Caroline Chiti

When asked why she looked for an apartment in the Bronx, Caroline Chiti’s answer is simple: “my mother.”

Born and raised in Manhattan, Caroline had continued to live and work there after her marriage, but in search of a larger apartment, she and her husband, Ian Hardies, had bought a one-bedroom in Jackson Heights, Queens, in 2001. By 2006, they needed an apartment large enough to accommodate a home office for her PR and marketing consultancy, so they started their house hunt once again. For months they unsuccessfully scoured Queens and Brooklyn for a good-sized two-bedroom apartment within reasonable commuting distance to Manhattan.

Caroline’s mother had grown up in the Bronx in the 1940s and 50s, and remembered the spacious, sunny apartments of her childhood. She suggested that they look on the Grand Concourse.

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“I thought that was insane,” recalls Caroline. “I really thought I was going to find drug addicts on street, crime and dirt and filth and bombed-out buildings. This was my image. ”With great trepidation, she and her husband, accompanied by a friend from Queens, took the D train to the 161st Street / Yankee Stadium station, and walked over to the Grand Concourse up to 166th Street. They were shocked by what they found—rows of elegant apartment houses, large well-tended parks, and friendly people.

After that first trip, they decided to investigate the South Bronx more carefully. Week after week they attended open houses and walked the neighborhoods, checking out different streets, noting the locations of subway stations and other amenities. They started in Mott Haven, because it was the closest neighborhood to Manhattan, and worked their way north, finally deciding that the neighborhood they had seen on their first trip, the area around the Grand Concourse, offered by far “the best space for the best money.”

In December they saw an ad in the New York Times announcing that a sponsor at a coop building on the Grand Concourse was selling off over a dozen apartments all at once. The building turned out to be on the corner of the concourse and 166th Street, a perfect location, near the Bronx Museum and Joyce Kilmer Park, and only a couple of blocks from express trains running up and down both east and west sides of Manhattan. They looked at almost all of the apartments in the building before settling on a 2,000 square-foot, three-bedroom apartment on the second floor, which had been used for years as a doctor’s office.

“When I grew up in NY, to me this is what everybody had on Central Park West. It’s the same kind of apartment—big windows, high ceilings and molding, with good air and light. And you had to have a lot of money to buy one.”

But you didn’t need a lot of money to live that way in the Bronx. They bought their apartment in January 2007 for only $220,000, although unlike most coop apartments for sale in the Bronx, it needed extensive renovations. “The apartment was a wreck. Everything about it needed to be redone—the walls, the windows, the electric, the plumbing, the ceiling, everything except the floors.”

Fortunately her husband, Ian Hardies, the design director for California Closets, was an interior architect with enough renovation expertise to take on a project this complicated, which so far has included plumbing, rewiring, widening the galley kitchen, and converting one of the three large bedrooms into an office.

About half the people in the building are, like her, relatively new arrivals, and the rest have been there for a long time. Like any cooperatively owned apartment house, disagreements occasionally flare up among the shareholders, but Caroline has been pleasantly surprised by the sense of community in the building and has adopted the Bronx practice of socializing at home.

“We already have several good friends in this building, which is very unusual for New York. We go out with them, they come here, we go there, we all go to each other’s apartments. It’s like living in a small town. It’s not like Manhattan—there’s no real anonymity in a way. And I’ve never experienced that.”

Although the neighborhood lacks many of the amenities of Manhattan neighborhoods, like top-flight restaurants and gourmet supermarkets, she believes that those things will eventually come, as more and more people discover the amazing real estate values and proximity to Manhattan.

“Right now, it doesn’t have to be 50 things. It’ll be 50 things later.”