New York City is full of stories of families living in less-than-ideal spaces but making them work, such as this tale of raising kids in a fourth-floor walk-up from one of our contributors. Here's a new take on the small space challenge: Julie Chervinsky is a New York City parent who, with her husband, took living in tight quarters to the next level, raising three children in a Carroll Gardens one bedroom, and even kind of enjoying it. The Chervinsky clan now resides in a single-family house in Windsor Terrace that they bought in 2010, but that one bedroom was home for 12 years as the family grew. Here's how they did it, with bonus reflections from the now-college-aged kids.
[Editor's note: This story was first published in March 2018. We are presenting it again here as part of our summer Best of Brick week.]
When did you move to Carroll Gardens?
The search for our first apartment to call our own quickly followed our engagement, in 1996. My then-future husband left his spacious, convenient, quiet, one bedroom in a full-service-building in Washington D.C., and moved into my first post-college fifth-floor, spiral staircase walk-up apartment in Brooklyn Heights, an arm’s reach from the not-so-silent Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Not at all familiar with greater Brooklyn, our search was limited to the confines of Brooklyn Heights. We nearly landed in a great location, in a cozy one-bedroom co-op. One day, strolling on Atlantic Avenue, we wandered into a real estate agency, where an agent suggested a condo property at the Henry Street Mews in Carroll Gardens. It seemed so far away, but we agreed to make the trek for a look.
What was the apartment like?
We wanted to stay the moment we stepped in, forever. It was a beautiful space. The building entrance and lobby were light and inviting. The apartment was approximately 900-square-feet with 9-foot ceilings. There was a large living room, perfect for one of our favorite activities: hosting our friends for lavish sit-down dinners and drinks. The bedroom was a great size as well. There was one bathroom, and a smallish kitchen, but it was maneuverable. The layout was similar to the apartment we saw in Brooklyn Heights, but larger. And the price was lower, especially the maintenance. The building featured a finished rooftop, with stunning, movie-like 360 views. On the Fourth of July we could see at least three sets of fireworks. The apartment was on the second floor, an easy flight of stairs, with a perfectly operational elevator to help bring in the groceries.
What was the neighborhood like then?
The neighborhood was great. Mostly Italian. The bakery across the street was famous. It was in the film "Moonstruck." We became addicted to the bread at Mazzola’s one block away, and later Caputo’s. There was some sort of a mechanic’s shop we could see across the street from our widows, which serviced motorcycles. One younger man worked, and several older men sat on tall beach chairs, watching him, giving instructions, talking. In the daytime older folks sat in front of their houses, looking, chatting.
When we first moved in, on the opposite corner of our building was a failing pharmacy. I bought my first electric breast pump there, shortly before the hoarding habits of the owner took over the shop and it closed for many years, until Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain arrived one day, just around the time that we were leaving.
Did you have any kids when you moved in?
We sort of did not have kids when we moved in. That means that when we signed on the dotted line, we did not know that our first wonderful child, our son Max, was on the way. Our second wonderful child, our daughter Roza, followed 22 months later, and our third wonderful child, another boy, Sam, came 15 months after number two.
Our spacious bedroom easily fit the first crib next to our queen-size bed. The arrival of our daughter required a second crib and exiled my husband and I to the living room, to a brand-new Jennifer Convertible couch that promised nightly comfort. The promise was a lie. “Nightly comfort” felt like we were sleeping on the bottom of a rowboat.
How did you adapt as the children grew?
Finally, our third child provided the ultimate solution. A beautiful three-tiered, full-size wooden bunk bed was ordered for the bedroom, which fit next to a small futon couch (for our bedtime reading) and a small children’s table with three child-size chairs for activities.
My husband and I upgraded considerably: A large, bookshelf-front Murphy bed was built, which housed a queen-size, high-end, firm mattress. When the shelves parted, and the mattress descended, bedroom lights were above us. Who could ask for anything more?
In fact, there was an especially satisfying moment, with a splash of the New York-only ridiculous. Once, when Sam was in kindergarten, his friend came for a play date. Sam proudly offered a tour of the apartment. He showed the three-tiered bunk bed (a show-stopper), the bathroom, the kitchen. And then he prepared his friend for the ultimate great thing: He asked me to take down the Murphy bed. I remember his friend’s face so clearly when he said, “Wow, I hope when I grow up I can have this too.”
"Although our home was really cramped when I was a kid, I remember living in a one-bedroom apartment as really fun. Whenever I brought a new friend home I would always show them the undetectable Murphy bed in the living room and the triple bunk bed that my siblings and I used, and our “kitchen window.” [Ed. note: A pass-through opening to the living room.] I never had a sense of privacy, but at the same time never had a sense of loneliness."—Max, 20
What were some of the challenges and how did you meet them?
Naturally, as the population within the apartment grew and square footage remained the same, some challenges were endured and stressful moments experienced. I love a dark and quiet environment when falling asleep. My husband enjoys video entertainment (television, films) and music. Personal listening technology was not yet as prevalent.
That means that I nagged and cried and yelled and begged, “I have nowhere to go for quiet.” I can imagine that was quite annoying to him. Calming a colicky baby in close quarters is also not ideal.
New hooks along the corridor near the door were added. Additional coats bulged, making winter-time entrance and exits with three kids not easy. One bathroom for five people with lots of bathroom emergencies—no need to explain. Rules for changing one’s clothes in privacy were adhered to strictly, even without verbal explanation.
[It was] the worst and the best. There was nowhere to go. Fights, disagreements, preferences, everything had to be hashed out. We were together, all of us. We talked about everything. There was never silence. It was never boring.
"I associate that apartment with my childhood. Triple bunk-bed, futon bed, and the nighttime couch beds made for us, for when we couldn't sleep on our own. Everything was so close and tight, and so were we."—Roza, 18
When did you finally move, and why?
We moved when our oldest began middle school. As the kids’ sleepovers became more prevalent and more individual, the lack of space was felt more acutely. Also, the hatred emanating from our downstairs neighbors was weighty.
Though I subjectively believe there were personality problems [with the neighbors], our natural noise production was I’m sure the greatest factor. Many moving feet [was the] biggest issue. We had a couple of carpets, but were with very limited means, so certainly not wall-to-wall. Also, our dinner parties were not popular, though our next-door neighbors never complained. There were a few knocks on the door, verbal encounters in the hallway, and a prevalent evil eye.
Most upsetting was not the neighbors. It was me. I was personally constantly on guard, shushing everyone indiscriminately and automatically, talking to the kids in a high voice about walking, yelling about running.
The concept of a house took over my consciousness. We took a year to sell, and another year to look for our new home (while living in a rental) and renovate. That’s how we arrived in Windsor Terrace. [We now live in] a detached house, with an open concept on the first floor, and three-and-a-half bedrooms upstairs. Last but not least, parking stopped being the daily experience from hell. In 2012, a new member was added to the family to occupy bedroom 0.5: Sofia. Roza became queen of her room, while the boys continued to share. My husband and I have our very own master bedroom.
Why did you pick Windsor Terrace and your current house?
School District 15, price (we didn't want to leave Carroll Gardens, but by then the prices were not an option), detached square footage, parking, location. In that order.
We actually bid on a different house six months into the search, on 21st Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Thank goodness it fell through. Though it was move-in ready, and, therefore, very enticing to someone lacking the imagination such as myself, it was much smaller, with considerably less potential. We looked at our current house early in the search, but in light of obvious vast renovations required (plumbing, electricity, floors) and unkempt look, I fled. My husband, however, perceived the thick walls and wonderful brick, the overall space, and was confident this was a great place. He was absolutely right.
"Maybe this is simply because you feel comfortable in the environment where you grow up, but I always felt that Carroll Gardens was my true home. The apartment my family and I lived in was close to my elementary school, making the travel easy, and there was a supermarket just downstairs. It was truly a lovely apartment building."—Sam, 17
What is it like living in such a different space?
There is now space for the self. One can actually close a door. There is also space for groups. As the children grew, so did their visiting social life, which is exactly what we wanted. There is also a wonderful backyard, which though we have thus far mostly failed to incorporate into our daily living, the future potential is a wonderful concept.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on the whole experience?
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. While some moments of strife caused by space limitations are ingrained in memory, they do not make the overwhelming impression. We were actually proud of our apartment, and proud of the way we lived in it. Until it was time to move.
And we were only able to make the move to our house because we bought that apartment in 1997. Over the 11 years that we lived there, Carroll Gardens real estate appreciated, and though we couldn’t afford to hold onto it while buying something new, that first purchase enabled us to move on.
The kids did not want to move. The kids missed it for a long time.