Frugal Living & Thrifty Ideas · Happiness · My Little Apartment

My New York City Yard: How to Find A Diamond in the Rough


About a year ago, the fella and I moved from Brooklyn to Queens. Our lease was up, and the rent prices were steadily climbing, despite a lack of basic neighborhood amenities. In our area of Bushwick there was no decent grocery store, no pharmacy, and no park. I had to literally step over garbage on the street on my way to the subway.

But New York real estate is crazy, and since Brooklyn is considered hip, none of these things stop prices from steadily climbing. When I had first moved there it was relatively affordable, but with the hike in prices and a desire for our own place (without roommates), we started looking for alternatives.

We looked at several studio and one bedroom apartments in the Brooklyn area, thinking we would be able to find something workable. Each place was more depressing than the last, and some of the areas were downright unsafe. All of them were at least $1800 a month.

Gentrification from Williamsburg is spreading into the far reaches of Brooklyn, it was after horrible apartment number three that we started talking about other options. We decided that we should consider a totally different area, Queens. So one day we took the train to Astoria to walk around and get a feel for the neighborhood.

We stepped off the train expecting to see another dirty and slightly run down neighborhood. Instead, we saw charming buildings with a bustling shopping area, there was a Greek fish shop, an Italian bakery, a European imports market, a beautiful produce store, a butcher, a florist, and about a hundred different restaurants and bars. We were sold. We made an appointment to see an apartment, and within seconds of stepping inside agreed to hand over a deposit and sign a lease.

Instead of a studio or small one bedroom, we ended up with a two bedroom apartment in a pre-war building, with a yard. Our place is rent stabilized, and at $1500 a month, cheaper and larger than any of the dumps we saw in Brooklyn, none of which had a fire escape, much less a yard.

The photo on the top of the post is the view from one of our bedroom windows. It gets more beautiful as all of the plants come in, but even in these early days of Spring the open windows bring in the smell of fresh earth and trees, and the sound of chirping birds. The building is owned by an old Italian family, and the Grandfather/patriarch who is in his 80s still plants a full garden each year. We are free to use the yard as we please, and if that’s not amazing enough, he gifts us the fruits of his labor. Most of his seeds were saved and brought over from Italy, they are not commercial, so we get to enjoy fresh from the vine: tomatoes, grapes, peppers, cucumbers, butternut squash, peas, and more.

We know many of our neighbors, and several of the shopkeepers in our neighborhood know us by name. I once forgot money at the produce store and was told with a wave, “don’t worry, just bring it next time”. We are a 5 minute walk to a small park, and a 10 minute walk to a large park. In the midst of the paranoia and fast pace of the modern era, we found a slice of old New York, and it turns out, it’s a great deal.

What I’m trying to illustrate in explaining all of this, is how thinking a little bit outside the box, and going a bit against the grain of your peer group can pay off in incredible ways that you would never even imagine. For us, all it took was considering a move to a new area. For you it may be ditching your car, cutting cable, or even changing jobs.

Almost all of my friends still live in Brooklyn, and I tend to go to them when we hang out. They are mostly in filthy neighborhoods, in apartments that are smaller than ours, and that cost significantly more. When I first announced we were moving to Queens, it was like I had said, “I’m moving to Saudi Arabia.”

Most of my Brooklyn friends have never actually been to Queens, but in their minds it is unhip, suburban, boring, and far away. In reality, we have more diversity, more nightlife, and a much better food and shopping scene than we did in Brooklyn- but our neighborhood isn’t featured on Girls, so it’s not seen as being desirable. My fella still works in the fancypants Brooklyn area, and his commute door to door is about 30 minutes, which dashes the idea that it’s “so far away”.

Whether your peer group is New York hipsters or accomplished doctors and lawyers, chances are there are quite a few widely held biases among your group that have no real basis in fact. Maybe the private school that you assume is better doesn’t actually have a higher graduation rate than the public school, maybe crime rates aren’t really lower than a few streets over where property taxes are less, maybe the small dingy grocery store actually has better produce than Whole Foods down the street.

Living life as a frugal person, as a minimalist, and as someone who seeks quality over quantity, it’s always important to question these things. For years I lived in cockroach infested apartments, simply because I wasn’t aware that another option existed. In the last year I have seen my quality of life explode, and my savings has increased because it’s actually cheaper to live here, if we hadn’t taken that first leap of coming here to take a look around, we would have missed out, all it took was a conversation and a short train ride.




2 thoughts on “My New York City Yard: How to Find A Diamond in the Rough

  1. I was born and raise in Queens(Kew Gardens Hills, not on Queens Blvd…down by Vleigh Place). Glad you like Astoria. It was always a great, bustling Italian/Greek neighborhood.
    If you push further out in Queens there are many very nice neighborhoods.
    I noticed the other day that the garden apartments that I grew up in run about $180k as they are condos now. Our apartment had a back porch on a wooded trail. My Dad put down flagstones and a picket fence….it’s still there, from 1959! We lived on 78th Avenue and 138thSt.

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