Before I moved to New York City in 2003, I dreamed often of exchanging my Somerville, Massachusetts, apartment for a creaky old farmhouse by the ocean, where I would spend my days writing, basking in the sounds of near silence.
Where I ended up a year later was a sunny two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, on the second-to-last stop on the 6 train. Instead of ocean waves, the subway lulled me to sleep. The Italian-American neighborhood had an overabundance of bakeries, all-night diners and funeral homes. Once, when I was heading down to my neighbor Jimmy’s barbeque, I heard a fight break out in the alleyway, just below my living-room window. Above the clatter of trash cans, I heard Jimmy scream, “Your wife’s a crack whore. Where’s my five thousand dollars?” Then I heard the sound of a car peeling out. That night, I stayed in.
The strangest part of my new existence was that I liked it. In fact, I don’t even remember a transition period. Instant love, that’s what it was. I found myself talking to everyone: on the streets, on subways, in the park. Hunkering down into a writing routine felt natural; with the ever-present hum of the city, I was never alone.
So how did I move away from my fantasy of an idyllic rural setting to the reality of this noisy, gritty metropolis? Well, when I told Ted, my then-boyfriend of four years, that I needed an exit plan from Boston, a place I had never quite felt at home, he said reluctantly, “Okay. But the only place I’ll go is New York City.”
That’s funny, I remember thinking, because that’s the only place I don’t want to go. I shared with him my vision: the farmhouse, daily walks on the ocean’s edge, lots of time to make art. Ted, however, was firm: New York or bust.
With my desire to leave Boston outweighing all other concerns, I started researching graduate programs in the New York City metropolitan area. I applied to Sarah Lawrence, a school just north of the city with an exceptionally green campus. Commuting to the “magical Tudor world” (as an alum once described it) would take the edge off urban life.
When I received my acceptance letter, I turned to Ted and exclaimed, “We’re going!”
“That’s…awfully soon,” he said, drawing out his words. Explaining he wanted to apply to graduate schools and wrap up his music project. “I won’t be ready for the fall, but you should go ahead and I’ll join you next year.”
Before I knew it, I’d settled on the Bronx, for its proximity to school and Orchard Beach. And that is how I came to call this “glorious diva-bitch of a city,” as one friend labels it, home.
Ted and I ended our five-year relationship three weeks before he relocated. Nine years later, he’s still here, and I’m still here, too, grateful that he pointed me square in the direction of where I clearly needed to be.
My own story of landing in New York City is not unusual. Lots of transplants stumble upon this city by accident, and before they know it they are asking, how did I get here?Given the intensity of life here, part of living in New York is how one constantly confronts this notion of “home.” If the day-to-day existence in a city with nine million other inhabitants requires so much work, what brings people here? And why do they stay?
Last year I began polling strangers, acquaintances and friends, including Ted, wanting to know: What makes you feel at home? Why New York? And what about your physical home makes you feel rooted despite the sense in this city of endless possibility?
It’s my hope that the cumulative effect of these stories will nudge New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike to expand and refine their own conceptions of what it means to feel at home in the world, what it means to return to a favorite block or restaurant or apartment or person and feel a relief that runs bone-deep: This must be the place.
* * *
Name: Chloe Garcia, 37
Occupation: Buyer/seller of beautiful objects for Matta, Visual artist, Herbalist/healer www.nomadicsonglines.com
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Item to Save in a Fire: Her childhood photos, especially those of her father, Luis Alberto, who passed away when she was eight.
When Chloe Garcia was growing up, she paid extra careful attention to the decoration of her bedroom. A trained dancer, having studied ballet at the Princess Grace Dance School in Monaco, Garcia meticulously lined pairs of her pink satin pointe shoes along the wall. Obsessed with Degas, she surrounded herself with the Impressionist painter’s soft images of tulle skirts, dancers with gracefully arched backs and airy, sun-stippled studios. These objects, they were home — and for Garcia, the stepdaughter of a Mexican ambassador, home mattered.
By the time she’d turned seventeen, Garcia had lived in three countries: her native Mexico, Switzerland and France. With every country, she and her two sisters would acclimate to a new home, a new language, a new school, a new culture. If she had no say over her family’s address, Garcia reasoned, she could at least control her environment.
But Garcia’s decorative urges preceded her life as an ambassador’s stepdaughter. When she was six, her father took a celebratory fishing trip after sealing a promising business deal and had a tragic accident, diving in the dark into a waterless pool, a move that would leave him paralyzed. Subsequently, the family could no longer live in their multi-level home in Mexico City, because it was too difficult for him to navigate with a wheelchair. “We had to change the space according to how he would live,” she says.
As he became progressively ill and spent more time in hospitals, “We got used to making the hospitals feel like home,” says Garcia. When Garcia was eight, her father passed away.
As time went on, she yearned more and more to put down roots. In 1993, after six years in Paris, Garcia, then a high school senior, came home one afternoon to a surprising announcement from her mother, who sat her and her sisters down and said, “Girls, our term here has ended.”
Though these words were familiar, Garcia didn’t take the news well; this time she’d have to leave her boyfriend, her first love, behind. She recalls the dramatic show of protest she and her sisters displayed. “We were screaming and crying. I was devastated,” she says, grinning as she recalls the “Mortified"-worthy adolescent angst. And thus began Garcia’s twenty-year (and counting) stint in New York City.
Her first address in Gotham was the Mexican embassy on tony East 72nd Street. She’d never been to New York and only knew it through Hollywood depictions. “I was scared,” she admits. Despite the elegance of her stately brownstone, she missed the cafes, antique stores and flea markets of her Parisian years. By contrast, everything on the Upper East Side felt new and modern. “Money and status were the cultural statement,” she says. To feel at home, Garcia would frequently visit museums, such as the Met and the Frick, a tradition she sustains to this day.
Beyond whatever culture shock the Upper East Side held, the embassy still represented Mexican soil, which grounded Garcia. “We were with objects that had followed us through every city,” Garcia explains. “This is why I am attached to material things, because they bring me nourishment.”
The following year, Garcia enrolled as a painting student at New York University, in an area where she felt more at home, with its bohemian flair, cobblestone streets, beatnik history and community gardens.
The early ‘90s East Village offered her a lesson in New York’s unique sense of community. Often, Garcia would leave an extra set of keys to her apartment at the deli on the corner, which was owned by an Indian family. “They saw me grow up,” she says, recalling how, if she was short on cash, the owners would let her take a carton of milk or box of cigarettes and pay them the next day. “That’s the magical part of this city. You can form these relationships; people really do want to trust,” she says.
If she never thought deli owners could be like a second family, she really never thought she’d meet lifelong friends in bars, never mind her future fiancé. Twenty years ago, Garcia met Federico, a native Italian, at Buddha Bar, and the pair became instant best friends, traveling together and organizing dinners with their ever-widening social circle at places like Bar Pitti and Indochine. Ten years into their friendship, they went to an Erykah Badu concert, followed by a late night at Dezibel and Nublu, and decided to gamble their friendship for love. “We’ve been together since,” Garcia says, “for ten beautiful years. You never know when you are going to meet your soul mate. I met mine in a dark, smoky bar!”
New York gradually won Garcia over for the freedom it brings to her life. “I never feel confined to a single neighborhood or group of people,” she says. While a college student, if yearning for a taste of the posh life, she would occasionally leave the East Village to throw lavish parties at the Mexican embassy, complete with Mezcal and mariachi bands. As an artist, her first internship was at Sotheby’s, which provided an entrée into the world of auction houses — quite a distance from her downtown digs.
Today, as an herbalist and Reiki practitioner, Garcia taps into the city’s rich healing community by taking classes at the Open Center and Integral Yoga. She’s also been studying to become a curandera, or folk medicine woman — all while nurturing her career as a buyer and seller of beautiful objects (most recently for Matta, a home and apparel retailer). “In New York, I am not labeled as one thing, and that allows me greater creative expression,” she says. “I am a work in progress.”
In her role as a buyer, Garcia travels often, trekking off to places like the mountains of Chang Mai, Thailand; the lush archipelagos of Saco de Mamangua, Brazil; and the sprawling, urban landscape of Jaipur, India. She spends time at out-of-the-way markets and with indigenous tribes to find handcrafted work. Though her job is the pursuit of aesthetically-pleasing items, Garcia finds so much more in her interactions with weavers, healers and the elders.
“I’ll go to a tribe to buy objects and end up tapping into history and wisdom,” says Garcia, who values the non-verbal communications in these interactions, the kind that are spoken eye to eye. “Every piece is a prayer.”
Two years ago, Garcia and Federico moved to Boerum Hill, marking Garcia’s inaugural foray in an outer borough. Every time she returns home to their two-bedroom, high-ceiling apartment, Garcia brings something back from her trip. “The carpet, the photos, the textiles, they all have an emotional connotation.”
In her bedroom, Garcia displays a beaded leather medicine pouch, a gift from her soon-to-be-mother-in-law. A painting of white doves, made of recycled materials, hangs on the wall, representing the Brazilian conception of Divine Spirit. In another image, there is a painted tiger, made of Sanskrit words. A pillow with a silkscreened image of Frida Kahlo rests on her couch. Of the Mexican surrealist artist, Garcia says, “Her art is tormented, but through her pain she found beauty. She reminds me that you can have struggle, but there is always something beautiful in it.” On her coffee table is a rare book, The Spiritual Significance of Flowers, which was given to Garcia by a friend who knows she loves plants. “That’s the thing about life,” she says, raising her index finger skyward. “You can’t always get everything on Amazon.”
Garcia is mindful of her space, right down to the aromas. She uses sage as an air-purifying agent, to protect the home. Other favorite scents include ginger, cinnamon, basil, rosemary, lavender, thyme, grandmother’s cedar and germanium. “Oh, and fruit,” Garcia says, explaining that fruit reminds her of her maternal grandfather, a Russian immigrant who built up a successful produce business in Texas. “He’d bring us boxes of strawberries, melons, raspberries. If I don’t have fruit, I don’t have my grandfather.”
The instinct to create a home-away-from-home has stayed with Garcia. Whenever she travels, she brings candles, sage and small statues of Buddha and Ganesh — peacemakers and removers of obstacles — to create makeshift altars in temporary rooms. “I always cover the televisions with fabric,” she says, “anything that could obstruct good energy.”
As much as physical objects can provide her with spiritual sustenance, when it comes to the most elemental foundation of a home, Garcia can’t help but think of her mother, Rhonda, who made an effort to entertain without pretension, welcoming guests into the embassy, a space which, fancy trappings or not, was always filled with laughter and the tight-knit closeness of family.
The most beautiful homes, Garcia has learned, are the ones full of happy people.
* * *
Name: Simon Alcantara, “Ageless”
Occupation: Jewelry designer, Founder of Simon Alcantara Jewelry
Neighborhood: Financial District
Item to Save in a Fire: A deep red abstract painting by Helen Laflamme, half of a set he bought while visiting Paris for a collaboration with Balmain Haute Couture. (His ex has the second painting.) “We always said if anything happened to one of us, the other could have the painting,” he explains.
You could say that Simon Alcantara landed in New York City by default: he was born here, to Dominican parents. But Alcantara grew up between two places: his mother’s apartment in Inwood and his father’s place in Providence, Rhode Island. (His parents divorced when he was young.) As a boarding student, he lived in Massachusetts; then, as a classical ballet dancer, lived out of suitcases while performing all over the world.
After stints dancing with companies in New York, Cincinnati, Orlando, Jacksonville and New Orleans, Alcantara settled in South Beach, where he joined the Miami Ballet. Following a period of going back and forth between New York and Miami, he stayed in Florida after he stopped dancing, living with his first long-term boyfriend, working as a personal stylist and focusing on his jewelry business. Alcantara had been making jewelry since he was a teenager, even selling pieces to his fellow students at ballet school, as well as ballerinas at the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. But it was only after a dance injury in the late 90’s that he got serious about creating fine jewelry. He collaborated with Oscar de la Renta, Balmain Haute Couture Paris and others, before launching his namesake line in 2002.
Although the water-loving, introspective Alcantara relished his daily morning swims in the ocean, he eventually felt New York beckoning him. Since work in South Beach was too seasonal, he and his then-boyfriend decided to move back north, settling in Riverdale, in the Bronx. Though they broke up two years later, Alcantara has lived here full-time ever since. That was nineteen years ago.
“You can be whoever you are,” he says of New York. “As a gay man, that is really important to me.”
An avid explorer of New York on foot, Alcantara appreciates just how much the city, block by block, can change over relatively short periods of time, as marked by construction, new restaurants and shuttered storefronts. Because he’s a native, the idea of this teeming city being foreign is, well, foreign: “I’ve always wondered what the city is like to people who weren’t born here, what it feels like,” he says.
Even after spending the bulk of his life here, Alcantara occasionally forgets how much sensory overload New Yorkers can experience in a single day. Recently, he returned from his friends’ peaceful home in the country and was struck by the bustle of Grand Central Station: the commuters rushing to and from their trains; vendors selling pretzels; people lined up to buy tickets; the unmistakable honking of horns and siren calls on 42nd Street.
Since he travels often for his jewelry business, Alcantara has been mindful about turning his apartment into a sanctuary. Feeling at home, when at home, became all the more urgent when he first moved into a 615-square-foot Financial District studio, a change of residence prompted by the amicable dissolution of his thirteen-year relationship with his live-in boyfriend; the couple had lived in the same building, only in a much larger space. So, when it came to establishing his new home, Alcantara mapped the dwelling pre-move in date.
For inspiration, he pored over a book called The New Apartment: Smart Living in Small Spaces (a book that now sits on his coffee table.) Then, he studied feng shui techniques and laid out every inch of his new apartment accordingly. (“Even the printer blends into the wall,” he says.) His brightly lit bedroom space is the “money” area of the apartment. Above his bed hangs an orange, seventies-style (swirls included) painting of a pregnant woman, a symbol of fertility he bought from an eighty-year old artist in the Dominican Republic. “Some people hate this,” he notes. “But I love it. It reminds me of a Georgia O’Keefe.”
He worked to create the illusion of more space with mirrors and by hanging Photoshop-manipulated images of open landscapes: a photo he took in Telluride, where a store stocks his jewelry, and one he took of a temple in Kyoto, which he “mirrored” digitally and then set three of the resulting images side by side. Some of his biggest fashion covers are framed above his desk, including his first, an ELLE magazine with Christy Turlington donning one of his bold red designs around her neck. They serve as inspiration in his live/work space, “a reminder of what I have accomplished.”
Alcantara created nearly every piece of artwork in the apartment. As a child, he took art classes at the Cloisters. When he gave his mother a painting for Mother’s Day, her friends said they liked it, prompting the future entrepreneur to reply, “I’ll make one for you for ten dollars.” Before long, the young Alcantara had a mini-business going. “I’ve always been creative. Growing up, I didn’t know you could do that as a career,” he says. “As long as I am creative, I am happy.”
His first year in the apartment, Alcantara was traveling nearly every week. Egypt. Japan. Colorado. Although he says it helped him move past his break-up, now he is eager to nest. Since his job often requires him to be out, meeting-and-greeting with editors and clients, Alcantara savors home entertaining. The most people he’s had around his dining room table is seven. That dinner, someone brought a Dominican chicken from uptown, and Alcantara made rice, lentils and salad. One of his friends, who lives in a significantly more spacious home, remarked, “Wow. You’ve managed to accomplish in limited space what I haven’t been able to do in a five-thousand-square-foot house.”
Alcantara concedes, “This is my life, in 615 square feet.”
* * *
Name: Poppy King, 40
Occupation: CEO of Lipstick Queen, Author of Lessons of a Lipstick Queen
Item to Save in a Fire: The Bang and Olufsen stereo she received as payment for an ad she did for the company in Australia in the nineties.
When Melbourne native Poppy King is asked about the first time she recognized New York as home, she says, “The second the airplane wheels hit the tarmac at JFK."
That moment was in 1991, when King was just eighteen. Though she’d visited Manhattan as a child with her mother, something clicked into place when she saw the city on her own, as a young adult.
She would soon visit often, thanks to the runaway success of her own lipstick brand, which she’d launched when she was eighteen, after a light bulb moment in a department store. At the time, shiny lips and crimped hair were in vogue, a look that didn’t suit the striking teenager, who’d always had a love of old Hollywood glamour (and looks as if she could have stepped off the set of a Golden Age 1940s film set herself.) When King asked a saleswoman at the makeup counter if she had any matte lipsticks (opaque colors, sans shine), the woman replied, “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that…”
Recognizing her cue, the young King, who’d been raised by a single mother and had no assets of her own, launched her own company six months out of high school. She found a manufacturer to blend her desired product, linked up with a business partner and started approaching stores. Poppy Industries was born. In 1992, she started traveling to New York regularly for business, one year before Barney’s, the Manhattan-based luxury retailer, started stocking her lipstick.
Ten years, innumerable trips to New York and many entrepreneurial lessons later — as detailed in her disarmingly candid memoir, Lessons of A Lipstick Queen — makeup conglomerate Estee Lauder bought King’s brand, which she had already sold at that point, and brought her on to develop others. As far as the transcontinental move, King’s new employer did all the heavy lifting, arranging for her visa, shipping her furniture and matching her with a broker.
Grounding her to the city, King found a tenth-floor one-bedroom apartment in Nolita with an open-sky view of the Puck Building, an 1885 landmark that has housed several printing companies and made appearances in pop culture, including regularly on the television show “Will and Grace.” (“New York is my roommate,” King says of her view.) While the vintage-loving King wasn’t crazy about the “cookie cutter” exterior of her new dwelling, she instantly felt settled in the apartment — partly because she’d brought a host of meaningful objects from her life in Australia. One such item, a dresser paper mached with fashion shots from Australian Vogue, had belonged to an employee of King’s mother, who worked in fashion. When the young King visited this family friend’s house, she would admire the dresser, covered with images of late ‘70s/early ‘80s models. “I thought it was the height of glamour,” she says of the dresser, which her family friend eventually gave her.
Early on, King bumped up against that old New York cliché: there’s always someone more beautiful, more successful, wealthier, someone doing something more interesting. Maintaining a healthy self-esteem became very important for King, who found a good local therapist and got rooted into her yoga practice. As she puts it, “When I arrived, I felt like I could go one of two ways: I could get more invested in my problems or get more invested in solutions.”
As a result, she views her dwelling as a spiritual space, one that’s provided the container for her triumphs as well as losses, including leaving her job in 2006 (due to dissatisfaction with the corporate world and the distance it creates from the consumer).
Following her stint at Estee Lauder, King spent a year writing Lessons, a book that’s part-memoir and part-how-to manual. “I adored the year of working on my book,” King says. “I spent a lot of time staring out the window and writing.”
Even when she is woken in the middle of the night, King is excited to be in her place, listening to the ambient, urban landscape just ten stories below. “Sometimes, I hang out the window and see who’s walking by at three a.m.” she says. “I can feel the life outside, but still have my sanctuary at the same time.”
The year after she completed her book, King launched a new brand, Lipstick Queen. Now, her apartment is both live and work space, but that may change. As attached as she is to the apartment, after all the transitions she’s been through in this space, she is ready to start a new chapter by finding a new residence. She’ll likely stay downtown. In the ten years she’s lived here, she can count the number of times she’s gone out to dinner on the Upper East Side: three.
“I live my life in such a small area, a radius of ten blocks each way,” King says reflectively. “Everything, my whole life happens in such a small space from a physical sense, but in a psychological sense it’s much bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced.”
* * *
Name: Steve Anthony, 49
Occupation: Programmer, Storyteller, Recovering Banker
Neighborhood: Lower East Side
Item to Save in a Fire: Unused $100 gift certificate from Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, unredeemed since 2002.
Growing up, the bulk of Steve Anthony’s knowledge of Manhattan came from watching Kojak, the gritty mid-‘70s TV show in which Telly Savalas’s detective character braved the city’s dangerous streets, defusing bombs and uncovering bodies in the back of Rolls Royces, all while sucking on lollipops and throwing around his signature line, “Who loves ya, baby?” The crime-ridden New York City depicted on television wasn’t exactly appealing to a kid in a quiet Illinois suburb. “I had nightmares about it,” says Anthony, who certainly never saw himself living here.
Anthony’s hometown was more Caddyshack than Kojak. Oddly similar to Caddyshack, actually. During high school, he caddied at Indian Hill, the country club that inspired the eighties film, and then — just like Danny, the main character — Anthony, who wasn’t from a “college family,” won a scholarship to Northwestern, marking the beginning of the end of his life in the ‘burbs.
The lanky, brainy and occasionally scattered Anthony always planned to settle in the Chicago area after school, but his rapid career trajectory had other plans. By 1988, at age twenty-five, he had completed a doctorate in mathematical economics at Harvard and landed an interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the position of ‘Economist B.’ While Anthony had spent a previous summer in Manhattan, as an intern at General Motors, the tension of this particular visit was high. Taking a taxi to the Fed’s Financial District offices, Anthony felt utter stress as he watched the cab fare rising quickly. “Ever notice how the meter is always running in this city?” he recalls. “It wasn’t a place I felt I could ever really plant myself.”
But the job was too good to turn down, and by twenty-seven he was the Fed’s youngest department head, even spending a day with then-Chairman Alan Greenspan, an unusual opportunity for such a young employee. His first apartment — a fully-functioning SRO in the East Village, save for Anthony’s garden apartment, which had its own bathroom — wasn’t exactly a Wall Street tower of power, but he recalls it fondly. The SRO also had a backyard space, perfect for hosting parties, including one where he met the woman who would eventually become his fiancée. (Among his other memorable moments is the afternoon when, while digging to plant roses in the backyard, he came across hundreds of cat graves. “I tried to put boards over it to fill it,” he says. “But I couldn’t get enough dirt.”)
Anthony left the SRO for a rent-controlled place on 38th Street, which he ended up handing over to a friend after he landed a second rent-controlled spot on the Upper West Side. But things went awry in his friend’s apartment; while showering one day, a large piece of glass from the shower door fell and hit her on the head, breaking in two. She sued the building, and Anthony, feeling guilty for having sublet the substandard spot to her illegally, helped her move out. That experienced bonded them; soon they were dating, and not long after, engaged.
Hoping to gain private sector experience (“I had a five-year plan for greatness,” Anthony recalls) he transitioned to a job at JP Morgan, where he learned he didn’t like banking much. He found the company “overstaffed and pointless,” and took a side gig in a biology lab, just for fun. He began looking for a way out of banking. One of his coworkers, a hotshot named Kevin, told him about a woodworking business based out of Hawaii, run by Kevin’s father. Anthony trusted Kevin, perhaps a little too much. After Anthony made a few short jaunts to Hawaii and invested some money, Kevin’s father took off with everything, leaving him $700,000 in debt.
Now in a financial mess, Anthony took a job with Vanguard Mutual Fund, located in Philadelphia. His new boss, eager to keep him around, kept trying to set him up on dates with local women — an ineffective strategy, since Anthony was still dating his fiancée in New York, whom he traveled to see every weekend. (“I don’t think I ever woke up on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia,” he says.) The engagement didn’t last, but surprising himself, his attachment to New York did.
In 2005, after six years at Vanguard, Anthony’s debts were finally paid. He moved back to New York, where he found a basement apartment on West 22nd Street, formerly the building’s laundry room, with a wraparound moat-like courtyard — again, large enough to throw social gatherings. By now, Anthony’s linear life planning had given way to his more adventurous side. He started working in computer programming, creating artificial intelligence programs, which he still does. He also began competing in storytelling slams, telling humorous, first-person tales in front of live audiences at the Moth—and winning, a lot.
He soon traded up to a three-thousand-square-foot loft in Union Square, where he hosted after-parties for storytellers, stringing up paper lanterns on the roof and serving home-cooked food. Despite being the perennial host, Anthony never truly felt at home in the Union Square pad, mostly because it was just too big.
When it comes to his aesthetic, Anthony is a fan of the “Charlie Brown Christmas tree,” meaning places that have “some great romantic element that other people don’t necessarily see.” He often aims for faded beauty, buying furniture from second-hand shops and flea markets.
Four months ago he moved into a one-bedroom loft on the Lower East Side, close to Chinatown. His landlords are artists who bought the building for $20,000 in the 1970s. This space has been an art gallery, a synagogue and a Vaudeville theater. As a veteran mover, he’s well aware of how much his life in the city changes based on his neighborhood. In Union Square, he cooked a lot. But now he eats out more frequently because the food options, including lots of Cantonese seafood restaurants, are copious. But more notably — six New York apartments, three careers, one broken engagement, one disastrous investment and one aborted stint in Philadelphia later, the caddie from Illinois finally feels at home in New York.
“We’re spoiled here,” he says, referring to the wealth of cultural opportunities and the overall “energy.” And, he adds, “Someone has to say this: the women are a lot more interesting here than elsewhere.”
* * *
Name: Ted Riederer, 42
Occupation: Art handler, artist, founder of Never Records — part love letter to record stores and part-art installation; www.secretshape.com.
Neighborhood: Long Island City, Queens
Item to save in a fire: An acrylic seascape with sharks in the foreground, painted by his grandfather in the early to mid-seventies. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘You’ll never be as good a painter as your grandfather,’” Riederer recalls. “I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but now, I love this painting.”
Technically speaking, Ted Riederer is not a New York City transplant. He grew up in Rockville, Maryland, but was born at St. Vincent’s and spent the first three years of his life in Manhattan with his parents and older sister. His father, a first-generation American born to German parents, was raised here, save for a handful of years in rural Germany during World War II. (Unable to find work here, his grandfather took the family back to his native country on what was supposed to be an extended vacation, but turned into a much longer trip.) The younger Riederer grew up visiting his father’s family in Long Island City, where his grandfather would pace the sidewalk waiting for his son’s family to arrive, a tradition Riederer’s own father continues to this day. Years before he finally decided to make his leap to the Big Apple at the age of thirty-four, Riederer would often say, “New York is home.
Riederer took a circuitous route to return to his roots. During the summer of ’86, when he was sixteen and his mother had been in the hospital for a year, he spent a summer here with his grandmother while attending a program at Parsons School of Art. Seeing the disruptive effect his mother’s absence had on him, his teachers had pooled their money together and invented a “scholarship” to send him to the city.
He remembers bringing his grandmother fresh bread from a bakery around the corner, and, on occasion, picking up flowers, too. His Uncle Alfred was also living in the family brownstone, and Riederer remembers sneaking into the living room and playfully pedaling backwards on Alfred’s stationary bike to change the number on the odometer.
Despite these ties, after graduating from high school, Riederer enrolled as a freshman at Tufts University and ended up weaving a strong network in Boston, with friends he met through music, art and his job as a bike courier, which sometimes required riding as many as thirty miles a day. During evenings Riederer would head to his band’s studio, located in a desolate area of Boston, sidestepping the “parking lot calamari” (leftover condoms from industrious prostitutes), to reach their second-floor studio. On weekends, he worked on his oil paintings, including a series of pop culture figures as religious icons, i.e. Don Knotts as San Sebastian. With sixteen years under his belt as a near-Bostonian, Riederer says, “I was ensconced in my life there.”
His then-girlfriend of four years, however, wasn’t. Eager to leave Boston, she started talking about living somewhere else. (When asked why he moved, Riederer says, “Basically, my girlfriend gave me an ultimatum.”)
Since Riederer had previously felt the siren call to New York, the pair agreed to move to the tri-state area. “I’d reached a point where I couldn’t deny the fact that I wanted to be a visual artist, and this city was the place to come,” he says.
Riederer’s girlfriend moved a year early to start her graduate program, while he stayed behind in Boston to apply to art schools. Though they tried to see one another every two or three weeks, less than a month before his scheduled move, in August 2004, he says of their relationship, “That thing blew up completely.”
Nevertheless, Riederer stayed true to his plan. “I packed all my shit in my rock-and-roll van and moved to New York City, completely heartbroken.”
He calls his first year, enrolled as an M.F.A. candidate at the School of Visual Arts, “the most amazing dark and light year I’ve ever had. I painted seventy hours a week. I painted myself cross-eyed.”
His first apartment was a share with a set dresser in Greenpoint. “We had machine-age furniture,” he recalls of the space, which he loved, despite its proximity to a schoolyard, where rambunctious kids started making noise as early as 7:30 a.m. “Even when I went to bed at 5:00 a.m.…”
His landlords, an older Polish couple, had just lost their son in a car accident and would often have him over for dinner. “The fact that I was a young man filled a void in their lives,” he explains. “That was the most loving place I ever lived.”
One year later, Riederer had recently finished helping his uncle Alfred refurbish the family brownstone, turning it from the single-family Alfred had lived in for years, into a rental-ready duplex, when he received an unexpected phone call from his father.
“I want you to live there,” his father said of the apartment, located just one block from MoMA P.S.1 in Queens.
Riederer had painted the walls and sanded every inch of the ceilings, thinking that “some lawyer would be moving in.” (The market rate for the two-story apartment, with a garden and high ceilings, exceeded his artist’s budget.) When his father said, “I’ll do whatever I can to get you in there,” Riederer held the phone away from his ear. I must be hearing things.
After his father agreed to put his share of the rent from one of their other buildings towards the family home, Riederer returned to his ancestral roots, relics of which are scattered throughout the apartment. The coffee table in the living room, for example, is the trunk his grandmother used to ship her belongings when they moved back to New York after the war in 1951.
Riederer found a black-and-white graduation photo of Alfred’s class, from when he attended P.S. 1, and immediately hung it by the front door.
“On my way to my art studio, I pass by PS1 (the art museum that now resides in the former public school),” says Riederer, and I think of my uncle’s short walk to school. This helped my feel instantly rooted in Long Island City.”
Aware of his good fortune, he says, “We were an immigrant family who moved to the only neighborhood they could afford, back in the early 1950s. They worked their asses off for decades, and now the next generation needs a refuge to make art and can really enjoy being here. You don’t hear about that very much. Most people are trying to move away from their roots.”
While Riederer uncovered a deeply personal sense of home in his physical dwelling, the city itself took more time. “It’s a very unforgiving place,” says. “There is a simultaneity of warmth and coldness here, because things turn over so rapidly.”
Nonetheless, Riederer forged friendships with his grad school colleagues and other art pals, helping found the Art Handling Olympics, a community event for the folks who haul art for gallery shows, and contributing to the underground Antagonist Art movement, a group that used to run a weekly night at Niagara, an East Village bar.
His community has grown larger since the 2010 launch of Never Records, an art exhibit held in the vacant Tower Records Building on Broadway and 4th Street, with more than forty artists and musicians. Riederer invites musicians to perform on site, records their sets and cuts them onto vinyl, giving one copy to the artists and keeping one record for his archives.
Since its inception, Riederer has traveled with the project to Derry, Ireland, Liverpool, London, Lisbon and most recently, New Orleans. His global travel makes his home, which he shares with his girlfriend Rose, and a roommate, all the sweeter.
When he’s in town, he sweeps his stoop only occasionally, as compared to his elderly neighbors, who perform the duty with an almost religious regularity. Riederer still likes that when he’s out there with the broom, the old German lady from down the block always comes by to chat. “It seems really natural that I am here,” he reflects. “Come on. I’ve been coming here for forty-two years.”
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Name: Sheba Remy Kharbanda, 34
Occupation: Documentary filmmaker; astrologer and healer; www.shebaremy.com
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
Item to save in a fire: Daybed, one of the first pieces of furniture that Kharbanda bought, because it’s a favorite of her houseguests.
When Sheba Remy Kharbanda was twenty-three years old, she found herself unexpectedly contemplating a transatlantic move to New York City, the last place the Londoner ever thought she’d live. The reason for her change of heart? Well, this is where Charlie Moss, her soon-to-be husband and a committed New Yorker, lived. After a mutual pal had introduced the two in Cuba in 2000, Moss, a Rome, Georgia native, had doggedly pursued Kharbanda, eventually convincing her to meet him in Spain for New Year’s. Within months, the two realized they wanted to be together, a decision that took precedence over other factors, such as where they would live. After they decided to get married, Kharbanda said, “Well, I fucking hate New York, but let’s give it a go.”
The question of feeling “at home” is a serious one for Kharbanda, who’d always known London as an anchor, but not necessarily the place she’d stay forever, despite having been born and raised there. In contrast, her mother, who had been born in India, always had a strong conviction that London was her permanent home, and Kharbanda, for her part, envied her mother’s certainty. “That generation is so sure in a way that mine isn’t,” Kharbanda says.
Her first job in New York brought her into contact with other New York transplants, who, like her mother, had no qualms about where they belonged. Employed by Amnesty International USA, Kharbanda was responsible for monitoring U.S. government action in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. She interviewed post-9/11 detainees in jails and listened to stories from friends and family members of people who’d been caught up in immigration sweeps. From other immigrants, people who had built homes and invested time in this country but faced the prospect of deportation, she heard again and again, “But this is our home…”
“I wished I could have that kind of confidence about where I belonged,” Kharbanda says.
During that initial period, when she felt increasingly out of place, the sensitive Kharbanda began sensing her grandparents’ ghosts around her, especially in the fraught aftermath of 9/11, a time when some South Asians in New York were distancing themselves from the Muslim community.
Both sets of her grandparents had been uprooted from their respective homes during the Partition of 1947. “Seeing South Asians distancing themselves from each other, adopting American symbols as protective measures, and reflecting on how different it is for our community in the UK had me reflecting on the loss of home and center my grandparents, and I guess my parents, too, must have experienced,” she says.
Her mother’s parents had moved from Pakistan to India; her father’s from Afghanistan to India. Her maternal grandfather wandered the globe looking for a new home, spending time in Chile as a farm laborer, before moving to England. Her maternal grandmother, for whom the displacement had taken a physical and emotional toll, died at the age of fifty “of a broken heart.”
“They stayed unsettled their whole lives,” says Kharbanda.
It wasn’t until two years later, during the blackout of 2003, that Kharbanda finally found what she’d been looking for in New York: a sense of community. “All of a sudden, everyone thought it was 9/11 all over again,” remembers Kharbanda, but when people realized that the blackout wasn’t terrorist-related, she sensed a collective sigh of relief on the streets. On Eighth Avenue, people barbequed, offering food and bottles of water to passersby. “Then I saw New Yorkers,” she says.
Kharbanda remembers going into her apartment that night, after walking home in a “sea of humanity” to Red Hook, lighting candles and “laughing my ass off” that this crisis was the key to her warming to New York City. She recalls thinking, “If this is New York, this is a place I want to belong to, where people say ‘We’re not dying? Alright, let’s party like we are.’”
In 2006, Kharbanda and Moss, who run a film company together, began looking to buy a home large enough to include an office for their newly established business. Two years later, they laid eyes on a three-story building on a side street in Cobble Hill. The asking price was too high, though. Although it needed a lot of work, Kharbanda remembers thinking, Wow, whoever gets this space is going to be so happy. This is a home.
Six months later, Kharbanda and Moss were still on the hunt, when a friend suggested they make a modest offer on the dream house. “We low-balled them,” says Kharbanda, who soon took off to London to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. When she was walking through the British Museum with her brother, Moss called and asked what she wanted for her birthday. “I want a fucking house,” she cracked. When Moss told her the owner had accepted their offer, she started shrieking.
Kharbanda and Moss experienced their fair share of bumps when they began renovations: unannounced inspections; issues with the contractors; never-ending piles of sawdust. Other obstacles included a mortgage that fell through at the last minute. Kharbanda saw these challenges as a test. “For two wanderers to commit to home-owning, it was like we were being asked, How bad do you want this?
After returning from a trip to Georgia in 2009, the pair expected the space to be ready. The consummate hosts had even planned a party to inaugurate the home. But when they walked in, they saw that the construction wasn’t finished. Fed up, Kharbanda and Moss cleared the basement, strung up lights and cued up the salsa music. The party would go on.
Fast forward three months. Just before New Year’s Eve, Kharbanda and Moss returned home from another trip to Mexico City, only this time the house was quiet, no construction materials, no unfinished work. Instead of feting it as the fun-loving pair normally might, they lit some candles and cooked a low-key dinner in their new kitchen. After two years, their house was complete. Finally.
As she’s settled into her external space, Kharbanda has also become more at home with her metaphysical talents. Though the former law student is shy about this facet of her personality, she says her healing work calls to her more urgently now that she’s in a space conducive to it. “There’s a powerful energy in this building,” she notes.
She holds healing circles in their house to coincide with cosmological events, such as new and full moons, and also performs astrological and tarot readings. Though her office is in the basement, she gravitates toward the open living room and airy kitchen, the latter of which has a greenhouse-like glass ceiling. At night, Kharbanda and Moss can see the moon and stars from the comfort of their rustic kitchen table.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Kharbanda’s take on New York City has a distinct correlation to her metaphysical work.
“New York can’t expand,” she says. “Where are we going to go? Instead, the city is constantly transforming from within.”
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Suzanne Guilette is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, 2009) which chronicles the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories on New York City streets.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.
Sophie Butcher is a freelance writer, photojournalist, illustrator and designer who lives in Brooklyn. She has exhibited work in The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York, among other places. She is currently working in the photo department at TIME Magazine.