Maximizing Space in Manhattan

One of our conundrums living in Manhattan is space.  There is precious little of it in most of our apartments so being resourceful with what we have is just part of our daily life. 

The Mistress of Decluttering

With the enormous popularity of Japanese space expert, Marie Kondo, and her KonMari method of tidying up, you might think New Yorkers would be rushing to Salvation Army with bags jam-packed with our excess “stuff.” But no.  Instead of devouring Marie’s best-selling book , The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing or sitting glued to the TV watching her popular Netflix show, most of us are trading ideas on how to keep what we love. Our solution is to maximize every square inch of our dwellings.

This very mindset runs contrary to all that Marie embraces.  She is not a proponent of special storage methods nor using products such as shelving units or adjustable racks.  According to her, “Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.”  On the other hand, I look at it differently:  the problem has been contained.

File away those shirts

Most of the people I know covet their possessions and don’t want to toss them out without at least a concerted effort to find room for them. Beatrix from my spin class is a perfect example.  She proudly claims to be “The Queen of the Container Store.”  Beatrix is a loyal customer and swears by its robust selection of shelves, plastic boxes of all sizes, and various gadgets for expanding and manipulating space.

I casually asked Beatrix if she were familiar with the MK’s cultural phenomenon.  She indifferently shook her head “no.” However, she was very proud to tell me about her discovery of a folding method she uses to manage her golfer-doctor-husband’s ever-expanding collection of polo shirts.  Beatrix folds them neatly and instead of stacking them horizontally, she stands them up vertically.  “It’s a filing cabinet of polo shirts.  I sort them by color which creates a pleasing rainbow effect.”

Little does Beatrix know that MK is also a folding expert.  To encourage tossing things out, MK throws into the decluttering process the sacred question, “Does the item give you joy?”  If not, out it goes.  While I doubt Beatrix derives as much joy from the polo shirts as does her husband, she was certainly delighted to have figured out how to maximize the depth and height of a drawer.

Surviving in a small space

Over forty years ago, when I first moved into the city as a young, entry level public relations assistant, all I could afford was a studio.  Everything inside was in Lilliputian size including my half of a refrigerator.   It didn’t take long before I understood that I needed to peacefully coexist with space limitations. In a nutshell, the solution was to stash things—preferably out of sight—using any method available to you.  High, low, under, on top, it made no difference.  In fact, it is not unusual to look inside a brownstone apartment somewhere in the City and see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling. 

Even now that I’ve graduated to a grown-up sized apartment, I take pleasure in finding places to hide things.  For example, I have two accent tables, each covered with a full-length cloth, under which are stock-piled Costco-sized packages of toilet paper and paper towels.  Loose office supplies, such as tape, paper clips and staples go into a favorite pottery casserole.  My 12-quart stock pot is a bonanza for storing picnic supplies.

When in doubt, store it under the bed

Putting things under the bed is particularly popular with New Yorkers.  Public Relations guru, Joan Brower, hides her extensive collection of evening bags in a long, flat plastic storage container under her bed.  My Italian class buddy and former tax accountant, Joan Ross, warehouses under her bed a silverware storage box, an extra leaf for her table plus her medical X-rays.

Janeen Sarlin, a professional chef and author, keeps several boxes under her bed with her artist/professor daughter’s wire sculptures of hands that are signing the letters in the alphabet. “And a large, flat box filled with vintage ball gowns that ‘still fit’ both myself and my daughter!” And if that is not enough, she explained proudly, “Under the guest bed is a folding table that seats eight, an artificial Christmas Tree and a few dust bunnies! “

Former food editor of Ladies Home Journal, Jan Hazard, divulged “I am not the best one to ask about maximizing space as I have too much stuff now and need to purge. But here’s my tip: “Bed, Bath and Beyond sells blocks that can raise your beds so you can store even more things underneath them.” 

Built-in solutions for urban living 

World traveler and wine writer Lila Gault loves to cook so finding ways to have all her kitchen gadgets at her finger tips is critical.  She swears by her “hanging pot rack which saves valuable cabinet space and makes cookware more easily accessible.” Lila also says that having a built-in closet to maximize space for everything from shoes to jackets is a must for New Yorkers.  Her favorite feature in her closet is a system with multiple bars, which take up almost no horizontal space, where she can hang up to five pairs of pants on a singer hanger.  While a custom designed built-in closet can be costly, you can also create your own with modules available online at a fraction of the cost.   

Multi-purpose solutions

My trainer, Jenn Spina, thinks in terms of multi-purpose, another practical solution. “As space is at a premium in my studio, I bought an ottoman which I use to sit on, for storage and as a mini coffee table when the top is flipped over.”   

A designer of dog fashion, Joan DeCollibus, also utilizes multi-purpose applications as the way to go, “like living on a boat.” Her large, white work surface, which is used for cutting out her patterns, also doubles as her dining room table. “Everything goes under the table too. I just made some lovely panels to cover the mess. Neatness counts when living and working in a small space.”   

Joan is an advocate for daily decluttering as well. This includes swapping out one use of space for another.  Doug, her architect husband, is designing built-in cabinets to replace their “mish-mash of Elfa mesh storage baskets.”  At the same time, she explains. “To declutter visually, Doug is eliminating our bookcases.”  

Repurposing your dishwasher

Years ago, when my parents retired and down-sized from a house to a smaller apartment, my mother started storing her kitchen supplies, such as foil and plastic wrap, and dishtowels, in her dishwasher.  I remember her rationalizing that since she preferred to handwash her dishes, the dishwasher was not being used.  So, why not turn it into a handy storage unit for other things?

When I moved into the City, this dishwasher-turned-kitchen-storage-space no longer seemed odd to me. Especially when I heard about a fellow New Yorker who hated to cook so instead, used her oven for storing sweaters.  To tell the truth, I am not sure this is an original idea or if the individual was merely channeling Carrie Bradshaw who also used the same trick in the series “Sex in the City.”

A new trend of micro apartment living

No doubt about it, New Yorkers are starved for space, particularly young adults.  If you don’t want to share with a roommate, there is an option called a “micro apartment.” This is a small dwelling which by law must be at least 400 square feet in size. You can just imagine how cleverly these spaces need to be designed in order to make living possible.  Murphy beds, built-in drawers and shelves hidden in the stairwell, multi-level platforms with a bathroom hidden beneath the stairs, are just some of the clever space-saving solutions.  

Throwing out for a cause

While living in a small metropolitan dwelling is never easy, it can be made more manageable by limiting what you put in it.  In this regard, MK is correct.  You need to face reality and throw things out on a regular basis.  One rule of thumb I like is when you buy something new, you need to eliminate two other things.  When it comes to clothing, if I haven’t worn it in 18 months, out it goes.  Dress for Success is a great place for office clothing as it provides women in need with professional attire for job interviews.  Many charities have resale stores such as CancerCare, my preferred place to drop off my better clothes.  Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Housing Works are other favorites with New Yorkers.   Not only are you decluttering, but you are also doing something positive by helping others.

Whether or not MK’s rigid decluttering method—dumping all your clothing in the middle of the room to illustrate the amassed quantity of your stuff—will ever catch on with New Yorkers, I tend to doubt it.  We just don’t have the space to do so! As for asking the “does it give you joy” question, I’d rather propose, “Do you really need it?” 

With that question in mind, I do believe it’s time to get out my Bloomingdale’s brown bag and tackle my own closet. Even if I don’t follow her KonMari method, MK would probably approve.