New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Upstairs, Downstairs

When my husband and I were shopping for downtown loft space many years ago, we were concerned about our view. We almost chose a top-floor apartment, but I was skeptical. The broker seemed too glib as he assured us that no one would ever build on the empty lots between the unit’s tall light-filled windows and the Hudson River. And maybe, I reflected, he was right in saying that advances in waterproofing made it impossible for rain to ever seep from the roof into that spacious apartment. But what really stopped us was the price. If this dream space was within our budget, then something was seriously wrong – or would be before too long.

Instead we chose the practical: a unit no higher off the ground than a fire truck ladder could reach, far from rain-soaked ceilings. And the view, while not spectacular, had one chief benefit: it would never change. The building across the street was so close that one of its residents suggested we string a clothesline between our apartments. Although I sometimes envied my upstairs neighbors, I soon noticed that complaints were trickling down from residents up top who were losing their views of New York Harbor as newer buildings sprang up. I wanted to be outraged for them, but instead I felt vindicated.

But my satisfaction didn’t last long. One night, a group of noisy teenagers were having a party below my window. I thought about how quiet it would have been on the top floor as I went downstairs and begged them to move their sidewalk celebration out of earshot of the newborn I had finally coaxed to sleep. For some reason – perhaps because I talked about a sleeping baby, or perhaps because I was in my bathrobe and obviously sleep-addled – they took pity on me and walked away, providing my first and last victory over street noise.

That is certainly not an issue on the upper floors. Our co-op’s little roof deck – an amenity for all – comes with a list of rules to protect the tranquility of the top-floor shareholders. We lower-floor residents have no such protection against the sounds of the city after dark: 2 A.M. garbage pickups, late-night snowplows grating against asphalt, screeching ambulances, drunken street brawls. The greatest advantage to living near the bottom is the short climb home when our one elevator is out of service.

Over time I have learned that while upper- and lower-floor residents are like Tolstoy’s unhappy families – each of us unhappy in our own way – every building has more than enough complaints to go around. When we replace the water tank later this year, everyone will be inconvenienced with periodic water shutoffs, and everyone will have to pay an assessment. But people at the top will still complain about getting less water pressure. And when we next do our Local Law 11 work, again the cost and inconvenience will be spread throughout, but lower floors will grouse about the added darkness caused by scaffolding and the sidewalk shed.

And I’m OK with that. After so many years of living on a low floor, I’ve come to realize that a river view isn’t everything. Not only have I (mostly) acclimated to street noise, but I have also grown fond of the gentle variations outside my windows. Soon, I will see the leafless winter branches of our curbside callery pear tree bloom with tiny white flowers. At night I often practice piano in the glow of the beautiful Moorish light fixtures installed by my neighbors across the street. And sometimes I get a call from a friend in that building telling me to come to the window so she and her grandsons can wave to me. Yes, my modest view is perfect for me.

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