The Islands You Haven’t Heard of in New York City

The Islands You Haven’t Heard of in New York City

Manhattan, Staten, Riker’s, Governor’s. New York is a city of islands, with only The Bronx connected to the U.S. mainland. The rest of us are in good company, however, as there are dozens of little-known or visited islands around NYC, each (well, most of them) with rich stories of their own. Here are just a few:

City Island

City Island is somewhat of an anachronism in NYC and residents are happy to keep it that way. Located northeast of the Bronx and accessible by a small private bridge, this island is home to a New England-like oceanfront community of around 4,000 (fewer than some blocks in the rest of the city). City Islanders, or “clamdiggers,” consider the place an oasis apart from the rest of the city and can be somewhat insular. If you hope to visit the City Island Nautical Museum or try some of their famous seafood, your best bet to past the security gates is the Bx29 bus.

Hart Island

A stone’s throw from City Island, Hart Island has attained some notoriety in recent years for its burial grounds of unclaimed people and prisoners. Formerly home to a boy’s prison and Civil War POW camps, more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here since it was converted to a municipal cemetery in 1869. Not a hotspot for vacationers, Hart Island visitation is strictly limited to twice per month ferry trips for relatives of the dead and morbidly curious tourists who have requested spots ahead of time.

Hoffman and Swinburne Islands

It might seem farfetched now, but as nearby Fort Wadsworth serves to remind us, New York has historically been a vitally important port during wartime. Hoffman and Swinburne Island, originally created as quarantine stations for immigrants arriving at nearby Ellis Island, also served as training grounds for Merchant Marines during WWII, and more integrally, were designated anchor points for anti-submarine nets to keep the city’s harbors safe. Thankfully, they were never called into duty for this use, and are currently protected lands as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area managed by the U.S. Park Service.

U Thant/Belmont Island

For a spot of land measuring just 100 by 200 feet, this tiny island on the East River has had a colorful history. Made up of materials from the digging of the 7 train tunnels connecting Manhattan and Queens, Belmont Island (named for the tunnels’ financier) became U Thant Island when the land was leased by devout followers of the Indian meditation guru Sri Chinmoy and designated a Buddhist shrine. The island sat quietly until 2004, when in protest of the then-ongoing Republican National Convention, artist and island-hopper Duke Reilly rowed out to the island and declared it a sovereign nation, hanging a homemade flag from the island’s navigation tower. He was taken home by the Coast Guard, and U Thant Island continues to sit peacefully.

North Brother Island

North Brother Island sits southeast of the Bronx and has been the site of some of the more harrowing stories of New York City history. It sat uninhabited until 1885 when the city designated it the site of Riverside Hospital, a place where highly contagious patients could be treated safely away from the rest of the city. It was the home to perhaps the most famous such patient, Typhoid Mary, who notoriously spread the disease around the city as a cook for several wealthy families. Less famously (but more destructively), the island was also the beaching point of the doomed passenger ship the General Slocum, which ran aground on North Brother Island after catching fire in the East River. A memorial to those who lost their lives currently stands in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.

Shooter’s Island

An uninformed observer would never guess that this unassuming bird habitat, nestled between Staten Island and New Jersey, was once the dominion of spies fighting the American Revolution. Originally a hunting preserve (hence the name), quiet and isolated Shooter’s Island was designated by George Washington as a drop-off point for top-secret missives used to help topple the British. In post-war years, the island belonged to industry as the home of refineries and shipyards, and was the site of the 1902 launch of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s private yacht, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and filmed for posterity by Thomas Edison. Returning to its calm and isolated roots, Shooter’s Island is currently a bird sanctuary.

Ghosts of New York City Real Estate: Hard to Spot, Harder to Bust

Ghosts of New York City Real Estate: Hard to Spot, Harder to Bust

New York City is a beautiful, historic city with some of the most lovely and desirable neighborhoods in the country. But the Big Apple also has a ghost problem. In the always-desirable New York housing market, behavior at each end of the economic spectrum illustrates why New Yorkers looking for a place to live can face considerable difficulties.

First up: Ghost apartments. Not literally haunted, ghost apartments are units that are owned by a wealthy person (or a shell company) that, for the most part, remain unoccupied.

Why is this a concern? There are multiple reasons but, primarily, it’s the hidden costs associated with the empty apartments that contribute to the overall housing challenges in New York. Starting with the most obvious impact—there’s no one living in the apartment. That means that a costly piece of real estate has been purchased or rented, but no money is flowing into the economy on that street. If no one lives in the apartment, there is no one shopping at the corner store, eating out, joining the neighborhood gym or even grabbing the occasional cup of coffee.

The math is pretty simple. Fewer housing units mean fewer people, less foot traffic, and not as much need for local goods and services.

There’s a second major impact on the housing economy when wealthier residents rent an apartment, rather than purchasing a single-family home—taxes. Single-family homes in New York are taxed at a higher rate and produce more tax revenue than a single rental unit generates.

Finally, there’s the cost to the average New Yorker—time. When “ghost apartments” become common, residents may move further away from their place of employment, or areas that are familiar socially. Walking is replaced by long commutes, and employers have less ability to hire hyper-locally.

So, what’s an average New Yorker to do?

Some choose to go off the books and become ghost tenants, another not-so-supernatural phenomenon. Ghost tenants are people (adults) living in an apartment without being on the lease, or having any formal status as a tenant. According to a 2016 article in Slate, which focuses on public housing, “Although 400,000 people officially live in New York City’s traditional public housing units, it’s estimated that as many as 100,000 to 200,000 more reside there secretly.”

The market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in New York, in 2015, was $3,100. In the Slate article, the Ghost Tenant “Gigi” was sharing a mid-town apartment, with her parents, in a public housing project that rented for under $1,000.

If “caught” the whole family can be evicted from public housing. In both public and privately owned buildings, more tenants mean more wear-and-tear on facilities which can lead to hazardous or unpleasant living conditions. At best, the rent will increase based on the income that’s brought to the household by the ghost tenant, which is hardly helpful in reversing the problem. 

Then there are communication and safety concerns. If a ghost tenant has a P.O. box and no official street address, they are harder to find, by, say, a school or employer, if needed. If there’s a problem in the building—a gas leak, a fire–emergency responders won’t know to look for the ghost tenant.

When it comes to real estate, it’s best kept balanced and affordable when the appropriate amount of tenants live in an apartment, and when the owners of said apartments actually live there. But eradicating these ghosts is easier said than done, and productive solutions remain few and far between.

It’s clear that ghost apartments and ghost tenants are part of the New York real estate landscape, and one the Ghost Busters can’t solve. These issues, present on both ends of the economic spectrum, must be addressed by developers focusing on building, refurbishing, and maintaining housing units that are affordable by the average New Yorker who lives in the wonderful city so many call home. 

When Two Bookstores Close, Another Opens in Cobble Hill

When Two Bookstores Close, Another Opens in Cobble Hill

When one door closes, another opens, and though this is not always the case for bookstores, the adage is holding true in Cobble Hill—to some extent, anyway.

The Brooklyn neighborhood recently suffered the news that BookCourt, a Cobble Hill staple, would be closing after 35 years in business when its owners retire at the end of the year. This news came not long after the neighborhood’s chaotic but lovable bookstore, aptly called Community Bookstore, was cleared of its unkempt stacks.

Luckily, another independent bookstore is in the works, and in a world where it sometimes seems bookstores big and small are losing business, it will be a welcome addition.

The new store, called “Books Are Magic,” is set to open on or around May 1. While the name may seem a little trite, most bibliophiles can agree that books are magic (if not actually, then certainly metaphorically). The new store is a business venture by Emma Straub, author of novels such as Modern Lovers and The Vacationers, and a former employee of BookCourt. According to her website, “A neighborhood without an independent bookstore is a body without a heart. And so we’re building a new heart.”

The store will be located on 225 Smith Street between Butler and Douglas, not far from BookCourt’s old location. As she’s been preparing for the opening, Emma has shared her journey on social media and with the press. She’s even hinted at collaborations with neighbors including Warby Parker and the cheese shop Stinky Brooklyn. Books, glasses, and cheese? Sounds like Brooklyn alright.

One independent bookstore replacing two may not be ideal for residents used to having their choice of store, and the “two out, one in” is annoyingly reminiscent of the Trump Administration’s regulation policy. With Barnes & Noble just a short walk down Court Street, too, it seems the community’s dedication to books (or magic, if you will) will live on.

And who knows? Maybe another overstuffed literary treasure trove will pop up to fill the hole left by Community Bookstore, too. Stranger things have happened in Brooklyn.

Is the Bronx the New Brooklyn?

Is the Bronx the New Brooklyn?

Some real estate professionals say there’s no doubt north is the way to go.

With only Manhattan separating them, is it time for the Bronx to admit that it has more in common with Brooklyn than previously thought?

According to some real estate professionals, the answer is a resounding yes. Even if the idea of the Bronx being a great place to live or invest raises eyebrows from hipsters to former-hippies now comfortable in their Manhattan apartments.

Consider this bit of history. When the Sex and the City character, Miranda, announced she was moving to Brooklyn the idea was so abhorrent to Manhattanites that the New York Post ran an article listing all the (real-life!) hip spots that Carrie and Miranda could frequent.

Now, only a decade later, Brooklyn’s average rent for a one-bedroom apartment runs between $1,600 and $2,900, depending on the neighborhood. It costs about $790,000 on average to buy a home, and well into the millions in trendier neighborhoods.

What’s a dedicated middle-class New Yorker to do?

Manhattan? Probably not with rents running $3,000 and buying about a $2 million endeavor.

It may be time to head north.

First, there’s the basic premise that Brooklyn prices are continuing to go up, so the Bronx is a more affordable option given the average rent of $1,200/month.

But consider the other benefits of the Bronx, like great transportation. The subway and other public transportation options are excellent—and traveling from midtown to the south Bronx is a fairly short commute.

For example, it’s only a 24-minute subway ride from Radio City Music Hall to Yankee Stadium. The residential areas just north of the stadium are considered up-and-coming, and affordable, according to multiple sources.

If driving is a must, it’s actually possible in the Bronx. I-87 along the west side of the borough is far easier to navigate than, say, the lower east side or Time’s Square.

For the more green-minded commuters, the recent opening of the historic High Bridge (New York’s oldest standing bridge, originally used to transport water from the Croton River to New York) offers a quick, convenient pedestrian and bicycle route from Highbridge to Upper Manhattan. 

Not only are the rents in the neighborhood still reasonable, but the apartments are often in renovated historic buildings, originally constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.

For even more gorgeous, historic, architecture the buildings along the 5-mile stretch of the Grand Concourse are an excellent option. While this area, originally inspired in the early 1900s by the Champs-Elysees in Paris, fell into considerable disrepair in the 1970s and ‘80s, an $18 million restoration and landscaping initiative in 2008 revitalized the neighborhood.

Further north still is Fordham Heights, which is flanked by both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, and much more affordable than the real estate near Central Park.

Continuing north (no worries, not Niagra Falls!) recent re-zoning along Webster Avenue has created spaces now open to residential development that is working and middle-class friendly.

While these areas are not all a short commute to the culture and delights of Manhattan, they are still within close enough proximity (about an hour on public transportation) for trips into the city, business meetings, or even daily commutes.

Plus, culture and great food is already a part of the Bronx! In addition to the Zoo and the Garden, multiple colleges and universities offer music, dance and theatrical events.

The food scene? Solid—and growing.

Many New Yorkers believe that the Bronx is home to “real” Little Italy. Practically disdainful of catering to tourists, Arthur Avenue in the Belmont Neighborhood is still lined with Italian shops, markets and restaurants that have been there since Italian immigrants settled the neighborhood in the 1950s.

For the real “foodies” of New York, it’s good to know that there’s a culture of food that’s diverse enough to bring Anthony Bourdain to the Bronx.

In 2014, CNN aired a Bronx episode of Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown.” Bourdain sampled Arthur Avenue’s Italian offerings, but dove whole-heartedly into Puerto Rican, African and Caribbean dishes.

“If the Bronx were a neighborhood in Manhattan, sort of shrunk down, you’d have hipsters crawling all over this place.” Bourdain quipped.

Affordable, easily accessible by public transportation, and with vibrant neighborhoods and ethnic diversity–in a New York minute the Bronx may beat Brooklyn as the place to live.

Apps to Avoid Crowds in New York City

Apps to Avoid Crowds in New York City

In a city of eight million, you’re never alone. But with ever-emerging technology, some apps aim to be the cure for New York City agoraphobia. Some are useful for avoiding the Big Apple swarms, whereas some provide a respite from social media overload. If you need a break from the New York minute(s), you should consider downloading these innovative apps.

1. Density

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At its core, Density is a sleek, savvy foot traffic detection system.

Density, more a black cube or block than an app, works when businesses attach it to their door frames. Density then uses infrared distance sensors that can detect when someone enters or exits. What’s great about Density is that it counts traffic, not identity, so those entering and exiting stay anonymous through the process.

The device, which is being sold to startup companies in great numbers, is already being used in California and is expected to roll out soon in other cities, including New York by the end of this summer.

The hope is that places like grocery stores, the DMV, and trendy bars will use the device, giving business and users a more accurate gauge of the numbers inside an establishment at any given time.

2. Anti-Social

In this era of tweeting, checking-in to every destination, and Facebook-posting every moment in your life, it can be hard to disconnect. The barrage of social media games, ads, posts, comments, and photos make for a crowded afternoon. In other words, our lives are physically and virtually crowded. That’s where Anti-Social comes in. Though not a crowd-ridding app, Anti-Social de-clutters us from too much social media. With the plugin, Anti-social allows you to set blocks of time where you can turn off notifications from your friends on social media sites for up to eight hours.

3. Avoid Humans

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Austin, Texas’ SXSW drew a crowd of nearly 90,000 last year. In response to those masses, an Austin ad agency rolled out Avoid Humans to help ease the anxiety of attendees. Though the app is currently Austin-specific, it should be offered to other cities soon. The app works to manage crowding in different categories like food, nightlife, and coffee with color-coded clever prompts of overcrowding danger: Green is good and Red means avoid at all costs.

4. Avoid The Shopping Crowds

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Many of the apps designed to avoid crowds were in response to holiday shopping; Avoid the Shopping Crowds is one such app. Designed to keep the noble holiday shopper from the swarms during the holidays, Avoid the Shopping Crowds partners with Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter to monitor posts, check-ins and tweets. The app then monitors where all the people are converging, and updates users where not to be. Updates on the locations where you want to shop feature prompts like “calm”, “busy”, and “forget it”. The app is available in the Netherlands but similar apps are already developing in the U.S.

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5. Last but not least: Google.

Like Avoid the Shopping Crowds based in the Netherlands (but more robust), Google has introduced a live app that helps you avoid the bars, restaurants, and other businesses with lines around the corner (which are a lot of places on a Friday night in New York City).

Google’s unrivaled algorithms and live analyses are the main component of how the tech giant determines the numbers of people who are visiting the establishment you are interested in visiting. Piggy-backing off its Popular Times tool, which updates you on when a business is at its busiest, Google’s latest iteration determines how crowded the neighborhood is within the hour specified. The tool collects data based on a  business’s historically popular peak hours with stored info on Google’s servers.

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The monitoring tool can also find a similar business in proximity to your original pick for you to patronize instead.

In New York, there are a few things that people cling to: a stolen Indian summer day, a great pizza, and a little patch of peace and quiet. People who want to avoid crowds range from people who want to avoid getting run over on Black Friday to people who are just a bit shy and need to de-stress and disconnect. We live in an age and a city where every part of our lives involves interactions with our devices or other people. It’s not surprising that apps, plugins, and tools are popping up all over the world to solve the issue––and users are lining up to download them all.

 

NYC Real Estate: Is the Market Softening, or Just Correcting?

NYC Real Estate: Is the Market Softening, or Just Correcting?

As reported by Bloomberg, what began as a softening of the luxury real estate market in New York has expanded to lower-tier properties. The top 20 percent of apartments are now experiencing price cuts.

Changes in real estate values tend to make investors and homeowners break out in a cold sweat, much like swings in the stock market. But, the current trend in New York isn’t anything to panic about. 2016 wasn’t anything like the crash of 2007-2008.  

According to Bloomberg, the luxury market and the tier just under that market (again, the top 20 percent of properties) saw price drops in the 5 to ten percent range.

The definition of a stock market correction is a ten percent drop. The drop, unlike real estate, is often hard to predict, but it’s still considered business-as-usual and not a crash.

In order to keep perspective, it’s important to understand why the real estate market is softening. What’s causing the current dip in New York property prices?

First, 2015 was a “record year for residential building permits in New York City”, according to Slate.

In December 2016, the magazine ran an article that stated, “With developers pressed by expiring loopholes, the city authorized nearly 35,000 new units in the second quarter and nearly 10,000 more in the fourth. Total permits topped 50,000—more than any year since the early 1960s. And many of them aren’t done yet—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of all multi-unit projects take more than 13 months from the permitting date to be completed.”

Translation: the permits issued in 2015 created projects that were being finished in 2016 and early 2017. With those units on the market (or soon to be there), basic supply and demand theory indicates that residential real estate prices will drop.

Yet, New York is still an expensive place to live. Even with the building boom, finding affordable living options is still a challenge.

According to Fortune, “more younger folks are finding themselves attracted to medium-sized cities, which may not have the same professional opportunities as their larger counterparts, but provide housing affordability. Cities like Raleigh, N.C., and Fort Collins, Colo., have seen building permit issuance soar over the past six years as they attract younger adults seeking cheap rents and lower asking prices. Expect the trend to continue in 2017.”

Younger professionals whose wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living are moving to smaller, more affordable cities. So, when they do get to a point that they can afford to buy, they’re not buying in New York. Ironically, that could drive down the housing prices. Fewer buyers and potential buyers means more competition for the buyers that are still in New York.

Finally, there are truly only so many people who can afford high end, luxury, housing, even in New York.

Curbed’s sales market report states, “In 2016, contracts to buy Manhattan houses priced at over $4 million were 21 percent fewer than in the same period in 2015. And the properties that sold sat on the market an average of 291 days, or 54 more days than in the same time last year.”

A $4 million home, with a 20 percent down payment ($1 million) has a monthly mortgage of $21,099.  According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in the first quarter of 2016 Manhattan’s average weekly wage was $2,783.

Not nearly enough to cover the mortgage on a luxury home. So, maybe it is time for a little bit of market correction?