The Street Where I Live

British by birth, New Yorker by nature.

A Tree Grew in Chinatown

Home and DesignAlexandra kingComment
Chinatown, Autumn, 2013

Chinatown, Autumn, 2013

One year go this past weekend, Isaac and I packed up our downtown apartment and headed due south, kitchen pans rattling in the U-Haul, across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. Four months earlier I'd taken the same drive, wearing a white silk dress and roses in my hair, to marry my husband across the water. The move, in many ways, felt similarly momentous.

Though we loved our Chinatown neighborhood (we would open a business right across the street from our old apartment, just eight months later, though we didn't know it then) our place was decrepit. A rent-stabilized one bedroom in an old 18th century building on Chrystie Street, it had been Isaac's bachelor pad of five years before I came on the scene. We faux-affectionately named it "The Tenement Museum", in honour of the tourist attraction a few blocks away that gives (very good, you must go) tours of a restored tenement house. But why go there when you could see the real thing, we said. In our building, the front door stayed open all night. Restaurant workers crouched in the hallway, chain smoking on upturned tomato cans. Doors would fling open at all hours, occasionally revealing corridors of neatly lined up shoes and rickety looking bunk beds for day and night-shift sleepers. Many residents stationed themselves, permanently, on the stairs, cooking thick-scented food on (!) open flames. The apartment's only windows looked out onto a filthy courtyard containing the following- a discarded bucket, a full metric tonne of pigeon shit and a large, stained clawfoot bathtub, which, anchored jauntily on a glassy outcrop, was somehow, miraculously, entirely in tact despite almost certainly having been dropped out of a window from a very great height. Stairwells, corridors and walls were coated in layers of cooking smoke and ancient unstoppable dirt. The building's pigeon infestation was so extreme, and the amount of nests so noisy and prodigal, that Isaac took to positioning himself by our living room window with a giant super soaker, squirting hapless birds with a mixture of water and Siriacha sauce. At night, before the horny pigeon couples launched into their 4am aubade atop our air conditioner, we were woken by the sounds of local bars pumping up their sound systems and buckets of dish water being chucked out of windows.

But despite it all, I so loved many aspects of living there. Being casually handed fat little cooing babies to carry up the stairs while their power-house Mamas lugged up bags of groceries, the hilarious and touching aerobics class for Chinese old ladies that took place in the park opposite the building, the fruit and veg stall on the corner always stocked with ripe avocados and giant 30 cent bunches of cilantro. Yellow canaries in cages that whistled me on my way to work. My many sweet neighbours, who I spoke to solely in big smiles and thumbs up/down motions. Chinatown, and its community, is truly special. But the apartment was a nightmare. I did my best of course, but nothing, not even my dependable three-step program of white paint, green plants and shelves of books could fully mask its low-lit shabbiness. In September 2014, after a month of sleepless nights, a discovery that some new residents had taken to sleeping on the roof and a summer roach infestation of truly Indiana Jones-movie-level proportions, enough was enough. I burst into tears and told Isaac we had to move. Right. This. Minute. And, miraculously, because finding any apartment within the five boroughs of New York City always feels so, our friends who had recently moved into a beautiful brownstone in the historic neighborhood of Park Slope, told us that the first floor apartment was suddenly available to rent. Are you interested?" they said. Fast forward to me, jumping on the F train and running to the Rite Aid ATM on 7th Avenue to grab that holding deposit faster than you can say "we need an exterminator IMMEDIATELY" in Cantonese, which trust me, is surprisingly easy to locate via Google but astonishingly difficult to execute.

The Brooklyn apartment was by no means in a good way when I first saw it, one cold November day. It had virtually no storage. A rail road layout. A weird old door to the hallway in the bedroom. And the previous residents hadn't loved on it that much, to say the least, decor wise. But it had good bones. South facing windows. High ceilings. Decent water pressure. And, the absolute clincher, an outdoor space, which admittedly one had to climb through a window to get to, but goddammit you could fit a table and chairs on that thing.

A couple of months back, my apartment was photographed and I was interviewed by the charming girls of Blonde magazine about my approach to design (you can see the photos and the full interview here- heads up, it's in German). I found myself saying out loud something I suddenly realized- that living in a series of shitty apartments is pretty much the best training you can have in terms of understanding how to create a beautiful home. I'm so thankful, in retrospect, for the shitty apartments, all of them- the damp drafty flat on Camden Road, the crumbling purple mews house in Chalk Farm, even the bloody Tenement Museum. They taught me the essential lesson that it's possible to patch things up with a little love and ingenuity. But most importantly, despite their faults, all of them were and in some ways still are, home.

When you move to a new flat or apartment or house, you don't just take on the previous resident's lackadaisical approach to cleaning behind the oven, or their rampant mouse problem, or their not yet forwarded magazine subscriptions or wedding invitations from long-forgotten aunts- you also dwell arm in arm with the energy left behind. The breakups and dinner parties and wild nights in after wild nights out. All homes you live in live on in you. And you in them. When I left our Chinatown apartment for the last time, I did so in the way I have left all the places I have ever lived in. I ran my hands along the newly naked walls, scarred by the picture frames we had hung, scuffed by our shoes, and I whispered, ever so softly, "thank you".