Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

The real GIRLS of New York

To mark the end of the 3rd season of the popular HBO show, Sarah Thomas talks to four young women pursuing careers in creative fields in the city

Cable TV
New York

“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”

Richard Feynman, a New York–born theoretical physicist famous for helping develop the atomic bomb, said this. Considering Feynman’s time and field, he seems an unlikely commentator on the world of budding artists in today’s New York. But it is his words that are taped to a young writer’s computer monitor in her apartment on 151st Street in Hamilton Heights.

These words are part of a larger quote that begins: “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong …”

Alexandra is a 24-year-old writer who sublets her great-aunt's apartment.
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

Doubt seems to come with the territory of pursuing a dream, though it is counterintuitive to frame this young woman — whose dark eyes indicate deliberation and command — in terms of “unknowing.” Of course, for a 24-year-old aspiring writer living in arguably the most expensive city in America, “unknowing” can manifest itself in very practical ways: how to cover the bills when your paycheck is $900 a month and your rent is $1,000, how to envision a successful future as a writer when you are toiling with an unpublished book manuscript.

Despite those challenges, Alexandra describes her situation as “lucky,” having the opportunity to sublet her great-aunt’s huge, “old school” apartment that in most ways — besides the Mac, the Nike running shoes and Alexandra herself — appears to be from Feynman’s New York of the mid-20th century. “My great-aunt moved in in the ’50s, when it went for $100 a month. She didn’t update it much since,” she says. “I've spent the past year and a half working on renovating it, removing decades-old rugs and furniture … and bugs.” It shows: The hardwood floors gleam like a broker’s dream, the windows soar, but the details — a fussy crystal chandelier, a fantastic mirrored bar in the entryway, a velvet couch with coiled feet — are definitely throwbacks. And the rent is cheap. Well … for someone with a different career path, perhaps.

“I will always write whether or not I make a living from it, so in some sense I don't see any other option.” To mitigate some of the financial stress, she plays myriad roles at Columbia University: as a grad student, an undergrad teacher, a consultant at the Writing Center and a bartender for the school’s private agency. Sometimes she has to take other jobs, tending bar at a Harlem watering hole called the Grange or assisting Ph.D. students with their dissertations.

Alexandra bar tends and does other odd jobs in order to afford her life as a writer in the city.
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

When asked how much money she is able to spend on “creative pursuits,” Alexandra is eager to discuss a passion of hers. “I do raise money for Apogee,” she says, referring to a literary journal that she has been with as an editor since the beginning. “Apogee's mission is to publish underrepresented voices and work dealing thoughtfully with race, class and sexuality.” For a writer and a woman of color (her mother is white and her father is black), she explains, the mission reflects “values I strongly hold and I hope to help promote throughout my career. Besides that, I don’t spend much on ‘creative pursuits.’”

“Oh.” Alexandra stops. “Are we counting Columbia’s $100k tuition?” That leads to a tangential conversation about another source of money. “I saved some of my student loan refund,” she almost whispers. Student loans are the Catch-22 of this generation: enabling an education in a creative field that rarely allows for enough financial security to pay them off. Fortunately, her social life is enabled by her minor service-industry celebrity. When she goes out for cocktails there is often a friendly bartender who knows her from the neighborhood or a former job, willing share a smile and a free shot of Jameson. “It helps to have friends in the industry in case I ever need a job.”

Sarah, a 26-year-old actor, relates a story that takes place at another watering hole in Harlem. She lives just uptown from Alexandra in Washington Heights, but “not on the bourgie family side, on the Dominican side.” Sarah is every bit an actor, talking with her hands and expressive face. When asked about gentrification in Washington Heights, a trend largely due to the influx of young (often white, like Sarah) creative types, she launches into a story, illustrated with animated gestures.

She was sitting at the bar next to a “cute biracial” CNN anchor whom she didn’t recognize. “We had a heated discussion about gentrification — at this shmancy brunch place.” He was commenting on the positive aspects, and the ability of people to better themselves, achieve success and afford higher rents. Sarah’s face grows serious. “But people can’t always better themselves; some people don’t have the same opportunities and aren’t the ‘right’ race, age, or gender or whatever. You can’t not have a computer growing up, and then suddenly write perfect college entrance essays. And I feel weird because I’m white, and since I ‘have’ that, I guess I can’t really talk about it.” Asked if her privilege has made life easier for her as a struggling actor, she replies, “We weren’t making enough money to be spending it like [crazy]. I work hard; I have worked, like, every job. But my parents are extremely generous, so I do have some privilege. They paid for me to go to a one-year acting conservatory.”

Sarah, a 26-year-old actor, would like to take more classes but can't afford it.
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

Sarah has resisted the draw of grad school in theater arts for the very reason Alexandra mentioned. “I mean, yeah, I should probably take more classes, but I can’t afford it. The more money you have, the better school you go to; the better school, the better showcase you’re in; the better the showcase … then an agent comes.” She has worked in theater since college, auditioning when she can, when having to make rent hasn’t been getting in the way. One of her dreams is to do a television series, since that medium seems to command the creative zeitgeist.

She has worked in bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, she’s blogged, babysat, and the list goes on. She currently blogs for a website called ClaimFame and is a nanny for a family with a 13-year-old boy. “This weekend was his bar mitzvah, and we spent the night at the Natural History Museum.”

“Kids in New York don’t realize how cool that is,” she says. It seems like this New York is pretty different from the Washington Heights New York. Are there really two New Yorks? One of privilege and one without?

“I mean …” She hesitates. “I have friends that have a lot more disposable income, and I try to live at their level and can’t. A lot of people who get help from their parents. I mean, the resentment is there, and it causes a lot of strain on relationships. Because even in the arts, the more money you have, the more opportunities you have.” So why not get a day job in the corporate world, perform on the side, and live “at their level”?

Here Sarah identifies a sort of tipping point that most artists fear: When is it time to give up the dream? What happens when we find what is behind that “door to the unknown,” and it’s not what we think it is?

“I’m just green enough to think success is possible,” she says. “I mean, in the short term, I’d be happy with just getting enough of my own stuff on camera to get a reel to show people. My goal is to feel like an artist all day every day, and to not be crammed into … you know?

“My whole family has been in the corporate world in some capacity,” she says, “and there’s the idea that you need to ‘change’ yourself. But it’s also like, at what point am I 35 years old and still babysitting?” 


A 26-year-old writer and publishing professional, Kimberly may be the living antidote to the idea that you have to choose between your art and a 9-to-5. At an office of publishing consultants in midtown, she works as editorial manager. But she has also been an employee of the flagship Barnes and Noble in Union Square for the past six years. Asked when she sleeps, she laughs. “I definitely don't always get the sleep I want to. My routine involves me getting up around 7 in the morning, and I usually get to sleep between 1 and 3 a.m. Sometimes I can't help opening up my computer again, when I really should have closed it for the night.”

Kimberly is a third-generation Chinese/Korean-American born in Hawaii, a place with a certain alluring inertia. “Some of my friends have barely left the island … but my dad moved us out to have more opportunities,” she says with a tone somehow both wistful and matter-of-fact.

Kimberly, a 26-year-old writer works extra shifts at B&N to be able to afford her apartment on the Upper West Side.
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

She started on scholarship at the University of Georgia and eventually transferred to New York University, drawn to the city for its famous opportunities. She denies much culture shock, thanks largely to a semester in London, but there was a “moment” after Kimberly’s dad dropped her off at the dorms on Union Square. “I went to the Whole Foods on Union Square to buy mustard.” The street teeming with homeless people panhandling in contrast to the lush $30 hydrangeas and palettes of perfectly congruent tangerines just behind the sliding doors. “I felt so overwhelmed with all the lines, and the crowds, and the multiple floors, and the lines … ” She trails off. “I got my $10 mustard and ran back to my dorm room.

“But the next day I walked one block, and then another, and then after a while I felt like ‘I know these blocks.’” Union Square is also where she first entered publishing, at the Barnes and Noble. Not only has she continued to work there since getting a more lucrative job, but she’s also maintained a network of close friends from the bookstore: "Everything I have is thanks in part to connections I've made at that store. When I started, it was primarily women, many of them talented artists, and most have gone onto other jobs, largely in publishing. A love of reading kind of sets the foundation for a strong community.”

Kimberly's desk
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

Ideally, Kimberly wants to be a playwright or screenwriter — in fact, she’s already published two short plays that have been performed “at a few schools across the country.” She doesn’t find the corporate world to be incompatible with that ambition. “As long as I can maintain a strong creative outlet on the side, I would be very happy. Like I would love to be able to say I need to work remotely for a week so I can prepare for the opening of one of my plays.” And having a job in publishing doesn’t drain all of those creative juices? “I like the idea of having a job that utilizes my writing abilities but is creative within businesslike parameters. There are challenges that aren’t as free-form as in ‘pure’ art.”

Kimberly, too, still has student loans, even though she paid for only two years at notoriously pricy NYU. “While I’m still paying those loans back, extra money isn’t really extra.” But she’s still found a balance, living in a “tiny” apartment on the idyllic Upper West Side, “picking up extra shifts at B&N” to allow her the money to go out.

Men don’t really factor in for these women, it seems, at least not in an active way. When asked about men, Alexandra laughs. “They are a welcome distraction sometimes … but maybe I need to get out of Harlem.” Is the trope of the young woman coming to New York seeking romance in any way real? Not necessarily, says Kimberly. “It's always been important to me to get to a good place for me before possibly sharing my life with someone.” She goes on, as though she’s confessing something, “I’m really happy by myself. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to be alone — I mean single — forever, and not necessarily in a negative way.”

For Erin, a 25-year-old actor and urban nomad, the support of a partner is imperative. Her boyfriend, who works in financial software support, “is very understanding of my lifestyle.” Her life is defined by transience: she has developed a network of friends and artists who have helped her find sublets and shares. “I’ve lived in New York for nearly four years and never signed a lease.” Like Sarah’s near-endless list of previous occupations, Erin has an equally extensive one of previous neighborhoods: Park Slope, Astoria, Washington Heights, Windsor Terrace and now Crown Heights. How is it so easy to move from place to place? “I have nothing,” she says.

Erin, a 25-year-old actor, was working so many jobs she hardly had time to audition.
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

Is it true that the beating heart of the artist’s New York — the vision, the hunger — is now in Brooklyn? “Yes,” she answers first, and then modifies her reply, “Well, actually, Brooklyn and Harlem and Washington Heights. Uptown.” Across the boroughs, it remains true that young artists move where the rent is cheap and the neighborhoods are both more dangerous and more “ethnic” than more established, corporate types are willing to try.

Erin also makes money as a nanny working regular hours for a family in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. When she first moved to the city, though, she says, “I was waking up and working as a barista from 7 to 2, then I’d pick up the kids from school [for a family in Park Slope], then I worked at an ice cream shop at night.” In the early days, she really didn’t audition at all. How could she be comfortable ever quitting her job to start auditioning? “When I first started making money, there was a number in my head that I wanted to hit to be comfortable. And then I hit the number and was afraid to quit. And then I hit another number and finally quit.”

Fear is a common refrain, but there are little victories along the way that lessen it. Shortly after she quit her job, Erin says, “I got my first real acting job, at the Hartford Stage in ‘The Crucible.’ That’s the only thing I’ve gotten equity points for.” Equity points? “You have to get 50 equity points to join the actors’ union.” How close is she after “The Crucible”? Erin laughs, slight and blonde in her oversized sweater, scrappy in the best of ways. “I’ve got eight equity points.” To join the actors’ union, you have to amass those 50 points over a five-year period, and while it offers wage protection, you can’t take work that doesn’t meet the union’s standards. Erin says, “As an actor I’m willing to take less.”

Erin's couch
Jordan Hollender for Al Jazeera America

Will there be a time when she has to consider a different path? “Not for me,” she says. Are there other people she knows who set out on a creative path but eventually, well, gave up? “Most of the people who I know that are not pursuing their art never really did. They graduated with their degree [in a creative field], got a corporate job and just stayed in it.”

A week later, Alexandra is tired. She’s been in Barbados for spring break (a trip largely financed by her mom), and it’s time to get back to work. She admits that she won’t be getting much sleep before classes commence, between working on her own manuscript, lesson planning and, she hopes, a bartending gig or two. “I usually get five hours on a good night,” she says. And what is the novel-in-progress about? “A group of people with insomnia …” She hesitates. “I'm already paranoid that someone else will have this idea, publish it before me, and make the last two years of writing worthless.” Sleeplessness and fear that your efforts will be deemed “worthless”?

Maybe that’s the price of dreams. Dreams that are literally realized via diapers changed, pots of coffee brewed, cocktails mixed, students tutored, ice cream cones scooped, couches surfed, dollars and cents saved. So why not realize the dream somewhere else — anywhere else — that is less expensive, competitive and daunting than this city? As Erin says, the life of a real artist “changes all the time,” like the city.

“I’d never want to leave New York and look back and have regrets about the actual experience. I feel like we are supposed to be going out, because we’re young. We are like the target demographic for New York.”

Sarah also talked about how central New York is to creative industries, with a nod to another familiar story. “Now I’m going to be honest — there’s opportunity everywhere. Here, there has to be that … ‘I want to move to New York because I want to be a star.’”