“It was a very lax process.”
That is not something you usually hear in stories about finding the perfect apartment. But for Amanda Paulsen and her partner, Peter Zusman, it’s what happened — one viewing with a brief conversation, and the next day everything was settled.
“At first, it felt like it was too good to be true,” Ms. Paulsen said. “We were calling it our ‘Covid deal,’ but then we discovered the guy before the pandemic had the same rent.”
They knew there had to be something else going on when they signed the lease to pay $3,200 a month for a sunny, 1,000-square-foot loft on Avenue C in the East Village, complete with a backyard and a basement. “When we first saw it, we were trying to conceal our reactions, trying to poker-face it,” Mr. Zusman said.
They were wearing masks, which helped, but it was still hard because the deal just kept getting better. “First it was, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s a basement,’” Ms. Paulsen said. “Then it was, ‘Oh, by the way, utilities are included’ — she just kept adding these nuggets of information.”
The woman showing the apartment was Romina Herrera Malatesta, a photographer and the only other tenant in the three-story building. As a friend of the owner, Alexis Borges, she was charged with finding tenants for the first floor, and she liked Ms. Paulsen and Mr. Zusman right away. “They seemed to have good taste and style — and they’re cute,” she said. “But most important: They help keep the building a creative space.”
Ms. Paulsen, 39, is a jewelry designer who, for the past several years, has been soldering in a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, basement. Mr. Zusman, 53, is a painter who previously lived in a 300-square-foot apartment with approximately 200 canvases. Most artists looking for a work space where they can also live were driven out of the Manhattan real estate market decades ago; Mr. Zusman and Ms. Paulsen know that they stumbled onto a rarity.
“The history of this building is working artists,” Ms. Paulsen said. “Romina and the owner work to keep it that way.”
Ms. Herrera Malatesta and her late partner, Christophe Kutner, also a photographer, once used the first-floor apartment as a studio. Until Mr. Kutner’s passing in 2016 from liver cancer, they occupied the entire building. It was the place where they made a home — along with Lou Lou, Ms. Herrera Malatesta’s 15-year-old daughter — and it was the place where they made their art.
Lou Lou and her mother have adjusted to life without Mr. Kutner, but he is still a part of the space he shared with them. Ms. Herrera Malatesta is working through his archives, organizing not only Mr. Kutner’s work but also his private collection — more than 1,000 images altogether. “He was such a special person,” she said. “I’m trying to keep his memory alive.”
It helps to know that there are two other artists downstairs who understand how much the building means to her. As Ms. Paulsen said, “It’s her baby.”
The first floor, where Ms. Paulsen and Mr. Zusman live, was updated before they moved in — with refinished wood floors, white walls, modern appliances — but the rest of the building has remained largely untouched for decades.
The second and third floors, where Ms. Herrera Malatesta and Lou Lou live, has several fireplaces (one still works), vintage fixtures and antique furniture shipped over from France. “It feels like a bohemian palace,” Ms. Herrera Malatesta said. “I don’t know how many photo shoots we’ve done. Every corner of the building has been featured in some magazine.”
$3,200 | Lower East Side
Amanda Paulsen, 39; Peter Zusman, 53
Occupation: Ms. Paulsen is a jewelry maker and arts management consultant; Mr. Zusman is a painter and a wholesale wine representative.
The search method: “I tried the StreetEasy thing, but it didn’t go so well,” Ms. Paulsen said. “Just a lot of generic places in high-rise buildings.” She eventually turned to Listings Project, which she describes as “a really magical space — you get the good, the bad and the weird.”
Favorite neighborhood spots: Mr. Zusman runs along the East River; Ms. Paulsen searches out the community gardens that pepper the neighborhood. “And we both love eating oysters at the Summit Bar,” said Ms. Paulsen, whose father was a clam digger.
Ms. Paulsen hopes that the rich history of the building will spur further artistic growth for her and Mr. Zusman.
Her first successes at selling jewelry were at craft shows and pop-up shops. Then came store placements and wholesale orders. Now she sends her design molds to a large-scale jewelry manufacturer in Midtown Manhattan, and another in Los Angeles, and aspires to a storefront of her own.
Mr. Zusman, who said he has had “every imaginable day job,” continues to work as a sales representative for a wine distributor when he is not painting. “I just fell into it a few years back,” he said. “When it happened, I thought, ‘Where has this been my whole adult life?’ For me, it’s the perfect symmetry with being a creative.”
Many of his clients are within walking distance — “rock ’n roll bars trying to up their wine game” — and he enjoys spending time getting to know the people in the neighborhood. Despite the influx of real estate capital over the last several decades, he believes in the artistic wealth of the Lower East Side.
“There are still artists here,” he said. “We’re hanging on.”
But Mr. Zusman recognizes that he is one of the few painters on Avenue C who can get out of bed and go right to work. “Whenever I get inspiration, I don’t need to get on the subway or drive to my space — and by the time I get there I’ve lost all inspiration,” he said. “I like waking up in the middle of night and hopping out of bed. I like that immediacy.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that one of New York City’s nearly extinct features, the spacious artist studio, endures in this particular building.
Before Mr. Zusman and Ms. Paulsen — and before Ms. Herrera Malatesta and Mr. Kutner — two other artists lived in the building: David McDermott and Peter McGough. Known as McDermott & McGough, the performance artist duo presented as two dandies who had concluded that World War I ruined the world by ushering in modernity, and therefore insisted on living as though it were the end of the 19th century.
When Mr. Borges bought the building from the men in the 1990s, the only electricity was a legally required light bulb in the hallway; there were no outlets. Mr. McDermott and Mr. McGough, who were fixtures in the 1980s art scene, used an icebox as a refrigerator and the fireplace for heat. Mr. McGough wrote a memoir about his life in the building during those years, “I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going.”
Fortunately for Ms. Paulsen and Mr. Zusman, traces of that vintage New York survive.