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World’s Least Self-Aware Couple Takes Manhattan


The Maoists who edit the New York Times Real Estate section had a great idea. Bring in a couple from the South, and have them use Airbnb to really see New York City in all of its endless diversity of neighborhoods. And by “New York City,” I of course mean “neighborhoods in the city’s two most prestigious boroughs that range from the gentrified to the playgrounds for the .1%.” It will be studded with enough references to famous events and places from NYC’s gritty 70s to ensure good reviews should it ever be expanded to a novel. It will, in other words, combine out-of-town affluent rube provincialism with native affluent rube provincialism. And it will somehow be far more irritating that even that description makes it sound!

We initially focused on the downtown name-brand neighborhoods — Chelsea, West Village, SoHo — which happily also seemed to have the most Airbnb listings. We read the reviews closely, screening for noise and other potentially nasty surprises, from among the listings for places within our budget, which we based on the median rent in New York — roughly $100 a night, or $3,000 a month.


As winter set in, and while the bulk of our belongings made their languorous journey across the Pacific from Bangkok, we took our three suitcases to Chelsea for our maiden Airbnb foray.

Here was artsy New York, where Sid and Nancy became Sid and Nancy, and from which an imposing branch of the Gagosian Gallery presides over the art world today. A residential neighborhood of walk-ups, cafes and rats, right in the center of it all, Chelsea epitomized our image of city living, a fitting first stop on our home-free journey

What 2015 Chelsea (average rent for non-doorman one bedroom: $3,426/month) has to do with the neighborhood where Sid killed Nancy is…not obvious, although it’s flattering to think so.

According to a 2014 state report, though only 6 percent of Airbnb hosts rented out more than two units, they represented more than a third of the reservations in New York. The same report found the majority of the city’s short-term rentals to be illegal and that short-term rentals have made thousands of apartments unavailable as long-term housing, both key reasons Airbnb is controversial in New York and other places.

Sure, Airbnb might be one of the factors making housing inaccessible to increasing numbers of people in New York City, but domiciles are kind of Old Economy anyway. Pull youself up by your bootstraps and start living at a different $3,000 a month apartment every month! If you can convince renters you’re doing it as part of some kind of social media experiment, maybe you can get the kind digs to which you’ve become accustomed.

We enjoyed the homier experience of staying in someone’s actual place at our next stop, on the north side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, two blocks from where Frank Serpico was shot.

Yes, Frank Serpico being shot in the neighborhood 40 years ago is certainly highly relevant to Williamsburg today. Average listing price for Williamsburg (not even just North Williamsburg): $1,645,447.

As the taxi pulled up to our next address, Hamsterdam of “The Wire” came to mind. We were in an edgy part of Gowanus, an industrial strip in Brooklyn on the early side of transitional, centered on a canal so polluted it won a mention on the Superfund National Priorities List.

To borrow Irin Carmon’s twitter line,I must have missed the Whole Foods residents of Baltimore ghettos shopped at in The Wire. Average listing price for homes in Gowanus: $1,566,583. I’m sure prices in West Baltimore are similar.

To the hosts of places that resonated, I would explain our back story, our home-free experiment, and ask if he or she would let us stay for a month for our budget or thereabouts. As E. B. White said, “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

Within days, the owner of a chic SoHo one-bedroom who admired Elaine’s paintings on her website actually said yes, and we and our suitcases moved in. Her home was filled with one-of-a-kind things from her travels. I remember in particular the Kashmiri rug in the entryway, handmade in a style that isn’t used anymore. I avoided stepping on it even barefoot.

Elaine was taken by the Peugeot pepper grinder and the toaster with a digital display counting down to crusty perfection. However, even this high-tech assistance and Le Creuset pots couldn’t put her back in gourmet mode. It always takes her time to get going in a new kitchen, my sad sacrifice to the home-free lifestyle. Fortunately, I never tire of two of New York’s finest attributes — its pizza and bagels.

Christ. I’ll save my rant about how vastly overrated New York pizza-by-the-slice is for another post.

SoHo today is more boutiques than the wild artist enclaves depicted in Scorsese’s “After Hours,”

No kidding.

With the sharing economy, a home-free lifestyle is now becoming accessible to normal people, not just the superrich

I hate to tell you, but “normal people” do not have 36 grand a year to spend on rent. Normal people will often tend to have children, friends, stuff like that there, all of which makes whimsical airbnb living rather less plausible.

Our experiment has taught us many things, among them that our initial choice of neighborhoods, such as the West Village and SoHo, was lovely for visitors, celebrities and bankers, but less ideal for the proletariat. It showed us also that there were gems to be discovered, such as Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, which we liked so much we extended our stay to two months.

Nothing says “proletariat” like brownstone Brooklyn. Well, in fairness, average listing prices are down from over $2 million in October to a very working-class $1.5 million this month. Also, affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn are the opposite of “hidden gems.” Gawd.

Next week, discover the hidden proletarian charms of the Upper West Side!

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