“Why New York?” This is the first question I ask Nancy Nagourney. She contemplates at her desk thinking about how she should respond. In her office the plain white walls are easily ignored by the beautiful view of New York City she has. The wall at the back of the office is almost completely glass and creates a perfect view of Trinity Church as well as the New York City skyline. Her officemate Lorraine stepped out for a lunch break as we began our interview. Her desk is extremely tidy but has a tremendous number of manila folders filled with paper. Her wall is loaded with pictures of her family and friends as well as stickie notes filled with important memos. Her desktop displays her email browser of Office 365 with hundreds of emails that she has been adamant about needing to answer after the interview, and an excel spreadsheet with words and numbers all over.
She asks me if I “want the easy answer or the harder answer.” I tell her “both.” She exhales and says “the easy answer is opportunity; the hard answer is I wanted change.” Growing up in a suburb outside Chicago, Nancy grew to love drama and the arts. She warned me about falsely assuming that she was skillful in any art form, but that never stopped her from auditioning in every play and production her school had offered. As she grew older, she realized how much she enjoyed being backstage of theater production. She was in crew, she did lights but most importantly she managed productions. She made schedules and coordinated events. She had found her calling.
“After graduating University of Illinois with a degree in Speech Communication and a Minor in Business Management, I knew I needed further my education and get experience.” Even living right outside the huge metropolis of Chicago does not give you enough opportunities in theater. That is why she left and came to Brooklyn College for Graduate School. “Brooklyn College at the time already had a great reputation for Performing Arts Management, and New York City is the greatest city in the world for my work.” She also mentioned how she felt the need to move away as she has spent her whole life living either in a suburb or a secluded campus.
She came to New York City in the mid-1980’s and faced the typical problems of a college student in an expensive area. For meals she mostly ate cheap goods that she could buy in bulk, including Ramen noodles, pastas, rice, and occasionally meat but would always eat at home. “There was also a need for entertainment, but when you have to make rent each month you become creative with what to do for fun.” She says her and her friends from school would find all of the free things to do in NYC like “Central Park, Prospect Park, Street Fairs, free musical festivals or even free events at Lincoln Center.”
Brooklyn college 1980s
She also faced a lot of difficulties that she did not expect. Finding a place to live was a lot harder than Brooklyn College first led her to believe. Everything about the process was difficult. She needed to find apartments that were open, within her price range, in a neighborhood she would feel relatively safe living in, while also finding 3-4 roommates that also had the same price range and would be willing to live there. All of these are normal things to go through when trying to find an apartment but what Nancy did not realize yet was how much racism would affect her living situation in place known throughout the world for its diversity and tolerance.
In the 1980’s Nancy came to a New York City where tenants refused to rent to roommates that were of different race. What this meant for her was that in a student population within a public college in New York City, which was mostly minorities, she could only room with a very small percentage of them. The process where black people and foreigners were segregated from the rest of the “good” and “white” part of the population is now known as redlining.
According to Emily Nonko in “Redlining:How one racist, Depression-era policy still shapes New York real estate,” Redlining started in the 1930s when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created to insure mortgages. Nonko explains how “bad neighborhoods” or minority neighborhoods were graded by the US government as lower quality than “good” or white neighborhoods. This led to lender being “discouraged from making real estate investments in redlined areas, resulting in residents (or prospective buyers) in minority neighborhoods ineligible to receive financing for home purchases.” In essence, this means that lenders would not rent to people of color in neighborhoods with white people. For Nancy, it was shocking to learn that in such a diverse and accepting place, there was still discrimination.
Finding a place to live proved to be extremely difficult for her. She realized that no one in the bureaucracy of CUNY was able to offer her guidance on how to find a place to live or even how to shop for groceries in such an expensive city. She luckily was able to find a girl in her program that was graduating and would give Nancy her lease. “Even though I tried reaching out, no one in Brooklyn College helped me, there was no service in New York City that could help me and almost no one in my program could help me.” She continues on explaining how impressed she is with people who were able to navigate New York City real estate that could not speak English. “There were many people in my program that had just come to America and really did not speak the language, and it will never cease to amaze me how they were able to survive here.”
Finding a place to live seemed to become a problematic theme in Nancy’s story. “I lived in many places all over New York City. I have lived Madison, Midwood, Park Slope and Mill Basin. In all of these places, I lived there before they were gentrified, especially Park Slope. There was no walking around at night, looking for a cool bar. I would never be caught dead, walking by myself at night, especially as a woman.” She goes on to say “The area wasn’t necessarily unsafe but I definitely would not have called it safe. I would say there are still a lot of neighborhoods in Brooklyn that you cannot walk alone in at night. But if you were to see the apartment I lived in now… you would never believe that I felt unsafe. It is filled with ‘yuppies’ and young families and nice restaurants. The streets are always busy.”
“I have lived in so many different neighborhoods and all of them have been so vastly different. It amazes me how different one block can be from the next. I lived in Park Slope before it was gentrified but the neighborhood was so diverse back then. It was possible to walk one block and it all be Mexican and then next block be Hasidic. That did not happen in Northbrook (the suburb of Chicago I grew up in). It just was not a thing. Almost all of Northbrook were Polish Jews. Even if you wanted to find Jews from a different background you would have to travel to a different suburb.”
Park Slope 1980s
“There were so many things in Chicago that created those types of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were very selective. If you ever walked by a really nice neighborhood you could see signs saying “No Jews, No Blacks, No dogs.” It was sad to see but it was a reality. All of the black people lived in South Chicago, all of the Jews in their suburbs and all of the ‘WASPs’ (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) in their own secluded neighborhoods…”
Even though adjusting to the neighborhoods was difficult, adjusting to New York culture may have been even harder. “There is a real difference in how a New Yorker will talk and a Midwesterner talks. New Yorkers are brusque, they are candid and just so impatient. I was used to the easy-going attitude of Midwestern culture. You have to be a lot more aware of your surroundings here and you especially have to learn to not get offended.”
“New Yorkers communicate with strong feeling and no one thinks twice about whether it would offend someone. Even in a basic conversation you hear New Yorkers talk use phrase like ‘this is the worst thing ever’ or ‘they are just awful.’ It’s hard to explain but no one talks like that in the Midwest. No one speaks so strongly of their opinions back home. It made it very difficult to navigate conversations here, and I still do not believe I have perfected this skill.”
“I do not I fully understand the meaning behind the communication style until I had kids that spoke the exact same way. New Yorkers really don’t mean it when they say they hate this or if something is the greatest thing ever. It is just how they talk.” “It not a bad way of talking, it’s just different, and I do not think I will ever truly get used to it.”
“I have learned a lot of things in my time in New York City but if I had to start the process all over I don’t think I would do it again. It was just too hard leaving all of my family and friends behind. When you are so far away from home, you feel almost completely disconnected from your family, especially before the internet. I tried to go home for holidays and important events but it was never enough. Having to go all the way back to Chicago when my parents were sick was so difficult. I made it so hard for myself, just so I could have the ‘away from home experience.’ It was not worth it. I miss Chicago, and I regret leaving.”
Her future in the city only is connected to what her children do. “I will stay here as long as my kids stay. I never really considered myself a New Yorker, in my heart I am still a Midwesterner. Even though I do miss the Midwest, I have no preferences where to live; I just want to live close to my children.”
NONKO, EMILY. “Redlining: How One Racist, Depression-Era Policy Still Shapes New York Real Estate.” Brick Underground, 22 Dec. 2017,