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Anywhere but Home: New Yorkers Get Creative About Work Spaces

Anywhere but Home: New Yorkers Get Creative About Work Spaces

The need for privacy has driven some people to rent hotel rooms, vacant apartments, and empty offices.
Monday, 26 October, 2020 - 12:30
A temporarily vacant apartment nearby became a makeshift photo studio for Luciana Golcman | Photo: Kaya Laterman

In March, Kimberly Brown, a meditation teacher from Jackson Heights, Queens, was writing a book and regularly consulting in person with her editor, Alice Peck. When the pandemic hit, they moved their meetings to Zoom.

A few months into the quarantine, Ms. Brown noticed that Ms. Peck, who usually Zoomed from the dining-room table of her home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, suddenly appeared from a very different location. Ms. Brown, who was feeling cooped up, working from her bedroom all day, was floored when she saw the expansive space her editor was calling from: “I was like, ‘Where the heck are you?’”

Like many Americans lucky enough to work remotely, Ms. Peck and Ms. Brown had to carve out office space in their homes. But while suburbanites may have garages, basements, or even spare rooms, New Yorkers in tighter spaces generally have to get a little more creative. Some have found solace in a neighbor’s empty apartment, an unused therapist’s office, or even a hotel room.

Ms. Peck was used to working from home, which she was already doing before the pandemic. On occasion, she would work from a library or cafe, and she conducted in-person meetings from a co-working space in Midtown Manhattan. But with her husband, a production coordinator for a magazine, and her young-adult son home all the time, she lost her focus. It didn’t help that she could hear her next door neighbor, a music teacher, giving lessons online.

“I’m used to being alone all day,” said Ms. Peck, who is an independent book editor and writer. “You would just start to get going with work, writing that perfect sentence, when someone would ask, ‘Do we have any bagels?’”

Fed up, Ms. Peck looked for a quiet space to work. She first asked a realtor for help, but didn’t like what she was shown. Then she saw an ad in the Listings Project, a weekly real estate newsletter, for an art studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Normally occupied by an illustrator and two filmmakers, the space had a soaring 20-foot ceiling but was being used for storage.

“My productivity level soared,” said Ms. Peck, who is now back at home after losing the lease at the end of September. Currently, she has taken to working in her small back yard, and said that she might look for a new space once the weather gets colder.

Luciana Golcman, a portrait photographer known for her shots of babies smashing cakes, used to drop off her two children, now ages 2 and 5, at daycare, then return to her two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town and quickly convert the living room into a photo studio. But when the pandemic hit, all of a sudden she was sharing her makeshift workspace with her husband, who is a trader, as well as the children. “There were Cheerios everywhere,” she said. So Ms. Golcman temporarily shut down her business.

A few months later, however, families started contacting Ms. Golcman again for photo sessions. She knew she had to find a space of her own. Noticing all the moving trucks in her neighborhood, she announced what she was looking for on a parent email list.

A friend who had left the city for the summer saw the request and offered Ms. Golcman her apartment in Peter Cooper Village at no cost until school started. When the family returned, Ms. Golcman consecutively found two other empty apartments in Stuyvesant Town, both of which had been recently vacated but still had time on their leases. One former tenant gave the space up for free, while the other charged Ms. Golcman about $200 a week.

Although each new workspace has been temporary, Ms. Golcman said the arrangements have given her some peace to forge ahead with her work. “I worked really hard to get my own business off the ground, so I’m proud of myself for keeping it afloat during a pandemic.”

In July, John Hennegan, a sports documentary filmmaker, and videographer, found himself in a bind. He had just returned from a work trip, but then had to quickly start working on a documentary about horse racing. His usual office space, however, a desk in the living room of his three-bedroom apartment in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, wasn’t available. His wife and his sister-in-law had commandeered it.

He realized if he stayed home, he wouldn’t finish the documentary. So Mr. Hennegan booked a room for three nights at the Arlo SoHo, for $140 a night (pre-pandemic, its rooms were going for $260 a night). The hotel room was spotless, he said, and he could make calls at all hours of the day and night with his production team. He shopped for food at a nearby Trader Joe’s and ran along the Hudson River for exercise.

“The hotel worked because I wasn’t there for room service or leisure, so social distancing wasn’t a concern for me,” Mr. Hennegan said. “Working from home isn’t usually an issue, but I have to admit, sometimes it’s hectic, like a 24-hour diner.”

With tourism down, many hotels are advertising that their rooms can be used as offices. The Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn reconfigured six rooms into offices. At AKA, a long-term stay hotel, two firms in finance and consulting booked a block of suites in its Times Square and Central Park locations for their employees, said Larry Korman, the hotel firm’s president.

There are also empty therapist’s offices across the city, as telehealth has become the norm. Teresa Stern, a licensed clinical social worker, didn’t want to give up her $2,200-a-month office with river views in Brooklyn Heights, which she described as “one of the best she’s ever had.” So she subleased.

First she found Michael Randazzo, who worked there for five weeks this summer. Mr. Randazzo, now a freelance writer after losing his full-time job at Long Island University earlier this year, said he wanted a quiet space to finish a writing project. But with his wife, a private school administrator, and two teenage children at home all day in their two-bedroom apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Mr. Randazzo needed privacy.

Mr. Randazzo, who paid about $600 for five weeks, managed to spend as much as six hours a day writing, and the rest of the time conducting interviews, he said. “Renting Teresa’s space was a highlight” of an otherwise challenging time, he said. “The amount of work I got done, plus the view from her office, were priceless.”

Now a film director has agreed to rent Ms. Stern’s space. She is relieved, she said. “I know plenty of therapists who would love to sublet their space because many landlords are not cutting us a break.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Brown, the meditation teacher, finished her book and started writing another one. As her software-developer husband has taken over the living room of their one-bedroom apartment with “his multiple screens,” she said, she needs a change of pace. She is thinking about renting a space at the Queensboro, a restaurant in her Jackson Heights neighborhood that is offering workspace (and includes lunch).

The pandemic, she said, has forced her to practice what she teaches: mindfulness and self-compassion.

(The New York Times)

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