The first of a 3 part series on compact living in the compact city.
A number of years ago, I lived on a generally well-kept block of homes and small apartment buildings just off Dolores Street. I lived in a tiny place, which I’ll detail later. One detail worth mentioning now was that this microscopic flat had a very large set of bay windows overlooking the street. My porch if you will, where I developed a love for sitting in the window and reading. And yes, noting the comings and goings on the block.
Over time, I became fascinated with the home right across the street. Unlike the others on the block, it looked amiss. The paint was peeling, there was a tarp on the roof that would billow in the wind. The other thing that was striking was the variety of people that would come and go from the house, one rarely would see the same people for too long. It was so unlike the other homes on the block. It was in essence a crash pad.
You would see these building scattered through the city, perhaps not as well kept up, absentee landlord, cheap rent. I guess I found that rather alluring in a way, and the dramas one could imagine within,this all stemming from my overactive imagination and its recollection of a 60’s San Francisco, where people flocked to the Haight to find love…or acid…… or both. You did what you needed to do to get by in the high priced urban jungle, right? Find a cheap room you heard about from some friends, or maybe just crash on their couch, they won’t mind; people are always coming and going. Yeah, that was it, it was about like that, I imagined, our block had its very own Crash Pad.
But of course, I too was trying to work the same thing out.At the height of one of those every 5 year real estate booms in San Francisco, I too had found myself in need for a place to live. San Francisco is a dense place that people want to live in, and that combination has driven up rental prices to absurd levels over the years.
Yes, one could live with room-mates , but having just passed 30, I really wanted a place of my own. But the search was maddening. I showed up at open house after open house, with people lined up to get in, checkbooks open. I was running out of time and was starting to feel desperate. So, one Sunday I again set out and came up this well-kept block off Dolores. Yup, there was the line out the door. I almost turned away, but decided to go in, as the line moved fast. And the reason the line moved fast, one could pretty much see the place in a few seconds. It. Was. Tiny. Most left quickly, no application in hand.
I ,though, filled out an application. I didn’t have a clue how I would live in a place so small, but I wasn’t sure I had a choice. So my new strategy, take a place no one else wanted. At least it was a well-kept block, well except for the Crash Pad. And I got the apartment, my own crash pad. For $600 a month in 1994, I had my own apartment in the second most expensive city in the ole US of A. Livin’ the dream.
So, we all moved forward. My thought initially was to not be home much, but over time, that got old. I wanted to enjoy my own place, and would have to learn to live with it. Did I mention my apartment was small? It was 12 feet wide, 370 square feet, and had about two equally sized rooms, one living space facing the street, full of light and air, and one space facing a stair well, the Kitchen- dark, depressing. Oh, and the world’s smallest bathroom, tucked under a stair. Here’s a little aerial model of the apartment as I remember it:
You can see I had the classic problem of living in a small space, that is- what to do with the bed. And despite vows that I would fold up my bed every morning, during the week the front room was basically a bedroom. And that extra space in the rear, the Kitchen underused- just a sad little table. It felt like a cheap hotel room.
In a way then, I did feel a kinship to the Crash Pad across the street, and the motley assortment of characters who lived behind the peeling paint. Actually , there was one guy who seemed to run the show over there, the ringleader, and he began to perform some basic improvements, no doubt for some free rent. And, so I too, set out to improve my little home.
Over the course of the next year, I renovated. The apartment had nearly 12 foot ceilings, so I added a sleeping loft, actually a free-standing piece -custom built, in the back room, and together with space above closets, created a quasi- second floor. No more sleeping in the living room. The loft created a nice nook of space below which became my work area. Next I punctured through the wall separating the rooms, and brought in some much-needed light and air to the back room (There goes my security deposit). I ripped up the carpet in the front room which revealed a wood floor, and turned the front room into a minimally furnished living/dining space. As time went on, I took advantage of the height of the space to suspend my bike on a pulley, and add storage. Finally , by breaking the wall up in the middle of the unit, I painted it, and it began to read as an object in a now perceived larger space.
My new space became a more livable home, rather than just a place to rest my weary head, and so a place that I thought I might not live in a year became home for 6-1/2 years. Over that time, I would sit in the window, overlooking the well-kept block, and regard my neighbors in the Crash Pad. After a burst of upkeep, the burst that had inspired me, I noticed their house had declined. And I saw less of the ringleader, and when I did see him, he didn’t seem well. He had lost a lot of weight, and moved slowly. In 1998, this usually meant one thing. This was the longest I had lived anywhere on my own, long enough to see the bend of some of the lives lived on the block, for better or worse. And I suppose it was made possible out of the necessity of , like many in the city, making tiny spaces livable.
By 1999, the dot-com boom hit, and our building was sold. The mellow old landlord left, and a high-strung downtown realtor was in. The vibe in the building changed, like throughout the city. New money flooded in for the latest absurd internet company and its attendant workers, so rents were skyrocketing. It was around that time I also noticed the for-sale sign on the building across the street, the original Crash Pad would apparently soon meet its demise, though not too soon to welcome one last batch of residents new to town- ready to live the dream.
As the calendar flipped to 2000, I reflected on how this little place had seen me well for 6 years. I learned to cook well in that tiny Kitchen, and entertained in my modestly spacious front room. I found an art studio close by, and was able to outsource my drawing and painting to another location. Between jobs, I took a “sabbatical” and sublet it one summer, traveling for 3 months abroad. And I still was able to save money while others spent thousands on less. In short, I lived well, and fully.
But, I was now feeling I’d outgrown it. I was into the second half of my 30’s shouldn’t I own my home, or at least live in a place, with say, I don’t know, a hallway? Yeah, I wanted a god damned hall way! One spring evening, reflecting on my station in life, I looked out at the Crash Pad across the street, and saw a guy in a wheelchair with a suitcase. It was the ringleader, I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and I was shocked. Despite knowing many on the block, we had never spoken, yet I felt I knew him well. In the time that it took me to regret this fact, I watched as somebody emerged from the house, and eased his frail body into the cab. I felt that night I was losing a close friend, one I never met. The Crash Pad sold the next week. I felt change coming for me as well.
Over the summer, as remodeling work took off in earnest across the street, my job presented me with the chance to move back to Denver. After initially being dismissive of the idea, I soon began to rethink it. Think of all that cheap space on the wide open plains!! And around me the city that I knew had changed, I felt out of step with it. I decided to move.
By fall, as I began to prepare to move out, a new family with a new-born moved in- the Crash Pad’s metamorphosis was complete. Meantime, I met the new owner of my building, a wiry, overly caffeinated woman- I feared the worse for my security deposit. But she planned on gutting the place- it was all good. She thought she would be able almost triple the rent- $1700, for 370 square feet- and that was 12 years ago. (Seems steep even today). Meanwhile, I would be moving into an apartment 3 times the size of this, and yes there was not one, but 2 hallways.
A few days before I was due to leave, I was drawing at the studio across the street. Someone there was looking for a place, and wanted to see my place. I took him over, and he laughed. “I couldn’t live here, oh my god, how did you do it?” I nodded. ‘Yeah, its pretty small, but you’d be surprised…..you know……’ My voice trailed off. ‘But yeah, its small I said, a nice place to crash.’
I turned in the keys.
Postscript: I did move back to Denver, spent a couple of years there living in lots of space. Unfortunately, that didn’t make up for what didn’t exist beyond those walls; and I returned from Denver’s monotone suburbanity two years later, in love, and looking for an inexpensive apartment. I didn’t need much space.
Part II will look at the budding trends of the micro-apartment, along with another related personal tale of living in the compact city.