By George Capsis
If you go online right now you can find half a dozen articles on the precipitous drop in the New York City real-estate market brought about by the pandemic. In reading them I encounter terms that are very familiar to me, which I discovered when apartment-hunting with my mother during the depths of the Depression.
Now, when Dusty drives me up Sixth Avenue past the RCA building in which I worked for RCA a half-century ago, I am disconcerted to see the streets nearly empty of office workers or even tourists. Yesterday I read that owners of the empty office towers are thinking of converting them into apartment buildings!
When the Depression hit, in 1929, all apartment construction in Manhattan came to a dead stop; you can easily tell pre-Depression apartment buildings—they are English Tudor. (English Tudor was considered the rich man’s style.) Those on the west side of Washington Square are perhaps the largest and fanciest examples we have in the Village. In the very largest is the residence of the president of NYU.
The bulk of the five story tenements that undulate over the five-borough landscape of the city were designed in what might be called Renaissance architectural style, with heavy sheet metal roof cornices and large keystone heads over some of the windows—architecture you can find in Florence or Rome. I used to think this was due to the influx of Italian immigrants, but now I suspect it was started by the Germans who came in the 1820s; we still have some of their original buildings on the lower East Side.
But let me tell you about apartment shopping during the Depression. My father was the first—and for a long time the only—Greek real estate broker working with restaurants and bars in New York. And being Greek, even in the Depression he managed to keep the family going.
But because he dealt in restaurants and bars, he worked nights right up to dawn; so we three brothers, John, George, and Paul saw him for a few minutes while he took his morning whiskey and, then, not again till the following morning.
My older brother John decided he was a writer and demanded a typewriter for Christmas. One of his first treatises was a resignation from the family, so that meant I had to do all the running downstairs to get a quart of milk or loaf of Wonder Bread (both for 11 cents).
Since my father was never around, and my older brother had abdicated the family, my mother made me the substitute father. So, when she had to go to Macy’s to buy a couch she took me along and asked my opinion, and I gave it to her. And whenever I looked at that couch I took pleasure—it was my decision. So I became an adult at age 10.
OK, but I was going to tell you about apartment shopping during the Depression. Every spring people would start thinking about moving. They would review the neighborhoods around them, debate the merits of each, and then take a walk to one just a little better than the one they were living in.
Every building had a metal shield hanging outside with the legend “Apartments Available.” And then, on a series of nail hooks, it would display the number of rooms available in these vacant apartments, “2, 3, 4, 5.” My mother would stop at a building she liked, where, on the left of the entrance door, there would be a very shiny brass plate with the legend “Super” inscribed in black letters, and a bell. She would have me ring the bell and, within minutes, the super would emerge from his basement apartment with a dangling bunch of keys and a “Yes, how can I help you.”
My mother always responded with, “Do you have three bedrooms on the top floor?”—the top floor because it was five flights up and, hence, cheaper. All the apartments we lived in on the Upper West Side were on the fifth floor, including the last and best at 550 Riverside Drive, just north of Grant’s Tomb and the Claremont Inn.
But let us go back—the super would lead us up the five flights to the available apartment and open the door to the smell of fresh paint. The hall floor would be covered in paper to protect the newly shellacked floors and we would walk past the tiny bedrooms to the two big front rooms—the living and dining rooms. After the super told my mother that the rent was $65 he would ask, “What do you think?” My mother would pause and ask, “How many months concession?”
Now, I have not heard the phrase “how many months concession” in 80 years, but I am seeing it in articles about New York’s real estate depression. Today, prospective tenants are indeed asking, “How many months concession?” That means, “How many months free of rent do I get if I agree to sign this lease?”
Yes, it is hard to believe that after 78 years of rent control, which had been implemented at the end of WWII to control the rents on the very few available empty apartments—since none had been built since 1929—we are once again asking landlords for concessions. But there is more…
It is not only the Pandemic which has closed offices, restaurants, and libraries; the online world has made it very possible, and even mandatory, for preschoolers and grad scholars to stay home and just finger the keys.
I was shocked to read in the Times that a company on lower Broadway, faced with signing a new lease for an empty office (everybody having been sent home because of the pandemic), said No— it being cheaper to let people work from home.
My grandson Teddy, sent home from his job working on computer security systems in Boston, and his sister, a third-year college student, are both continuing at home on their computers.
Some thirty-five years ago I started a business developing market strategies for European companies entering the US market; the only way I could communicate with them was with a teletype machine! (Young readers will have no idea about this machine—it was a massive typewriter on a stand, connected over telephone wires to a similar machine in Europe, and when they keyed our machine it would bang out the letters—sometimes at 3:00 in the morning.)
Sometime later, the fax machine was invented and a French client pleaded with me to get one because it would be so chic.
Today, we have our contributors’ meetings online instead of in my garden, and I get to know the personalities of our writers better by seeing their home-decorating preferences.
At this point I should be making some predictions as to what the future might look like, but I think we can assume that communications will get better and better, and that future phone conversations might take place over 50-inch 3D TV screens.
My hope is that our knowledge and intelligence—and yes, wisdom—will also improve somewhat, so that as we continue to proceed in the global electronic world we will have something worthwhile to say.