Self-isolation in a studio apartment

NEW YORK • Paris has its garrets; London, its bedsits. In New York, it is the studio apartment - and its grittier cousin, the tenement railroad flat - that has sheltered generations of strivers and makers.

Now that New Yorkers are sheltering in place, studio dwellers would seem to be particularly challenged. But many say the years in their smaller nests have made them more resilient, primed for self-isolation.

If the bedsit seemed fashioned for a Barbara Pym character to nurse her hot-plate supper, and the garret to succour a starving painter or poet, the New York studio apartment, from its beginnings, promised grander things.

Once a feature of the apartment-hotels built in the late 19th century, some were designed as housing for middle-class, even affluent, single men. These bachelor flats anticipated a gentleman tenant lunching at his club, dining in restaurants or ordering from the residential hotel's kitchen, and so these early versions lacked a kitchen.

By the 1920s, studio apartments had been rebranded as efficiency units, said Mr Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and the author of Biography Of A Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street.

Studios became a common urban type, kitted out with neat galley kitchens and even "disappearing beds" that folded down from a wall, aka the Murphy, named after a man who patented them. Such apartments were fine launchpads for young professionals or childless couples because so much of urban life happened outside the home.

But what happens when urban life effectively stops? There are 3,000 apartments that measure under 400 sq ft in Manhattan, according to Mr Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel, a long-time appraiser of the city's real estate, and an untold number in the other boroughs.

Here, two people who live in them tell their stories of quarantine.

Everything is within arm's reach in Mr Gerald Busby's bright, spare room, which is less than 200 sq ft. His computer where he composes. His bed, where he may serve a visitor tea. The upright piano he no longer uses but is a touchstone, he said, "to what really matters".

Mr Busby, 84, is a composer who has written scores for filmmakers Robert Altman and Paul Taylor. He moved to his room in the late 1990s, in the aftermath of the death of his partner from Aids.

Mr Busby was struggling with addiction and the rent, and the hotel's long-time manager and eccentric gatekeeper, gave him an ultimatum.

"'If you pay your rent and behave yourself, I'll move you to a place where you can spend the rest of your life,'" Mr Busby recalled the manager saying, before offering him a studio on the same floor as his old apartment.

The rent was originally US$720, he said, "but it's been lowered to US$600-something".

Nearly a year ago, he fell and fractured a hip. Other medical horrors ensued. As his injuries have curtailed his movements and sheltering from the spread of the novel coronavirus has shut out nearly everything else, he finds himself recalling a lesson learnt from Altman, the director, who cast him as a preacher in the 1978 film A Wedding.

"I was so scared, I could hardly breathe," Mr Busby remembered. "Altman said, 'Be grateful for anyone or any thing that makes you this nervous. Don't focus on the fear, focus on the energy, and use that as your raw material.'"

Busby is drawing on that lesson more and more lately, he said. But the sun still pours through his stained glass windows, and neighbours and friends drop off food, and if he can't walk, he can still write, and so his world is as big as it needs to be.

On a chalkboard-painted closet door, Jillian White, a director of a mortgage company, has copied what has become a contemporary homage to Rosa Parks, surely one of the best boundary setters of the last century. It is a line now printed on T-shirts and hoodies. White found it on a poster on Etsy.

"Nah," it reads. "R. Parks, 1955." You can see it from every corner of Ms White's 355 sq ft apartment on the Upper West Side.

The 38-year-old has been working from home for the past month, as her industry scrambles to adjust to a new world. She has been setting boundaries for herself to expand her experience and relieve her psyche even though she is now alone, all day, in a small space.

At 8.45 am, she turns on her laptop; at 6pm sharp, she shuts it down, puts it in its case, puts the case in her hallway, and then takes a walk through Central Park, enacting a reverse "commute".

Once home, she takes a bath to separate the evening from the day, puts on a podcast, lights a candle. Even closing the bathroom door, she said, makes her feel refreshed when she reenters the living space.

Then she calls her parents, another cue that distances "home" life from work life. The strict routine sustains and buoys her. "Our lives in the offices have clear edges," she said. "When you work from home, everything begins to blend together, and that takes a toll. Clear boundaries are key."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2020, with the headline 'Self-isolation in a studio apartment'. Subscribe