In July of 2011, I arrived from Spain back home to Alabama in high summer. The garden was in full bloom, the trees formed canopies over the roads, and the usual humidity hung so thick it could make you claustrophobic. While I was glad for a rest and time with my family, what I thought would be a two-month-maximum stay there turned into seven. When the New Year came around I gave myself a January 31 deadline to just get somewhere. What mattered was traction and forward momentum. (Writing this from 10 months after that moment, I find myself with a weird draw to the South again, there's always a lure there, and then I get there and am back in my love-hate relationship with it, but that's another blog post...)
I decided on New York, as I knew it would be an adventure, I had some contacts, and it was a move I could make with a suitcase-and-a-half and not have to replace my almost-dead car. I thought it would be fantastic to live in what many consider the cultural capital of the world and where the New York Times is you local paper. I wanted to understand references made to New York in so many cultural mediums. It would also be a return to things I was missing about Europe like public transportation, an urban atmosphere and diversity. So with my one-way ticket booked and two weeks in a hostel reserved, I boarded a plane on January 31.
My first twenty-four hours were a complete shock to my system. I had never been to New York. I had seen large cities before, but never one with such an overwhelming pace and noise caliber. I pushed my luggage through the subway turnstiles because I was too cheap to pay for a taxi and didn't realize they have special doors off to the side to help you go through with luggage. I'm sure I looked like an idiot and that I received many "she-must-be-new-here" looks, as I often gave to many people in the months to come. I felt like a foreigner in my own country. Anywhere else, I always choose a window seat in a restaurant so I can people watch. Not here—I would look for the seat at the back corner so that I could tuck away from the noise and sight of frenetic passerby.
My first day a very kind entrepreneur/designer agreed to take time from her busy schedule to meet with me to give me some insight and a nudge in the right direction. I had admired her work for a while and emailed her a few days before explaining my current need for someone older and wiser to shed some light for me on the industry. I will be grateful to her years to come because two days later I got a phone call from her saying that she would be out of the country for the next month and that it was a shame her apartment would be empty—I was welcome to it if I wanted it. Free. I was confused for a moment and said I'd have to call her back. Within five seconds I realized I would have been crazy not to take it and immediately re-contacted her. Because of her generosity I was able to take a breather and get my feet underneath me calmly. I had a place to land for a moment while I sought a job and apartment. On top of it simply being a treat to get out of the disgusting jail cell style hostel, her place was amazing. It was right by the High Line in Chelsea, immaculately curated with designerly items, lights that came on slowly in the bathroom based on a motion sensor and a doorman who knew me by name when I arrived.
Later on the afternoon of my first day, I got a Skype message from Pedro saying that he would be landing in two days—surprise! He was only able to be there about four days but we had a great time exploring the city. It was so nice to have someone to get to know the city with and especially in things like having someone to eat real food with instead of sitting alone in a Whole Foods cafeteria.
My second day I had an interview at L'Oreal to work as a freelancer on their Pureology brand where I stayed for my eight months while in New York. I was able to get great experience working on a large corporate beauty brand and to work with a team of excellent, fun designers. Not to mention it was fun to work on Fifth Avenue and commute through Grand Central Station for a spell, though in the end it wore on me.
Screen I designed for a window display for Pureology
Through a friend's friend I found a wonderful roommate who needed a sub-letter quickly, and she turned out to be one of the best parts about my time in New York. You can read her blog here as she is an incredible writer (an actual real, professional writer)! She lived in Astoria and on my first trip out there I wasn't impressed by the neighborhood, as it seemed dirty and rundown. After about a week though, I realized how safe it is, how much more of a real neighborhood it feels like than other places in New York, and eventually came to really like it. The main street, 30th Avenue, is full of restaurants of ethnicity from all over the world that are all delicious and unique. I indulged way too much and often couldn't wait to get back to Astoria from Manhattan each day just to try a new restaurant, or eat the food truck to which I got addicted—many times I had to hold my breath walking by it because if I didn't, and got a whiff of it, game over, I was taking a box of Egyptian chicken and rice with white sauce home. There is one block there that is considered one of the most diverse blocks in the world. I loved that on the way to the subway stop I often hardly heard a word of English. My favorite was when parents would talk to their children in their native language and the children would respond in English. It was originally a Greek neighborhood, but now there are Italians, Spaniards, Latins, Brazilians, Indians, Egyptians, many others from the Middle East, and other parts of Asia. I liked living out of Manhattan because it felt like a nice respite from the city each evening to get to "leave" the city, although the minimum 45 minute commute to get anywhere was definitely a downside.
While in New York I was able to explore more aspects of design. For one, I met some great designers who do good work. I got to see Elizabeth Pastor give a lecture at IESE about her firm's process in "sense-making" design. I attended a talk by Milton Glaser where he explained his process of exploring new techniques and then putting them to use for clients. Another event I enjoyed was organized by Mark Randall and held at SVA with several speakers discussing social design. One of my favorite quotes of the night was a guy who worked at MTV in their social responsibility department (I don't have that notebook with me right now so I don't know his name): "At MTV we have a mandate to pioneer." What a dream job description—a mandate to pioneer! On Governer's Island there was an exhibition of works curated by We Made This (and maybe Ellen Lupton?...I was confused on the set-up), coupled with a day of design talks from an American, a Luxembourgian, and three Spanish designers all talking about how they use hand drawn images in their work. Lovely collection, and fun to have to take a boat to get there.
In addition to being at L'Oreal, I also freelanced on the side. I collaborated with the Center for Urban Pedagogy on a booklet for one of their projects in which they were teaching youth about how leadership in the city works/how people get elected. I freelanced at Anthropologie for one week working on their window display for the re-opening of their 5th Avenue store after being remodeled.
One of my goals in New York was to explore city life. Almost just to "see if I could survive" real city life. I'm from Alabama so I wasn't born a city girl, but in the last few years cities have become more intriguing to me. They contain so many layers of systems that overlap: pedestrian pathways, streets for cars, the web of train and subway tracks, air traffic, water traffic, electric and phone cables, plumbing, etc. It's a crazy mess! But somehow it works...and it's actually better for the environment! It's hard to believe that when you walk behind car mufflers in the city and and see the exhaust fuming out. But compact places do less damage than sprawling suburbia. While I think the quality of life in mega-cities can be compromised in many ways, there has got to be a middle ground of urban landscapes that still retain the green-ness and neighborhood-ness of suburbs. This is a topic I will explore for a while to come. To read more of my pro/con trade-offs of New York and city life in general, you can read a post I wrote for the awesome Megan Deal's More Than This Blog.
I once read in The European Dream (Rifkin) that the Eastern and Western mindsets are different in the sense that the Western mind tends to box things in and make them either/or, while the Eastern mind can see things as both—that you sometimes have to have one to complete the other. In the end, New York was a great experience and as a whole, I think of it as a great city. However, it was not "my place" for many reasons (again see the More Than This Blog for longer description) so I press onward to keep exploring. I don't think I'm a pure "city girl" but I have to understand "the city" to understand "not city." I now appreciate city things, but also appreciate a return to life outside of a booming metropolis—especially greenery! Updates from the next adventure soon...
An assorted collection of things I liked in NYC:
Loved getting to each lunch in the lovely Bryant Park many days.
The flowers in spring were gorgeous.
Of course it was fun to do the touristy stuff too. I went to the Statue of Liberty kind of just because you have to. As it turns out, I was way more moved than I expected. It is truly majestic. I had the chills a few times just thinking about the immigrants who had been on boats for months, arriving in the harbor there to see Lady Liberty breaking off her chains, offering the light of freedom and justice, and being their Ebeneezer raised to mark the start of their new life.
The last four years I've had the challenge of decorating rooms on a budget in each new place I've been. I found this frame in a trash pile in Greenwich Village one day, brought it home, tacked on some strings and, voila, you have a picture holder. I had to get innovative with cardboard boxes to make a dresser/storage space.
This is the beautiful building where the incredible Brooklyn Flea is held in the winter. In the summer, the flea market, along with Smorgasburg, are on the water front and make for a weekend well-spent. There are endless little treasures to find.
Central Park, of course. It is always a lovely trip there. New York lacks sufficient green space throughout the rest of the city that you can easily get to, but if you have time to make it Central Park for a stroll, the great thing is that it's so big you can get lost in the thick of it and feel like it's a real forest and not in the middle of a bustling city.
The High Line is a work of genius. It's one of my favorite parts of the city. Built a level above the city on a re-purposed train track, all of its elements are fantastically well-crafted. It tucks and winds through buildings, but it's an odd sensation when you're not a ground level—a totally different experience of the city. There are sidewalks that morph into benches, plants that are always in bloom, reclining platforms, art spaces, views of the water and the Statue of Liberty, some fancy snack stands, a place where water bubbles onto the sidewalk in summer, amphitheater-type seating for movies, and on and on...I hope many more of these happen in other cities.
Who knew New York had beaches?! I was delighted to find out I could take a subway (about an hour and a half one, mind you) to pretty decent beaches. I spent a few Saturdays at Brighton and Rockaway.
One Saturday I was desperate to get out of the city so a friend and I took a train an hour north up the Hudson to Cold Spring. It struck me that as soon as you leave it city, it instantly becomes rural. This was a cute little bed and breakfast town on the river. We found a little patch of sand on the water in the trees and napped. What a breath of fresh air from the city.
There were concert series all summer, many of them free—a huge perk about the city. Celebrate Brooklyn brought some great bands and is a great venue in Prospect Park. The Head and the Heart was by far my favorite—I was almost in tears with two songs they were so soul-full.
Besides the friends I made, the food was the best part about the city, but that's because food is my weakness. So a quick favorite food recap:
Tea and cupcakes at Alice's Tea
Fat kid bowl at Crave: a bed of fries, kebab chicken, blue cheese and buffalo sauce.
Total home-style Ecuadorian food at the place where my Ecuadorian friends and I would go on lunch break.
Calorie bomb at Queens Comfort: A huge waffle with fried chicken and a butter ball on top. They also had a great fried avocado sandwich and corn-on-the-cob with sriracha and parmesan...mmm.
Best shrimp po'boy I've ever had at Sugarfreak. Also gets my vote for one of the coolest decorated restaurants—no detail is left unconsidered.
Drinks at Les Bains rooftop bar. Cheers to you, New York. So long...