In the summer of 2013, Gothamist published the first of many advice columns from native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, kicking things off with the timeless question, "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?" Nearly six years later, the popular series has been turned into a book, Ask a Native New Yorker, with ALL NEW essays from Jake. This week we are running excerpts the book, which is being released today—order your copy now! Today's question comes from Chapter 2: "How to Keep a Roof Over Your Head," and concerns mean neighbors.
I love my new apartment. It's a small studio with good light in the East Village and it's within my price range. Only one problem: The neighbors all appear to be jerks! Now, I admit that some of this might be because I'm new and it seems like they've lived in the building forever. But still, most of them ignore me, and just last week as I was coming in, someone literally let the door slam in my face instead of holding it! Who does that?
Also, my upstairs neighbor has been making a lot of noise late at night. It sounds like banging pots or dragging stuff (bodies?) around. He's an older guy, and I'm kind of scared to go up there and tell him to please knock it off.
Do you have any advice about how to deal with these people?
East Village Newbie
A little neighbor nonsense seems like a relatively small price to pay for a cheap East Village apartment these days, so cheer up—you're already doing better than most of your peers. And, unlike other housing problems like bedbugs, slumlords who let the building go to hell, or intolerable smells from a restaurant downstairs, this one has a simple fix.
For the next month, every time you pass someone in the stairs, vestibule, or hallway of the building, I want you to say, "Hello!" in a bright, loud voice. If they stop, you should add a second comment—something innocuous like "It's so hot today!" or "Happy Friday!" Half of the people will ignore you at first, but after you do it a few times, even the most hard-hearted neighbor will likely begin responding with at least a half-assed "What's up?" or "How are you?"
This is your opportunity to strike. Start with a simple question— something like, "Hey, you know I just moved in; do you know if it's cool to store my bike in the basement?" Or, "Do you know if we have roof access?" People love to give advice, and giving them the opportunity to be helpful is a great way to create warm relations. Ideally, your questions will be real ones you actually have; don't fake it if you don't have to.
After a month of this, most neighbors will consider you one of the family and your problems will be solved. You could, of course, take it even further by offering to help the older people in the building carry up their packages, giving the younger families a hand carrying down their strollers, etc. I've always found that these kinds of casual, friendly, neighbor relations go a long way to making a building a more pleasant place to live, and I can guarantee that you will never have a door slammed in your face again.
Why did that happen, by the way? It wasn't because your neighbors are unfriendly louts. And although you are right to suspect that some of them may be concerned about gentrification in the neighborhood and younger residents like you pricing them out, that's probably not the reason, either. My guess is that they were probably following the native rule that you never, ever, let someone into the building you don't recognize.
This goes for everyone: deliverymen, old ladies, young kids, German Airbnb guests, Girl Scouts selling cookies. To the street-smart, somewhat paranoid New Yorker, any of these could actually be burglars or murderers in disguise, and we don't want to be the one to let them tailgate us into the building and thereby be responsible for any headline-grabbing carnage that may ensue. What's more, by applying this rule to everyone, we ensure that we're not acting unconsciously racist and judging potential threats based on the color of a person's skin or their clothes. No one gets allowed in unless we know them.
(For buildings with intercoms, this obviously also includes those times when someone buzzes your apartment and claims to be UPS or the gas company or the police—you never, ever buzz them in. You may, if you wish, go downstairs and check them out, but the important thing is to maintain the security of your building.)
So, I think we've solved everything except your noise issue. This is by far the most common neighbor complaint in the city. First, ask yourself if the noise is really intolerable. After you first move into an apartment, it takes about a month for your brain to settle down and get used to the new environment. During this period of acclimation, unexpected noises will sound louder than usual, and much more annoying. As New York is a dense city, and our apartment buildings are often built from crappy, noise-passing materials, you must make a certain allowance for sound from your neighbors—music, movie explosions, arguments, people walking around upstairs.
Often, just getting used to the sound will make this problem go away. Try to relax. Meditate, take a warm bath before bed, play some soothing music, and see if the noise still bothers you. If it does, buy a white-noise machine. They are cheap and can drown out an impressive array of sounds—even garbage trucks, airplanes and helicopters, and crying children. If that doesn't work, it's time for a delicate conversation with the neighbor. This will go much, much better if you've completed the steps above and have already established a respectful rapport with him (or her). The first time you speak to a neighbor, it should never be "Hey, can you please quiet the fuck down?"
So let's say you are already on "hello" terms with the neighbor. One night, at a reasonable hour after dinner, go upstairs, knock on the door, and say something along the lines of "Hey, I hate to bother you, but the last few nights I've been awakened by some loud banging coming through my ceiling. I know this is annoying, but is there any way you could try to quiet down, not wear your boots in the apartment, or get an area rug to keep it a little quieter?" In my experience, this almost always works on the first try. Once, when we had an upstairs neighbor who had developed an unusual after-midnight woodworking hobby, he not only stopped doing it, but he actually gave us a bottle of wine and an apology card.
However, your neighbor may turn out to be less thoughtful. Perhaps he is too cheap to buy a rug, loves wearing boots indoors, and has been stomping around for twenty-five years with no problems, and he sees your request as an unfair interference with his rights. You could ask again, nicely, but the odds are that you're not going to get any better results than you did the first time. This is the moment to escalate to your super (or if you live in a fancy building, your doorman.)
To do this, you need to already be on their good side. Just as with the neighbors, it is essential to spend the first months in a new building getting to know the people who work there. Know their names and use them: "Hello, Frank, how's it going?" Ask them about themselves: how long they've been working at the building, what they like and don't like. Tip generously at the end of the year and when they help you out with something, and they'll be on your side when troubles arise. If you don't have money, offer food—you can buy an incredible amount of goodwill with a simple plate of cookies.
If your upstairs neighbor refuses to give you satisfaction on the noise, go to the super and ask if he can do anything about it. Often a simple conversation between him and the offending neighbor will cure the problem. If it doesn't, he can help you escalate to the landlord or management company, which is your last line of defense (some people recommend calling 311 or submitting a complaint on NYC.gov, but in my experience, if personal appeals and requests from the landlord haven't worked, getting the city involved isn't going to do anything helpful).
If you've done everything above, and the noise is still intolerable to you, you can usually break the lease and move. This will require getting a lawyer to write you a letter claiming the landlord has breached their obligations to provide a habitable apartment, but this is fairly inexpensive and you will feel better knowing you're not trapped in an apartment you hate. The next time you rent, consider searching for a top-floor apartment (as noise doesn't travel up as much as it travels down) in a prewar building (which always has thicker walls and higher ceilings), with a bedroom that doesn't face the street.