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The War Between Prewar Buildings and Modern Construction in NYC

Brownstone apartment building in New York.

Maybe because the Big Apple is plagued with scant housing, New Yorkers are torn on the raging war between pre-war buildings and modern construction in the city. Or maybe, both are just as bad.

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Not a day goes by when some piece gets published in Gothamist about how some hot new luxury development wound up springing leaks, the tenants being too hot or cold because that’s what living behind a shitload of glass does to you, or the developer is basically using that building as a fancy bank without a care in the world what actually happens to the people who live there. Since well, if it’s a shiny new luxury property, chances are it’s just being used to hide assets from a foreign government and not many people are living there, to begin with.

But there’s always this war that breaks out in the comment section about how you’re not a real New Yorker if you’re not head over heels in love with living in an old building where you’ve had the same neighbors for 20 years yet paradoxically rarely spend time in your apartment, only eat at restaurants that have been there since the Carter administration and have exactly five seats (and never use a credit card!), and basically shun all the trappings of modernity while ceaselessly complaining about the MTA. This is countered by the hand-wavers who parrot the same lines about how cities change, no one owes you a home or living in the neighborhood where you work or just want to live, just go shake that money tree to magically get more money to pay exorbitant rents or turn the pages of a phonebook with gloves on, read: try to buy something here.

Even though some of us would like to reclaim those parts of the old New York we sorely miss, but also embrace some of the new and make this damn city more inclusive and modernized in good ways instead of stupid shiny ways like Cuomo pointlessly putting lights on a bridge. Get new public and private places we can actually use in the neighborhood, except for the sudden proliferation of the same five banks, drugstore, and fast-casual chains eviscerating beloved neighborhood institutions. Fuck those with a rusty chainsaw.

JPMorgan Chase Bank in New York.
There are literally more Chase branches in this city than there are subway stations. We have direct deposit plus mobile banking today with more merchants accepting credit cards than ever, HOW many frigging bank branches do we seriously need?!

But this is New York, dammit. Housing is scant from both artificial means like this where we’d benefit more from a vacancy tax than the gentrification of public housing, as well as simply having some of the highest population density in the country. Amenities are not a thing here unless you’re talking incredibly new luxury developments. You find that shithole with a cracked sink and walls that conceal less than Lizzo’s basketball game attire and pay $1,800/month for the privilege.

Now here comes my hot take of the century: spare me the talk about how pre-war buildings are so great and glamorous. While much of the “modern luxury” construction with these overpriced new apartments definitely sucks, the best buildings are not much older than me. If you can find an apartment here that was built in the 80s and 90s, hold onto it for dear life. I’ve chosen my side in this war, dammit. Over half the Gothamist commentariat will hate me, but screw it. Here we go!

What Separates Pre-War Construction in NYC Apart from Post-War?

Burned out apartment building in New York City, ca 1946.

There’s technically three categories of construction in the rotten apple:

  • Pre-war (built before 1945)
  • Post-war (built between 1945-1990)
  • New construction (after 1990)

It’s a little broad and vague, especially given that construction from the 90s definitely differs from the outfits popping up nowadays. The same tenets that apply to fast fashion now apply to the scourge of mostly-glass luxury towers that comprise most of the city’s new housing stock. More care was taken with the late post-war and early new construction era than the properties that sprung up post-9/11 after some of the first major waves of gentrification. And it only went downhill since. There was but a brief golden age in how apartments here were built.

High ceilings are a key feature of pre-war apartments. Construction after 1960 or so tends to have lower ceilings. The latter end of pre-war apartments was designed for soldiers coming home and starting families when the concept of the starter home still existed. The first half was somewhat based on the tenements that got torn down due to unsanitary conditions and cramming an inhumane number of people into them, except that now a tenement was just meant to house one bachelor in a one or two-room apartment, or perhaps a couple who didn’t own much stuff. 

So, one advantage that pre-war apartments can have is that some layouts are pretty spacious and take a lot of liberties with the features. Split-levels and drop living rooms were common features. I had two different apartments in the same building erected in 1938, and they were incredibly spacious by both modern and pre-war standards even the best way I could describe the square footage is “lots of room for a girl and her toad, but a couple would want to kill each other if they lived together”. The second apartment I had was a mite smaller with an extra alcove near the bathroom. It also had a drop living room, which is when you have a sunken room that descends from two or three steps.

Penthouse living room interior.
It was definitely not modern and shiny like this, but was a lot smaller and laid out in a similar fashion.

Pre-war floor plans can vary and repeat in the same building or lot. In the building I live in now, erected in 1930, there are over 100 other buildings in the same lot that have some of the same floor plans. But in general, it’s not like how when the same modern developer designs buildings in three different neighborhoods, those floorplans may be exactly the same.

The originality of the layouts is definitely cool, don’t get me wrong. Knowing that you live in a building rich with history can also be exciting, it turned out that my old place was WAVE housing (women’s auxiliary units) during the war. The place I bought across town? Was segregationist as fuck and Jews weren’t allowed to rent apartments in the neighborhood, so I wouldn’t have been able to live here when it was in its supposed heyday! Yeah, pre-war history has an ugly side too.

But while I get that seeing those beautiful Art Deco tiles in the lobby and associating those old fixtures with visiting your grandparents sparks the nostalgia that warms your heart, I bring you into 2019. 2020 is calling and says, “I would cut a bitch for a thermostat, MY GOD.”

If New Construction Sucks, Why is Pre-War Just as Bad?

Elegant white living room with pendant lighting, a gray couch, and a matching patterned gray area rug.

I found myself side-eyeing this bit about how pre-war apartments the greatest. I heaved a deep sigh and said, “Spoken like someone who has not lived in them their entire adult life.”

First, let’s start with something that frequently gets overlooked in our ableist society: many pre-war buildings absolutely suck ass in terms of accessibility. Walk-ups are a plague throughout lower Manhattan, though there’s a couple scattered through Brooklyn and The Bronx. But even if you are not disabled, do YOU want to move a couch of bed up five fucking flights of stairs? Regularly handle grocery shopping that way? What would you do if you had an injury that made going up and down stairs incredibly painful, if not impossible? While several older buildings do have elevators, they’re like frantically trying to drag a half-dressed child to school when you’ve only got 15 minutes to make it work on time. They got these annoying doors you have to push and pull open. That slow-ass elevator, the only one in the whole building, makes me have to tack on at least 10 minutes to get to where I’m going and that’s if it’s actually functional.

The damn things die or go on extended life support so often, that they can seem dangerous. Being trapped in an elevator is a very real nightmare in this city, and it’s far more apt to happen in an older building. They come equipped with emergency call buttons, but I’m glad we live in the age of cell phones because once my building’s emergency call button completely flatlined. No, that didn’t induce an anxiety attack AT ALL.

An elevator with an open door.
The elevator need not be shiny and pretty like this. I JUST WANT IT TO NOT KILL ME.

The elevator interiors are cool because most of them use the original hardware from the 1930s or 40s. It is pretty neat to watch your floor come up on a little dial instead of a digital number so it makes you feel like you’re in a noir film about to meet Humphrey Bogart smoking a Chesterfield in a fedora and trench coat with his feet up on the desk. But trust, when you’re trying to wheel luggage, a wheelchair, or stroller inside while keeping that heavy-ass door open and hoping someone above you didn’t call the elevator down first, the novelty wears off pretty quick. It wears off even faster if you have one of those things plus no warning the elevator stopped working, and have to get down to the ground floor safely.

Getting in and out of some pre-war buildings is also hellish because of split levels or, in the case of brownstones, huge staircases. Mine has three annoying stairs indoors and another three outdoors. These buildings were erected long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was drafted in the late 80s, and definitely not with disabled people in mind let alone those who would live in these apartments for a long time and wanted to age in place. As for the apartments themselves, drop living rooms may look elegant, but forget getting a wheelchair or walker through them. Doorways and passages are not wide enough for most mobility aids, for sure.

Accessibility aside, let’s talk structure.

Pre-war buildings DO have much stronger foundations than post-war and new construction. More durable materials were used in pre-war construction, so while these old buildings can be hellish to live in sometimes, they will withstand almost anything with regular maintenance. My old place withstood Irene and Sandy to the point that I had water, power, and Internet! Only had a little water leak in through the windows.

But while the foundations are incredibly durable, it’s the things above them that can be questionable and it’s not always chalked up to landlord neglect or poor property management.

First, the pipeworks in some pre-war buildings can make you long to only use the toilet and shower at work or the gym. The higher the floor you’re on, the suckier the water pressure is. While pre-war buildings tend to have six or fewer floors, the top floor may mean you’re free from upstairs neighbors but it also means that washing your hands is tantamount to using a medicine dropper full of water. But if you’re on a low floor? That strong foundation is all for naught when the standpipe could burst and inadvertently evict you, which is what happened in my fifth year of living in that ground floor apartment. I was lucky there was a vacant studio a few floors up. Worst of all though, while the foundation can ironically hold up during an apocalyptic superstorm, the pipes will break down and suddenly you’re wasting your evening mopping up an overflowing toilet or bathtub (I detailed my adventures with this in why bathroom carpeting is a horrendous idea.)

White wall with peeling paint.

Then if your pipes don’t have enough walls around them, this is what your walls will look like. It’s what my bedroom walls look like, no matter how many times I call the maintenance department in exasperation to make a plaster appointment. There’s just nothing they can do about those pipes trying to bust out of there like a snake shedding its skin. You’re definitely NOT getting smooth and pretty walls you can easily paint or wallpaper, depending on the walls’ age and location.

For every desirable feature like unique molding, hardwood floors, or inset shelving in some walls (a feature I definitely miss from my last studio), so many of these structural aspects just suck so hard. Among the worst being that you can’t control the temperature. It’s not so bad in the spring or fall when it’s pretty temperate. Summers are basically crematoriums here so you don’t want to skimp on air conditioning, but you can make window units feel like central air if yours is powerful enough and those old solid doors effectively trap the air inside.

But during the winter, you’re going to want nothing more than to take a sledgehammer to your radiator because it gets disgustingly hot with no way to shut them off. Even if you turn the valve, you get two temperatures: freeze your ass off or sweat to death. There is no in-between. While bimetallic thermostats were actually around since before the war, digital thermostats didn’t start becoming regular features in apartments until the tail end of the post-war construction era.

Even if pre-war apartments get modernized with new appliances, shiny new backsplash tiles, and furniture worthy of a Corcoran Group staging job, they’re still going to have those annoying elevator, temperature, and pipeworks aspects.

 

While I love my neighbors and many aspects of my building and neighborhood, whether I leave this city or wind up trading up within it? That next apartment better be younger than me but not young enough to be my child.

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