Real State

‘Rent, Forever’: The Price of Living in New York City

My mother, Sandra Rodriguez, moved into 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 was working at a garment factory and pregnant with her first daughter. She thought that the two-bedroom, one-bath, would be a good place to grow her family.

Through the years, she raised her three children in that small apartment. Christmases, birthdays, graduations, holy hours, 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 on their feet enough to wander further on their own. The children would often share a bunk bed with one of the guests.

Still learning to maneuver in the city and confronted with a language barrier, my aunts and uncles found that small apartment was a life raft. And we had other family: our neighbors, some of which were welcoming family from abroad, just like we were.

Find the right building and have the right luck and a 600-square-foot apartment can be a lifelong residence, a place to raise a family, entertain and shed the weight of a long commute. The apartment becomes home base for a string of generations.

Before Celia Aguilera was born, her parents, Brigida Aguilera, a seamstress, and Juan Aguilera, bookbinder at the Franklin Mint, bumped into each other on their way to work at Columbus Circle and fell in love. It was serendipity, Ms. Aguilera said, because the couple had known 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 the railroad two-bedroom apartment in the winter of 1965. Two months after they moved in, Ms. Aguilera, who now works in psychiatry, was born. “When my mother passed away, I got the apartment,” Ms. Aguilera said. Her mother died in 2010 after a lifetime in Chelsea. Her father died in 1986 of renal failure. “Some of us stay because of tradition. We’ve been here all this time. I feel like my apartment is like a runway for my family.”As Chelsea has changed decade after decade, the Aguileras were a fixture. The Aguileras have celebrated, cried, held and nursed each other back to health, in their home.

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