Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “Five Flights Up” by Toni Schlesinger

If you want a window into what NYC was like 15 years ago and this book! Originally a column in NY’s favorite but now extinct downtown paper The Village Voice. I read this book last week and LOVED IT!

A flop house, a pumping station, a maid’s room, a homeless center, a former brothel, a Richard Meier building, a circus trailer, a sailboat, a skyscraper, buildings named Esther and Loraine just a few of the places New Yorkers call home. For the past eight years writer, Toni Schlesinger has been bringing us these “conversation places” in her weekly column in the Village Voice. Through her incisive questioning, original writing, and comic parallel reveries, Schlesinger creates miniature documentaries on the lives, passions, hopes, and heartbreaks of many of New York City’s millions.

Five Flights Up chronicles people living in New York’s extremes, occupying 150-square-foot spaces, paying over half their income for rent, living eight in an apartment, and taking showers in twos to save time. These are people who make movies in their living room and then sleep in it later. They surround themselves with their baby teeth, with 500 volumes of Moby Dick, plaster rabbis, birds’ nests, 30 modernist chairs, 50 loaves of Wonder Bread, and more. In Toni Schlesinger‘s hands, their stories are much more than novelties.

Artists, actors, dancers, librarians, social workers, busboys, bankers, porn stars, au pairs, urban planners, bakers, shamans, masseuses, web designers, and students come alive when they discuss where they came from and where they’re going. Each interview is a vivid and insightful portrait, revealing the creative energy, camaraderie, desperation, and hope that fuel the daily lives of people in New York and everywhere.


“Toni Schlesinger’s book describes the relationship of the accidental to the profound, the domestic to the totally weird; she visits, draws out, and celebrates this permanent impermanence better than anyone ever has. The book is so funny, so rich, so full of wonderful surprises – the people you know and the people you wish you never want to know. each one in her/his box, all jumbled together like New York itself.”


“I knew rooms were just a lot of stage sets,” Schlesinger writes of taking on the Village Voice “Shelter” column in 1997. The drama taking place behind New Yorkers’ drawn curtains, Schlesinger reveals in this selection of interviews, is varied and vivid: bizarre, unhappy, frenetic, obsessive, euphoric, awkward, and endless. Divided into 15 sections, the book captures people at a moment in time, before 9/11 and after, telling the deeply personal stories that lead to new addresses: stories of death, ambition, love and rent control. Schlesinger finds a man with a 129-pound rubber band ball, a 105-pound pet pig in Brooklyn and a man who has turned his living room into a giant pinhole camera. “Manhattan’s density,” Schlesinger notes, “is 871 times that of the U.S. as a whole.” Rents are as sky-high as the architecture, which explains why a family of four might keep their rent-stabilized 295-square-foot studio in Little Italy. Sometimes Schlesinger enters homes and smells gas, sometimes dumplings, and it’s not uncommon for her to make interviewees ill at ease. “Don’t you want to write about the apartment?” one man asks. Her associative ramblings aren’t binge-reading material, but the book’s Spartan design and casual, if bizarre, banter offer sliver-sized glimpses into the epic stories of New York lives.

A Review of the book ‘Five Flights Up’.

Toni Schlesinger’s Q&A sessions with quirky New York residents in their even quirkier apartments are a true gem that will find a place in the heart of anyone who went through that formidable process of NYC apartment hunting. A compilation of the original Village Voice column, “Shelter,” the book is separated into sections such as “Miniature,” “Light,” “Utopia” and “Haunted,” but what I really love about this book is that it allows you to randomly pick a story from over three hundred interviews whenever you happen to pass by it. Schlesinger is a writer for the Voice, so naturally, you can expect an insightful, knowledgeable and confident interviewer at work, but I found the unexpected affection, brilliant candor and humor in the many voices of Manhattan she chronicles to be her greatest achievement. The book answered for me that mysterious question why even after the rats, the horrid rent and evil landlords New Yorkers still find it so enchanting to live in New York, or “Neverland” as Schlesinger calls it.

Available here at Amazon’s Third-Party Sellers

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Jim R. Moore


Photographer/Videographer/Recluse Founder of