We have two new bedside lamps in our bedroom. I’ve been hunting for lamps to hang since we moved here in September and last week, I found them. More precisely, my favorite neighborhood shopkeepers found them and I decided to bring them home. Like our other tiny lamp, they plug into the wall and don’t require anything in the way of hardwiring.
In an effort to preserve the plaster walls of our bedroom, and reserve my own stores of energy for other projects, I’ve decided to hang them simply on picture rail hooks that have been jingling around in my toolbox for a decade or so. I might upgrade the hook a smidge one of these days, but for now, the lamps are up and nightly readings of Ramona Quimby, Age 8 are far better illuminated.
You’d be right to call the lamps renter-friendly. They’re easy to install and easy to move around and easy to take with you when you go. Of course, these are benefits that can be found in lamps whether you rent your home or own it.
The subject of renting has been top of mind around here lately. As I write about making small improvements, I’ve been fielding questions about renting versus owning and whether one or the other way of occupying a space better merits putting a little effort in. I see it like this:
I don’t own this apartment, I steward it.
This creaky old place is not mine to sell, but even if it were, painted walls and brass doorknobs and swapped sink taps aren’t things that increase the market value of a home. General upkeep that stops a property from falling in on itself certainly maintains value in the sense that it keeps a place upright, but smaller, cosmetic improvements of the sort that I tackle, add value to the experience of living in a space, and that’s true whether it’s rented or owned or squatted in.
When I write about making small improvements to my apartment, I’m sometimes tempted to use the phrase, “a sense of ownership” to explain why I’ve tackled one project or another, but the phrase isn’t exactly right. I don’t need to own something to be able to care for it and there’s value in caring for a place even if it’s not mine to keep. In an essay on family heirlooms in my book, I wrote: “The simple fact is that our stuff outlasts us.” Same too for the places we call home. Whether we own a place, or rent it, we’re keepers of the places we live in for such a relatively short time.
In the 1920s, my great great grandfather was the custodian of Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park. According to family stories, he was a quiet man remembered for the broom he always carried and for pennies he would dole out to children to buy a pickle. The mansion he swept had once been the center of a private estate owned by the Litchfield Family, but by the 1920s, it was owned the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. My great great grandfather’s job was to care for the ornate old home. It’s brick now, but during his tenure as custodian, it was still covered in its original stucco. I like to picture him scrubbing the colorful tile floors and sweeping the wide porticos. He might have washed windows or fixed leaky faucets. I imagine he generally took pride—and also an income—from keeping up the place.
For awhile, there was a gentleman in our old neighborhood who would go around touching up (and in some cases, outright embellishing) mailboxes and fire hydrants and call boxes. Under his watchful eye, the blue USPS mailboxes in our neighborhood turned a shade brighter. Floral elements on cast iron street lamps were painted in red and yellow and green. His hobby wasn’t officially sanctioned, and it may not have been to everyone’s taste, but I have a soft spot for his eccentric project all the same. I guess you could say I have a soft spot for any practice of care and stewardship. There’s something to be said for stewarding our built environment, for maintaining and protecting and improving upon the things that have been built to better serve us. So when people ask why I bother making small improvements to an apartment that I only rent, my only answer is because I live here.