Life at the Webster

When I was 21 I moved to Manhattan for six months for an internship. Not wanting to bother with finding an apartment to sublet when I already had a place in Philly, I moved into a building called The Webster Apartments. Built in 1923, the Webster is a non-profit apartment building for working women. Down the street from the first Macy’s, it was originally built so that the women moving to the city to work in department stores could live alone safely. 

The Webster felt like a surreal cross between a hotel, a dorm, and a convent. It was incredibly old fashioned, and many of the rooms felt like they hadn’t changed at all in the 90 years the building had been open. They had a website, but no email. Men weren’t allowed past the first floor, not even family members, unless they were accompanied by a member of the staff. Living there was an incredibly strange experience, like being stuck in time. I’d walk through the front doors after work everyday and and feel like I was transported back to the 1920s. But it was warm and safe and comfortable, and for an amazingly low price (relatively speaking) I had my own tiny room with a view of the Empire State Building, two free meals a day, and a maid (she actually made my bed and emptied my trash daily and vacuumed and washed my linens weekly - I don't think I've ever been so spoiled). The bathrooms were communal, but they were also recently updated, far better than anything I’ve ever had Philadelphia apartments. It was a haven for girls like me, unpaid interns and working students who flocked here from all over the world, looking to make New York City home for a few months.

 

But while the building was centered around young women like me, there was another demographic living in the building that represented a very different side of the Webster. Many of the residents were older, women who had been there for years and had no plans on moving out, content on living there forever. Like the building itself, they were hopelessly stuck in time, a sharp contrast to the young interns and students who saw their lives in this building as the beginning of their careers. I often walked past the room of one of these women. She would leave her door open to lessen the feeling of claustrophobia, and through the doorway I could see that she had stuffed her little 8’x10’ room with years and years worth of stuff, piles stretching as high as the ceiling, a hoarder's paradise.

Half way through my stay there, management sent out a notice that they were reinstating a five-year limit on the length of stay. Women who had been there for more than 5 years already had two years to find a new place. I thought of the middle-aged woman on the floor below me, with her tiny room piled high with a lifetime of belongings. She seemed to be trapped in this building, trapped in time. It made me incredibly sad to imagine her living this life forever, but I can’t imagine what she, and the other women like her, will end up doing. 

I wish I had gotten to know these women, had spoken with them, photographed them. I wish I had had a chance to listen to their stories.