Many New York City renters will recognize this scenario: You’re on your fourth apartment tour of the day when a broker unlocks the front door and ushers you into the kitchen. The layout seems unremarkable at first glance, until your eyes dart to the corner. Wait, is that a bathtub?
Often used as an example of what New Yorkers must endure, navigating an eccentric kitchen has become an experience that unites lifelong residents and uninitiated transplants. Some verge on outlandish, like shoe-box kitchens with showers built into the walls, while others sport anachronistic details, like a ceremonious 20th-century oven.
Many of the city’s peculiar kitchens are a snapshot of history. After the passage of the New York Tenement House Act of 1901, all residences were required to install a sink and bathtub to meet the city’s sanitation standards. In tenements across the Lower East Side and East Village, bathtubs fit only in the kitchen, often the apartment’s largest room.
Kitchens strapped for space may not include a single full-sized appliance. Despite these quirks, New Yorkers have found ways to make do — and even fall in love with — their wacky kitchens.
Tiny Appliances, Big Cooking Potential
Everything about this Upper West Side apartment checked the boxes for Phoebe Lifton and her partner, Arthur Cañedo: the proximity to grocery stores, parks and restaurants, the picturesque street views of trees blooming. But when the couple moved into the space in 2020, the kitchen’s setup came as a bit of a shock.
To the untrained eye, Ms. Lifton’s kitchen looks as if it has been hit with a shrink ray. The fridge is miniature. The stove, if you can call it that, is just two small countertop burners. There is no oven. Still, the couple was determined to make it work.
They purchased a toaster oven, stashed an additional mini fridge in a closet and invested in an Instant Pot. Taking inspiration from Julia Child, who had her most nifty kitchen tools strewn up on a pegboard, Ms. Lifton, 32, installed a space-saving corkboard to hold mugs and gadgets.
Even in a kitchen with only a few inches to spare, the couple has cooked enviable meals. They’ve turned to many one-pot recipes like shakshuka and carrot-saffron risotto, but have said goodbye to roast chicken and large batches of home-brewed kombucha.
The prolific home cooks haven’t felt hindered by their kitchen, save for the start of the pandemic: “There was a bread-making craze,” Ms. Lifton said with a chuckle. “So I could not participate in that, necessarily.”
A Bathtub Fit for a Party
In 2021, Elise Shatz began her apartment hunt with a clear goal: Find the largest apartment within her budget with the best light. She stumbled upon an East Village studio replete with north and south-facing windows — and a huge bathtub in the kitchen. “The second I walked in, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is my apartment,’” she said.
Most units in her apartment building have kitchen bathtubs, a relic of the tenement era. “If I talk to someone who’s unfamiliar with New York’s real estate, they get confused and think it’s hilarious,” Ms. Shatz, 29, said.
Although she rarely takes baths in the tub she’s eager to use it as a quirky storage spot. “If I were to have a party, I would fill it with ice and put drinks in there,” she said.
A Refrigerator for the Books
When Edythe Hughes, settled into her Lower Manhattan apartment in 2021, a certain irritating noise kept her up at night. The culprit was the studio’s low boy refrigerator, which is typically installed in restaurant kitchens, not residential ones.
“In this small space, it was just too loud,” Ms. Hughes, 33, said of the heavy-duty appliance. She chose to unplug it, and doesn’t use it for food. “I use it to store books,” she said. (Ms. Hughes purchased a mini fridge to hold her groceries.)
Ms. Hughes often enjoys reading her refrigerator-stored books inside the snug bathtub next to the kitchen sink. And storing old calendars and folders in the fridge frees up shelf space for her diverse collection of tchotchkes. No wall is left bare, and that’s how Ms. Hughes prefers it.
A Kitchen, Bathroom and Photo Shoot Studio in One
Living with a shower in the kitchen doesn’t faze Nikole Naloy, but her Greenwich Village apartment’s sole sink, shared between the kitchen and bath space, has led to some novel habits. While showering, she can easily access a steamy cup of chamomile tea on the counter. Sometimes, she finds herself applying makeup over a pile of dirty dishes.
“It’s kind of luxurious, in a weird way,” she said.
Since moving into the apartment in August, she has also inadvertently transformed the multiuse space into a studio for her freelance photography. The kitchen’s pristine white walls, when contrasted with red kettles and pots, make for an atypical yet striking backdrop. Just days after moving in, Ms. Naloy, 23, began taking photos of friends, models and a few bands who, of course, all wanted to pose next to the shower in the kitchen.
“I have these random girls on Instagram hit me up like, ‘Can we do a photo shoot in your bathtub?’” she said.
An Oven Stuck in the Past
Scott Bodenner inherited quite a few antiquated appliances when he bought his Prospect Heights apartment in 1997. There were the kitchen’s original enameled metal cabinets, and the outdated Coldspot refrigerator, which hasn’t been manufactured since the 1970s.
“The whole house seemed like it was stuck in another time and somehow had drifted into our time,” he said.
He left it that way for decades, even though he wasn’t renting. But even after renovating his kitchen during the pandemic, Mr. Bodenner, 53, chose not to replace the oldest appliance: his Welbilt oven, produced in 1929.
It lacks a pilot light, so Mr. Bodenner fires up the burners with matches or a U.S.B. lighter. The real struggle emerges whenever he has to jump-start the oven. “You have to really pull out the broiler drawer and stick your hand up in there and light it,” he said. “It’s still fine, but it’s just a little bit like camping.”
Since renovating, Mr. Bodenner has decorated the kitchen with trinkets and personal touches inspired by his travels with his husband, Fabio Toblini. There are dozens of engraved plates and an absurdist painting of the Last Supper with animal heads instead of human ones. In homage to the fountains in Malcesine, Italy, Mr. Toblini’s hometown, Mr. Bodenner installed a gold dragon-faced faucet above the sink.
“I don’t think there’s another kitchen like ours,” Mr. Bodenner said. “But I do think New York is that kind of place to find them.”