For starters, I don’t live in Midtown or the West Village. Although I do end up wandering around there for most of my weekends, I don’t have the same local experience and connection someone who does live there could have. In many ways, I’ve only seen and experienced these neighborhoods as what urban developers have sold them as; Midtown as an epicenter of business and the West Village as a safe haven for New York City’s wealthy artists. As a result, I can easily go shopping in Columbus Circle and then wait for a friend at a local cafe in the West Village for some good conversation. However, I can’t ignore the fact that I am a young woman who lives in Washington Heights when I’m in these neighborhoods because that is the source of most of my discomfort. In Washington Heights, there are spheres of privilege of course, but there are also the bodega owners who’ve known my family since I was born and the Spanish music coming from the giant stereos inside passing by cars. When I’m downtown, I don’t have a relationship with the locally owned cafe owners or the familiarity of seeing the same strangers every morning. Instead, I see lines of people outside of Trump Towers as they wait to take pictures with highly militarized security guards. On other days, white artists carry bags of oil paints as they walk cooly towards their loft on Christopher Street. Going downtown is always filled with experiences of disillusionment and fascination because I witness the effects these neighborhoods have on different audiences while becoming even more curious to understand the systems in power that are allowing this to happen.
As my final project for Urban Studies, I am interested in the real life stories and experiences of the audiences who occupy spaces that may or may not be designed for them. From Highbridge Park on 191st street to Grounded Coffeehouse on Jane Street, I spoke to different locals about their relationship to the space and its changes over the years.Through these blog posts, I have collected my observations of each space because they all are important to my ever evolving definition of a safe space and what that constitutes. Lastly, this project forced me to understand the reasoning behind my personal relationships with specific spaces and how those conclusions aren’t coincidental. It’s not an accident that a privately owned public space in the middle of Midtown Manhattan made me feel so rigid. In many ways, the intention of creating a space for business people in Midtown already set boundaries for other audiences (including myself) to feel welcomed and comfortable there. The intentions, cycles, or systems in power that actively decide which spaces are for which audiences framed most of my immediate questions in this project. I sought out the experience just to cultivate my truth and expose it for what it is. Will you?
I knew I was going to love Grounded Tea and Coffee House the moment I entered. Once the door closed behind me, I had completely forgotten there was a world outside where ambulance sirens screamed across the street and the wind thrusted the weak winter trees into a dance. There was just the bustling noise of conversation, smoothie blenders, and the clank of glass cups into the plastic tray for clean up. I spent some time trying to figure out what was I going to order because I knew I could talk to anyone here for a while. Everyone seemed to be caught in conversation or work, but it all felt very human to me. The intimate process of texting someone to meet at Grounded, ordering some coffee together, finding a table for two, and catching up on life seemed like something that happened here often. And I loved that.
After ordering something small to eat I noticed there was an empty seat across a blonde woman repeating several vindictive sentences to herself from her Macbook screen. Her eyebrows furrowed and her blue eyes slightly squinted as she added even more emotion to the words she whispered. Although it seemed like she was trying too hard to seem vengeful and angry, I admired her for it. Maybe her next audition would show everyone, including herself, she is tired of being typecast as one of the good girls in frilly pink dresses and always a secondary character. Maybe this was her big break. Maybe this was one step closer to Hollywood. I decided to not speak to her about how did she wound up in a busy cafe on a Sunday afternoon because I didn’t want her to break character. I turned my attention instead to the two good friends sitting beside us who spoke passionately to each other about how the downfall of most of their Tinder dates have been due to the stigma of polyamory. “Ugh monogamy… it’s dooming us all,” one of the men said in frustration and his friend nodded his head rapidly— finally someone understands the struggle. I found this conversation somehow perfectly aligned with my own expectations of what cafes in the West Village are like and the type of conversations that happen here. Alternatively, I could even see myself coming here when I’m older and my friend had just come back from a terrible Tinder date because of everyone’s growing obsession with polyamory, “where’s the loyalty?!” he’ll cry out in frustration and all I would be able to do is nod rapidly in agreement.
Later on, my toasted bagel with cream cheese came, and the blonde actress left shortly afterwards. As she began standing up and packing up her Macbook, an old man wearing a red North Face jacket and carrying a large leather case with gold studs pointed to her seat. I nodded my head, which meant to this old man I would save her seat for him. Once he sat down in front of me, one of the men sitting next to me said, “Hey Tom, you still carrying the rifle?” he joked and pointed to the leather case. This old man, Tom, specified which gun it was and insisted it wasn’t “just a rifle.” I smiled at both of them and felt like this was going to be the start of an interesting conversation with Tom.
I forgot how the conversation began but I remember Tom saying early on that he and his friend built this cafe 11 years ago. At the time Tom was the superintendent of the building next door and a handyman at several other cafes. He knew the manager, jen, personally and she wanted to start this cafe with her brother specifically in the West Village. Some of his specifics of how the cafe started were confusing because he talked alot about jen’s drama with Anita, the previous superintendent of the building above the Grounded Cafe. “Anita wouldn’t let Jen get the property rights because she was worried Jen would be more successful. ” he explained and continued to emphasize the ways these two good friends fell apart. Later on, he spoke about why Chelsea is now called the Meatpacking district which brought in many tourists. I asked him if he’s seen any changes in Chelsea or West Village, and he laughed sarcastically. “Of course I have.” he argued and spoke about how every tourist thinks like rich Americans. To him, they selfishly crowd the streets and this cafe in the afternoons. “Because so much money and tourists are coming to the West Village, the neighborhood is beautiful now” he said. A part of me agreed with him, but on the other hand he West Village’s “beauty” came at the expense of losing something meaningful that cannot be replicated with several million dollars. Maybe it’s a genuine community, the familiarity among residents, or just the comfort in knowing one has a place to stay for a few years.
He spoke about how his favorite place in the world is Paros, Greece and how a corn beef sandwich served by an Italian man in Washington Heights was the best thing he’s ever eaten while he worked at New York Presbyterian off 166th street. He grew up in East New York and thought I had a very pretty name. He encouraged me to get in contact with Jen and to ask to put up my paintings in the cafe because he knows Jen would love them. His last words to me were “enjoy yourself, life’s too short.” I watched this 73 year old man named Tom who carries a rifle everywhere walk through the cafe door and on his way home.
Once he left, I stayed in the cafe for a bit and observed my surroundings one more time. This place seemed surreal and like a safe haven; the only times I knew there was anything going on outside were when people came in and the door closed behind them as a cold breeze hit my back. The space was intimate which blurred many lines between public and private spaces for me. Private spaces always have unspoken and followed rules, while the rules of public spaces are cultivated by the public’s use of the space. The intimacy in Grounded Organic Tea and Coffee House allowed for the public to occupy the space freely, and somehow, intersubjectivity was an unspoken rule. Maybe it had to do with the fact West Village is the home to so many artists and this cafe looks like it belongs in a Basquiat documentary when he first started out. The ownership also didn’t feel like an abstract corporation or government funded place, instead it was just two siblings who I could’ve bumped into anywhere in the streets of West Village. What could be the challenges of being a locally owned business in a neighborhood like West Village? An increasingly higher rent could threaten the cafe but the act of losing the public dialogue this cafe fosters would anger the cafe owners, and the cafe’s audience. I left the cafe with some gratitude for Tom with the rifle and some uncertainty of how long will cafes like these exist in downtown Manhattan.