As you know Toni Schlesinger’s book Five Flights Up is a collection of conversations with real New Yorkers about where they live, and why they live there. An interesting topic that comes up a often in the dialogues is why New Yorkers relocate throughout the city. It seems to also be a question of neighbor, and not just a property issue.
In this section of the book Schlesingner talks with a couple guys that traded in their Chelsea digs for an old beaten up brownstone in Harlem:
The first time I was here I though you lived in an embassy. There was this grand party which hundreds of people royalty, an Auchincloss, and all the big names in the landmark world. People drifted through rooms with fifteen-foot ceilings lit by hundreds of candles. Some guests perched on the persimmon velvet side chairs near the andirons. Others threw back their heads and laughed near the pink-and-white-striped satin chaise. Then of course there were those who stood under the oak-coffered ceiling in the dining room nibbling almond paste cookies among the autumn arrangements of hydrangeas and the gold silk drapes that spilled onto Oriental rug. You said you have one cleaning lady once a week to care for sixteen rooms, two kitchens, and five bathrooms. She must go into collapse.
[Dimitri] She just comes to dust. We do the rest. The house is 1888. We found a brochure about it in the museum of the City of New York. It was built for upper-middle-class New Yorkers who did not like immigrants moving into Midtown. I’m quoting from a history book of Harlem. The area didn’t stay wealthy for very long. I don’t think those houses could sustain themselves. It was too expensive to keep a place like this in top shape. Families moved out really fast. Later, with poverty and depression, the whole thing went down the drain. All this gracious living only lasted a very few decades. These places were rented out as rooming houses.
You moved to Harlem over one and a half years ago.
I came by accident one day. My foundation had some work here with the Children’s Storefrontówe were giving them money to teach the kids ancient Greek. I passed Mount Morris Park and that was it. It sounds like a fairy tale, but when I see what I want, I go after it. So we started looking. We didn’t want anything this big, but we came in just before the market got really crazy. Now there are not many buildings left to buy and prices have gone up a lot. The guy around the corner bought his about the same time we did. He works for an investment company. A lot of friends think we’re completely crazy to move up here. I think what people say about Harlem is highly exaggerated. I lived on the Bowery, in Chelsea, East 13th Street. That neighborhood has lost its edge. We’ve only done basic renovation on the house so far. The lawyer who lived here before did most of the dirty work, tearing down walls. As a historian, I want to make it livable without interfering with the fabric of the house. We don’t need air-conditioning because the skylights always create a draft. Also, I don’t want its years as SRO to be lost, the imperfections in the doors because of fights.
By the way, they were making a movie in front of your house when I came inó50 Violins with Meryl Streep.
They make movies around here all the time. A guy was trying to convince me to use our house for a minimal fee. He said”So-and-so, the actor, will be here. We’ll make you famous.” I said, “Look, I don’t care if it’s the Queen of England.”