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Five Flights Up: and Other New York Apartment Stories

The Tales Behind Who Lives Where and Why

It takes a special kind of person to enable someone to feel comfortable enough to answer a question like: "How long have you had the top of an Algerian tent tied to a sprinkler pipe in the middle of your loft?" Toni Schlesinger is that person. Schlesinger, a Village Voice columnist since 1997, has compiled an anthology of her best "Shelter" columns.

In this era, dominated by the gospel of Dwell and Architectural Digest, Schlesinger interviews 139 denizens of New York City: those that are neither hyper-rich, nor hyper-poor. With each locale, we learn statistics about the inhabitants and their homes such as the location, price, square footage, and the occupant's job. Black and white photographs accompany each interview, with most of the shots looking posed.

The book is organized into 15 categories ranging from "immigrants" (51 percent of the population) to "zoo" (people and their pets) to "miniature" (including an apartment clocking in at 128 feet). Only in New York, where half the population lives alone, and slightly over half enjoy the benefits of regulated housing, would Schlesinger find such a range of personalities and domestic situations.

One-man lives on a 34-foot boat; another in a renovated church apartment with some 175 editions of Moby Dick. A blind man in Greenwich Village takes out a loan to get his interior repainted while Schlesinger admires the view of the Hudson River he will never see. A couple shares their 41-page lease and its "bioterrorism" clause with her. In Ft. Greene, another couple shares their space with a 105-pound pig. Another man has papered his 7500-foot Harlem apartment with magazines and uses a laser pointer to direct guests to his favorite images.

Schlesinger also shows how sociological groups collide. The same neighborhood in Williamsburg houses mothers who need their "cocktail hour" as well as "Peter Pan" boys in their thirties who wax poetic about the latest seven inch that their band cut.

The photography in the book is informative, taking a backseat to the text. Some images stand out, such as the porn star in Catskill Greene County reading his copy of Joy of Cooking on the divan.

For most, home is a sanctuary but rarely open to all. Schlesinger is our emissary and a fine one at that.

Five Flights Up: and other New York Apartment Stories by Toni Schlesinger
May 10, 2006
Princeton Architectural Press
Paperback, $24.95
ISBN: 1-56898-585-1
320 pages