NY, I Love You. But Not For the Reasons You Think.

A story about community.

Photo by the amazingly talented Tory Willams.

I moved to New York in 2009. If you’d asked me what community meant to me then, I’d likely have mentioned the wine shop that was a stone’s throw from my apartment. In a sea of new experiences, new people, new smells, that wine shop made me feel welcome. They knew what wines I liked (easy reds), my price point (under $10, please), and that the bottle I picked was in no way a pairing, but instead a way to wash down Trader Joe’s microwave meals. While I certainly wasn’t alone in New York — I had a boyfriend, a sprinkle of friends who’d made the same post-college pilgrimage from D.C. to NY, even family in and outside the city — the city was alien to me, as were the people in it. And the truth was: I didn’t have a community.

Over the years, my network ebbed and flowed, but progressively grew. Part of New York’s magic is the diverse and uninhibited people it attracts. And despite the city’s reputation for being unwelcoming and cold, there are hundreds of people eager to open their arms to you — all you have to do is pull yourself out of that New Yorker mindset and say hello. But even so, New York never felt like home. And my network, no matter how much it grew, felt like just that: a network. Despite living in the city for several years, and in several neighborhoods, I always felt like a visitor.

As I look back and reflect on why, I realize that the things that make New York so special are also the things that make it feel alienating. Despite being a year away from becoming a true New Yorker, I still get that ‘little girl in the big city’ feeling when I get off the subway and stare helplessly in all directions, never quite sure which way to go. It takes a special place to provide so many experiences and sensations that you’re always just the slightest bit disoriented. There’s always something new to discover, taste, try… No craving is left unsatisfied if you have the appetite to search for the solution.

And you’re really and truly never alone. Friends hop in and out of your life, but no matter how many leave, new ones — and amazing ones at that — are just around the bend. While incredible, it’s also incredibly overwhelming. And the sheer amount of everything makes you feel like you don’t have, and haven’t done, and aren’t connected to anything.

But then things changed — my perspective did, at least.

It all started with Brooklyn

I’ve moved seven times since being in New York. No matter the neighborhood — UES, LES, Soho, West Village — they all felt the same. Sure, the scenery was different, as were the groups of people each neighborhood attracted, but everyone around me was a stranger. The most interaction I had with people who lived in my building were occasional half-hearted smiles and not-so subtle taps on the wall reminding them that New York is actually a city that sleeps — at least for some. I couldn’t tell you their names, they couldn’t tell you mine.

I’ve whizzed by millions at this point. We all have a story, we all have names, but we rarely stop to share it with each other — let alone share a smile.

Then I moved to Clinton Hill.

I’ll never forget the sensation I felt the first time the owner of a local coffee shop greeted me in the morning with my very own name (R.I.P. Tilda). He asked how I was. He asked how my friend who’d recently moved to Sweden was. It startled me. You SEE me. You KNOW me!

I’ll never forget the day I was walking my dog with my husband and we heard our names being shouted from across the street. We looked over and one of the children who lives upstairs was waving emphatically. She came over with her friend and introduced us to her friend’s new puppy. “Bye Dom and Tara,” she said as we continued on. She too, knew my name.

We hadn’t even turned the corner when we were confronted with another familiar face and sound, “Rawwwr!” Our friend’s son stopped and smiled at us, proudly rocking his T-rex T-shirt and demonstrating his T-rex sounds. His mom followed, her pregnant belly about to burst. She introduced us to another cohort of children who gave us high fives before dashing down to the street.

These instances changed from moments of shock (how do you know my name?!) and coincidence (you live here too?!) to daily life. Every time we walk around our neighborhood, we run into friends, acquaintances, dogs, restaurant and coffee shop owners. We don’t always say hi, and we don’t know all of their names, but we always exchange a smile that says it all: I recognize you, I know you, it’s nice to see you.

Brooklyn made me feel visible. It made me feel like a part of something. It made me feel like I was home. It’s here that I started to find community.

And then I made some Friends

When I decided to go freelance, I vowed to only work with people that shared my values. It meant that I spent a lot of time saying no to lucrative projects, festering in self-doubt, and re-thinking my entire existence, but it also led me to Friends Work Here.

Friends, in the simplest terms, is a coworking space for creatives. I had unsuccessfully been looking for an opportunity that married my love for operations with my desire to help people when Friends came on my radar. They needed a studio manager — someone who managed the day-to-day operations of the space while also making it feel like home, encouraging community and creativity, and being the fabric that holds it all together. (No pressure.)

When I met Tina, the founder, we were fast friends. I was instantly attracted to and amazed by her affinity for generosity, creativity, and empowering those around her. I’d never met anyone like her — I’d never met a leader like her.

Though I was partially terrified by the prospect of tapping into this close-knit crew and being responsible for their happiness and well-being (at least for part of the day), I dove in headfirst. It’s one of the best risks I’ve ever taken.

The professional world I’d been exposed to previously was indicative of stereotypical New York: work hard, play hard, work fast, work a lot, focus on you, protect you. Friends, and the people who work there, are the opposite. Everyone empowers each other, everyone is kind to one another, everyone encourages each other to try new things and tap into new, creative parts of themselves. At Friends, you work with each other, not against each other. You stop your day to talk to each other — about work and life. You give feedback and criticism, but in a way that’s uplifting and inspiring. You provide the support that’s needed to make the hard decisions. It is a family. It became my family.

“It’s not going to be the same without you,” they said when I told them I was moving to London. What I wanted to say back is that I’m not going to be the same without you.

In a city that encourages — demands, even — self-reliance, Friends was a place that taught me how to be vulnerable. I shared intimate details about my life, asked for help, took chances, experimented with side projects, fired my first client, took on the daunting task of not killing plants…

And that’s when I learned something else about community. It turns out, community isn’t just the people around you, and the people who are caring for and supporting you. It’s what those people do to you — what they teach you, how they push you to grow. It’s the people who dare you to be the best version of yourself and encourage you to dig deep, find that person, and be brave enough to showcase that person.

As I continue to say goodbye to this wonderul place and the wonderful people in it, I continue to realize how much I’m going to miss it. I thought leaving New York wouldn’t be difficult, and I’ve always prided myself on being someone who doesn’t hold onto the past, but New York has been a truly magical experience for me — thanks to community — and truth be told, leaving makes me sad.

But the best part is: once you find community, truly find it, you know where to look for it.

Written at Writeshop Wednesday.