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When the Downstairs Neighbors Become Best Friends

When the Downstairs Neighbors Become Best Friends


When Zach Tan Strein, Corey Eisenberg and Alex Faoro signed the lease on a three-bedroom apartment on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, Brooklyn, last June, they didn’t give much thought to who their downstairs neighbors would be.

But within a few months, the residents of the five-bedroom duplex below became the defining element of their living experience — in a good way.

“We have an open-door policy and basically share our spaces. We’re all like roommates,” Mr. Strein said. The setup is all the more serendipitous as the downstairs apartment was largely an agglomeration of subletters who found rooms on the Facebook group Gypsy Housing. They could hardly have been expected to become fast friends with each other, let alone the people upstairs.

But become fast friends they did, after Mr. Eisenberg learned that the downstairs apartment had a washer and dryer. He decided to offer his services as a handyman in exchange for laundry rights.

“And then me and Vanessa started talking,” Mr. Eisenberg said, referring to Vanessa Lopez, who shares the downstairs apartment with Tomas Virgadula, Christine Barringer, Helena Deda and a fifth roommate, who asked that his name not be used. Niko, Ms. Lopez’s Bichon mix also lives with them. “I think we have the same personality trait, where we’ll talk to anyone who will talk to us.”

The alliance was cemented by Mr. Faoro’s Jura Impressa coffee maker, which was soon drawing the downstairs crew upstairs on a regular basis. And as they are the only two apartments in the building, it quickly seemed unnecessary to lock — or often even to shut — their doors.

On a recent evening, Mr. Strein had prepared a dinner of spaghetti with tomato sauce and roasted broccoli, carrots, green beans and sweet potato wedges for his roommates in the open kitchen upstairs — one of the few requirements he and his roommates had when looking for a place.

Mr. Eisenberg had spotted the apartment on Gypsy Housing, where people post apartments and rooms, and responded within three minutes after clocking that the place was within budget, at $2,450 a month, and a lease takeover from the three couples living there at the time, so there wouldn’t be a broker’s fee.

“I also liked that it was unrenovated,” Mr. Eisenberg said. “If I’m looking at a place, I don’t care if the paint is chipped or floors scratched because I’ll fix it.”

Mr. Virgadula, who moved to Brooklyn in 2011 to pursue an acting career, said that the apartment downstairs, which rents for $4,100 a month, was the first he had seen with a foyer.

“When I walked in for the first time, I was like, ‘What is this space called?’ Every other place I’ve lived, you just walk straight into the kitchen,” he said.

The expansiveness of their shared living space — and the big backyard — has allowed the housemates to hold large gatherings: at a Chinese New Year party, for example, friends helped them make, and consume, 800 dumplings.

It has also proved an ideal space for letting loose creative energies. Ms. Barringer, a seamstress and freelance costume technician, has ample space to work, as does Mr. Eisenberg, who does commercial design and fabrication, in addition to his own papier-mâché projects.

A few Saturdays ago, Mr. Strein, who interned at Dickson’s, a butcher in Chelsea Market, used leftover beef tallow to make candles in the backyard. The following Saturday, he invited roommates to dye garments in a vat of natural black walnut dye he had prepared.

Things have not been entirely rosy. On Christmas morning, Mr. Eisenberg discovered a bedbug in the apartment. He ran downstairs to tell Ms. Lopez, the only other person home. They decided to wait until the next day to tell the others, but immediately ran to Home Depot and started a massive cleaning.

“I was not about to live with bedbugs,” Mr. Eisenberg said.

With the help of an exterminator, they managed to wipe out the infestation in six weeks.

“It brought us closer together,” Mr. Faoro said.

It also had the unintended consequence of flushing out the one roommate, an unpleasant downstairs tenant, whom none of them liked. (He opted to leave because he didn’t want to deal with the bedbugs or the extermination.)

Ms. Deda, who had become friends with Ms. Lopez while working at a nearby kava bar, had heard so many positive things about the house and its friendly, communal vibe that she moved in during the infestation.

“I was very tired of the situations I’d been living in. The apartments I’d had before, it felt like people are always trying to take advantage of you,” she said. “So I went on Google and looked up ‘bedbugs.’ Of course, it gave me the worst situations, but I trusted Vanessa that it was not that bad.”

Before moving into the house last June, Ms. Lopez said she had started to despair of ever finding a shared living situation where she could be happy. But she had lived in a studio when she first moved to New York and hated living alone.

“I’d rather live with roommates, but it turned into a toxic situation so much of the time,” she said. “This was the first house I moved into with strangers, and it’s the best house I’ve ever lived in.”

Relations are so good in the building, in fact, that there is even a cross-floor romance: Mr. Faoro and Ms. Deda recently started dating.

“I called that from day one,” Mr. Eisenberg said, recalling how the first time Mr. Faoro saw Ms. Deda, he asked, “Who’s that?”

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