Before Rent was a musical, when Dumbo was still an animated pachyderm, there was the Village. Kids of a literary or arty bent heeded its siren call—of 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 couch—the 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 friends—groups 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 way beyond packed.” Cocktails in the apartment, then dinner out. “The key element is to have everyone in my home 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 my apartment,” 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 Day—hello!—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.”
3C, Andrew Chiodo, 40, Psychiatric Social Worker, and William Bland, 32, Painter–art student
Andrew Chiodo (upper left) with William Bland
“The books are central to both of us.” Chiodo speaks firmly about what makes 3C home to the couple. Sitting on the blue velvet sofa, arm draped loosely around Bland’s shoulder, he points to the floor-to-ceiling shelves—fiction, biography, history, art—covering the entry wall of their elegantly appointed living room.
“And my plants!” Bill interjects. “Hungry for the sunlight they don’t get.”
Chiodo moved into 26 Grove 11 years ago, first into a studio. When he heard that two one-bedrooms were available, he took 3C sight unseen, not even peeking at the pricier 6C. A fiction writer who published in Christopher Street, he went to grad school and now directs a psychiatric day treatment center at Cabrini. Bland, a corporate dropout studying at the New York Academy of Art, moved in a year ago. He gave up more expansive digs on the Upper West Side and, along with Chiodo, lots of stuff. He notes that they’re the only couple in the C line. “The apartment’s too cheap to give up,” he hypothesizes, “and too small to share.”
Each kept his prize possessions. For Chiodo, it’s the art deco sofa and red velvet chair he inherited from his friend Luigi DeSisti—”a counter guy at Murray’s Cheese on Bleecker.” For Bland, it’s an Early American bedside table that belonged to his paternal grandfather. “He was a cardiologist in Boston and the patriarch of our family,” he says. “I tried to model myself on him—his generosity, his caring, and integrity.”
“I’m gonna butt in,” Chiodo pipes up. “Bill has a thing for feather beds. He brought it with him.” He pokes his finger into its soft white depths. Above the bed is a rare poster of the young Sinatra. “Saint Francis,” Chiodo quips. “My father was a big fan.”
The two windows facing Grove Street are their treasure—and their curse. “Obnoxious, drunk, straight frat boys from Chumley’s,” Andrew grouses. “They come and they puke.”
4C, Jayne Baum, age 47, Private Art Dealer
Jayne Baum, Bear, and her “Princess and the Pea” bed
Everything about the look of Jayne Baum and her apartment is minimal and orderly except her hair, which she wears profuse and untamed. And almost everything is in black and white, including her white puffball of a Samoyed, Bear.
Baum moved into 26 Grove in 1976, right out of NYU. She was painting then, taking art classes, and working in a gallery. Over the years, she worked in a number of galleries and opened her own in 1982 when she was only 27. That was the first of a series of galleries she owned, the last one in Soho from 1988 to ’95, before she started working privately. She was one of the first to exhibit contemporary photography in an art gallery, working with photographers who approached their medium with the freedom of painters. “I sort of broke open a market where there really wasn’t one in place,” she says.
The art she collects is everywhere in the apartment, elegantly framed and hung as in a museum. Over the 1940s Italian leather sofa, she notes, is “a giclée print by Don Freeman, and that—” “Woof!” Bear barks excitedly. Baum turns, squats to doggy level, grasps his collar with her perfectly manicured nails, looks in his eyes, and says sternly, “No competition.”
The Freeman print is a digitally created cabbage rose, and what looks like an abstract drawing of squiggles and loops next to it is a photograph by Ellen Carey, both of whom Baum represents. Baum’s living room and bedroom are models of streamlined living. Bookshelves, cabinets, a “floating island” for storage, with a fold-out tabletop for dining: All proclaim a place for everything and everything in its place. So what makes it home? “Oh, my Princess and the Pea bed!” she says. “It’s late-19th-century French hand-carved rosewood.” The curlicue of its headboard rises above rows of pillows in antique white lace cases—”I detest ivory!” Baum exclaims—and ironed to perfection. But not by her. “Growing up, I had a great aunt—a mentor, a single woman who read books. She once said, ‘One thing I’d never do is my own laundry.’ It’s a great luxury, to fall into a bed with great linens.”
The bedroom walls are painted a pale lavender, which can look gray or white depending on how the light strikes them. Baum’s awareness of light and color permeates the apartment. “I like morning light,” she says. “Also rainy days. I like to stay curled up on the couch reading.” Across from the window that faces a wall? “That, of course, is not”—she laughs—”charming.”
5C, Carolyn Bilderback, ‘Senior,’ Dancer, Choreographer, and Teacher
Carolyn Bilderback, dancing as an agonized horse
In 1960, living in Hoboken, eking out a living as a dancer and dance teacher, Carolyn Bilderback could only dream about an apartment in Manhattan. Then, after observing his daughter in Bilderback’s class, a father announced, “I want my daughter to study with you in New York.” The teacher protested that she didn’t have a place in New York. “Well,” he replied, “I have a building in the Village, and you will have the next free apartment.” The rent-controlled 5C cost $78 a month.
That beneficent landlord has come and gone, along with much else, but Bilderback has held on to her perch. Living there, she performed and choreographed. For 40 years she’s taught movement and dance at the Union Theological Seminary.
A wide, high mirror dominates her front room. Leaning against one wall, it reflects the sparsely furnished living room set off from the kitchenette by an ochre-colored screen. “WhenI dance, that table just goes into the foyer,” Bilderback says, extending her arm toward a four-legged wood piece. “That chair”—she points to a corner—”backs up a little, and the screen moves forward.”
“I love dancing here,” she says. “It’s very much my turf. I wish there were more room though. There are some dances I can’t do, or that I start and can’t finish.” The limited space of 5C has also influenced her choreography: She’s created “standing dances, where I don’t go anywhere.”
The bare wood plank floor is darkened with age. “The color makes me think of the chestnuts that broke open on the way to school [in Portland, Oregon]. For my annual Christmas party, I used to coat it with Gym Floor—they don’t make it anymore; it’s dangerous. I had lovely Christmas parties, where singers would sing and musicians would play and poets would read poetry. Do you know James Wright?”
It’s not the floor or the mirror, though, that makes the apartment home to her, but the pale green wood-trimmed sofa, given by friends soon after she moved in and reupholstered many times. Her bedroom is as cluttered as her living room is spare. One double bed serves for sleeping. Another low bed, perpendicular to it, makes a “desk,” covered with a life’s worth of papers, programs, and photographs to be sorted. The second bed was intended for a visiting gentleman friend, but proved too uncomfortable. She’s never shared the space full-time with anyone. “This apartment would never work for two,” she says with a confiding smile. “People who don’t work nine to five, we’re a species unto ourselves.”
6C, Sherri Levy, ‘early thirties,’ Freelance TV Commercial Producer
Sherri Levy, Tess, and her rooftop view
“That’s Beck with Thom Yorke from Radiohead, that’s Elliott Smith singing, and that’s Steve Malkmus from Pavement. My best friend took them.”
Rockers, in black-and-white and hung in frames, posture and sing on walls all over Sherri Levy’s apartment. “My Dad was a rock photographer too,” she adds. “He loved Elton John.” One photo shows her dad at age 32, looking studly in a denim jacket. “He was the coolest,” she says. “He died when I was nine.”
It’s these photos, her books, and her dog, a shepherd mix, that make 6C home for Levy, which it has been for seven years. Hardbacks and paperbacks, two-deep on every shelf, reveal her literary passions: fiction from Latin America, South Africa, India, England. Her dog also comes in under the literary rubric. “Tess,” she says. “Tess of the Doggyvilles.”
Poor Tess, who’s grown old in 6C, has her own bed on the floor beside Levy’s because she can’t climb up anymore. “She goes to acupuncture with Dr. Bridget Halligan at West Chelsea Animal Hospital,” Levy explains. Her living room looks cool, modern. The couch is black leather—”the only thing I could have with Tess.” Next to it, in front of the kitchen, stands a stainless steel doctor’s cabinet, which she uses for liquor, and in front of that, a matching steel table.
Producing TV commercials—she did the American Express spot with Seinfeld, and others for Xerox and Diet Dr. Pepper—Levy travels six months a year. “When I’m home, I love to be here,” she says. All her windows rise above the roofs of nearby buildings. “There’s no one above me, no noise. I can’t see down to the street or hear the noise. Gay Pride weekend marches right outside my door, and the streets are mad. But it’s a refuge in here. I have an east and south view, and the apartment is flooded with light. At night I see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building from my couch. Some of the best times I’ve had here are the heady days at the beginning of a relationship, in winter, with a great view of the snow, when nothing exists beyond these four walls.”
Several years ago, a group of tenants met in the large basement apartment of their super, Lydia, and her partner, April, to discuss a “crime wave” in the neighborhood. In the past 10 months, the street has seen the drug dealers and prostitutes return—and worse. Baum, who’s secretary of the block association, has become more vigilant, but so far no building-wide meetings have been called.
Mostly, the residents of the C-line tend to have only fleeting knowledge of each other—by sight in the lobby or elevator, by sound through the windows or floors. Andrew and Bill hear Joy’s practice scales floating up when they’re relaxing on their sofa. Jayne knows that Sherri’s also a dog owner. Bob knows Jayne through their Sotheby’s connection; he says that her apartment “is perfectly painted, whereas mine was done by a starving actor.” Bob’s also gotten friendly with Andrew over the years and had him to parties. “Andrew loves that disco from the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he says with amusement. “Many times I’ve gone to sleep to the sounds of ‘I Will Survive.’ ”
As for Andrew, he recently learned that 6C, “the expensive one that got away,” is, indeed, flooded with light. “I knew it,” he groaned.