Last week the New York Times ran a great article about the remaining few women’s residences in New York City. Women’s residences were founded in the early 20th century as a way for single, working women to have a safe place to live. Yes, there was a healthy streak of morality policing at work–residences were where Nice Girl from Good Families could live together without being mistaken for, y’know, whores. These days there’s less paternalism involved, but single-sex residences are very much alive and well:
..the smattering of all-female residences that remain are thriving, most with waiting lists of prospective tenants. The appeal today is not so different than it was in the past: safety, cleanliness and — especially attractive in modern-day New York — a good real estate deal.
It costs about $1,000 per month to live at the Webster. For that you get a small single room and shared bath but also a hot breakfast and dinner, maid service, use of a large walled garden and a roof deck with a spectacular view of the Empire State Building. The deal is similar — minus the garden and the roof deck — at the Brandon Residence for Women, tucked among multi-million-dollar town houses and co-ops on the Upper West Side, and the Sacred Heart Residence, run by an order of Catholic nuns, in Chelsea.
Two meals a day, maid service, and a roof deck for $1,000? Unbeatable, if you can stand the rules, which include restrictions on visitors–especially male visitors. That would have been a deal breaker for me, but the article makes it clear that the young women who live there don’t seem to mind too much, and really like living in what’s essentially an urban dormitory. And despite the rules about no male visitors, even the Catholic residences aren’t exactly convents:
“On Saturday night, you start seeing everyone all dolled up and walking out the door,” said Sister Marlene Rust, the administrator of Jeanne d’Arc, which is owned by an order of Catholic nuns. “You might see them walking in again on Sunday morning or afternoon.” (Asked if anyone seemed to be embarrassed by such a timetable, the nun replied: “Why be embarrassed?”) (ed: Heh. Nuns are awesome.)
I was torn when I read this article. I like the idea of women having a safe space, and the residents who spoke to the Times are a far cry from the virginal Nice Girls the residences’ founders intended to protect. But when I first moved to New York, I never would have thought to look up one of these places. Hmmm…would it have liked it?
When I arrived in New York, at age 21, I was lucky enough to have a place waiting for me. One of MamaSharper’s friends had a daughter, M., who’d just signed a lease on a two bedroom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and needed a roommate. It was a small apartment, but it was cheap and the neighborhood was reasonably safe (this was before Williamsburg became the hipster epicenter of the universe–the apartment we rented for $700 a month now goes for about three times that). Problem was, M. had never lived with a roommate, and didn’t really know how to compromise, whereas I was coming off four years of college roommates and had gotten really tired of compromising (dishes in the sink, whose turn it was to clean the bathroom, etc). Also, like the women’s residences, M. didn’t approve of overnight male visitors, which was sort of a problem, as I was still dating my college boyfriend, who lived in Virginia and couldn’t exactly come up for day trips.
Oh, and did I mention we had mice? Lots and lots and lots of mice? Skittering along the baseboards, gnawing their way through our trash bags, holding all-night raves in the kitchen cabinets?
It lasted six months. M. and I stayed friends but I moved into my own apartment. I got privacy, no mice, and the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my space. For the first time in my life, I felt like an honest-to-God independent woman. I don’t know that I would have felt that way if I’d lived by myself in one of the women’s residences–it probably would have felt too much like a dorm to me.
Although I have been in cohabiting relationships where I had four nights a week and a closet at my boyfriend’s place, or had a long-distance boyfriend shack up with me for a month or two, the lease has always been in my name only. There have definitely been times when I wished for a few helping hands around the house, but generally, the freedom of living alone is pretty great, and I can’t say I’ve ever felt lonely.
I’m curious to hear what y’all think about the idea of all-women’s residences–and about roommates vs. living alone for single women.
In Part Two, we’ll talk about co-habiting with romantic partners, and the co-housing movement.