“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Transitions are hard. Now that I’m back in NYC and figuring out next steps, I find myself caught in a phase of “in-between”, a place somewhere between being and doing.
The days when I am most productive are the days when I am accountable to others, checking boxes off a list of things that require me to show up: getting coffee with someone, sending an email, exercising, applying to a job, writing this newsletter. I do it mostly to reassure myself that I can still function as a person in larger society.
Of course, there are days that go terribly awry: I start a simple task and end with 20 open tabs + a pounding headache; I say yes to another glass of wine and learn for the millionth time that an extra hour of sleep would have probably been more beneficial; I fall into a rabbit hole of social feeds and emerge hours later frustrated with my lack of self-regulation.
But truthfully, the majority of my days comprise of quiet, subtle, slightly indulgent ‘inner work’ that wouldn’t mean much to anyone else: reading old journal entries about dreams once dreamed, scribbling new plans, wandering aimlessly through the city, reflecting on the things I’ve learned.
Unstructured time means that you learn to set boundaries between these periods of reflection, productivity, and self-indulgence. I realize how lucky I am to have this time. I’m learning discernment, for knowing when and how to act. Self-forgiveness, for moments of weakness. Permission, to just be. It’s a pretty unscientific process of self-analysis + trial & error + course-correction, but it’s probably what I need most now.
It’s not all fun experimentation. If you’re prone to anxiety like me, having more free time can turn into analysis paralysis. Time, like money, is a finite resource, and can quickly drip dry. You try to remember what mountain you set out to climb to begin with and why it’s taking so long to figure it out.
So, what is time-well-spent look like in an intentional life? There’s no shortage of articles on how to be more productive, often modeled after the lifestyle of a hero CEO. Wake up early. Time block your calendar. Remove social media from your phone. Say yes to every opportunity. Actually, say no and set boundaries. Seek feedback from family & friends because you need to check your blind spots. Join support groups.
It is tempting to follow the experts & have others tell you what to do. But here’s the rub: only you can answer the question. Sure, we could all probably benefit from some time management tools, but this isn’t a productivity issue. This is a life. Simply put, you can’t delegate the direction of any one life to a generalized advice column.
Oprah always starts her Super Soul Sunday podcast by saying one of the most valuable gifts we can give ourselves is time, time to be present. I’d like to take this a step further: we should take time to be present, so we can determine our intentions and chart our future self. In fact, I’d argue that it is the most important work we can do because no one else can do it. Figure out what matters to you and from there, your choices, actions, and identities will flow. You can’t outsource this stuff, baby.
“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person. Here the stage is set for identity crises, for wondering who one really is, behind the multifold variety of actions and roles. And the search for that core person is not a matter of curiosity; it is a search for the principles by which choices are to be made.”
– What Makes a Person
I’ve come to believe that life occurs at a certain cadence – at times, we are thrust into circumstances that don’t give us much of a choice – but when we do have the privilege of choice, it is our responsibility to set a framework so we aren’t continuously sidetracked and pushed further and further away from our destination.
For those who think this is a question reserved for the privileged, it totally is. Embrace it! And if you don’t have the fortune now, just wait – your glorious moment to navigate this beautiful in-between territory will come.
I can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.
Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.
As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.
I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.
And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.
Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,
“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”
The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case – but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.
Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.
I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor. Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.
My last day at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) was two weeks ago. Working for local government was never something I dreamed about, but the experience was a surprising blend of all that I love: cities, innovation, media, politics. Truly, it was an unparalleled opportunity to learn the ins & outs of a system where all of these elements converged.
One of our communal kitchens at NYCEDC displayed Mayor Ed Koch’s mantra, a perfect encapsulation of what drew me to work everyday. With a budget larger than any other in the US, NYC is literally and metaphorically, one of the most dynamic and complex metropolises in the world.
When at NYCEDC, you can’t help but speak the language of economic development – creating jobs and developing neighborhoods – which includes a lot of technical jargon and municipal processes that I never wish for anyone’s vernacular (“Did you get LMDC approval to extend the RFEI deadline pre-ULURP, post-CEQR along with the DOT MOU?”)
More broadly, I took away some important life lessons during my 4+ years at this quasi-city agency. Most are in the context of running a city, i.e. seeking Council and community stakeholder approval for public land use projects, which admittedly is very different from running a profitable company in a market-driven society. But I’ve found that work in the public domain mirrors our personal lives in more ways than we think, especially as we grow towards a more open society.
In no meaningful order, my top 7 takeaways:
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE.
We must learn to embrace it. EDC is one of the biggest agents of change in NYC. The city has many levers at its disposal to implement change at scale through zoning policies, tax incentives, and workforce development programs. These mechanisms can also change the fabric of communities in immediate and tangible ways. You see the change with each new condo building and bourgeois office & coffee shop, along with rising prices. Resisting this change is futile, for it’s not all bad. Courting major companies and building large infrastructural projects increases connectivity and brings jobs & activity to formerly disinvested areas.
The work shouldn’t stop here.
Real economic development doesn’t just build and raise property values; it invests in the people of the neighborhood. Real economic development works with communities hand-in-hand to create double bottom-line metrics that not only measure the number of jobs that are created, but the number of local jobs, small businesses retained, permanently affordable housing units, open space, and sustainable community programs. Insomuch that the new development builds capacity for members of a community to sustainably adapt to the changing environment, its a win-win.
PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS – It’s everything.
The difference between a tourist and resident is that a tourist sees only the Times Squares and Magnolia Bakeries – the final outcome, packaged in all its pretty glory. The tourist does not have to see who is driven out and who moves in, the businesses that shutter because of rising rents, nor do they reap the consequences of city decisions that might have been made from the top-down. Fully engaging community stakeholders at all levels of any major new development (not just when they are needed for a vote) is key to ensuring that the plan captures all of the neighborhood’s basic needs.
A ONE SIZE ALL APPROACH DOES NOT WORK.
Neighborhoods, just like people, are different. Don’t expect the same strategies to work for neighborhoods mere blocks apart. Manhattan north of 96th Street is totally different from the Lower East Side, or East 95th Street for that matter. A neighborhood strategy is most comprehensive when you seek the input of those who know the neighborhood best – its long-time residents – and not just urban planners or developers drafting plans from their ivory tower.
IT HELPS TO HAVE AN ADVOCATE AT THE TOP.
If you’re just starting at the bottom of the totem pole, a brilliant idea won’t go anywhere unless someone at the top can vouch for it. It’s stupidly hierarchal, but you can either spend time complaining about it or strategize about how to best work within the system & get buy-in at the top (hint: the latter saves a lot of time and disillusionment).
Robert Moses learned this in his early days working for the City, and after a couple botched ideas blinded by his own idealism, shifted the strategy for his ambitious development ideas around getting to know the people in power whose approval could actually make them happen.
YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE FAKING IT.
I was very underqualified for my job as Manhattan Borough Director at EDC and frequently experienced impostor syndrome. I was never sure if what I said would unleash a cascade of angry words, eye rolls, or nodding approval. It was a state of constant uncertainty, but I soon realized that most experienced professionals were never 100% sure either. That’s the beauty of a job where there is no recipe for success. We’re all just trying to make the best decisions as we go. And that’s the way it is with life as well, right?
IT HELPS TO PRETEND LIKE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THOUGH.
One of the best skills to have (aside from coding) is persuasion. If you can sell, you have the keys to unlocking people’s stubborn, change-resistant minds. Sometimes it’s less a matter of what you’re saying than how you say it. At several community meetings, I literally just memorized the same key talking points, and kept repeating variations of the same message. Over time, I began saying those lines with more confidence and felt like I gained greater trust (confidence coupled with consistency is what did it).
CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.
It’s one of my biggest frustrations but we’re all guilty of it. We enter any given situation with preconceived notions about people, communities, what they are capable of and what they are not. How do we know what people want? Maybe they are happy with the same bodega and old historic district, maybe they aren’t, or maybe they want to keep a valued institution and demolish something else…you just never know until you ask, so ask (unless you are withholding for some larger negotiation tactic).
Government is not without its flaws. Certain regulatory measures are inefficient and things get stuck in the bureaucracy, but working at NYCEDC has reinforced my belief in the need for a strong public sector. We cannot rely on the private behemoths of the day to have the public’s best interests at heart. The irony of an Apple town square open to all except for those who can afford their $1000 iPhone pains me. Local government, on the other hand, is beholden to the public across a wide range of subsidized amenities – parks, roads, schools, utilities, public housing, hospitals, etc. – to build a better life for ALL.
I am leaving NYCEDC for personal reasons. I want to take time to explore & see what else is out there. Maybe I’ll go and learn some best practices from the private sector. But my enthusiasm for the public sector remains and I do hope to go back at some point. If there’s anything that I learned during my time at NYCEDC, it’s that innovation is disrupting industries left & right, and no one is immune to the impending change. Government needs to moderate and soften the change, so it is not an apocalyptic hell of tech-haves and have-nots.
I’m not sure what this next chapter means for me, but am open to the possibilities and ready to take the plunge. As Part I of my ‘sabbatical’, I’m traveling to the Middle East 11/23 – 12/6! If you’re in any of the following cities, let me know:
- Dubai, UAE
- Amman, Jordan
- Wadi Rumi, Jordan
- Jerusalem, Israel
- Tel Aviv, Israel
Thanks to all who have supported me on this journey thus far, and cheers to the open road.