By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Before Rentwas a musical, when Dumbo was still an animated pachyderm, there was the Village. Kids of a literary or arty bent heeded its siren callof bohemian lifestyle, coffeehouses, cheap rents. Bits of that Village still exist. Take a look at this (vertical) slice of life from 26 Grove Street, a circa-1930, six-story brick building on the tree-lined block between Bleecker and Bedford.
The residents of the C-line, who live one atop another in the front left apartment on each floor, range in age from 27 to "senior" status. But nearly all of them moved in when they were twentysomething and hoping to make a go of acting or writing or painting. Their ambitions either panned out or transmuted to some kindred pursuit; lovers moved in, and lovers moved out. But they've clung to their rent-stabilized apartments (all 500-square-foot one-bedrooms, except for the first-floor studio) for up to 40 years. They share the feeling that 2C or 5C or 6C is "home," but what makes it home to each of them is uniquely theirs.
1c, Joy Bellis, age 27, part-time Jazz Singer, part-time Investment Banker
Joy Bellis, with her keyboard by the window
Joy Bellis lives in one room whose single window faces a brick wall. It's her first apartment without a boyfriend or a roommate, and she loves it. The former small-town girl from Riegelville, Pennsylvania, was pushing papers as an investment banker in New Jersey and cherishing dreams of becoming a singer when a broker found her the tiny, first-floor studio in her perfect neighborhood, the West Village.
"All my life we'd come in to New York for shows and shopping," she says. "And I'd always wanted to be in Manhattan, especially the Village. I loved the smaller, more intimate feel, the tree-lined streets, the brownstones."
Sitting on a bar stool at her wall-mounted, fold-down tabletop, she tells how she rushed to see the $580 (now $630) apartment, and took it on the spot. "I couldn't be singing now without such a low rent," Bellis says. A year ago, she cut down the hours on her day job so she could take lessons and make the rounds with her demo CD. "I've gotten a gig here and there," she says, "the Cupping Room, Greenwich Café, Bubble Lounge."
Now that she's finally in a place of her own, she can practice all she wants. Her keyboard stands near the window. Opposite her front door, the tiny kitchenette and window take up one wall. On the wall to the right, her TV, bookshelf, "sports corner" (golf clubs, roller blades, tennis balls), and full-length mirror line up. Facing it is her antique double bed, bought for her by Mom and Dad at an estate sale. And separated from it by a narrow corridor is her off-white, many-pillowed couchthe piece that really makes this feel like home. "It's one of the first things I got," she says. "I took the bus to Ikea."
Around the room, framed photos crowd shelves and surfaces. They show family and friendsgroups of girls arm in arm, some in caps and gowns, some in matching bridesmaids' outfits. "I'm in the wedding-party stage," she says with a grin.
Recently Bellis has begun to worry about crime in the Village. The other night she heard scary noises. "I put my super's number in," she says, "and I was sleeping with my cell phone by me." Then she laughs. "I was imagining myself whispering into the phone, 'Lydia, someone's broken in!' "
2C, Bob Stromberg, age 42, Butler
"The best thing about 2C," says Bob Stromberg by telephone, on his travels away from it, "is that every year I throw myself a birthday party. It's waybeyond packed." Cocktails in the apartment, then dinner out. "The key element is to have everyone in myhome first."
What makes it home? "Oh," he shoots back, "my twinkle lights," which string across his living room ceiling. "They're kind of corny and cheesy, but totally effective at a party."
Life in 2C began for him 18 years ago with art and romance. "Jeff and I fell in love and moved to the Village. I was an actor-singer, and he was a dancer." Then Stromberg, a Detroit native, worked for Sotheby's for 16 years, planning special events before becoming the butler for a wealthy family. And Jeff? "He left me in '95. He told me on a Wednesday and the movers pulled up on the Saturday. There were faded blank squares on the walls where the pictures were, just like in a movie. My therapist said, 'Maybe you need to get away from 2C for a while.' "
While Stromberg licked his wounds in Santa Fe, a friend redecorated for him. "So it became myapartment," he explains. What decor? "Eclectic. Full. I have a thousand pictures in frames, all my family and friends, and pictures of naked men." These last, very elegant, he acquired during his days at Sotheby's. "Also," he adds, "2C's always had a dog. Now I have my springer spaniel, Katie."
"Then on Gay Pride Dayhello!you can't have a better address than Grove Street." The Gay Pride flag flying on his fire escape identifies his place for friends. Upstairs, in the slot by the doorbell, they'll find the name of the previous tenant, Mrs. Lowenstein. "You can't get it out; believe me, I tried. She was a nice little old Jewish lady who died in that apartment. When I came to look at 2C, the yellow health-department tape was still across the door."