About a year ago, local media flew into a tizzy when Gothamist came across a listing for a most unusual abode. “This New York Apartment Is So Cramped The Shower Is Actually In The Kitchen,” wrote Buzzfeed. “Someone Is Paying $1,795/Month For This Sad Kitchen Shower,” blared Curbed. Even the The New Yorker went for a jaunt around the premises, curious to catalogue this rare species.
The apartment was portrayed as sad and pathetic–“the unicorn of bad NYC real estate”–and its price extravagant, something only a chump would buy into. But Brooke Lucas, who moved in last June, wasn’t deterred by the odd arrangement. In fact, like many people who move to the city chasing a dream, she found it somewhat romantic, a quirky sojourn in her New York adventure. Needless to say, we had to see what she had done with the place.
When I walked into Lucas’s infamous fifth-floor apartment on a recent afternoon, I immediately knocked over a watering can. Lucas, a floral designer from Australia, just grinned and shrugged. Knocking down watering cans and breaking a few vases is just part of the background noise when you live and run a business out of an old tenement smaller than a closet in the suburbs.
Bathing in your kitchen has actually been a pretty common situation in the old tenements of the Lower East Side and East Village, a remnant of the transition from outhouses and shared hallway bathrooms to modern amenities. Many apartments were so small or had strange dimensions, so updating them led to these odd configurations. But these days the kitchen shower (or bathtub) seems to be a dying breed as more and more tenements make way for luxury buildings or get gut renovations.
In Lucas’s case, the shower in question almost blends in, nestled in the small square of the living room right next to the sink, artfully covered with pink fabric patterned with green jungle leaves. There’s also a mini-bedroom, barely large enough to squeeze a bed into, and in the way back, a tiny bathroom just for the toilet and sink.
Lucas ended up here with her eyes wide open though. After quitting her job in advertising in Australia three years ago, she had hopped from sublet to sublet across New York while carving out a new career path through interning at flower shops like Belle Fleur and Flower Girl on Eldridge Street. Now she was striking out on her own, starting her company, The Wild Bunch, and needed a place for herself that could double as a studio (flower stems floating all over the living room tend to annoy roommates).
Of course, she could have moved out to Brooklyn or Queens for something reasonable instead of paying $1,700 for about 300 square feet of space up five flights of stairs, but she felt that being in the city was more convenient for daily shopping trips to the Chelsea flower markets and made it easier to jump on new business opportunities. And though she’d sampled many New York neighborhoods when she was subletting (Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Cobble Hill, West Village and East Village), the challenge of old-school New York living, sticking through the grit with a group of hardy neighbors, still held a certain charm.“That’s why I moved to Manhattan,” she said. “To live here in one of these cool little areas, not to live out in Brooklyn somewhere, where I could afford a big apartment.”
She had lived on Orchard Street in the past and was eager to return to the neighborhood’s laid-back community vibe and unique mixture of shops, so when she saw the apartment listing she weighed her options and figured it was worth the sacrifice on space. “I kind of had decided before I got here–I was like, unless it’s like the worst place in the world, I’m gonna take it,” she said. “Then I kind of saw it and I was like, oh my god, this is going to be really weird. But it was so light and had a good energy and I just needed a place. And now I love it.”
The main room is dominated by a wooden surface, which alternately serves as her eating space, office, and design lab, strewn with flowers and leaves. Next to it, stacks of shelves somehow manage to precariously house her vase and accessory collection, as daintily ramshackle as any Anthropologie display. There’s just enough space by the window to squeeze in a couch and TV, for her rare moments of downtime.
When she’s working on her flower designs she covers the couch with a sheet and spreads out. The shower even comes in handy: “I’ve got the little foot tap down here so it’s really easy for me to stick a bucket in there and fill it with stuff,” Lucas said. When she has a big project, like a wedding or party, she just shoves some of her larger pieces in the shower to hide them while she keeps working so “it doesn’t feel as crazy.”
Yes, many people probably would go crazy navigating such small stomping grounds, but somehow Lucas has turned the apartment into a cozy showroom that feels the opposite of dank and depressing. Not that it didn’t take some adjusting. Looking at her spotless setup I took her for a neatnik, an acolyte of Marie Kondo perhaps, the kind of person who couldn’t go to bed without making sure her clothes were hung up, dishes washed and books organized alphabetically.
Instead she surprised me. Lucas says she’s a lifelong hoarder who hates making decisions– he loved to hold onto every half-burnt candle or extra box, hoping to be able to recycle it on a future job.
“I’m messy, I leave things to the last minute. I’m the sort of person who would love, like, a room to throw all my crap in and deal with it later,” she said. But she found that holding onto extra bits and bobs quickly became unsustainable. She used to keep old packaging and paper on hand for future shipments, but soon she was kicking a garbage bag full of paper around her apartment all day. “It very quickly gets out of control in here,” she said. “Trying to keep it clean is definitely trying for me.” After a few months she learned some tricks, like only putting her coat on once she’s out the door so she doesn’t knock anything over with the extra bulk.
Lucas has come to see the apartment as an exercise in paring down, strengthening her judgment in the process. With every piece of clothing she chucks and vase she says goodbye to, she whittles down to the essentials for maximum effect–in her life, and in her floral designs. “I feel like this is a test for me.” she said. “I wasn’t designed to live in such a small space. But I’m trying very hard to learn.”
And while everyone is so fixated on the shower’s strange placement, she said it’s really only weird if she has a guest stay–the five-floor walk up is the real challenge. She’ll often do 10 or 15 trips up and down, lugging her flower supplies.
But until she can rent a separate studio, she’s embracing the grind with an unflappable cheeriness only someone hustling for big dreams could muster. “I just keep thinking that one day I’m going to look back and laugh. This is like ‘the hard years.’ I’m doing it tough, I’m really working it and then one day I’ll hopefully have this big amazing business with this huge beautiful space,” she said. “And I’ll say yeah, I started at the bottom…or started at the top and worked my way down the stairs.”