4 People, 650 Square Feet: A Love Story

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Photo: Glowimages/Corbis

Recently it came to my attention that I had gotten into a bad habit. Whenever anyone visited our one-bedroom apartment, home to two adults and two children, I made sure to declare within the first five minutes, “Of course we’ll be moving soon.”

This is, in fact, a lie. These days, apartments in our suddenly high-rent Brooklyn neighborhood regularly sell for $50,000 above the asking price, and I’ve heard of buyers swooping in to pay nearly a million dollars cash within 24 hours of a small fixer-upper house being listed. My husband is an artist and I am a writer; we both teach for CUNY. Even though we own our place (got a good deal for it in 2009, post-downturn), we are still out of our league in terms of trading up.

For a long time I chafed against this fact, disbelieved it and denied it and spent my Sundays dutifully trudging from one pie-in-the-sky open house to another. I nodded along with the murmurs of sympathy I received whenever I described our living situation. I felt ashamed that our daughter’s bedroom is a small space carved out of our former bedroom.

But here’s the thing: I could count on my fingers the number of times I’ve experienced a true moment of claustrophobia in our home. 

So this is my real-estate epiphany — the problem is not living in a small space as a family of four. The problem is the acquaintance who, upon hearing about our setup, flings hand to breast and insists, “Well, you can’t raise your child in a broom closet!”

The amount of living space per person in an average new American home is 1,054.7 square feet. In our 650-square-foot home, that number is 162.5 square feet. By New York standards, and certainly by world standards, this is not so shabby. But it’s shabby enough to have earned comments like, “You had to move the bed to the living room? That’s such a bummer!”

The author's apartment. Photo: Andy Vernon-Jones

Not long ago, when I was pregnant with our second child and frenetically working to finish revisions on my novel (in which, it just so happens, a series of small and peculiar apartments serves to illuminate the characters’ inner lives), I felt acutely, tearfully, that self-consciousness of not being able to adequately provide. One night, my husband and I stayed up late binge-watching video tours of small homes, my favorite of which features Oprah visiting an impeccably tasteful apartment in Copenhagen. The elegant Danish hostess shows Oprah the miniature fridge and the elevated alcove where her children sleep. “That’s your whole refrigerator?” Oprah says. “This is their whole bedroom?” Oprah is astounded, but she’s also impressed.

I finally swore off looking at real-estate listings the day I encountered a feature in Dwell about a Brooklyn couple who moved upstate in order to raise their family with more space, only to find that they were discontent with their isolation; they promptly moved back to Brooklyn, bought a small Windsor Terrace apartment, and transformed it into such an oasis that I wanted to crawl right through the pages and make coffee in their bright, uncluttered kitchen with its clean white lines and open shelving.

Pair that with coming upon the model apartment in Ikea for a family of four in less than 600 square feet — I lingered there, contemplated cunning storage systems, reassured myself that we’re not crazy, that I’m not a failure for offering my children less square footage than I had as a kid. 

The idea that you can’t have it all, that you must give up some things in order to have others — it’s not just something people say. We children of the buoyant '80s and '90s are sometimes reticent to believe that we do often have to choose between financially rewarding careers and emotionally rewarding careers, between a partner who brings home the bacon and a partner who’s home for bedtime, between a large home and a small home. We’re always going to be making trade-offs. Though my husband and I never made the explicit choice to live in a one-bedroom with two kids, there have been so many choices along the way, a wealth of choices: the choice to live in this city, the choice to be artists, the choice to be teachers, the choice to have two children. This whole one-bedroom thing starts to look like a pretty high-class problem when one considers the privilege that lies behind each of those choices.

The sculptor and installation artist Andrea Zittel created a piece called the A-Z Body Processing Unit, which consists of a bucket toilet placed directly in front of a surface for preparing and eating food, the smallest possible space in which one can perform the purest acts of survival: input, output. There’s a severity to this, a starkness and a question about the point of existence — but what strikes me more is the graceful efficiency, the humorous extremity, and, ultimately, the serenity. Succeeding at small-space living has more to do with your state of mind than with how you manage your square feet. It requires acknowledging that a greater amount of physical space doesn’t necessarily correlate with a greater amount of mental space.  

A few weeks ago, my 2-year-old — who has already overheard me talking real estate ad nauseam — said out of the blue, “Mommy, I never want to leave this home. We’re cozy here.”

Her tiny little room is her pride and joy, and in our household (or, I guess, apartmenthold), we refer to it as “the coziest room in Brooklyn.” When a little boy recently stepped into her bedroom and said, “Why is this room so small?” I felt a flash of neck-ringing rage. But it swiftly passed. For one thing, my daughter didn’t seem to register his comment. And by the time she is old enough to feel self-conscious about the size of her room, here’s hoping she’ll be able to understand that rather than giving her a big room in a big house with a big yard, we’ve chosen to spend tons of time with her and her brother, and to pursue our passions.

I often think about something a friend once was told by his beloved rabbi: “Your values are how you spend your money and your time.” Never mind what values you proclaim — the proof is in the pudding.

In the evening, I shower by night-light so the bathroom light won’t wake the kids. I put on a bathrobe (there’s one tip — own a thick enough bathrobe and you can trick yourself into feeling like your home is a palace). I step past the two nooks where my children sleep deeply, enter the other room in its hushed post-bedtime cleanliness, my husband drawing at his desk, and joy fizzes up inside me. My entire expanding life contained within this beautiful white rectangle of a home.

So here’s my promise: The next time someone comes over, I’m going to fling open the door to reveal our kitchen/bedroom/dining room/living room/playroom/my office/his office/exercise room/library/family room. I’ll say, “Come on in, make yourself at home.”