The tides receded and the sun illuminated a new beginning

In Olivia Tarplin’s living room, two terracotta velvet armchairs face each other as if conversing, basking in the light from an adjacent bay window. A shelf behind them contains a neat stack of art and cookbooks, a row of old paperbacks that once belonged to Ms. Tarplin’s mother, and a bronze bust of a woman’s torso that, though armless, seems to stretch into the light from the window.

This two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City Heights marks Ms. Tarplin’s first time living alone. The decor has been a source of unexpected creative fulfillment after moving from an apartment where it survived the traumatic flooding of Hurricane Ida last August. “It was very healing,” she said. “When I was alone, it was so nice to have control over everything in my everyday life.”

Ms. Tarplin, 29, is a Jersey City native: she grew up downtown, then her family moved to the nearby town of Maplewood when she entered high school. After her parents’ divorce, she and her mother, Jo Imeson, moved back downtown in 2010 and lived together — aside from the year Ms Tarplin spent in the New School dormitories in Manhattan — until Ms Imeson moved in with her boyfriend in 2016.

The last apartment they shared was a two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a brownstone with a spacious backyard where Ms. Tarplin hung fairy lights and a hammock. The apartment was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and remodeled with marble floors and walls. Ms. Tarplin and Ms. Imeson moved there in 2015 and saw little flooding for the first few years: just the occasional puddle after a big storm, but nothing their trusty water sucker couldn’t handle. A major storm in 2020 flooded the bathroom, but the damage felt limited and manageable.

After Mrs Imeson moved out, Mrs Tarplin moved into the smaller bedroom and rented out the larger one to minimize her own monthly expenses. There were no closets, so she hid much of the family memorabilia — photo albums, high school journals, early DIY Halloween costumes — under her bed. The apartment was dark and cramped, but she loved the backyard: “That was my zen space,” she said. “The farm is the reason I stayed there longer than I would have otherwise. I thought, ‘I can’t give up this garden.’”

Last summer, Hurricane Henri brought the home’s first major flooding since Sandy, and “all hell broke loose,” Ms Tarplin said. “Henri was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” Three inches of water covered the marble floor; She had to take time off work to clean everything while her landlord disinfected the apartment.

Soon she began to look through the internet for apartments. “I wanted something fabulous — I wanted a fresh start,” Ms Tarplin said. She began reaching out to realtors, but hadn’t seriously looked at anything when Hurricane Ida hit two weeks later.

Ms. Tarplin, knowing the bathroom would flood first, had lined the room with towels and armed herself with the water vacuum while she waited for the flood to occur. It broke after a few hours of vacuuming. Soon water was pouring through the front door. “At one point I said, ‘We’re not going to stop this,'” she said. “‘So let’s go to damage control.'”

When the water reached her ankles, her boyfriend came to her rescue. “I watched some of my shoes and clothes float by,” Ms. Tarplin said. “But I was like, ‘Forget that. What’s like the irreplaceable stuff?'” She piled all the photo albums and memorabilia on her bed and on a nearby shelf.

Water was soon seeping through the ceiling of her bedroom. She put her cats, Chloe and Charlie, who were stranded on the bed, in their plastic boxes and her boyfriend took them to his apartment.

Mrs. Tarplin stayed. “I had to go down with the ship,” she said. “I sat up straight in a chair all night. The water was up to my knees and you don’t know when it will stop.”

$2,200 | Jersey City Heights

Profession: Senior Marketing Strategy Manager at a large retailer

The best sandwiches in the neighborhood: “There’s a really great Italian deli a ten minute walk from here, Andrea Salumeria. It’s the kind of place where if you go in the middle of a weekday, all the cops and firefighters are there – that’s a good sign.”

Your garden plan: “I want to put up some fairy lights, maybe get another freestanding hammock. I have a small fire pit back there that I haven’t used yet. Because I’m working from home and online, whenever I get outside, I’m desperate for it.”

Finally it did. The next morning Mrs. Imeson stopped by to help carry everything to the backyard to dry. Ms. Tarplin’s father, Howard, came by with industrial-size garbage bags to collect as much laundry as possible from his apartment.

Ms. Tarplin immediately began reaching out to the brokers she had contacted weeks earlier. She looked for short-term rentals, but almost everything looked flimsy or was an Airbnb costing hundreds of dollars a night. Salvation came when Ms. Imeson visited her longtime acupuncturist, who mentioned she wanted to rent out the apartment under her own.

The apartment was in Jersey City Heights, a little further out of downtown than Ms. Tarplin wanted. There was no laundry, no dishwasher and the listing said no pets. But all she needed to hear was that the apartment was 16 steps up from the street; it was essentially flood proof.

Ms. Tarplin decided to move in until she found something permanent. The landlady allowed her cats. She packed everything up in five days and moved in in mid-September.

During her first two months in the apartment, she was still browsing through long-term offers. But many were small, expensive new-build apartments. They lacked the charm to which they had become accustomed in the heights: large bay windows, elegant archways, glass door handles, patinated wooden floors. She started buying furniture believing she could move with it. One day, she said, “there was a point where I just didn’t want to leave.”

Since then, she has made the apartment her own. She has set up a guest room where she can host her family and keep her precious keepsakes without them taking on the rest of the home. The third bedroom is currently a storage space that she hopes to one day convert into a walk-in closet inspired by the one actress Alicia Silverstone’s character, Cher Horowitz, had in the 1995 film Clueless, which is filled with endless, colourful matching clothes racks. Complementing ancestral antiques from her parents with inexpensive but stylish furniture became a therapeutic hobby: “It’s my thrill,” said Mrs. Tarplin, laughing. This summer she hopes to decorate the backyard.

She has also learned to love the neighborhood: five doors down there is a laundromat with laundry facilities and a “fantastic” little café on her way to the train. On her first day in the apartment, she met her neighbor who offered her piles of kale from her garden.

“I’ve just had the hardest two weeks of my life. This beautiful woman gives me freshly grown vegetables in the sun. Your beautiful little cat rubs against my feet,” Ms. Tarplin recalled. “It felt like being given a warm hug after two terrible weeks. It felt like a cartoon: ‘Welcome to your salvation!’”

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