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3 Years in NYC: A Tribute

3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices.  The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.

masala walaWhen I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:

I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.

Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.

In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.

In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.

It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.IMG_5683

I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.

And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”.  Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.

I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.

I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.

Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.

So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.

I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.

I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.

A Note On #Techies

 “We should interrogate the code of cyberspace as we interrogate the bills of Congress.”

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Last week I joined 70,000 others in Austin for the interactive rodeo known as SXSW, a breeding ground for ideas & creativity. This meant a lot of pedicabs, food trucks, open bar parties, and hashtags.

A lot of my friends have asked what the experience was like. Questions range: What did you learn? What’s the next big startup?  Was it overrun by hipsters? Did you eat a 3D Oreo? It’s like I had been hurdled into the outer reaches of space and back to return & report on the other-worldly activities of those “techies”.

IMG_2891The fascination is understandable. It’s not everywhere you see people wearing Google Glass and dancing with robots like it’s perfectly normal. SXSW represents everything emerging, innovative, and techie….buzz words of the decade.

I’ve decided to share a few thoughts on the conference – both positive and negative – because there is clearly a curiosity. But my commentary is less about the festival itself and more about  tech as a “phenomenon” (spurred by an observation that the term “techie” has been rabidly used in recent months).

Lesson 1. South by Southwest is not so much about innovation in tech as it is about innovation in marketing. 

When did all this nerdy stuff become cool? One word: brands. Years before I even touched a computer, South by Southwest was just a humble little conference fostering relationships between indie filmmakers, bootstrapped technologists, and garage bands.

A purist would say these early builders are the real technologists, the ones who actually built the memory chips that make up each of our computers. Since the dot com era, however, that definition has changed. Marketers have accelerated the mass commodification of “pure” technology with their ability to package previously bulky tech items into hip and accessible tools for all. At SXSW, it’s the marketers who now run the show by connecting with the early adopters whose products they evangelize, and then ultimately attract mainstream attention. We all buy into it.

My personal gripe with today’s loose application of “techie” is that those who self-appoint that term, including myself, often only understand the external aspects of technology- the result of the internal wirings, but not the wirings themselves. As consumers, our understanding is rather limited to the outer ecosystem of online communities, landing pages, and sharing platforms.

But I digress. I guess it doesn’t really matter who “techies” are anymore. We’ve moved into a world of platforms and social feed-based behavior that allows anyone to create without knowing a line of code. Which means that aside from developers and designers, most of us don’t actually spend time building like the Leonardo da Vincis of the dot com era…and don’t need to. Have a computer? Claim your domain!

Which leads to my second point: Tech is not limited to hipsters.

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One of the strangest (and clearly most ingenious) selfies I snapped in Florida several years ago.

A recent phrase I’ve heard to characterize tech’s intruding influence on cities is “hood to hipster”. It implies that technology has resulted in increased gentrification, which the numbers (sadly) do support.

Admittedly, there were a lot of bikes, Warby Parker glasses, and converses at SXSW. And yes, participants in this “brave new world” are often SEO, CMS, Java, and Twitter gurus, overlapping with members of the “#selfie, #hashtag #excessive, Trader Joe’s” demographic.

The problem with describing tech as a strictly hipster phenomenon is that it precludes tech’s reach. The people who are going to adopt something early are often going to be upper-class “hipsters” with the means to. But as technology seeps into more areas of our life, it will inevitably become the underpinning of every industry. Tech is not so much an industry but a lifestyle everybody, regardless of class, will be adapting to.

This is why the public sector’s role in technology is crucial. The only way technology’s benefits can be experienced beyond a select population is when government prioritizes basic infrastructure upgrades that increase access to fast, reliable Internet, while implementing education training programs that make the less technologically-inclined prepared for tech-related jobs.

Chelsea Clinton noted in her keynote at SXSW that the distinction between “technologists” and “policy makers” is a false dichotomy. The “hood to hipster” phrase excuses the responsibility we each have to learn about this new world. There’s no excuse: we are all technologists.

So, what gives?

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The Spotify House at SXSW

Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”.  Even this accurate depiction of an important tech issue leaves me stuck. Pitting the old tech guard against today’s hungry youth yields nothing but balding folks angrily shaking their fists at millennials, a hardly desirable solution.

I don’t know the answer. One thing I do know: the new code of power lies in technology. Something we can all do, regardless of age, is to increase our tech literacy. Algorithms are the new gatekeepers: they affect our search results, what we read, what is deemed “news”.  That’s enormously powerful! To that end, we should be asking more than just “what is the news?” but “how did this information find me”? Understanding this basic code will set the framework for healthier, more proactive digital lives.

My overall feeling after leaving SXSW is a a mix of overwhelming awe at the explosive advances in tech, coupled with a cynicism that none of these advances are leading us toward a world all that meaningful. But my real angst comes from the frightening prospect that the majority of us, including mild consumers of technology like you and me, aren’t technologically literate enough to understand the algorithms controlling SO MUCH of our daily online lives. How does our current consumption feed future consumption? What is data being used for? When are algorithms harming us? (To learn more about algorithmic literacy, read this.) I also worry about the growing knowledge gap for those with absolutely zero technological prowess.

I’m aware of the irony. I work in technology and the very things I decry are fueled by my own actions: a love for the packaging & commodification of technology, which leads to a voracious appetite for more, which exploits our largest human vulnerabilities, which leads to compulsive behavior.  Yet that’s why I question it, knowing that speaking up is a privilege afforded to those with the luxury of access and with the hope that these questions can improve our evolving relationship with tech.

In 2013

IMG_0088For all its messiness, 2013 was a strangely awe-inspiring year. It was the year I found 3 professions, separately, in 3 very different industries. It was the year I failed, took a leap of faith into full-time writing, and discovered that it wasn’t for me. It was the year I lived in 3 apartments (6, if you count the 3 Air BnBs in San Francisco), started a group, and learned to like brussel sprouts. It was the year I traveled alone, got off Facebook, accepted that I am not Carrie Bradshaw. It was the year I became a public servant.

It was a year of relentless change.

I toasted to the occasion at a New York City bar. Like every other year, smooching couples basked in their “Auld Lang Syne” moment. I took note of those other trusty sidekicks. The buzzing ones. The plastic babies clamoring for our attention, crying “How dare we live in the moment”. This was the year we reflexively gave in, coddling our smartphones shortly after the midnight kiss because the moment is not to be lived; it’s to be created.

The moment has become a customized stream, a fully immersive sensory experience sprouting from multiple devices and directions. The moment is filtered, with selfies never more beautiful, words never more prophetic. Gifted to you, me, everyone – the most democratic of platforms – it’s social.  2013 was the year the megaplatform ruled the Internet, and we, the people, developed our megaphones. The once-scrappy kids on the block (Facebook, Twitter) became the establishment. We created a life by documenting and connecting because our lives are better when shared, if slightly embellished. No longer a phenomenon, the sight is ubiquitous: bouncing thumbs on the subways, streets, and most pervasively, our heads.

I suppose we celebrate the year’s end because it’s proof that we’ve lived and have more to live in the next. But does proof lie in the act or the memory? Now that 2013 is over, I wonder – if I don’t write this post and preserve the moments- will the year’s significance be lost?

These are tough questions that may not be resolved this year, next, or anytime soon. But we can aspire to greater conscientiousness and become regular customers of our own repair, all together now, tapping once, twice, thrice to the beat and eventually finding our balance to this strange but beautiful amorphous dance of life.

2014 will be the year of liberation. Carpe diem.

Hello Again, New York

On Thanksgiving Eve, while most New Yorkers eagerly shuttled out of the city, I befittingly found myself glued to my couch in Alphabet City, alone, milking a bottle of wine. Solitary gulps couldn’t replace my family’s embrace but somewhere between the self-pity and nostalgia, I found a silver lining. This week marks my 2nd year of living in New York. Bottoms up!

20131130-004650.jpgShould the occasion warrant celebration or consolation? In the past month a number of authors have written emotionally wrenching tales about their breakups with the city. “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York At Age 24” likened the city to the overrated “prom king”. Most recently, “The Long Goodbye“- a NYT commentary on well-known writer’s broken love affairs with NYC – prompted me to ask whether it was time I cut the cord soon too.

2 years is not a long time, but it’s enough to begin embodying characteristics unique to a place. Certainly, my expectations of the city have evolved since day 1. I still remember arriving on a bus with an oversize suitcase that could barely fit in the aisle. Scurrying to the dinner I was late for (the beginning of a recurring New York theme) only to have my dinner date keep me waiting for an additional 30 minutes. Within 24 hours,  I had learned an important New York lesson: never wait longer for someone than they will wait for you.

The rest of it reads like a once-poignant-now-trite Thought Catalog riff. But in New York’s defense – or perhaps I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving propaganda at this time of year – I’ve learned lessons which can only be attributed to New York’s hard-knock teaching style. Here are a few:

1. The city moves fast, but you still need to wait at the station.

*applies to more than just commute times.

People can respond to your emails in a heartbeat, but getting anyone to do anything is like moving a mountain. When you’re young, resistance finds you at every corner. You have to pay your dues.

In a literal sense, you need to add at least 20 minutes to a projected commute time because the R or F train will likely be delayed.

The moral is that plans, ambitions, and dreams often get derailed by unforeseen obstacles but usually (God willing) you get to where you need to be. It just takes patience and waiting for the train to come.

2. The city gets smaller, while the world gets bigger.

New York City is the center of the universe and there’s always people to meet.  But as my network has expanded, I’ve experienced a shrinking of the “center”. This simultaneous shrinking and expansion of worlds is interesting. The more people I meet, the fewer degrees of separation I am from other people in the city (and the more I treasure my close circle of friends). Neighborhood establishments become part of the routine and former strangers become friends. New York City essentially becomes one big town and way more manageable.

Then I flip to an article on Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and never does anything seem farther away.

3. The hero is redefined.

Few places embody beauty, wealth, and status more than New York does.  I arrived here as starstruck as the worst of Bieber groupies.  But after meeting a handful of personal role models- some as impressive as I imagined and others rude as rats – I’ve had to destroy my gods. Working in media taught me that so much of what we see is a marketing blitz and once all the fluff is stripped away, well – celebrities are mere mortals too.

Perhaps because of the preponderance of celebrities in this town, titles and money are a dime in a dozen. What’s harder to find is genuine compassion, a desire to listen, and an ability to think deeply about meaningful issues.  While I’m not immune to the allure of wealth and its impact (we all need to make a living), New York’s in-your-face inequality reveals the inflationary value of certain attributes and a gap in appreciation for the everyday heroes who display value beyond the short-lived hoopla of models, millionaires, and moguls.

——-

For the past two years, I’ve raced to keep up with NYC’s speed, size, and glitz. It’s kicked my ass. But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished overall: building a network within the tech and startup community, writing for one of the most-read US digital publications, working for the government of this grand city of cities, and most importantly, learning more everyday about this intricately woven world. While I have acquired certain archetypically New York characteristics, the hardest part about living here hasn’t been about becoming more assertive, professional, or socially savvy. It’s been refining the qualities that often aren’t associated with New York: patience, humility, and compassion. In its own prickly way, New York City has forced me to reconcile its somewhat contradictory nature (movement-stillness, expansion-shrinking, glitz-poverty) in a way that tamer cities simply can’t.  

Saying “Goodbye to All That” is justified. For my friends wondering when I will leave, my answer is not yet. Two years ago, I came to audition. Two years later, I’m still perfecting my routine. I’m still naive enough to believe that, more than anywhere else, New York City is the place for reinvention. Tomorrow, I will say “Hello again, New York” – like I do everyday – and audition for the next month, year, future. The show is yet to begin.

Cross-Pollination

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One of the beauties of the city is its sheer diversity. With more than 3 million foreign-born residents and dozens of vibrant enclaves, New York City’s melting pot is golden lore.

But urban environments are inherently greater than the sum of their individually diverse elements. The advantage of the “melting pot”, arguably, comes less from the stew, and more from the cooks gathered round the brew.

The question then is, how do you rally the cooks? In a place like New York City where so many types of people and industries live,  it should be easy to bump heads across-industry, ethnicity, and income, right? Mix and match, throw a dash of spice, and voila! Cross-pollination.

All possible, but easier said than done. In the span of a day, I could go from work in a government office, to lunch with a friend creating a fashion-tech startup, to a tour of Harlem Biospace (the city’s first affordable biotech incubator), to drinks with a rep at a wine distributor. Across ethnic lines, I have my pick of the pot: dining options in Chinatown, Harlem, Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And across income brackets, there’s no avoiding the homeless person asking for change on the subway.

I could do all of that, but I could also just as easily retreat into a bubble: spending all day at work, occasionally checking Twitter as my portal to the world (90% of tweets on my feed which come from NYT, FT, WSJ, BI [add other elitist news acronym]-reading journalists/techies like myself) and hanging out with my similarly educated, millennial friends after-hours. This happens about 4/5 of my working days.

I’m not saying one scenario is better or worse than the other, but I am saying that one allows for greater exchange of new possibilities. You be the judge of which.

It’s deceivingly easy to be siloed into little cubby holes. Even in a city that prides itself on diversity – by nature of our occupations, orientations, social statuses- it’s natural to find ourselves placed in certain environments, gravitated toward the same types of people, and engaged in conversations that fit neatly into what we already know. This is fine. There’s something to be said about consistency and comfort. But for those who have chosen a city life, ignoring the diversity around us is like having a bunch of fresh ingredients ready for a great meal, and never actually throwing them in the pot to cook. You’re better getting take-out and moving to the suburbs. A true urban environment is made for serendipitous interaction, fusion of opposites, and a little bit of discomfort. We must be intentional about seeking it.

I’ll end with a story that reveals how easy it is to fall victim to our own bubbles. During NYC’s September primary election, a well-known figure in the tech community, Reshma Saujani, ran for the office of Public Advocate. She had started an organization called Girls Who Code and was married to another well-known entrepreneur, Nihal Mehta. She had the backing of major figures including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who threw a fundraiser for her. I even included her and her husband on a Business Insider list of 16 power couples. So of course, I thought an election win was a sure thing. Everyone on Twitter seemed to think so too.

Well? Apparently I trust Twitter too much. It turns out Reshma didn’t even crack 5% of the vote. Had I bothered to check the polls or venture beyond my Twittersphere/usual tech blogs, I would have seen that the winner, Letitia James, had been ahead in the polls for a while. Now that I work in government, I’m aware of how well-liked Letitia is among government and community circles, making it slightly embarrassing that I had no idea who she was 3 months ago. I also see how few people within government know Reshma, which is also a bit of a shame because her influence through Girls Who Code is significant. Either way, it shows that sometimes, beyond our better judgement, we’re stuck in our little bubbles.

I’m afraid that with the increased emergence of niche-based groups, the population is becoming further fragmented. We stick with what we know. Corporatis in cubed nation, free spirits in their coffee shops. What would our world look like if skills were vetted outside their typical context? Classrooms in restaurants. Bankers in public service. Could be a complete disaster (like the mishmash soup I once created with random leftovers), or a beautiful stew of possibility (when the recipe is meticulously designed to maximize skill sets and tastes.)

Today’s problems cannot be met by government, business, or civil society alone. Yet until we are willing to peek into other worlds, we’ll never know how to create the best mix. We’ll simply remain imagining, instead of living, the possibilities.

Let’s Be Real

Our daily observations are often riddled with emotion. Even the most scientifically-rooted of us are subject to bias. So it’s important to be aware of the temptation to fit data into existing beliefs that don’t necessarily reflect reality.

I’ve recently begun diving into data from our agency’s website and social media traffic. This exercise has produced unexpected findings.  For instance, the most popular pages on our website are, anti-climactically, the Jobs and About pages. The many other sections filled with rich information about our programs, services, and developments – which we’ve spent hours developing – have minimal views in comparison. Does this mean we should produce less compelling material on these pages? No. But it does indicate that we might serve a greater number of people by investing just a little more time in pages we might normally skimp over.

Another example. Back in September, I compiled research findings for a blog post about Lower Manhattan’s growth. It took about a month to prepare, yet didn’t come close to cracking the top 10 on our blog. Instead our most-viewed post was about ferry service changes.

After diving deeper, I saw that people had searched and accessed ferry service-related information more than double that of any other blog post topic. While I personally don’t find ferry service a fascinating subject, this outlier forced me to reevaluate how we’re deciding what to write about each week. Lower Manhattan, while an interesting topic, doesn’t serve a need. Ferry service, meanwhile, is a crucial service people are depending on to get between boroughs.

Looking at anomalies and asking certain questions informs better decision-making. What is driving traffic? Is there a larger site linking to us? What do people really want to know? As a reporter, I’m accustomed to editors assigning stories based on their almighty evaluation of what the audience wants. I’m also used to pitching stories that are interesting to me, myself, and I.  In both scenarios, public information decisions are made from the top-down based on personal whims and a tepid grasp of reality. Even surveys aren’t that effective since personal biases and framing of questions influence how people respond. Data can be a clear, democratic, and objective way to ensure that public needs are being addressed. While not the answer to everything, web behavior shines light on trends. If the public is clicking on or searching for something, data reveals a demonstrated need or interest.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot wrote an informative piece on what she and her team learned during the redesign of the NYC Government site. She says, “Any digital experience can become an emotional debate, especially when you have lots of smart stakeholders…Data can be a great tonic for subjective conversations.” (I also love the reference to Mayor Bloomberg’s data-driven philosophy: “In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data”.)

Traffic metrics and search analytics informed the City’s new design. Alternate side parking, schools and garbage collection status were the top drivers of traffic, so they placed that information front and center. They also embraced data post-launch to measure success and constantly analyze user response.

People can decry the end of privacy, but open data can create a seamless user experience with more intuitive navigation, better content placement, and targeted information. It’s either that, or continued speculation based on personal biases.

I’m all about listening to intuition. It’s part of being human. This conversation isn’t about eliminating that. It’s about doing enough of a gut check through application of data to decide whether or not we should defend our instincts. Because let’s be real, our instincts are sometimes wrong.

Making Community, Part II

I’ve written before about finding community in a big city. When I first moved to NYC, I said that creating community was the key to happiness.

At the time, I was talking more about making friends than community-building. There’s a big difference. I’ve made a handful of friendships in the two years since moving here – and they’ve been wonderful- but they’re not to be mistaken with finding community. Community is when we identify with something greater than the individual sums of after-work drinks and weekly brunches.

While I’ve joined a few groups that have ignited passion for something beyond self (ie. church, volunteer organizations), there are several strong indicators that I am still far removed from a community mindset. The biggest test is the departure question. If I were to leave New York City tomorrow, what would change? Nothing, fundamentally. Sure, my job would be different, public transportation woes would mostly disappear, and I’d probably eat out a lot less, but the way I interact with people probably wouldn’t change (and we all know that what really sticks is the relationships you make).

Virtual tools allow us to maintain communication so, quite frankly,  we don’t really ever have to see anyone to be plugged in. Which begs the question, why live in a particular area anyway? If I could still keep in touch with the people I want to keep in touch with, what difference does it make whether I live in Omaha or New York City? The main distinction is community. When tied to a larger group of people, that group’s unique problems are amplified by physical proximity.

Yesterday, I had brunch plans with a friend who lives across the street. (Important to note that the primary way we know each other is through her brother, a college friend, not by fact that we’re neighbors.) She asked if I wanted to stop by and meet her neighbor before brunch. Why not, I thought. I had never been inside her building despite the close proximity.

Her neighbor was in the middle of making coffee, and warmly offered a cup while making conversation. 15 minutes later, he asked that we join him for breakfast. I hesitated – this derailed plans for the individual catch-up session we had planned, and I didn’t want to intrude – but we were enjoying a great conversation, so why be exclusive?

It turned out to be the highlight of my week.

Together, we scrappily gathered some basic brunch elements (generously supplied by Lucille and Mark) and created a sumptuous spread: French toast, prosciutto, cheese, and freshly brewed coffee. Mark dished about his weekend, Lucille provided her usual witty insights, and I shared stories to connect the two. My previously disparate background became oddly connected – and beautifully – with those of a former corporate barista and fashion photographer’s.

20131104-001228.jpg2 hours later, we cleaned up…to prepare dessert. Green tea ice cream accompanied by pumpkin spice cookies. The conversation that followed was equally delightful. I never thought I could have such a great time with relative strangers but there I was, experiencing a form of joyful connection I can’t say I’ve ever experienced before in New York City.

The skeptic in me can make all sort of exceptions to how this happened: my friend and her neighbor were exceptionally amicable, food was farmer’s market-fresh, coffee was in abundance. I’m well aware that all of this happened under ideal circumstances and that real community is rarely ever this clean. Getting into other people’s lives, in reality, is messy and probably much less convenient.

That said, I can only recount how blissful the whole encounter was.

Part of it was the great conversation and food, but another part was the feeling that I was no longer a tourist. If something were to happen to these folks, I’d feel responsible. I couldn’t leave a mess. Funny how just 2 neighbors can add a sense of ownership and identification with the neighborhood.

Today, I will return to the day-to-day humdrum which largely revolves around isolated activities that have no significance to anyone beyond myself, and maybe a a tiny tiny circle. But yesterday’s encounter challenges me to think about the implications of my life. How can we make our lives go beyond ourselves in the immediate spheres that we inhabit?

The answer lies in community. Here, the stakes are raised.

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