Starting over in New York City wasn’t easy. My first couple of years were a serious education. I eventually found my groove. Here’s my story….
At 25, I was experiencing a quarter life crisis. I had moved back home to Northwestern Pennsylvania two years earlier when I finished graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. I was mentally exhausted, needed to figure things out, and wanted to be closer to my college boyfriend.
I welcomed the change to small town life at first. I got a nice job working at a local pottery store and watched more TV than I had in years. Every weekend, I drove an hour to see my boyfriend. The situation was never meant to be permanent, though, just a recovery period. But as the two-year mark ticked by, I became overwhelmed with a terrifying feeling that this was how my life was to be. By this time, my relationship was hanging by a thread. Home had become tense as my parents sensed my mounting frustration. I was miserable, stuck, and without direction.
A strange happiness hit when my boyfriend and I broke up. I realized that our relationship was the only thing holding me back. So when my friend, Lisa, suggested that I take a post-breakup trip to visit her in NYC, I jumped at the offer. I’m so glad I did.
She was the best host and took me to her favorite restaurants and bars where we drank until closing. After just a few hours of sleep, we were up and heading to the Neue Galerie. There was a stirring energy in the city morning through night. I was hooked, and upon proclaiming my love of NYC for the 153rd time, Lisa said, “Just move here. You can stay with me until you get situated.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
“I’m thinking of moving to New York City. I’ve always dreamed of living there and will regret not giving it a shot” was how I greeted my parents the morning after I got back. They were incredibly supportive. My mother grew up an hour outside of NYC and went to the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was thrilled to have a reason to visit the city that inspired her as a young woman. Three months later, my dad drove me in a car jam-packed with my most-needed possessions. I’ll never forget the good-luck kiss he gave me on the forehead before leaving.
With an unknown future came my chance to start over. Finding where to take the first step was difficult, though. Despite having no work prospects, I had strong professional ambitions and was bound and determined to put my art history degree to use at a gallery or museum.
With no home Internet access, I spent most afternoons at the library scrolling Craigslist and NYFA for any entry-level job in the arts that I could find. When I wasn’t applying to jobs, I explored mostly by foot, the best way in my opinion. Getting lost in the West Village wasn’t so daunting once I found a cozy café to gather my bearings over coffee and a croissant. Not being able to find the NY Times reviewed gallery exhibition was perfectly fine because I could just pop in another gallery with amazing work on the walls. A long wait to get into a restaurant just meant walking a block to the next spot. More than any other city, NYC is a good place to be when your original plans fall through.
The New York art world wasn’t beating at my door with job offers, to say the least. I ended up getting a paid internship at a Chelsea gallery specializing in media art and volunteering at the Whitney Museum on weekends – both fall under the right category. Obviously, this wasn’t enough to make ends meet, so I picked up any odd job that came my way.
One side gig deserves special mention. Every Sunday, I sold organic dog food out of a cart next to Pastis (the former Meatpacking District hotspot) with occasional shifts at the dog run in Union Square during the week. The products were made with human grade ingredients. Thus pets and owners could share. I wasn’t a great salesperson, but the cart drew a lot of curious passersby. For someone who loves to people- watch, the vendor locations couldn’t have been better. Admittedly, I fangirled when Parker Posey, Edie Falco, and Kirsten Dunst stopped by, not together, though.
Looking back, many of those first experiences are comparable to Andy’s story in The Devil Wears Prada. There were friendly, helpful people along the way, and each situation, good or bad, taught me something valuable about life in New York and myself. Here’s what I learned.
1. Be open and flexible. Rigid, one-way thinking doesn’t get you far in this town. It’s good to know what you want. But chances are, that dream job you came for has already been taken by someone with better connections, experience, or qualifications. When it comes to your professional and life goals, be open and flexible. You’ll be more receptive to side doors that could unlock new and rewarding opportunities.
2. Take advantage of all the free things to do and see. Get off the computer and spend a weekend afternoon walking through Central Park. It will cost you absolutely nothing to tour the art galleries in Chelsea. And many cultural institutions like the Guggenheim, MET, Museum of Modern Art, and Brooklyn Museum have free admission or pay what you wish on select days.
3. Tell people what you are doing and what you want to be doing. Sharing with others what you are doing and plans for the future is a great way to meet like-minded people. They may have valuable advice to offer or the necessary connections to help you make the next move. And don’t forget to show interest in what they are doing as well.
4. Offer help and support when you can. Take a friend who is going through a rough patch for coffee. Give up a Saturday and help a neighbor move. Put in a good word for someone who is looking for a job at work. Helping others not only makes you feel good but also makes people more willing to lend a hand when your time comes.
5. Don’t burn bridges. You’d be surprised what a small town New York City really is. Crossing paths with a former boss or coworker is guaranteed, try to leave any professional situations on good terms.
6. Invest in meaningful relationships. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and fast-paced life of New York City. When faced with the heavy demands of work and life, friendships are often put on the back burner. Unhappiness and burnout are inevitable. Make an effort to meet up with friends and surround yourself with positive people who inspire you. Having an inner circle you trust and can turn to during hard times is key to survival here.
7. It’s OK to start over. One of the best things about starting over in New York City is its abundance of opportunity. Without a doubt, what you want when you first arrive will change. When one door shuts, another one is opening. But to realize opportunity, you must be observant and willing to adapt and start over if necessary.
I’ve been living in New York City for ten years. The magic has faded somewhat, and I’ve misplaced my rose-colored glasses many, many times. Yet, I still consider NYC a Neverland for grownups, a place where rules and limitations don’t apply to work and play. Going freelance as a writer and art consultant three years ago was the best decision I’ve ever made. There are so many creative and inspiring people here that I hope to meet and work with some day. I’m staying put for now.
Would you ever consider starting over in New York City? Although it’s far from easy, thousands of people do it every year.
Also, if you’re moving to New York, here’s where to look for your first apartment, and how to navigate the city once you’re here. And don’t forget to get your ducks in a row before you try to rent an apartment. If you can afford it, living alone is the way to go for a lot of people.