phenomenally successful building on so many different levels – a classic limestone two-towered building that looks as though it could have always been there, but simultaneously a new development from 2007 with prices per square foot averaging well over $5000 per square foot. I greatly enjoyed reading Michael Gross’s recent book about the development of the site, House of Outrageous Fortune.

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Walking west on W. 61st Street, you can see a side entrance to 15 CPW. On the W. 62nd Street side, there is a lovely garden.

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This part of the Upper West Side can be a little confusing, in that Broadway is the next Avenue you come to after Central Park West, while for much of the neighborhood the park block is between CPW and Columbus. Broadway, transecting the length of Manhattan on a diagonal, disrupts the orderly grid of most of Manhattan above 14th Street, creating “squares” – really triangles – as it cuts across the orderly boulevards. Union Square, Madison Square Park, Herald Square, and Times Square are all the result of Broadway’s slow progress from west to east as it heads south in Manhattan, and Lincoln Square is yet another. Walking up Broadway to W. 63rd, I headed west again to see Lincoln Square itself, namesake for this neighborhood.

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Just south of Lincoln Square is the Empire Hotel, whose sign is a local landmark, and P.J. Clarke’s, a cozy yet upscale place to sit and have a nice meal.

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Obviously a strong selling point for the neighborhood is the proximity to Lincoln Center, and the ease of attending performances of  opera, music, ballet, theatre, and even the Big Apple Circus in the fall of each year.

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The Julliard School, just north of Lincoln Center, also offers high quality student performances.

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Looking east while standing in front of Julliard, I noticed the Mormon Visitor Center, best known to me as the place where Hannah and Harper volunteer in Tony Kushner’s epic play, “Angels in America.”

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Just north of Julliard is Alice Tully Hall, home to more intimate concerts than those in much larger Avery Fisher Hall (newly renamed David Geffen Hall).

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Turning east again on West 66th St., I walked past ABC studios on the way back to Central Park. Just a few blocks north of this intersection is the Loews Lincoln Square Cineplex. I really love this as an option for seeing popular movies, as each individual theatre has the name and style of an old-time movie palace, making the experience there have a little more personality than many multiplexes.

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Ending up in Central Park at 66th, yet another advantage to this neighborhood is its proximity to Tavern on the Green, renovated a few years ago but with the twinkling outside fairy lights remaining.

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So what does it cost to live in Lincoln Square? As with any neighborhood, it varies greatly depending on the building, but average prices are just under $3000/square foot, compared to just over $2000/square foot for all of the Upper West Side (averaging prices of the far northern sections of the UWS with those to the south, of course). Central Park South, just to the south and east of Lincoln Square averages $5000/square foot, in part because of the premium associated with apartments with views of the park. Lincoln Square tends to be newer buildings, mostly condos, compared to the largely prewar coop inventory of most of the UWS.

In my opinion, the location of Lincoln Square is unparalleled – at the intersection of the Upper West Side, Midtown West, and with Central Park as a virtual front yard.

 

Real estate and the human creative spirit

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Recently I was at the Association for International Art Dealers (AIPAD) show at the Park Avenue Armory. The abundance, diversity, and quality of the art shown in one space almost created a feeling of sensory overload, and I started to think about how thrilling it is to be in any place where the creative impulse is expressed by people, whether it be visual art, theater, dance, music, or architecture and design. The need for creative expression is fundamental to how we see ourselves as humans – the recognition we feel when we view the cave paintings from Paleolithic people living 40,000 years ago in Lascaux, France, emotionally spans the gap in time between us and them.

After leaving AIPAD, my thoughts turned to how we express our creativity when it comes to where we live. It might be a more efficient use of valuable real estate space to have every building in Manhattan exactly the same, with apartments only differing in how much space and how many rooms someone needed (and perhaps whether or not you felt the need for a doorman). The gables, terracotta ornaments, and decorative gargoyles at the Dakota (seen above) have no practical purpose. However, we all instinctively recoil when imagining Manhattan as a series of uniform buildings, neighborhoods identifiable only by street names as boundaries, not because you see the San Remo or a series of cast iron buildings. Rather than selecting an apartment near our workplace, many of us choose to live instead in neighborhoods farther away that express who we are as a human being. A person walking through the Art Deco lobby of the Century on Central Park West on the way to their apartment is surrounded by an esthetic that fits their own, and that is different but no less personally valid than that of someone entering their loft in Metal Shutter Houses in West Chelsea.

Real estate involves money and can be thought of as an investment, but unless you are buying solely to invest, the choice of what apartment you decide to live in speaks to so much more than a rational financial decision. We as humans need to express ourselves creatively, and we do so when we decide only to look at pre-war apartments with working fireplaces and moldings, or only on the Upper West Side park block with a terrace, or only downtown in a modern building with a view of the High Line. A good real estate agent will listen to what you want in the way that a search engine cannot. You can run a search for a two bedroom/ two bathroom apartment in a certain price range in a certain neighborhood and come up with some possibilities, or a good agent can listen to the creative desires being expressed and select apartments that are an excellent place to start looking. Sometimes you may even be introduced to a new neighborhood that you didn’t initially consider but that the agent thought you might like, based on what kind of apartment, and building, and neighborhood, you are looking for.

Pablo Picasso once said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of our daily lives off our souls.”  I can’t imagine a better way to wash this daily life debris off our souls than returning at the end of our day to a home that reflects our own sense of what is beautiful, from the external architecture of our building to the layout and décor of our personal space.

Hamilton Heights

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The hottest ticket in New York City this year is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical, “Hamilton,” currently at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street but moving to Broadway this summer. Coincidentally the day after I was fortunate enough to see it, while searching for a new apartment for a couple, I found a possibility for them in Hamilton Heights. Of course I had heard of the neighborhood in upper Manhattan and had been there before, but the connection to Alexander Hamilton didn’t fully register until that moment. I decided that my next dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) would take place in Hamilton Heights, while the soundtrack to “Hamilton” was still freshly ringing in my head.

Hamilton Heights lies between 135th and 155th Streets to the south and north, and between Edgecombe Road and the Hudson River to the east and west. This puts it just south of Washington Heights (location of Miranda’s “In the Heights”) and just north of Manhattanville and Morningside Heights. Why all the “heights” in upper Manhattan? Take a walk in any of these neighborhoods, and you will see – the elevation in this part of the island is considerable, and some streets are quite steep, particularly rising from the Hudson. Alexander Hamilton’s farmland in the last two years of his life before the infamous duel with Aaron Burr was roughly in the part of the neighborhood between 140th and 146th Streets.

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Public transportation options are good in Hamilton Heights. The 1, A, B, C, and D trains all make stops here, and it is possible to get from 155th Street to Times Square in about 15 minutes. For my dérive, I took the C and emerged at St. Nicholas Avenue and 135th Street. St. Nicholas Park rises steeply to the west of St. Nicholas Avenue here, and the majestic neo-Gothic tower of Shepard Hall of the City College of New York can be seen rising from the ice-age Manhattan schist that was used to construct the iconic campus buildings. CCNY was the first public institution of higher learning in the United States, and the beauty of its campus holds up to the private colleges and universities that predated it. Ten Nobel Prize winners have graduated from CCNY, the most recent alum winning for Medicine in 2014.
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Just to the north of the main quad of CCNY sits Alexander Hamilton’s home for the final two years of his life, named Hamilton Grange after his ancestral home in Scotland. This location in St. Nicholas Park is not where he lived, however – the house itself has been moved three times, but has settled in this location, not too far from its original spot. The Grange is a National Park Service site, and has been restored to reflect its appearance during 1802-1804 when Hamilton lived in it.

Walking north on Hamilton Terrace from St. Nicholas Park, it is easy to forget that you are in Manhattan. This is a very quiet, residential neighborhood with rows of townhouses or brownstones on tree-lined streets. Hamilton Terrace goes on for blocks without any intersections, and most of the townhouses here date from the 1890’s. Hamilton Terrace runs into Convent Avenue, and continuing north, the sub-neighborhood of Sugar Hill reveals stately rowhouses that once were the residences of famous New Yorkers such as Cab Calloway, W.E.B DuBois, Duke Ellington, and Babe Ruth (when he was an infant). Nicknamed Sugar Hill because it was where wealthy residents of Harlem moved in the 1920’s to enjoy the “sweet life,” the area holds large pre-war apartments that are still affordable, by current New York City standards.

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The Billy Strayhorn standard, “Take the A Train,” most familiar as an instrumental version performed by the Duke Ellington orchestra, does have lyrics, and they give you clear directions about how to get to this charming affordable neighborhood in upper Manhattan:
You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now, it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem

New York City townhouses and mansions

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When one thinks of living in New York City, apartment living is the default – and in fact the majority of New Yorkers do live in multi-occupant housing, ranging from luxury high rises in Manhattan to duplexes in College Point, Queens. However, apartment living is a relatively recent development in NYC history, and even today there are single-family townhouses (and even a handful of outright mansions) available in the city. What’s the definition of a townhouse versus a mansion? Well, there firm criteria do not exist, but a townhouse 25 feet wide or wider starts to be under consideration as a mansion, particularly if the façade is limestone and the overall square footage is 10,000 or above. (Also, you will know it when you see it.) In Europe, a mansion traditionally has a ballroom, but there are few of those left in New York City.

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The golden age of mansions in New York City was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of those mansions in fact did hold ballrooms. The Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue at 77th Street (now the site of an apartment building) had 25 bedrooms and 35 servant’s rooms. Charles Schwab built a 75 room mansion on Riverside Drive between 73rd and 74th Streets, also now replaced by an apartment complex. The Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth and 57th, the largest residence ever built in New York City, had a two story ballroom as well as stables – and was destroyed to be replaced by Bergdorf Goodman. Some of the mansions in Carnegie Hill (all 50,000 square feet or more) faced somewhat better fates. The Carnegie Mansion now holds the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Warburg Mansion houses the Jewish Museum, and the Otto Kahn House is the location of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an independent school.

Until the end of the 19th century, apartment buildings – mainly tenements – were only for the less affluent. The middle class began to be attracted to the convenience of apartment living as the 20th century dawned, but the truly wealthy continued to live in single family homes until enough spacious apartments along Fifth Avenue (many with 12 rooms or more) were built and certain buildings became more prestigious. By the 1930’s, the tide had turned and more middle- and upper-class New Yorkers lived in apartment buildings than in single family homes, and now there are fewer than 2000 single family homes in Manhattan. However, there are considerably more in other boroughs. While a single family brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just as difficult to find (and afford) as one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it is possible to find a variety of housing choices elsewhere, such as detached single family homes in Flushing, Queens or Staten Island, and even enormous homes with lawns in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn (home of the famous holiday light displays in December). For those with the funds to spend $20-100M on their new home, the few genuine mansions available offer far more square footage (and often significantly lower real estate taxes, unless comparing to a new development condo with a tax abatement) than some of the new Billionaire’s Row apartments making the news. Similarly, a townhouse in Washington Heights near the landmarked Morris-Jumel Mansion offers considerably more space than a similarly priced 2 bedroom coop on the Upper East Side.

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Townhouse living is radically different from apartment living, and there are those who would never consider living in a townhouse in the city (the stairs – no super – even having to take out and bag your own garbage!). However, for the person who does appreciate the difference, being able to own an actual home, as opposed to shares in a corporation (in a coop) or a certain number of square feet within a building (in a condo) is priceless. Real estate taxes often favor the single family dwelling, and of course there is no coop or condo board process to go through – if you can pay for the townhouse and the owner accepts your offer, you are in. I have a customer who will accept nothing else but a townhouse (specifically, between Central Park West in the 60’s or 70’s!), but many others who appreciate the convenience of an apartment in an elevator doorman building. Much as New York City neighborhoods provide a rich diversity in atmosphere to live within the city, the variety of housing types (condos, coops, and townhouses) also provide the possibility of finding the perfect home for each potential home owner – one that fits their own individuality, as well as helping them express it.

Long Island City

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Do you look back now and wish you had bought into Williamsburg or Dumbo 10 or 15 years ago? (I know I do.) Today’s dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) takes place in a neighborhood that you may be feeling that way about in the very near future – and in fact, many of the true bargains are already in the past – Long Island City, Queens. One subway stop from 59th and Lexington (on the N and Q lines) and from Grand Central (on the 7 train), or from 53rd and Lexington (on the E train), this neighborhood is much more convenient to midtown Manhattan than most areas in Manhattan itself, has a thriving arts scene, and a park on the East River with magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline.

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Long Island City (LIC) was its own actual city until joining greater New York in 1898. The area was originally the home to numerous factories and bakeries, but now many of these spaces have been or are in the process of being transformed. The Silvercup Bakery site was converted in 1983 to Silvercup Studios, the largest TV and film production studio in the Northeast United States. “Sex and the City” shot there, and current shows shot at Silvercup include “Elementary” and “Girls.” The sign is visible from many areas in LIC and from the 7, N and Q trains as you head toward Queensboro Plaza. The iconic Pepsi-Cola sign, visible from most riverfront areas of Midtown East in Manhattan, sits in front of the former Pepsi factory, now being converted to residential condos.

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In my walk around Long Island City, I was drawn as usual to the waterfront – in this case, a beautiful sprawling park along the East River. Hunter’s Point South Park (a city park) and Gantry Plaza State Park meander for about a mile along the shores of the East River. The views of Midtown Manhattan from here are extraordinary.

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The rapidly changing nature of this neighborhood has its pluses and minuses, as is typical when an area is redeveloped. The building covered in graffiti from multiple artists, 5 Pointz, was painted over despite protests and has now been demolished as the site is being replaced by a residential condo development. On the other hand, since the contemporary art museum PS1 (named after the school building it took over) merged with MoMA in 2000, the museum attracts approximately 150,000 visitors a year to LIC.

The first open house I ever worked in real estate was for a friend and colleague who sold a townhouse in Long Island City for a record price, but one that was still a fraction of what one would pay in Manhattan, or Brooklyn. Queens has come a long way since Claude in Hair (the tribal rock musical on Broadway) claimed to be from Manchester, England, to disguise his shame at hailing from Flushing. Long Island City is already transforming, and while it is still possible to find relative bargains here, a beautiful landmarked townhome or a new development condo with a city view won’t be even relative bargains soon. I was recently asked at a party for advice on investing in a new area (not an uncommon topic of conversation once someone learns you are in real estate) and I recommended Long Island City. The largest producer of fortune cookies in the United States (4 million per day!) is in LIC, but if you decide to make a purchase in the area now, you might be able to create your own luck.

Morningside Heights

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Bounded by Manhattan Valley to the south, Harlem to the north, Morningside Park to the east, and Riverside Park and the Hudson River to the West, Morningside Heights is an area with a long history (an important Revolutionary War battle was fought here) and many illustrious former residents (F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Cecil B. deMille, Fiona Apple, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama among them). Recently I have heard of a trend to call the area “SoHa” or “south of Harlem” – but other than the names of a few places in the neighborhood, have not actually heard anyone use this term! Recently I took a winter stroll through the area to get a feel for what Morningside Heights has to offer.

To begin my dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment), I walked along Central Park West until I hit 110th Street, and turned west. Dominating the horizon almost immediately is the fourth largest Christian church in the world, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Also known as “St. John the Unfinished,” it was designed in 1888 and begun in 1892, but was interrupted by two world wars and is still being fully completed. The Cathedral takes up a huge swath of land on Amsterdam Avenue between 110th and 113th Streets. A pleasant mix of secular and religious, the interior features sculptures of figures representing great thinkers of different centuries: representing the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are William Shakespeare, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. In 2001 the 20th century representatives were completed with a group of four: Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, and Mohandas Gandhi. A center for the arts, Philippe Petit (the French high-wire walker who was the subject of Man on Wire) is the Artist in Residence.

When I stopped by on this dérive in late December of 2014, one of the largest pieces of sculpture ever exhibited in the US, Phoenix (by Chinese artist Xu Bing) dominated the nave, two enormous birds suspended in air, looking at the Rose Window. The Cathedral’s Halloween celebration is a “don’t miss” (unless you fail to get your tickets early enough and are shut out) – a screening of an old silent horror movie accompanied by live organ music, followed by the Procession of the Ghouls, a parade of costumed performers and enormous spooky puppets. There are so many reasons to visit the Cathedral – the Feast of St. Francis procession that could include animals as diverse as a kangaroo, a camel, or a yak; the wild and wonderful Winter Solstice celebration – that living in proximity to it would be sufficient to make someone want to be a resident of this neighborhood, in my opinion.

However, walking west from the Cathedral along 113th Street, the quiet nature of these side streets provides yet another reason to live here. Although Broadway is bustling with places to eat and shop, the side streets are largely residential. Continuing west, I ran into Riverside Park, gorgeous year-round. Walking north, I treasured the magnificent buildings along Riverside Drive that face the Hudson River and the park, and their wonderful old-world elegance.

Turning to walk east along 116th Street, I appreciated the banners representing Barnard College – Transforming women and the world for 125 years. One thing people don’t generally think of when they think of New York City is that in fact it is a “college town.” There are over 600,000 students enrolled in the city’s 120 colleges and universities – more than any other city in the United States (yes, more than Boston!). Continuing up 116th Street to Broadway, I entered the campus of NYC’s own member of the Ivy League, Columbia University. It is the fifth oldest institute of higher learning in the US, and one of only nine “Colonial Colleges” founded before the American Revolution. Originally named King’s College and located at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, it moved (under its post-Revolution name, Columbia College) to midtown for about 50 years in the 1800’s and then to its current spot (as Columbia University) in Morningside Heights in 1896. Although the campus was designed along Beaux-Arts principles, neo-classical styles abound, including its grand library, named one of the most beautiful in the United States.

Columbia’s presence remains a stabilizing force in Morningside Heights, but doesn’t dominate the neighborhood. Residential prices in the area are more reasonable than the Upper West Side, but with abundant public transportation it’s still an easy trip into midtown or downtown. Where else can you confirm who is buried in Grant’s Tomb (Riverside at W. 122nd) or search for peacocks wandering in a garden behind a grand unfinished cathedral? Morningside Heights is a wonderful destination, whether you are an occasional visitor or decide to become a resident.

Gramercy Park

Gramercy Park 3

Most neighborhoods in New York City have a story to tell – generally, it is a cyclical one, perhaps from farmland to residential, to tenements, and back to gentrification. There are however a few areas of New York City that have remained remarkably stable. One of these is the Gramercy Park neighborhood, which was created to be a fashionable residential location and has remained fashionable to the present. The neighborhood is roughly between Third and Park Avenue South, and between 18th and 22nd Streets. The Historic District encompasses some of this area, and nowadays the greater area might be considered to go all the way from 23rd to 14th Street, still between Third Avenue and Park Avenue South.

My favorite way to experience a neighborhood is to walk through it without a pre-planned route (a dérive). Emerging from the subway on Park Avenue South and 23rd Street, I immediately noticed that there are generally low lying buildings here. The Manhattan schist, or bedrock, is deeper in this part of the island, so generally there is nothing over 20 stories in height. Venturing farther from the subway stop, the quiet nature of this neighborhood becomes clear. Originally the area was swampy, but in 1831 the land was bought, and a plan for the area designed by, Samuel Ruggles. The most significant part of his plan included a private park, like the private garden squares popular then, and still found today, in London.

As you walk toward Gramercy Park, the tall and heavy fences with locked gates cannot be ignored. Gramercy Park is the only private park in Manhattan. It lies between 20th and 21st Streets (Gramercy Park South and North), and midblock streets called Gramercy Park East and West. As Lexington Avenue heads south, it hits a dead end at the park, and reemerges on its south side as Irving Place. Only the residents of the buildings facing the park have keyed access to the park and the value of an apartment that includes the right to a key is significantly increased compared to one close by but without access. Keys can be also checked out by members of the Player’s Club, and guests of the Gramercy Hotel can be escorted to the park by a hotel employee and let in, then picked up when they are ready to leave. The keys to these locks cannot be copied, the locks are changed every year, and hefty lost key fees insure that the park remains private. The keys are even individually numbered and coded.

The statue in the middle of the park is of Edwin Booth as Hamlet, one of the best Shakespearean actors of the 19th century (namesake of the Booth theatre – and brother to John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln). He lived at 16 Gramercy South and eventually gave the building for the formation of the Player’s Club. Every Christmas eve the park is opened to the public for caroling, so if you’re dying to be inside those locked gates, this is your one opportunity (or, you could buy a place with a key).

Walking around the perimeter of the park (outside the gates, of course!) the Gramercy Park Hotel, built in 1925, dominates the northern edge, while the western edge features a line of immaculate townhouses. E.B. White’s Stuart Little takes place on Gramercy Park, presumably in one of these homes. Most of New York City has some kind of interesting history waiting to be uncovered, but Gramercy Park seems to have more than most neighborhoods; for instance, Thomas Alva Edison and John Steinbeck once lived on the park. Nearby, Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace on E 20th Street is a National Historic Site.

While the idea of a gated private park in New York City does seem to go against our democratic ideals, it has certainly preserved the value of the residences facing Gramercy Park and stabilized the neighborhood. Of course, Central Park is open to all, and proximity to it can also significantly increase a home’s value. Gramercy is a quiet, pleasant neighborhood – on the cusp between midtown and downtown, but with some of the understated characteristics of streets in Carnegie Hill uptown.