A poster from our CPCJ multimedia lab course provided a collegiate feel to the narrow room during my last semester staying at Webster. Empty and forlorn on my last day, it went back to looking like a hospital room. Image Credit: Yasmin Arquiza

“Don’t let the wicked city get you down.”

—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Cocooned in my sliver of a room, I find it easy to imagine the characters in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical 1963 novel struggling outside my window to stay sane in the crazy streets of New York City. Sirens blaring from ambulances and police cars and fire trucks assault my ears day and night. Irate drivers honking their horns and homeless people shouting invectives to the chilly wind add to the cacophony of 34th Street traffic.

More than half a century has passed since Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel, disguised as “the Amazon” in the The Bell Jar, but little has changed in a similar all-women apartment building in the heart of midtown Manhattan.

Arriving in my room at Webster Apartments in the summer of 2021, my first thought was that it looked like a hospital with its all-white interior and bed, metal bureau on caster wheels, and medicine cabinet with a mirror above the sink. The only clues that these rooms were designed for young working women in the early twentieth century were the huge mirror above a small dressing table and a spacious closet with yet another mirror, full-length this time—three mirrors in all, in a rather narrow space. It’s perfect for fashion interns sashaying along the halls of the century-old apartment building, but not quite ideal for graduate students who need more shelves for books instead of mirrors for preening around.

Still, as an international student on a very limited budget, I considered myself lucky to have found refuge at Webster during my first three semesters in New York City.  An aspiring independent book publisher from the Philippines, I had come to the global capital of publishing to learn more about the industry. In my first year, I paid $54 a day for a fully furnished room and two generous meals daily, plus something that I didn’t realize was a luxury until I told some friends about it—free laundry! The rate was increased by around $10 a day in my second year, but it was still a steal when compared with other options in the money-mad borough of Manhattan.

When the city began to wake up from pandemic stupor last year, average room rentals in Manhattan surged to a record high of $5,000 a month, bad enough for workers but definitely a prohibitive amount for students who have recently arrived in the United States and do not have access to guarantors. 

While I had lived in the U.S. briefly as an Asia Foundation fellow in California, my current stint as a graduate student at The New School would be my first time staying here for a much longer period. When I looked at the lodging recommendations listed on The New School’s website, it did not mention Webster, which I found through good old Google. The school’s International Student Services promotes OneWorld as a resource for new students, but it sometimes feels more like an e-commerce site rather than a support group. OneWorld has a partnership with 4stay, which offers an array of pretty apartments managed by Outpost Club, which has had bad reviews.

For my final project in my Anthropology & Design class last semester, which was unfortunately cut short because of the faculty strike, I made a comparison of several residence halls in Manhattan that offered single rooms for students as part of an exploratory analysis on the problem of affordable housing in New York City. I found that Webster and The Markle, a residential building operated by the Salvation Army, offered the best value for money—while The New School’s dormitories turned out to be the most expensive of the lot.

Residence Hall: 92NY Residence (Upper East Side)
2022 rates: $2,000 per month (around $68/day).
Other fees: $250 nonrefundable administrative fee.
Pros and Cons: No meals and the building gets crowded at times but the free gym classes, discounted tickets to 92NY events, and proximity to Central Park make up for it.

Residence Hall: International House (Morningside Heights)
2022 rates: From $1,238 for room with no sink to $1,785 with private bathroom (average of $41 to $59 per day).
Other fees: $70 nonrefundable application fee, $5.75 daily dining fee.
Pros and Cons: Financial aid is available but getting rejected after you’ve paid the application fee is a real bummer. Many residents also complain about the mandatory dining fee even though there are common kitchens.

Residence Hall: The Markle (Greenwich Village)
2022 rates: $1,925 per month (around $64/day).
Other fees: N/A.
Pros and Cons: Includes two meals a day and private bathrooms for all rooms although they look more dated than Webster and management is not responsive.

Residence Hall: The New School, Loeb and 20th Street Residence (East Village and Chelsea)
2022 rates: $12,725 per semester (around $106 per day, the cheapest).
Other fees: $750 non-refundable deposit for new students, $350 for continuing students.
Pros and Cons: Meals cost extra although rooms and amenities look more modern and cheerful.

Residence Hall: Webster Apartments (midtown Manhattan)
2022 rates: $900 for two weeks (around $64/day).
Other fees: $300 one-time amenity fee (waived for returning residents).
Pros and Cons: Includes two meals daily and access to spacious study rooms, although the chaos of midtown Manhattan can be overwhelming.

Of course, the difference in pricing could be also attributed to better room quality, building facilities and nicer location. Many students also tend to move into cheaper shared apartments once they get their bearings in the city, but those who value personal space and are financially cautious have very few choices for single dorm-type rooms in New York City.

I find this odd, considering that even with New York’s reputation as the global center of business and fashion and entertainment, it is also very much a university town. According to the International Institute of Education, around 1.2 million students were enrolled in university in New York in 2021, with almost one tenth coming from abroad. New York University has the highest number of international students in the United States, with over 21,000 students from more than 120 countries.

From its southern tip to the northern end, Manhattan Island is buzzing with students dreaming of making it big in the Big Apple. There’s Pace University downtown with its renowned Actors Studio and, further up in Greenwich Village, the twin-like institutions of NYU and Parsons/The New School. The City University of New York and State University of New York have facilities scattered across Manhattan, from Baruch and Hunter College on the East Side to the head-turning Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea. A few blocks from Central Park, Fordham University and Juilliard School flank Lincoln Center, one of my favorite hangouts in the city. And of course, the Ivy League is represented by Columbia University near the northern tip of Manhattan.

With a wealth of students from across the country and the world converging in the smallest acreage among New York City’s boroughs, it would make sense for real estate developers with a conscience to retrofit and transform sturdy apartment buildings like Webster into subsidized housing for students and interns.

In a study of all-women apartments in New York City, historian Nina E. Harkrader traced their beginnings to the late nineteenth century trend of single working women flocking to New York City to find work and needing safe and affordable lodging. The Great Depression ended the boom in women-only housing, and while they were still popular up to the 1970s, economic factors have overtaken their usefulness. As more and more women enter higher education, however, the need for female-friendly spaces shows that places like Webster are more relevant than ever.

Many students may balk at the $2,000 monthly price range when you can get a shared room for less than half the price, and splurging on a single room is certainly not for everyone. It probably appeals mostly to people who do not want to deal with the hassle of cooking and cleaning and looking after unruly roommates. In my case, I would not have been able to adjust to life in a new country while juggling full-time graduate studies with a full-time remote job if I didn’t live in Webster, and the glowing reviews from previous residents show that mine was not an uncommon experience there. 

For me, the major drawback in living at Webster was the incessant noise from the street. There were other hassles as well, like the repetitive menu (beans and corn Mexican dishes and bland continental dishes, mostly; their version of Korean cuisine is lamentable), plastic cutlery, and the antiquated heating system. But they were outweighed by the convenience of not having to do the cleaning and washing up and meal preparation on a daily basis. As one of the few Asians in the 370-room apartment building, I would also feel out of place sometimes because most residents were white girls from out of state and Europe, but everyone was generally friendly and contributed to the genial atmosphere in the building. 

There were also many fun moments while staying there, like watching cosplayers parading in outlandish costumes on their way to Javits Center during Comic Con season and baseball fans decked in full sports regalia taking the 7 train to Queens from the Hudson Yards station. When the temperatures climb to the 70s, there’s a scramble for the best spot at the roof deck for lunch or dinner with one of the best views of the Empire State Building. This is also a favorite spot for yoga stretches and a breath of fresh air, never mind the tourists taking photos from the Edge, the latest tourist attraction at the Hudson Yards shopping mall. In the spring or early autumn, it’s a great time to have breakfast at the walled garden, if you can stand the buzzing of boilers and the snarled traffic on Dyer Avenue.

With a raft of gleaming glass towers rising in Manhattan West, the Webster Apartments survive as an anachronism in the constantly changing face of New York City. Step inside, and one is transported to a bygone era of beau parlors and metal mailboxes and wooden phone booths, which is probably why the building has been sold, saying goodbye to its last residents at the end of 2022. It’s supposed to reopen in another location, but its future remains unclear, and the Webster management refused to be interviewed for this story.

Empty dorm room at Webster Apartments. Image Credit: Yasmin Arquiza

I took one last photo of my room, the third one since I moved to Webster and now emptied of belongings from three semesters, when I checked out just before Christmas. I wondered glumly if I will miss the clanking of pipes and the ticking of the ancient radiator in my room as heat courses through them, or the creaking elevators that badly need repairs. At the spacious ballroom, another departing resident played a few lonesome tunes on the grand piano while I chatted with other guests who were moving to other states or going home. As I stood on the curb waiting for my friend who would take me to my new dorm, two of the kitchen staff passed by; when they recognized me, their faces took on a wistful look, as if to say, aww, another one leaving us. I knew then that this was what I would miss the most—the friendly faces of the multicultural staff greeting me at the dining room, cleaning the corridors, and tirelessly taking care of this elegant building that I had once called home.

Yasmin Arquiza is an environmental journalist who has written extensively about biodiversity conservation and climate change issues.