apartment progress: bedside lamps and stewardship.

February 10, 2021

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.

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  • Reply Susan February 10, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    This is so beautifully expressed. I will need to reread this again and again. Thank you.

  • Reply anna maria February 10, 2021 at 4:06 pm

    Gosh, Erin, this is beautiful. I have been thinking so much recently about how we are simply guests on this land we call Earth – for us white folk we are actually living on stolen land. It is not ours. But we have an obligation to honor it and steward it. Thank you, always, for your beautiful words <3

  • Reply Nicole February 10, 2021 at 4:25 pm

    This is beautiful, Erin. Added value shouldn’t only be measured in dollars, but also in pleasure, honor, and care. Stewardship has value, be of an apartment or the land. Thanks!

    • Reply Floppo February 10, 2021 at 9:31 pm

      Thank you for your kind and meaningful words

  • Reply julie February 10, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    Thank you for this. For over twenty years I have received comments about the improvements I made to my home, as though a painted wall or helpfully-placed shelf is the sole terrain of those lucky enough to be home owners. This is my home. Anything that I do to improve the space where I spend most of my time seems pretty well justified to me!

    • Reply Marie February 10, 2021 at 7:08 pm

      I appreciate this post so very much!

  • Reply Kellyn February 10, 2021 at 5:09 pm

    Nice work! I recently found myself having to patch lots of holes in my plaster walls…and it was way easier than I had anticipated. Finally, after living here for 8 years, I think I’ve mastered the art of hanging things on plaster (thank you toggle bolts!) and then patching the holes when things get moved around 🙂

    • Reply Megan February 10, 2021 at 5:18 pm

      Really beautifully put.

    • Reply Laura February 10, 2021 at 10:30 pm

      So beautifully articulated Erin. As a life long renter I do feel the same about showing my home deep respect and care by making small upgrades and improvements. Why should we not care for where we live just because we rent.

  • Reply Janean February 10, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    YES! I agree! I really dislike when others tell me not to “waste money/time” on our apartment. This borrowed home is my home — 5 years and counting — and I will take care of it as such. The small (and sometimes large) improvements made not only enhance our life but will also be passed along to future dwellers. It is my pleasure!

  • Reply Cadie February 10, 2021 at 5:18 pm

    Please do continue providing these small improvement posts! They’re ridiculously inspiring – and I “own” my house. Or the bank does technically. And I pay them a hefty amount of interest to proclaim that I bought it. Even so, not all of us who own have the means to knock down walls and instantly upgrade all of the previous owner’s larger scale choices. We’re still in year one of our stewardship. She’s an old gal and focusing on one small door knob or paint color feels a bit doable and a little less daunting. It’s like making it home, one minor upgrade at a time. So by all means, carry on!

  • Reply mackenzie February 10, 2021 at 5:24 pm

    Beautifully written Erin 🙂

  • Reply liz February 10, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    I love this, Erin. Your posts, on things and issues both big and small, resonate very much with me.

  • Reply Isabel February 10, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    So very true!!! Imagine not making any improvements to any space you where live in and spending years there. There is no time like the present to freshen things up and make the changes that feel good and make a place home.

  • Reply Anna February 10, 2021 at 6:40 pm

    I have thought about this a lot with the home that I “own.” As I question and often remedy the way that the previous owner left the house (she was 90 something and moved in in 1948), I think about future owners or dwellers many years from now who may wonder why we did what we did or appreciate some of what we will eventually leave to others.

  • Reply Denise February 10, 2021 at 10:29 pm


  • Reply Sue Hall February 11, 2021 at 7:41 am

    The best compliment my Mum has ever paid me was to say that I have always left anyplace I have ever lived in in a better state than when I found it. Just because we don’t own something does not mean that we can neglect it, especially our homes. Little improvements make life easier for us and if we can take some of them with us when we move on, such as your beautiful lights, then so much the better.

    I love your homey posts. Thank you.

  • Reply Brittany February 11, 2021 at 8:09 am

    Your words are well-put. Any time we rented a house or apartment there were always a lot of restrictions on what we could do. I thought unlaquering the knobs was super cool and now I’ve been thinking about the same, but I wondered if you had to get permission first? We had made changes in the past that were clearly better than what had been there, but had to put the old stuff back in before we left

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 11, 2021 at 10:23 am

      I think it’s really a personal judgement call based on your relationship with the landlord and conversations that you’ve had. I took down (truly terrible) track lighting in an apartment we lived in in Providence and capped the lights without asking for permission. Our landlord was not pleased at first but told as when we moved out that she had never rented her apartment so easily or had a tenant take better care of it (and she left them down). For my part, I’ve asked about bigger projects, like eventually painting our kitchen cabinets, but not for smaller things like removing the lacquer from three mismatched doorknobs.

      • Reply Elizabeth February 11, 2021 at 2:53 pm

        My husband sometimes gets frustrated with me because I, like you, try to be the best steward of wherever I’m living, even if it means that the landlord thinks I’m a pain in the ass. In the 2 years we’ve lived in our current apt, the landlord has had to replace the bathtub faucet, 7 of the 9 windows, all of the window coverings, and the central AC. We’ve also had roofing painting contractors through multiple times (including for multiple days in the middle of the pandemic!) to deal with roof leaks. Most of these issues (and others that he has not addressed) were due to deferred maintenance, likely because the previous tenants didn’t report (or didn’t notice) issues. I almost always stress out about contacting the landlord with issues, but am reminded that noticing and taking care benefit all of us

  • Reply steph February 11, 2021 at 10:55 am

    this is lovely and i love the lamp. found a sweet, crinkle-edged vase recently that i cant wait to put into action in my home. i think that’s the essence of it – an apartment/house is only a home if you make it so, filling it with beloved objects and taking care of them. i have a round rug made by my husband’s great aunt. it’s so sweet and every time i sit or stretch on it i think of her making it: the commitment, skill and perseverance. hope it lasts to cradle another generation, as its steward i will work to try to make it so.
    ps. loved learning about your great great grandfather and the link – missing nyc architecture and that took me there

  • Reply May February 11, 2021 at 10:56 am

    When I met my husband of 43 years now, he was a teenager living with his father in an antique Cape Cod home. The home had been in his family since the late 1600’s on land granted to the family by the King of England. I knew by the pride that he had in showing me this home and the land it sat on (with the beautiful stone walls he lovingly kept up), that he would if he could, always want to keep it in his family. When his parents passed and the house and land looked as though it would slip into development, we bought his family out. This was probably not the best decision financially, buy how could I deny him? Our children had grown, we had the “perfect house” LOL.
    We are now the proud owners/caretakers of a beautiful home with slanted floors and noisy radiators a house/home that needs consistent and expensive care, but we love it all and we are well aware that we will not be selling it for a retirement home or for any profit! We call ourselves the caretakers and feel okay with that:)

    • Reply Milou February 11, 2021 at 3:04 pm

      Love this!

  • Reply Cynthia February 11, 2021 at 11:31 am

    Many years ago we rented our first house after numerous apartment rentals. Our landlord was our age (30ish) and he owned/managed several properties in the bustling SF Bay Area where we both lived. He had an awesome policy: pay your rent on time and automatically subtract $100 from the amount due. Use that money as you see fit to maintain or improve the rental. We would never have defaulted on being late anyway so it was great fun to have $100 a month in fun money to use on paint, doorknobs, light switch covers, and so on. Definitely a win-win type of symbiotic relationship b/c instead of fostering a “call the super” for any little thing, we were empowered to take a bit of ownership (stewardship).

  • Reply Ana February 11, 2021 at 1:18 pm

    This is beautifully written! Despite the hardship of the past months I think you have particularly inspired. Your words resonate and travel to places you can’t even imagine, touching a lot of people. It is such a joy to come here and read you. I’ve been following this blog for years, mostly quietly, but this time I just wanted to thank you for your work!

  • Reply Alex February 11, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    My family has a 400 sq foot cabin on the ocean built in the 1890s. Stewardship is exactly the word I would use to describe the caretaking and inhabiting of it. My grandmother’s cousin, an only child who never married or had children, left it to my mother as she and my dad were the ones who visited the cabin and took care of it when he was older and no longer able to travel there. When my parents first started going there the year I was born, and the place had mice, an old seventies futon, moth eaten sweaters, and an oil lamp in the kitchen. It’s never been ‘remodeled’, but each year brings a home improvement, sometimes large, sometimes small– screening in the porch, moving the water heater from the kitchen to the closet, setting up a laundry line. This summer was the first time I really participated in the stewardship of the place. My boyfriend and I took down the wall dividing the upstairs loft into two bedrooms, creating a larger, brighter space that allowed for the breeze to flow through the house. We used the wood from the torn down wall to build shelves and a door for the bedroom downstairs that for 120 years only had a curtain for privacy. My favorite improvement was the smallest one– using the wood to surprise my mom with a window box herb garden painted a bright lavender, her favorite color.

  • Reply Amy Tolman February 11, 2021 at 8:17 pm

    You & your kiddos might enjoy the story “Maybe Something Beautiful” by Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell

  • Reply Ramona February 11, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    Sort of reminds me of the Native American saying….”We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”

  • Reply caroline golin February 12, 2021 at 12:12 am

    this is such a wonderful idea. i am wondering what cord you used?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE February 12, 2021 at 5:08 am

      This is a beautiful cotton covered cord—purchased with the shades!

  • Reply Abby February 16, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    We’ve been thinking about this as we settle into our first purchased home, and discover all kinds of quirks about the house design that even the previous owners didn’t understand or know about. For someone who’s dreamed about home ownership for years, it’s a jarring but useful reminder that houses are not “ours.” We’re caring for our house now–and hopefully for many years to come–but it’s not ours. I love your term of stewardship. Fits just right.

  • Reply Cristina February 19, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    This post moved me in a way I cannot explain. I too am a fixer of rented places. Always on the tightest budget and with an awful lot of elbow grease, I sometimes completely transformed rooms that had the “potential” only yours truly could see. I love and easy diy, I swear by the magic power of a tin (or three) of paint, and my eyes are always peeled for tresures you can find, well on the street basically. it makes me feel good. For me loving the space I live in and making it my own is vital.
    There is a scene from a movie I’ve been quoting since I first saw it many moons ago. The movie is “Pane e tulipani” (bread and tulips) and this is what happens: Rosalba is staying in Venice in an old hotel that is about to close down, and while there, her sister in law visits her in a dream and says: “oh, dear this wallpaper is UGLY, why don’t you change it?” and Rosalba ansers: “…but…but..I am just passing by!”, to which the sister in law answers: “and who isn’t, darling.”
    I think this is my answer to those who might ask, why bother, you are only renting.

  • Reply Kela May 8, 2021 at 10:49 pm

    Inspiring as always. Your posts have encouraged me to become a better steward of the place I’m renting for the last 5 years.

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