Community

My Favorite Little Piece of Italy in NYC

Third SpaceI 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.

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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.

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Season of Change

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.

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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).

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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.


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.


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.


Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

I’ve developed a theory that if people can’t sit through a 30-minute meal without touching their phones, they are OSDs (Over-Stimulated Disturbances). Sounds a little like LSD, and appropriately so; our phones are quickly turning us into walking drug addicts.

But who am I to quip? I’m constantly responding to emails on the fly, tweeting,  connecting – it’s a part of work, daily existence.

Connection is a loaded word these days. Social platforms tout it as part of their mission. But what does it mean to truly connect? On Twitter, it means favoriting bursts of 140 snippets. In person, it means having the patience to listen to long, circuitous babbles that are often far less witty, relevant, or sharable.

It’s much easier to fall in love with the former.

One question I’m tackling at work is how to effectively use social media to enhance connection with an audience. Sounds nice in theory but in practice, virtual connection entails something entirely different from a meaningful in-person relationship. Just because I like Red Cross on Facebook doesn’t mean I will spend a dime or a minute of my time volunteering for a cause.

So, I’m going out on a limb and positing that the greatest function social media can serve is to get people away from social media, offline, and into the actual lives of others.

What I mean is that social media should spur offline activity. A company’s goal shouldn’t be to stick people in an unending spiral of Twitter-Facebook-Instagram-YouTube, repeat 100 times until dizzy. That quickly creates obsessive, neurotic, OSD mental cases (raise your hand if you’re one already – – me!).

From a business perspective, it’s no use to Oreo, for instance, to get people to watch its Daily Twist campaign 50 times if no one ever actually buys a box of Oreos.  But by showing the social value of doing so- rewarding users who buy a box and snap a picture of them consuming it in fun ways- Oreo creates a win-win situation. They make money, and you’re presumably happier because now you are having fun with friends.  That’s real social mixed with virtual interplay.

So, is this the modern-day version of connection? Virtual and physical worlds feeding one other, transposing offline activities to the online world, and vice-versa? I suppose so, since these days “it never happened if it’s not online”.

I say this with a bit of cynicism, but the truth is, it’s unrealistic to go anywhere these days without a phone notification calling our name.  Like it or not, our new definition of connection needs to take into account the ubiquitous gadget in the room, while finding a way to channel its use in a healthy way.

Social media is the digital version of junk food. It’s created a habit of mindless consumption. “Once you pop you can’t stop!” But no, we must stop. Lest we further descend down the rabbit hole and emerge into a society disconnected from our most basic human existence.

Set aside a phone and connect with reality. It’s about balance and there lies our challenge.

How do you use social media to enhance connection? Have you found it an effective, or distracting, tool? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below. 


Orthogonal Bliss

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In the short time I’ve been in New York, I’ve lived multiple lives.

At times, it’s been anxious naval-gazing: “I have work and then a dinner thing, and then I’m busy trying to do this whole becoming who I am thing!“, circa Hannah Horvath.

Less often, it’s cosmopolitan ”I will never be the woman with the perfect hair, who can wear white and not spill on it’ Carrie: eating at places I can’t afford and feeding into the city’s conspicuous consumption.

But far more often, it’s neither, and instead, a rather boring in-between. I’ll also confess that I can’t really liken myself to female TV show characters whose shows I don’t even watch.

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When I started this blog, I titled it ‘socialynne’ because at the time:

a) lynneguey.com was already taken (for my “professional” persona),

b) ever clever, I wanted to use a pun with my name,

c) I was going to be that savvy girl in the city.

My noble goal at the time was to represent, in some form, my exterior shell. I wanted to contribute non-wisdom on what it was like to navigate the city as a 20something caught between extreme ambition & a desire to fuck it all/not give a damn. Kind of like the characters I mentioned, just a lot less cute.

20 months, 4 apartments, and 101 (intermittently) soul-bearing blog posts later, I’m reevaluating if ‘being social’ is a relevant topic for me to write about. I’m not exactly out on the town everyday.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still an awkward 20something for sure, but I’ve pivoted. I used to think about how Jess from “New Girl” or Hannah or Carrie would write my posts. But truthfully, I’m so different from each of those prototypes that I’m quitting that. As I enter a new stage of New York life, this dear blog -my sidekick from the start – will also shift focus.

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My former Hannah would grimace to hear that present-day me loves bureaucracy, rules, and hierarchy. I work for a quasi-government agency with 500+ employees, so my life is spectacularly boring as a suited up bureaucrat in a cubicle. Yet I love it. Did I mention that our organization reports to the Mayor of the greatest city in the world?

During my first month at NYCEDC, I’ve been stunned by its sheer impact on the city. The Applied Sciences Initiative is building a strong infrastructure for tech talent here in Silicon Alley. We own the maritime ports. We build numerous new neighborhood developments from unused, vacant property to create a higher-quality life for residents. Guilty as charged.

I’m learning that all the city agencies, programs, and internal departments are a hot mess of acronyms. You wonder if all these departments are necessary, but then you see how much work is required to keep the city’s economic engine chugging . You begin to learn how it works behind the scenes, which leads only to more admiration for this little village where 8 million people call home.

This is not to downplay the issues.

Could city government be leaner? Yes. Could it use drastic innovation? Of course. Could it benefit from a little more open dialogue? Always.

The system is replete with challenges and inefficiencies, which is exactly why strong leadership and new ideas are essential. Personally, I’d love to see an open platform where residents, businesses, and local government can collaborate and solve problems together. I’d love to contribute.

Though my time in New York has been topsy turvy, I’d like to think I’m entering the next stage of what Amy Jo Martin calls “orthogonal bliss”. Orthogonal bliss is defined as the intersection of skills, passion, and purpose. It’s the sweet spot, where all the skills and experiences you’ve acquired align to create something magnificent.

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Color outside the lines by combining, mixing and intersecting things that typically don’t jive. Expect adversity to follow as society fears and fights the interruptive, abnormal mixture. If the mixture is bliss, mass adoption will eventually occur and soon you’ll have diffusion of innovation.

Every company has stakeholders; ours is the public. So in honor of my newfound orthogonal bliss, instead of writing about ‘social’ in the literal sense, I’m honing this blog’s focus on ‘social good’ here in NYC. It’s no Sex in the City or pixie girl fantasy; it’s simply, me: sociaLynne, some imperfect social in-between.

Throughout our 20s, we represent a range of characters and continue to morph in these chameleon years. If you’ve found your trifecta of skills, passion, and purpose, stick with it. If not, keep looking. We all need to believe in something.

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For me, this belief is in the city. All I need is to look out, take a walk, and it’s around me. To make this a better place to live: that’s no better reason to wake up in the morning.

Always social,

– Lynne


Girls Talk Shop

The more often you create and share ideas, the better you get at it.

My friend Alex and I have decided to gather a few women every other week to brainstorm business plans, passion projects, and entrepreneurial ventures together. Our 20s are a critical period for growth and at a time when commitment to ideas is especially hard to find, we believe a group like this is necessary.

The goal is to compile ideas and follow through with ones that resonate. Some will be interesting, most will be lousy, one or two may even work. The point is to simply hold ourselves accountable to doing work that really matters. Ultimately, we want to find an idea that sticks and matches our unique strengths with the needs of the world.

What this group is not: a think tank or discussion group. Ideas are a dime in a dozen; money lies in execution. We’ll craft plans to make ideas happen. Some will fail but hey, failing isn’t as bad when there’s a group of other smart, motivated girls experiencing it with you.

If your current routine isn’t cutting it, join us as we experiment with projects that lead to greater fulfillment, if for any reason because doing stuff on your own is hard. We’re looking for a group of 4-6 New York women in their 20s, curious with a desire to learn and do something more. Any industry, talent, or niche is welcome. Leave a comment or email lynne.guey@gmail.com for details. We’ll likely be meeting on Sunday afternoon, so be willing to sacrifice Sunday brunch for this. In exchange, a supply of lady refreshments ie. wine & cheese, will be on hand.

If you’re not in New York, sorry- we’re keeping things local for now. But stay tuned!