The Magazine

The Great Apartment Hunt

Joseph Epstein's sweet home, Chicago

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I spent a good part of the last three weeks helping a young friend look for an apartment, and the experience was revealing. Among other things, it made me realize that so much has changed in the city where I grew up and have lived most of my life that I scarcely know it. The experience also showed the crucial role of computers even in such fundamental activities as finding shelter. And it revealed, finally, the pressure that the current economy has put on the stock of available rental property. 

Looking for a place in Chicago

Michael Sloan

My friend is in her early twenties, attractive and intelligent, a visual artist by training. She has been renting an apartment on the twenty-third floor of a building overlooking Lake Michigan with a spectacular view of Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers. Views, though, even magnificent ones, will take a person just so far. She has felt isolated in this apartment, and longed to live in a livelier neighborhood among her contemporaries. 

Her demands were straightforward enough: She was looking for a one- or two-bedroom apartment, with hardwood floors, a secure parking space, a safe neighborhood, and decent light. Central air-conditioning and an in-unit washer and dryer would be nice, but not absolutely essential. She had between $1,200 and $1,500 a month to spend on rent, and five weeks in which to find a place. 

Her first choice of neighborhood was one located in the north central part of the city called Wicker Park/Bucktown. I knew Wicker Park but had not been there for many years. My father’s place of business, a one-floor factory manufacturing costume jewelry, was located in Wicker Park when I worked for him as a boy. The neighborhood then was drab and ethnically dominated by Poles. The novelist Nelson Algren, who was -militantly unfashionable, lived there. 

Were Algren alive he would be as repulsed by his old neighborhood as I was amazed by it. Wicker Park today is filled with galleries, vegan and other restaurants, yoga centers, bike and clothing shops, and no one walking its streets seems to be above 30. Much of the housing on its side streets has been handsomely rehabbed. A not uncommon sight as one drives through the neighborhood is that of a young mother in spandex jogging behind a stroller containing her infant child or a man out walking his two pugs. At my age, I felt in this neighborhood like a visitor from another country, if not another planet. 

One of the first things my friend and I learned is that there is not a great stock of rental property available. This is owing to the fact that relatively successful people in their late twenties and early thirties are not moving out of their rented apartments to buy condominiums and houses, as they normally would, because they feel that the drop in real-estate prices has not yet bottomed out. My friend, whose own career is just beginning, had no wish to buy an apartment, for she wanted the freedom of movement that renting allows. The problem was there was not that much to choose from. 

As once one went to the classified section of one’s newspaper to look for an apartment, today one goes to craigslist or other real-estate websites. Along with descriptions of the apartments up for rent, there one often finds wildly deceptive photographs, which make rooms look larger, things generally brighter and newer. Telephone calls help to clear some of this up. The second bedroom of an oddly inexpensive two-bedroom apartment I inquired about was 7′ x 10′—in other words, the late Wilt Chamberlain could not have lain down in it. 

We saw six or seven apartments. Some were preposterously narrow, some had wretched and not easily altered paint jobs, a few had spooky landlords: One of these that we encountered was a powerlifter with a German accent who wore his black cap backwards and patent-leather slippers. We found a few excellent apartments, but in shaky neighborhoods. An elegant apartment in Logan Square, a neighborhood to the west of Wicker Park/Bucktown, met my friend’s every criterion and had a lovely view off its fourth-floor balcony. But it was located in a neighborhood in which walking around seemed risky. (The reigning fear in Chicago at present is of youth gangs, black and Mexican gangs chiefly. “The nice thing about Jews,” a witty acquaintance of mine remarked, “is that they don’t form gangs until they get out of law school.”) The rental agent’s emphasis on the excellent security in the building only made things seem more frightening.

On her own, my friend found an apartment on the edge of Bucktown, one meeting her desiderata and within her price range. Out of her front-room windows her view is of one-story factories; from her ample patio and back porch, the leafy tranquility of a neighborhood on the rise prevails. As she showed me around the place, I thought it was nice to be rich but even better to be young. 

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