The foyer of Libby Fearnley’s one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, holds three scooters, three children’s bikes, a large bookshelf, a shoe-storage cabinet, a granny cart and a closet filled with linens, a sewing machine, art supplies, Christmas decorations, luggage, photos and a printer. The entry’s robust storage capacity is a testament to the graciousness of prewar layouts.

But if it were up to Ms. Fearnley, 41, a writer, she would reallocate some of that real estate to other parts of the 550-square-foot apartment, which she shares with her husband, Stephen, 54, a college professor, and their three sons: Bryce, 10, Ellis, 9, and Evren, 3. They also have a three-legged cat, Wonder.

“If there is one thing I would add, it would be another bathroom,” said Ms. Fearnley, who moved into the apartment in 2004 when she was single.

But living well in New York often means making peace, and the best life possible, in the space you have. Even — or, perhaps, especially — at times like this, when stay-at-home orders have made so many of us acutely aware of the limitations of our apartments.

For Ms. Fearnley, keeping the apartment, which rents for less than $2,000 a month and is a block from Prospect Park, was always worth trade-offs like forgoing an extra bedroom. But even she admits that two adults and three children working and taking classes in the apartment, as opposed to just living there, has been a bit much.

“Living in such tight quarters, we generally do spend a lot of time outside the apartment,” she said. “But now I’m trying to work from one side of the living room, my husband is trying to teach, giving lectures from the other side, and for the first month or so we only had one device for the two older boys to work on that we’d borrowed from their school.”

The living room is also the couple’s bedroom — the sofa converts into a bed — and serves as the dining room and piano-practice room, with the different areas demarcated by furniture and rugs.

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Credit…Libby Fearnley

The bedroom belongs to the boys. Last August, when Evren was old enough to graduate from his crib to a bed, the Fearnleys replaced their standard bunk bed with a triple-high one and installed a double-desk setup with mounted shelving on the opposite wall, which proved helpful when schools closed in March.

“Putting that up was a beast — the walls are plaster lathe so we had to use toggle bolts,” Ms. Fearnley said, adding that she has spent the 16 years she has lived in the apartment searching for a wall stud. “I never found one. I think it must be held up with dust.”

There are picture rails for photos and art, but hanging anything heavier is a construction challenge, albeit a necessary one when you have lofty ceilings and a need to maximize space. One of the bikes in the foyer, for example, is suspended from the ceiling.


Less Than $2,000 | Park Slope, Brooklyn

Libby Fearnley, 41, and Stephen Fearnley, 54

Their children: Bryce, 10, Ellis, 9, and Evren, 3
Occupation: Ms. Fearnley, previously a designer, is now a sustainable-fashion instructor and writer; Mr. Fearnley is a professor of organic chemistry at the CUNY Graduate Center and York College in Jamaica, Queens.
House rules: In their pre-pandemic mornings, getting everyone out of the apartment on time required that those who were ready stand by the door and read, so as not to get in the way of those still trying to get ready. The children go to bed at 8 p.m. and are expected to remain quietly in their room, except for trips to the bathroom, until 7:30 a.m.
Keeping clutter to a minimum: “It’s sort of a something-comes-in-something-goes-out policy,” Ms. Fearnley said. “If there’s no more room on the bookshelf, cull some books. No more room in the drawers? Something has to go.”


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Credit…Libby Fearnley

She found the apartment after stopping in at a real estate office in Brooklyn, where an agent gave her keys to the apartment and sent her on her own to check it out. She really liked it and the building, but it was over her $1,300 budget.

She told the agent she would love to take it if the priced dropped and was surprised when she got a call the next day: The landlord was willing to rent it to her for what the departing tenant had paid — several hundred dollars less than it was listed for — as long as renovations didn’t have to be done. The apartment had an older kitchen, but was in good shape.

“I didn’t even know it was a block from Prospect Park,” she said. “When I first moved here, it felt like I was on vacation: I could see the trees and the sky.”

When Mr. Fearnley joined her a few years later, she cleared out a closet for him as a Valentine’s Day gift, so it would feel like his space, too.

And then, of course, the space “evolved with each kid,” she said. “We make sacrifices, but it’s not anything that matters.”

Most of the discomfort she has had to deal with, she added, is other people’s: “They’re like, ‘Your poor kids. You can’t raise three boys in there.’”

They did briefly consider the suburbs, but her husband, an organic chemistry professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and York College, in Jamaica, Queens, prefers an easier commute. More important, they realized they didn’t want to move.

They don’t even want to leave the 36-unit building, although Ms. Fearnley has, to no avail, tried to get a larger apartment there. “My neighbors have become family,” she said. “We look after each other’s pets, borrow milk, watch kids if someone has to go to the hospital in the middle of the night.”

They love their building’s location. Not only is it close to Prospect Park and the Park Slope Food Coop, but it is also near the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the beach and Manhattan.

And the affordable rent allows the family to travel, spending a month every summer visiting Mr. Fearnley’s family in England. That trip won’t be happening this year, but they did stay at her parents’ empty house in Pennsylvania — the coronavirus had temporarily stranded them in Florida — for most of April.

Having a washer and dryer there at their disposal — their own building doesn’t have laundry facilities — was very nice, Ms. Fearnley admitted, as was being able to set up semi-permanent work spaces, but they were all happy to return to the city.

“There’s actually a lot of traffic in front of their house,” Ms. Fearnley said of her parents’ home. Coming back, they were delighted to find that part of Prospect Park West had been closed to cars.

“I’ve been able to send the kids out on their bikes,” she said. “Prospect Park has been our haven.”

But like so many New Yorkers, she finds herself yearning for private outdoor space.

“I’ve been desperate to get out onto the fire escape,” Ms. Fearnley said. “But there’s an old-school grate on the window.”

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