When I moved to Stuyvesant Town in 2003, I had just graduated from college, I was terrified about living in Manhattan, and I had an assistant job that paid $28,000 a year and made me cry once a week—really, all I needed was a place to go where nobody would yell at me. I couldn’t have cared less about the historic postwar experiment in middle-class housing I was living in or even the lovely little oval-shaped park behind my building. Then again, not one of my older neighbors, probably wary of the college-age kids who had just been plopped into their midst, bothered to introduce himself to me. For six entire years.
If you ask long-term residents of Stuy Town or Peter Cooper Village why they like living there, they’ll tell you it’s because of the convenience, the quiet, the safety. In fact, if you Google the phrase “middle-class oasis,” the complex pops right up. The “middle class” part has been around since Metropolitan Life first built Stuy Town in the forties. Originally rent regulated, it was designed to be a sensible place to raise a family, sort of like Levittown. But post-Giuliani, Manhattan became more of a yuppie oasis than like anything resembling what MetLife was originally catering to. And Stuy Town looked like an underutilized, somewhat threadbare asset of big apartments renting for cheap. Which is what a group led by Tishman Speyer was thinking when it bought the complex for $5.4 billion in 2006. The experiment, of course, failed. Early this year, Tishman defaulted on its loan payments, and last week, the company handed ownership over to its creditors.
Now that the future of the neighborhood is up in the air, you hear politicians talking about preserving this “middle-class oasis.” But it’s hard to see what they’re protecting. Thanks to Tishman, the complex now features a concierge service and a gym, a Greenmarket, fancy landscaping, and even a screening room. Stuy Town “was built as an enclave for middle-class people in New York City, and if it were to lose that character, it would be an enormous loss,” City Councilman (and Peter Cooper resident) Dan Garodnick told me. “It has historically been home to teachers, firefighters, court officers, and many of them still call it home today.”
That’s true, but a growing percentage of the population doesn’t fit that description, and won’t, even if a nonprofit organization takes charge or the tenants buy it. Sure, when you pay a lower, stabilized rent you can actually afford, you may indeed call yourself middle class. But when you are looking for an apartment and you find a low, stabilized rent, you just call yourself lucky, whether you’re a firefighter or a gaggle of former sorority sisters with lingering Carrie Bradshaw fantasies.
Last fall, looking to move, I searched all over the East Village and saw a bunch of extremely expensive, and often exceedingly strange, apartments (I could have lived next door to D.J. Paul Sevigny, if I hadn’t needed a sink in my bathroom). In the end, I stayed in the complex. The price was nice, but this time, I picked it for what it has become rather than what it was. I liked the quiet that came with living in a park. I liked the kids playing outside and the proximity to the river. I’m glad for the teachers and families who’ve spent their entire lives there, but I picked it because I also liked the new people who called Stuy Town home. People on a budget who might otherwise be living across the river.
On my second day in the new apartment, I ended up waiting for the elevator with a neighbor. His name is Mark, and he lived with his wife and child right next door—facts I know because, wonder of wonders, he introduced himself. It might have been because I’m a bit older now, less obviously postcollegiate. Or it might have been because he was simply friendlier than my previous neighbors. But I’d like to think it was because residents of Stuy Town in general are beginning to realize that its blessings don’t have to be reserved just for firefighters for it to remain a “middle-class oasis.” Or, as a non-politician might put it, a community.