Forever Rent: The Price of Living in New York City

My mother, Sandra Rodriguez, moved to 602 West 132nd Street in 1986. A friend told her about the apartment across the street from the then Alexander Doll Company. The rent was $311 a month. She worked in a garment factory and was pregnant with her first daughter. She thought the two bedroom and one bathroom room would be a good place to grow her family.

Over the years, she has raised her three children in that tiny apartment. Birthdays, birthdays, graduations, holy hours, they all came and went for my family in our cramped but loving home. When my mother’s extended family arrived from the Dominican Republic, they all took turns staying with us until they were standing enough to walk around on their own. Children often share a bunk bed with a guest.

Still learning to maneuver the city and face the language barrier, my aunts and uncles found that the little flat was a life raft. And we have another family: our neighbours, some of whom were welcoming family from the outside, like we were.

Find the right building, get lucky, and a 600 square foot apartment can be a lifelong home, a place to raise a family, entertain and take the stress out of a long commute. The apartment becomes a home base for a succession of generations.

Before Celia Aguilera was born, her parents, Brigida Aguilera, a seamstress, and Juan Aguilera, a bookbinder at the Franklin Mint, bumped into each other on their way to work at the Columbus Circle and fell in love. Aguilera said it was a coincidence, because the couple knew each other when they lived in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York in 1960.

About five years later, Mr. Aguilera heard of a vacant apartment that was available at 363 West 17th Street in Chelsea. The apartment was in poor condition, but it was affordable, $56.32 a month. They moved into a two-bedroom flat on the railroad in the winter of 1965. Two months after they moved, Ms. Aguilera, who now works in psychiatry, was born. “When my mother died, I got the apartment,” said Mrs. Aguilera. Her mother passed away in 2010 after spending her life in Chelsea. Her father died in 1986 of kidney failure. “Some of us stay because of tradition. We’ve been here all this time. My apartment feels like a grandstand for my family.” With Chelsea changing decade after decade, Aguileras have been a staple. The Aguileras celebrated, cried, kept each other healthy and back, at their home.

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