My husband and I recently bought a larger apartment in New York City that came with custom carpentry, solid wood doors, a nice working kitchen and hefty doorknobs. And then, we ditched much of it.
I’ve gone sidewalk shopping for years in the city, and I know New Yorkers toss out lots of good gear that they just can’t store. So, rather than send truckloads of perfectly-fine-but-dated material to landfills, I set my sights on giving away everything as we moved in. Not just fixtures and built-ins from the new apartment, but moving supplies, kids’ musical instruments with low mileage, and a custom 6-by-6-foot armoire from our old apartment that the new owner didn’t want and that we could no longer use.
The monetary value of these pieces was nominal. The actual worth came in knowing that each object would find good use with someone else. These items were still useful; we just had no place for them. My husband was on board — as long as stuff got gone quickly. Our teenage sons liked the idea — though perhaps less once they learned my donations would require their labor.
Ultimately, it took nine months, lots of online postings, two road trips and a good deal of coordination. Sixteen people in three boroughs and two states ended up with more than 30 different types of things, including: rolls of Ram Board, a ceiling-mount bike rack, a wardrobe box, almost 1,400 pounds of paving stones, a kitchen, a 6-by-2-foot sheet of glass and a box of halogen light bulbs.
Most of the giveaways took place while we were living in our old apartment, so it’s not like the four of us were dodging extra kitchen appliances for months. But there were several weeks after we had moved in when we zigzagged around cabinets, Bubble Wrap and other items waiting for new homes.
Initially, I thought we would schedule pickups with Renovation Angel and Habitat for Humanity ReStore. The angels, however, wanted newer items, and the Habitat for Humanity store required too much planning (emailing our offering, awaiting a response and perhaps renting a car to deliver things to the store).
To make this practical, we needed an easy way to post items and arrange quick pickups. Craigslist and Nextdoor were simple: take pictures, write a brief description, hit ‘post,’ select a respondent, arrange pickup. Freecycle Network was equally easy, but it netted five times more no-shows than pickups.
Had Craigslist or Nextdoor been less efficient, I might have posted to Facebook groups or to the Facebook Marketplace, or maybe to Offerup, Instagram, the Buy Nothing Project or charities listed on DonateNYC — sites I had never used but discovered through friends.
The only piece that initially found no takers at all was a black printer stand that eventually House of Good Deeds, a free nonprofit in Hell’s Kitchen that connects donors and recipients, finally placed.
Other than that, just about every post got multiple replies, so it took a spreadsheet to track who wanted what and when they could pick up the item. Things usually went to whoever emailed first, but sometimes they went to those we felt were most in need — like a Brooklyn couple who spent last year hunkered down with two young children in a new home with no shelves, closets, storage or electricity. (They took closets, a bookcase and a chest of drawers.)
The kitchen cabinets — which had arched, raised-panel doors and a white plastic veneer that we weren’t crazy about — went to a Bronx family in the spring so our contractor could start demolition. The same couple fetched the matching appliances several months later, once our new ones arrived. The old equipment worked well, just not with the cabinets we had picked for the renovation.
Even the most random items — the bottom of a bathroom vanity and a 30-pound box of stone tile samples we were considering for our kitchen floor — had takers. People came in cars, with pushcarts and on foot.
Peter Yao, a medical student, showed up with a hotel luggage cart. He was picking up matching bookshelves for his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen — 2.4 miles and a subway ride from our apartment. To get them home, he borrowed the luggage cart from his old Lenox Hill apartment building, wheeled it six blocks to our place, loaded the bookcases onto the cart, taped them together so they would stay put, and rolled them another five blocks to a friend’s apartment, where Yao’s mother fetched them in her van a few days later. Yao said he likely would have passed on the endeavor had the cabinets cost anything.
“If they hadn’t been free, I definitely would have had second thoughts,” he said.
One of the great things about our new apartment was the number and quality of built-ins in many of the rooms. Thus, we no longer needed a 16-by-8-foot cabinet-desk-bookshelf combination, so we posted it on Craigslist. Lee Glenney, a nursing student, had wanted someplace to store the books and papers cluttering his Harlem apartment for a decade. He had been looking on Craigslist but said most offerings are damaged, or worse.
Of our cabinet, he said, “I could tell from the pictures that it was of high quality. It was very clear that it wasn’t from Ikea. My wife was vehemently against anything that was from Ikea.”
Given that our cabinets were solid maple, nicely painted and well-crafted — and given that Glenney grew up working on boats with his father so knew his way around a jigsaw — he figured he could trim the unit to fit his home office/cats’ playroom. So, last summer, my sons loaded his U-Haul with big chunks of cabinets, which Glenney reassembled and repainted.
“I had to cut it down height-wise to fit into our place, but it didn’t take away from the beauty of the craftsmanship,” he said.
Even my parents were drafted during one particular purge. They were visiting from North Carolina and drove home in an SUV packed with odds and ends — a medicine cabinet, door pulls, marble tiles and two towel bars. Destination: their local Habitat ReStore, which we knew was less fussy than the one here. The last pieces to go were a piano keyboard and euphonium our sons no longer needed. Those went to an organization that works with underserved youth.
As resourceful as New Yorkers are, we doubted many locals would want our collection of 90-pound paving stones. We had gotten them from Home Depot several years ago for our old balcony, but removed them when our building did facade work. We were headed to the Adirondacks for Thanksgiving, so we loaded the pavers in our rental and posted to the local Craigslist as we drove north. A couple of days later, we dropped them at Kenny Hopkins’ home in Glens Falls, New York. He said he needed stones for his driveway but wasn’t even looking for pavers when he happened upon ours.
“This was a chance thing,” said Hopkins, a commercial and events filmmaker.
We could have tried to sell everything, but it would have taken time and energy that I couldn’t muster. Besides, how do you price 15-year-old kitchen cabinets worth nothing to you but potentially valuable to someone else?
Given that the average American sent almost 5 pounds of material to landfills every day in 2018, according to the most recent federal data, keeping these several tons out of landfill felt good — we knew these items still had life in them. Mostly though, we went the giveaway route because we have been fortunate and we could. Not everyone can do this.
In the end, it was surprisingly easy to find homes for items you may think no one would want.
“It’s eye-opening to realize how much waste there is in New York City, as well as how much need,” said Leon Feingold, co-founder and executive director of the House of Good Deeds. “There are those who have so little they cannot survive without assistance, and there are people who have so much that nearly new items become garbage. Often, these two are neighbors.”