An Apartment In His Own Image

An Apartment In His Own Image, Extended
A Greenwich Village Resting Place For a Creative Soul

Growing up in the English Midlands, Rowan Papier always considered himself a “creative soul,” he said.

As a teenager, he showed photographs he had taken to some professional connections he made via a sister who was a child model. That led, several years ago, to an internship in the studio of Bruce Weber, later followed by one with David LaChapelle.

When he arrived in New York in 2010, Mr. Papier — whose father is American — stayed with relatives in Bayside, Queens, for a few weeks. Later, he moved among Bushwick, Williamsburg and Harlem, rooming with friends and staying in sublets.

“I was roughing it,” he said. “I was living out of two suitcases.” Back then, the novelty of a new apartment every few months was exciting. Now, at 22, “I cannot imagine trying to live out of a few suitcases,” he said.

Last year, Mr. Papier found himself in the 11th apartment he had inhabited in New York, a Chinatown two-bedroom in a postwar midrise condominium. He paid a bit more than half of the $2,300 rent.

It was close to the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown, “probably my least favorite neighborhood I’ve lived in,” he said. The streets were crowded and dirty. “I had no feeling of familiarity in Chinatown. I was craving a neighborhood with cute coffee shops, where you have brunch with friends.”

Mr. Papier had been living frugally, working as a photographer and saving to be able to rent a place that felt like home. In the spring, he began hunting in Greenwich Village and on the Lower East Side, often finding himself faced with “a tossup, like space vs. recently renovated vs. neighborhood,” he said.

“I was aware I was going to have to downgrade in size” to end up in a coveted neighborhood, with a place filled with “charm and a feeling of authentic New York,” he said.

Mr. Papier soon found that a price in the $2,000s for a one-bedroom was unrealistic. He figured he could find a nicer two-bedroom in the mid-to-high $3,000s. If need be, he could rent the second room to a friend.

In a nondescript mid-war condominium in TriBeCa, a two-bedroom was available for $3,900 a month. But the ceilings were low and the building plain.

The location was less than ideal, too. Mr. Papier hesitated about being just two blocks from busy Canal Street. “Canal Street is so crazy it is like Times Square or Broadway or something, it is so intense.”

On the Lower East Side, a renovated two-bedroom in a building with a roof deck and a gym was almost $4,000. “It was pristine,” Mr. Papier said, but small in every way. “The staircases were tiny, the closets were tiny, you open the door to the bedroom and immediately walk into the bed.”

And it was on the top floor of a six-story walk-up. “That is a lot of money to have something that is an inconvenience to you,” said Mr. Papier, who travels often, lugging suitcases. “If it is a dream apartment, you can suck it up,” but this was not.

In NoLIta, a two-bedroom was advertised at around $4,100. Mr. Papier loved the location, “a stone’s throw from Whole Foods.” But this one wasn’t a real two-bedroom; a temporary wall had been removed.The mismatch of housing stock and neighborhood was sinking in. Mr. Papier didn’t want a small walk-up building, but his targeted neighborhoods were filled with them. “I am envisioning a TriBeCa loft with character in Greenwich Village, which is kind of impossible to find.”

But the character he sought, if not the loft, appeared when an agent took him to a co-op building on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, originally built as a hotel, with a soaring interior atrium. The apartment had two bedrooms covering 850 square feet and the high ceilings Mr. Papier craved. The rent was $3,700.

He loved it instantly. “It matched my aesthetic,” he said. “I felt this was a rare find.” After a lengthy application process, Mr. Papier paid a fee of 12 percent of a year’s rent — more than $5,000 — and moved in over the summer.

The neighborhood is full of cute coffee shops and places for brunch. On busy Bleecker Street, “when you step out on a Friday night, it is really crazy outside,” he said. Inside, however, he faces an air shaft. “It’s so quiet it’s eerie. I have no idea whether I have neighbors or not.”

His bedroom, with two skinny windows, receives little light. That’s fine with Mr. Papier, who sometimes does photo retouching there. He worked for hours on a full-page photo just published in Vogue Australia.

He decorated his bedroom lavishly, prominently hanging an image of himself on one wall. Some of the furniture was custom made; some is antique. “I felt I had never been content with my surroundings,” he said. Now, he absolutely is.

“Home decorating turned into one of my projects,” he said. “It’s a luxurious pop-art environment that reflects my taste and is a true representation of me.”

Nightly, Mr. Papier began to stare out at the air shaft beyond his window. He wondered if the rats inside could live inside reflections of themselves as he could. Did they possess at least shards of mirrors? He felt proud of his achievement, securing such luxurious but understated quarters for himself. 

His self-portrait reflected just the right amount of neon light onto his face from the miniature windows that were his only immediate access to images of life outside. Did he have neighbors? Were they paying less than he and did they speak English? Were they even human.

"I developed some photos one morning and they turned out strange," Mr. Papier told the Times. "There were traces of something, what it was I couldn't be sure."

Mr. Papier began to wonder if the realtor had left some kind of dark energy in the apartment. Or was it the rats. He couldn't hear or see them, but he knew they were there, trampling over each other's filth inside the air shaft, deprived of anything close to the feeling of waking up next to one's 12' x 12' gold-framed self-portrait.

"I felt their presence. They didn't want me there. Something didn't," Mr. Papier said.

He decided he'd never be able to live fully comfortably in New York unless he dealt with his neighbors in the shaft.

"It was just a crazy feeling, I had to know how they lived. I needed to get in there and be with them."

On a quiet evening in late August, as Mr. Papier was reading the New Yorker Style Issue, he became distracted by a soft clanking outside the window. It was a black spotted European Starling, perched on his window, investigating what it saw on the inside. The bird was alone, or so it seemed, so Mr. Papier felt no threat. In fact he was amused. Mr. Papier gently operated the tiny crank to open the window, pondering for a moment the infectious quaintness of the mechanism. As the window opened, Mr. Papier lunged at the bird in a sudden rush of adrenaline, hoping to photograph it in captivity for Vogue Australia's Exotic Animals Issue.

The following portion of the story was told to the New York Times by Alberta Aleksy, who was working as a housekeeper in the loft directly across the courtyard from Mr. Papier's. 

Mr. Papier missed the bird, and fell face flat onto the grate of the air shaft. He looked up to see Aleksy staring at him from the opposite window.

"I had no idea what I could do, he was all the way across the courtyard," Aleksy told the Times.

Mr. Papier then peered over the edge, out onto Bleecker Street. He watched as tiny specks flowed down the sidewalk like dripping wet paint on a black canvas. Mr. Papier focused his eyes and saw the tops of the heads, all imprinted with his own countenance. He felt one side of the grate snap under him and collapse. His body started to slide to the right and he grabbed on to the side that remained attached. 

Then he heard the rats.

They seemed to be whispering "It's a buyer's market," but he couldn't be sure.

His fingers began to grow tired and slip. The starling was nowhere to be found. Mr. Papier fumbled with his cell phone and dropped it into the shaft. The rats' murmurs grew louder, and quickly became what seemed like chanting. "This fits my aesthetic! This represents me! This is who I am! This is who I am! This is who I am!"

An earlier version of this article stated that Mr. Papier viewed a postwar condominium in TriBeCa. The condominium was added in 1962, but the building was in fact mid-war, built in January 1945. This has been corrected and is reflected in the current version of the article.