By Joy Bergmann
You might not think a place owned by nuns would be a hotbed of creative passion, Gotham grit and intellectual verve. But you probably haven’t visited the Saint Agnes Residence at 237 West 74th Street, a hive of artists and students, travelers and professionals living in the last, all-women SRO rental building on the Upper West Side, given the impending closure of the Brandon Residence.
WSR hung out with some Saint Agnes residents Saturday evening during an impromptu, end-of-summer pizza party to find out who chooses this kind of unusual accommodation and why. Turns out, a delightful potpourri of personalities not unlike the wisecracking dames in the 1937 film “Stage Door.”
“I wanted to be in this neighborhood so bad,” says Karoline Fischer, an Austrian physician in her 30s, who moved to New York to pursue acting studies after winning her country’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” She’s been in several theater productions, provides German language tutoring and is working on transferring her medical license while relishing the serendipitous connections and support of her fellow residents. “There’s this thing – after 30 you have to have your own place,” she says. “But honestly, I like living with other people.”
Stacy, a 40-something who works in publishing and as an English tutor, nods, “Friends who used to put me down are now like ‘are there any vacancies?’” Stacy’s been downsizing her possessions and saving her pennies to relocate overseas, possibly India. “I wanted a space to reflect on my next step in life. It’s my own little nook on the west side, which I love.”
“It’s a home away from home during transitions in women’s lives,” says administrator Nancy Clifford who has worked at Saint Agnes for 12 years, and moved in herself after her husband’s death. Her Maltipoo Happy is the house-dog, providing all the benefits – licks, cuddles, scampers – and none of the responsibility of pet ownership, forbidden to individual residents. “We’re all about a peaceful spirit,” says Clifford. “The world is hard enough. This is a place to be peaceful.”
The residence has evolved considerably over its 76-year history, says Clifford. Dining services have been scrapped in favor of DIY meals and take-out from Fairway, Citarella and Trader Joe’s. WiFi is plentiful and included – with electricity – in the affordable rent.
Prices for the 106 units range from $850 a month for a small room with shared bath up to $1250 for the “super duper” room that’s more like a studio apartment. Twenty- nine units have private baths, but Clifford says the shared-bath residents rarely have to wait for a loo – 12 rooms share three baths per floor. Vacancies are rare, but interested women aged 18 to 50 may submit applications any time; tenants may stay for up to four years.
Operated by the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, a Connecticut order, Saint Agnes welcomes women of all faiths. Men are not allowed upstairs (but they may attend mass in the on-site chapel), smoking’s banned and cooking in rooms is a no-no. But residents come and go as they wish – no curfews – under the watchful eye of 24/7 security.
Tasha Ramsey, 28, started out as a security staffer four years ago before getting herself promoted to her current position managing admissions and finances. She recently moved in after her grandmother’s death and endlessly enthuses about the residence. “I never knew these places existed,” she says, calling it the best of both worlds – privacy in one’s own room, plus family-like community when you want company. “It’s funny, but people coming to a glitzy city like New York, they want to come back to homey and simple. It’s calming here.”
Dancers Katie Homer, 29, and Ayana Wildgoose, 22, agree. WSR found the two cooking a batch of hard-boiled egg snacks in the shared kitchen. “I can have a conversation for hours with any one of these amazing ladies,” says Homer. “It’s a healing space with so many cultures,” adds Wildgoose.
“I love it,” says Sarah Heller, 42, who previously lived at the Brandon and grew up in Westchester with eight sisters making Saint Agnes a return to form. “It’s lively and a safe environment for me as someone with a disability.” Heller enjoys the easy commute to her job at a Chelsea movie theater and convenient workouts at the JCC with her triathlon team. “Location, location, location!”
Though somewhat of a stealth operation to locals, Saint Agnes’ reputation stretches across the globe. Thais, a 37 year-old from southeast Brazil who’s studying English and doing some babysitting, didn’t know the UWS per se, but fell quickly for its charms. “I liked it immediately. You have everything here – grocery, pharmacy, clothes, train – and it’s very friendly.”
It’s also changing rapidly – unlike the Saint Agnes. Clifford says the residence is currently composing a long-term strategic plan that continues its “old-fashioned” mission pretty much as is. “It’s so much more than just a building. It does so much for these girls,” she says. “This is good. This is good.”