Fictional New York City Apartments Get Real


As you will recall, the “Friends” apartment, shared by a young barista and a struggling chef, was a palatial two-bedroom with amusing purple walls in the West Village. Even in 1994, few of us were fooled by the “Friends” fantasy, but we ran with it anyway.

Television has become smarter since then — viewers expect more rawness. Well, maybe they expect more truth. It just happens to be raw. But dig deeper and shows like “Broad City” and “Girls” tell a different coming-of-age story, one that is experienced in the shadow of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

The characters on these shows are part of a generation burdened by student loan debt and stagnating wages. Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” doesn’t get a place with a Parisian-style balcony in the happening West Village. For her, there’s a grim garden apartment reached by a dicey set of steps in far Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“Younger generations are having to face this reality,” said Lindsay T. Graham, a psychologist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. “When you see shows where the characters are existing in these sorts of struggles, I think that that’s actually comforting.”

We’ve traded crown molding for blooming mold in the bathroom. Furniture is worn and stained. None of the throw pillows match. “We make sure there’s no bedbugs and then we use it,” said Angelique Clark, “Broad City’s” production designer, about choosing furnishings for the set. The walls have been painted countless times, and Abbi definitely did not choose the puke green of the hallway wall of her two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens.

But the grime and the lack of space are the point. At a rent party that Abbi’s friend Ilana hosts, she trips over her guests as she tries to shield them from the rats that have overrun her 550-square-foot two-bedroom in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

Where They Lived

The locations of apartments in TV shows.

  1. 30 Rock — Liz Lemon lived at 160 Riverside Drive.

  2. Will and Grace — Will Truman and Grace Adler lived at 155 Riverside Drive.

  3. Seinfeld — Jerry Seinfeld lived at 129 West 81st Street.

  4. Mad About You — Paul and Jamie Buchman lived at 51 Fifth Avenue.

  5. Sex and the City — 64 and 66 Perry Street stood in for Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment on the Upper East Side.

  6. Mad Men — Don Draper’s apartment was at 136 Waverly Place.

  7. Friends — Some lived at 90 Bedford Street.

  8. Gossip Girl — Blair Waldorf lived at 1136 Fifth Avenue.

  9. The Odd Couple — Oscar Madison and Felix Unger lived at 1049 Park Avenue.

  10. The Jeffersons — The Jeffersons moved on up to 185 East 85th Street.

  11. Diff’rent Strokes — The Drummond family lived at 900 Park Avenue.

  12. Broad City — Abbi Abrams lives in Astoria, Queens.

  13. I Love Lucy — Lucy and Ricky Ricardo lived at 623 East 68th Street, putting the apartment in the East River.

  14. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — Kimmy lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

  15. Girls — Marnie Michaels lives at Forsyth and Grand Streets.

  16. Broad City — Ilana Wexler lives in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

“We were just trying to capture a New York that was more realistic to us,” Ilana Glazer told me during a phone call with Abbi Jacobson, her “Broad City” co-creator and co-star. “We crack up looking at the ‘Friends’ set. It’s like a play, facing the audience.”

Although Marnie’s studio in Chinatown could have been modeled on my sad pad, its inspiration was an apartment the show’s art director once rented. “People can watch and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I had an apartment like that,’ ” said Matt Munn, the production designer for “Girls.”

New York has never been kind to young people just starting out. But in recent years, it has become downright cruel. In early 1996, when “Friends” was in its second season, the median rent in Manhattan was $2,000 a month. Over the next 20 years, it jumped 67 percent to $3,344 a month in early 2016, according to Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

But while that may seem like an enormous increase, adjust those numbers for inflation, and the median rent in 1996 would have been $3,645 a month, or 9 percent more than it is today. “Rents are actually somewhat lower than they were in the mid 1990s,” Mr. Miller said. “But because wages have leveled off, it doesn’t feel that way.”

Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 earned about 20 percent less in real wages in 2014 than they would have earned in 2000, according to a report by the city comptroller. Also, Brooklyn — at least the parts seen as hip alternatives to Manhattan — is no longer cheaper. The flow of young professionals looking for housing led to a hair-raising rise in rents in those areas, while displacing many of the people who were living there.

Consider Williamsburg, the epicenter of Brooklyn gentrification. A 1996 New York Times article about the neighborhood reported that rent for a one-bedroom started at around $700 a month. According to Mr. Miller, the minimum starting rent for a one-bedroom is now around $1,832 a month.

Grim reality brings us to “The Holdouts,” a web series about a grumpy guy named Kevin who lives in a rundown rent-regulated apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. It is described as “a comedy about New Yorkers who can’t afford to live in New York anymore.” The concept appears to have struck a nerve. It took less than a month for the creators to raise $35,790 on Kickstarter in June to begin producing episodes. Filming began this month, and next month we will be able to watch the pilot episode in which Kevin resists his landlord’s overtures to buy him out.

“He is living in the past,” Stephen Girasuolo, one of the show’s creators, said of Kevin. “You could sort of say, ‘Dude, maybe you should sort of let it go.’ ”

Correction: September 19, 2016

An earlier version of the map accompanying this article incorrectly labeled location No. 3. It marks the home of Jerry Seinfeld on the TV show “Seinfield” at 129 West 81st Street, not that of George Costanza on the same show, who lived at 321 West 90th Street.

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