The Fine Art of Living Small
by Ela Schwartz
When Dick Brafford, an artistic genius, first
came to New York City in 1988, he was immediately entranced
by Chelsea, the young, hip and happening Manhattan community
that lies on the West Side between 14th and 34th Streets.
Manhattan is famous for its notoriously
high rents and scumbag landlords, says Brafford, who soon
found out that it was either settle for less-than spacious digs
or go out and buy a gun and shoot himself in the head.
Luckily, he found a picturesque edifice nestled
between a dance studio and the Marlborough Gallery. The building
had originally been a house built before the Civil War in the
1830s and now housed a number of single-room occupancy (SRO)
units. Although the location couldnt be beat, he had to
admit the room itself was a tad smaller than he had hoped for.
My hole in the wall is about the size
of a normal persons closet, he says. We're not just
talking small studio here, we're talking seven feet by fifteen
feet. Contrary to popular opinion, such residences are not simply
dumping grounds for alcoholics, the homeless, the mentally ill
and other unfortunates but the reality of life in the Big Apple
for those who earn less than a six-figure income, don't have
family footing the rent bill and are too cantankerous to get
along with roommates.
Nonetheless, Dick was determined that a
little decorating magic could certainly offset the lack of square
An aficionado of the dumpster-diving design
school, he set out on a few nightly runs to find a one-of-a-kind
faux antique desk and chair out on the street. An entertainment
center was a priority for his bombastic experiments in music.
Both his stereo, computer and DVD systems are nestled next to
his sleeping quartersthis way, he has access to all his
work and entertainment equipment without even having to get
out of bed.
The right shelving made all the difference
in both the eating and sleeping areas. The units are home to
his microwave, a steady supply of protein powders and Diet Coke
and his collection of books by everyone from Dostoyevsky to
A sink in the opposite corner gets a regular
I wash dishes, brush my teeth,
even wash my underwear and socks in that sink, says Dick.
Who the hell needs to be prideful in a living situation
Living in an SRO means the hallway becomes
part of the décor. Both the hallway and bathroom exude
a sort of shabby-chic, turn-of-the-century charm, sporting mismatched
tile flooring and diamond-handle doorknobs.
"In this bathroom it's bring your own
tissue or you're in trouble!" he says.
Low-cost housing in Chelsea has become a
thing of the far past. Naturally the landlord wants to
get rid of all of us, rip down this building, put up a high-rise
and then charge people an arm and two legs for rent, Dick
For now, at any rate, living in an infinitesimal
space has brought enlightenment. We live in a society
that's all about buying stuff and more stuff, he says,
waxing philosophically. Living here has taught me how
to pare life down to its absolute essentials or suffer death
by burial under my own possessions.