The Secret Lives of New York Storage Units

In New York, where much occurs behind closed doors and some stones are better left unturned, I became curious about a great concentration of closed doors: those that partition off the constellation of opaque self-storage facilities scattered throughout the five boroughs.

As a city where ambitious individuals migrate to realize their dreams, it’s amusing that most resident and diurnal New Yorkers more or less have had the same dream: Upon opening the door of their fridge or a closet, they discover a new room that expands the square footage of their apartment. The dream is like a rite of passage after submitting to a life lived compact. In Manhattan, the sweeping McMansion scale of the Meatpacking District’s Restoration Hardware is a pipe dream; quite the contrary, IKEA’s new location across from Bloomingdale’s 59th St. flagship boasts a site-specific emphasis on small space solutions.

In a transitional phase or at a breaking point, some New Yorkers alleviate this spatial frustration by making the leap into self-service storage, a monthly expense like so many subscription-based charges in millennials’ checking accounts today: Netflix, Spotify, iCloud, 100 gigabytes of Google Drive, Harry’s razors, Amazon Pantry, maybe a book delivery or seasonal bottle of wine from a viticultural society of choice.

Those who subscribe to its services are framed as weak in the face of ‘Kondo’-ing.

Self-storage is accompanied by something of a stigma. From a distance, the whole enterprise gets a lot of flak as a gradual, sneaky money vacuum. In the abstract, those who subscribe to its services are framed as weak in the face of “Kondo”-ing, the en vogue organizational act of determining which of your belongings spark joy. To mitigate this, New York City suppliers seem to employ some of the sauciest copywriters in the biz, as evidenced by the quippy campaigns pasted throughout the subways attempting to rebrand the persnickety public perception of self-storage and lure customers.

In this era of self-optimization and binaries of opinion where even space for nuance is limited, a question arises: Is self-storage a life hack or a scam? And if you’re not choosing to participate, and you’re not the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Michael Cohen, how much of it is your business?

I’d never stopped to consider what the innards of self-storage looked like until a scene from Girls on HBO (Season 4, Episode 5, “Sit-In”) followed erratic protagonist Hannah Horvath down the hall of her apparent storage facility, each compartment’s door a deep, photogenic teal. Opening the door to her unit, red suitcase in hand, Hannah reveals several square feet housing a blue sofa, a red leather ottoman, a bunch of boxes and a mattress leaned up against the wall. Her former boyfriend Adam has moved most of her belongings to this storage space after Hannah left town for a brief stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Adam coupled up with another woman in the apartment they used to share. She winds up here not of her own accord but as a result of a few of the “4 D’s” — major events, as defined by industry experts, that drive customers to self-storage. In Hannah’s case, it’s a combination of dislocation and divorce (a serious breakup in this case). The other two Ds cover a spectrum of extremes, from downsizing to death.

Drawing from a sample set of three storage units spanning Manhattan and Brooklyn, New Yorkers who store don’t always fit neatly into their D-heavy mnemonic device: for one, a career in the beauty industry mandates storage rental, while others treat the space as a sliver of their own New York real estate or as an underground time capsule reserved for a future home. Here’s what I found when these three renters gave me a peek inside.

New York’s Biggest Dopp Kit

When Andrew Colvin started assisting makeup artists seven or eight years ago, he’d meet them at their storage units to help pick up their suitcases of products. Brief glimpses inside revealed bags and boxes full of surplus makeup and skincare products that brands and PR companies sent the artists’ agencies. In the early phase of his career, he remembers thinking, “Wow, that must be so nice to have this backlog of makeup.” There was an aspirational element to the idea of graduating to a level of makeup artistry where you received so many products that you needed extra space to house all of them.

On how moving back to Manhattan tipped the scale into self-storage: “Two years ago when I moved back into Manhattan, the only apartment I liked was a sixth floor walkup. [Storage] was sort of my way of finding the solution to give up space in Brooklyn for the convenience of living in Manhattan. That was the cost, not having my stuff at home. I moved back after the whole L-train shutdown that’s no longer a thing.”[/caption]But Colvin admits that the process of maintaining a storage unit for these purposes — which he once considered a career stepping stone — is less glamorous in reality. He first flirted with having his own self-storage unit when managing the one belonging to his former boss. As an established industry professional, she hadn’t seen the inside of her space in years, and Colvin began to utilize it as his own satellite pit stop, storing his kit there while he worked his own jobs in the city. He grew accustomed to the routine of dropping his kit off, before heading to the gym, errands, or dinner after work, and once he became more established, he rented his own unit. Colvin’s relationship with this storage space reminds me of the way the coworking space The Wing first marketed their locations as a “home base for women on their way.”

On his organizational system and never knowing what kind of project is going to come up next: “I have a metal rack, Container Store shoe boxes and Ziploc bags for organization. Labels for everything: skincare, masks, toners, bins for donations of stuff I know I’ll never use. I don’t get rid of that much stuff because if it gets discontinued, I want to keep it around just in case. An eyeshadow box, bronzer box, eyelashes. Just everything you could imagine. A whole box of special effects.”

Colvin’s unit increasingly provides a separation between work and play, functioning as a physical manifestation and space for a profession that is the opposite of an office job: he’s constantly on-the-go, with shoots in a different location or studio each day. “Going to my storage unit is a way for me to focus on what I have and different ways I can use my inventory. If I were home, it would be really difficult to be able to focus on my materials because I would probably be distracted by the TV or the fact that it may be dusty.” The idea of a storage unit atelier is as peculiar as it is compelling to freelancers finding ways to carve out work/life balance on their own terms. The unit, and the limited amount of time one wants to spend in there, creates a certain kind of tunnel vision, encouraging an attention span hinged on efficiency.

Self-Storage as Pied-à-Terre

Art director Michelle Benzer splits her time between Madrid and her native New York. Her unit, which she began renting eight years ago, originated as an archive of her late father’s belongings after he passed away while Michelle was in her twenties. She preserved his paintings from his career as an artist, along with the items he collected, including old movie posters and antiques, like a punch clock she considers her most precious possession. “It started small and progressively got bigger. It’s kind of funny because it has all my precious keepsakes… the majority of my furniture, my design references, things that I had when I was little, they’re all in my storage unit.”

On what she’s storing: “Here is a list of some precious, strange, beautiful treasures in my storage unit: My baby teeth, letters from my years at sleep-away camp on Snoopy Stationary (my all-time favorite), old movie posters, an antique punch clock, loads of design books, my seafoam green bicycle, an antique sign from France (I bought it because I liked the typography, but have no idea what it says because I don’t speak French), a collection of tchotchkes from all my overseas trips, an antique doorknob from a public school in NYC (also has beautiful typography), tons of clothes, shoes and bags.”

Now, with her main residence in Madrid but strong ties still maintained in New York, Benzer’s unit is practically furnished: “All I need is a shower in there and a bathroom and I would have the majority of my stuff in there. If I’m in New York, and I’m like, Oh my gosh, I need something to wear to an event, I go to my storage unit and get some stuff out.”

A Unit That Plays the Long Game

Linda Betty Manyisha wanted to feel “sane.” She’d just switched into a smaller room in the Boerum Hill house she’d been living in for three years and “all her crap” quickly became claustrophobic. She qualifies the contents of her unit, which includes the mattress and frame of a full-sized bed imbued with sentimental value, a chair from back home in the Bay Area, a Cruiser bike and seasonal clothing, as “super-boring.”

On playing the long game with self-storage: “If I ever do end up moving out on my own, I definitely want to use the stuff that’s in my storage. Like I said, I know it’s kind of crazy to have a bed that’s sentimental. I would love to have it back. The Cruiser came into my life when I didn’t have a car, you know what I mean? It’s special.”

Manyisha’s storage unit is a place where not just stuff is stored, but also long-term plans and dreams. Her objects, resigned to a basement for the meantime, have a five-to-ten year plan. Manyisha stops by seasonally to swap out her clothes—the winter jackets in her closet will soon be transferred for a summer vacation spent in the dark unit. When asked if she ever worries about the space, Manyisha says that sometimes she forgets she even has one. And that seemed to be kind of the point: “It was more of a comfort thing: everything was closing in on me. I needed room to breathe.”

Photos by Cody Guilfoyle

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