How Furnishing My Apartment Taught Me to Love My Neighborhood

published May 13, 2019
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Credit: Iris van den Broek/Shutterstock

I slept horribly my first night at 5427 Avenue de L’esplanade.

Like most Montreal apartments, it was located in a decades-old building—and despite all the beautiful touches of its age, like crown molding and gorgeous hardwood flooring, it lacked air conditioning and was uncomfortably hot during the summer. On that sticky July night, my new roommate and I lugged all of my belongings up three flights of stairs, plunked them in my new bedroom—which was once two bedrooms separated by a wall that had long since been taken down and, as a result, was far too large—and bid each other goodnight.

My new Montreal neighborhood was far from McGill University’s campus, where I was studying, and mostly dominated by Portuguese families and francophone artists—unfamiliar terrain for an Anglo student like myself. I was newly single, there were few friends in town during the summer with whom to pass the time, and, having forgone a summer job or internship to devote my time to freelance writing, I had no structure and few formal activities to fill my dauntingly long days.

That summer, I was—generally speaking—incredibly lonely. But that first night in my new neighborhood was perhaps one of my loneliest: As I laid in the dark trying to fall asleep, I suddenly realized how unfamiliar I was with my neighbors and my surroundings, and how much space I had to fill in my large room, with no source of income with which to do so. I became riddled with panic, wondering what I’d done and how I’d fix it.

I woke up the next morning feeling only slightly better. With what little energy I could muster, I picked myself up and walked to a nearby cafe, where I sat for a while, thinking, before deciding to walk home and start unpacking my daunting pile of belongings. What happened on that two-block walk home would end up shaping my summer.

On my way home, I passed a box of thrown-out goods; inside was a broken mirror, a few glass cups, and two emptied-out photo frames, sans backing. Intrigued, and knowing my new room had an array of nails stuck in the wall left by an old tenant, I grabbed the square frames and carried them home. I immediately found the perfect place for them on my wall, and hung them up.

Having accomplished one small decorative feat, it suddenly felt much easier to get started on unpacking the rest of my belongings. So, that’s what I spent that day doing.

Credit: Courtesy of Audrey Carleton

Over the weeks that followed, as I began filling my new space, I had numerous serendipitous run-ins with old belongings left out on the street by my new neighbors. A few days later, I found an old bicycle wheel that was perfect for hanging on an absurdly large nail I found in my wall. A week after that, I stumbled upon an old mannequin laying in an alley, in great shape and in need of a new owner. Shortly after that, I found a couple of planks of wood and an old vintage desk drawer, all on the sidewalk, and all of which looked effortlessly chic when strategically placed on my old hardwood floors.

Eventually, I realized that decorating with goods on the street was not only totally acceptable, but also a potentially very stylish way of furnishing a mostly-empty apartment. So, I started looking for these items with intention: I got in the habit of going for walks to find furniture left out on the street, which also served the function of getting my (still depressed) self out of the house.

Over time, as my apartment slowly came together with its new (used) furnishings, two things occurred to me. The first was that I was surrounded by artists and creatives—I had always known artist-types were drawn to the neighborhood in part by the affordable rent, but what this meant or looked like hadn’t fully dawned on me until I’d adopted the old belongings of some of Montreal’s creative minds. I began to feel more and more at home in my surroundings the more stuff I collected from my streets.

Credit: Courtesy of Audrey Carlton

The second realization I had was that I was actually good at interior decorating. Before that apartment, I’d never lived in an unfurnished space, and had never been financially restrained to designing without a budget, so I’d always purchased new decorations from stores. I’d never before had to apply an ounce of innovation to the process. But repurposing old, found items in new ways forced me to rethink how I saw decorating and what my sense of style was. My new apartment was a blank canvas I’d never had before, and I found joy and a sense of accomplishment in filling it without spending a dime.

Later that summer, as I continued hunting for decorations, I’d go on to encounter several shelves, a dresser, and a few good mirrors on my walks around the neighborhood. Over time, I turned my lonesome, empty new apartment into a well-curated home. During the process, I got to know my neighborhood and gained a unique appreciation for the creativity that lived within it. And perhaps more importantly, I gained a greater appreciation for myself—for a creative eye I had lost faith in during a summer of unemployment, for the unique parts of my brain I’d forgotten about over the course of a draining breakup.

By the end of that summer, I felt a unique sense of ownership over the space I’d cultivated and the area in which I was living. Decorating my apartment with used belongings was a restorative process, and one that’s shaped who I am today.