Most people moving to the Upper West Side don’t expect to live in a mansion with a pool in the back. But neither are they jonesing to live in an apartment the size of a 2001 Honda Accord.
That’s exactly what Felice Cohen did, for four years. Though she recently moved two avenues away into the relative luxury of a 490-square-foot studio—“There’s tons of space!”—she squeezed everything she learned about appreciating the small things into a new book, “90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more).”
“I wanted to leave my full-time crazy busy job,” says Cohen, now 45, explaining her micro-housing decision. “And I wanted to finish writing my first book. It’s about my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.” She also wanted enough time to travel, ride her bike and play tennis. (Who doesn’t?) The catch was: She didn’t want to leave the city to do it.
She didn’t even want to leave Manhattan.
That’s exactly the kind of creative soul former Mayor Bloomberg was thinking of when he announced a complex of mini-apartments ranging from 260 to 360 square feet to be built in the East 20s. He proudly touted the fact that these would let regular folks find affordable homes for a mere $2,000 to $3,000 a month.
That’s a billionaire for you. Cohen’s apartment measured just 12 x 7½ feet, but the tab for her prime location between Lincoln Center and Central Park was a fraction of the Bloomberg pads’: $700 a month. That meant she didn’t have to work full time to afford it.
Cohen, whose father was a bankruptcy attorney, said she grew up knowing not to spend what she didn’t have. She also took note of her grandmother’s trajectory, going from a 13-room house, to a two-bedroom condo, to a nursing-home room.
“When she died, all her possessions fit into one cardboard box,” says Cohen. Surely there was a lesson there on how little we truly need.
But it still took Cohen a little while to absorb that lesson. Before she moved into the tiny space, she packed up 77 boxes and put them into storage.
It’s possible you’ve already seen her tiny space. A video “tour” of Cohen’s apartment has garnered more than 11 million views on YouTube. On it, you see that she doesn’t have a kitchen, but she does have a fridge, a hot pot and a toaster. She’s got a loft bed, of course—in New York, when you need space, the only place to go is up. And she’s got a desk, a comfy reading chair, and a bathroom that looks completely normal (to a New Yorker). Come to think of it, my husband and I lived in about 400 square feet for a few years and it didn’t seem nutty either.
Which is precisely Cohen’s point: “We can all live without half of what we own. We have closets full of clothes we barely wear. We save something for ‘just in case,’ and ‘just in case’ never comes.”
It should come as no surprise that Cohen’s other job is a professional organizer. If you can’t afford her $150-per-hour service, she’s got a couple of great suggestions: Go through just one section at a time—your kitchen cabinets, sock collection, whatever. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. And remember, you don’t have to toss the things you loved. Give them to a friend, or charity. What you’re getting rid of may end up helping someone else.
In the end, Cohen got rid of her tiny apartment only because she was evicted. Subletting, a new landlord, yada, yada, yada. It doesn’t get more Manhattan than that. That’s when her grandfather stepped in.
“He said, ‘Enough already! Buy a place! You lived in a shoebox to write about my life. Now make sure you buy some good furniture and enjoy your life.’ ” He gave her a down payment for the new studio.
By the time Cohen moved in, she had gotten rid of those 77 boxes in storage. It’s likely most of us could get rid of whatever we’re storing, too. “It’s about living large on your own terms,” summed up Cohen. “Not being stressed to pay bills for stuff you don’t even use.”
Maybe freedom’s just another word for nothing left to store.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.