[on how I left my career in real estate]
In 1996 I experienced my first paradigm shift that I can remember. It was the first time I was a teenager visiting Europe. Wait, you’re telling me that there’s a place where people live and hang out in downtown at all hours of the day because it’s an extremely beautiful and thriving place to be?! That buildings and public places can be beautiful, ornate pieces of art that make you feel alive?!
I fell for The City hard. For its possibilities. For the diversity of people. For the way cities shaped physical space. How the shape of buildings, streets, and corridors affected how I felt about the world.
A little over a decade after my first foray into City Beautiful and as wide-eyed and idealistic as they come, I started a graduate program in urban planning with the ultimate goal of becoming a city planner.
In graduate school it quickly became apparent that urban planning was not designing beautiful, inviting space for all types of humans to enjoy and come together, but rather a glorified arbitrator among a shark tank of competing interests. The public space I had been so enraptured with since arriving in Europe that first time was more of an afterthought to the rules and regulations that protected private space.
Private space, I learned, was the American Dream. A sacred life’s work. The Ultimate. Paradigm shift No. 2 happened in graduate school. Wait, so you’re telling me that space isn’t just space there’s actually this thing called private space that is delineated by legal documents and defended to the death.
It wasn’t that I never lived in a house growing up. It’s that I hadn’t owned a house and owning a house was nowhere on my radar. I hadn’t personally dealt with zoning laws or restrictive covenants. I was a city girl, content with living in some old rented loft overlooking the bustling city streets – happy to trade private space for the playground of the city for the foreseeable future.
Paradigm shift No. 3 happened on a plane.
I was headed home. I had the aisle seat and, as always, surveyed my enclave of fellow travelers. I stuck my head in a book to avoid the awkward plane conversations. The plane took off and as soon as the freedom ding went off I noticed some movement in my peripheral vision. To my left a scholarly looking man was straight-arming the chair in front of him. He put his arm down. A pause. And then the woman in front of him tried reclining again, most likely convinced the chair was jammed for a second. Again, the man’s arm billowed out disallowing the chair to move any further. The woman had made it an inch so he continued pushing her back into her original position. She heaved her back into the chair matching the strength of his joint-locked arm. This went on for an awkward amount of time. Finally, in a peeved tone he spoke: “I need this space. My legs are too long.” He was fuming. The woman never turned around to face her chair resister.
Immediately after the snafu I pictured being the arbitrator of the situation. The man, knowing that 99% of the people reclined their chairs once the freedom ding went off and his 6’6 frame needed all the room it could get, would share this grievance with me. The woman, having a long day of traveling and just wanted to lie back just a bit, would share that information with me. I would then share the grievances with the two competing parties who would empathize with each other and decide to split the space, or maybe the woman would agree not to recline her chair because she needed the space less than he did.
Contested space – the blurry lines between public and private space – It wasn’t just relegated to houses or rooms. Everywhere was a battleground for space – whether you were entitled to it or not.
I started noticing space differently and its relation to the human condition. I noticed there were stories behind how people occupied space and I wanted to know all of the stories. I knew there was something profound and illusive about the lines that were tight-roped walked, crossed, avoided and embraced between public and private space (my hope is to someday write about this more).
The fourth paradigm shift wasn’t a moment or an event. It was the years of compromising who I was. I wasn’t meant to be an arbitrating city planner or a deal-wielding real estate project manager, where I ultimately ended up. For years something felt amiss. My insides were embroiled in a fight to the death between my private pining to be creatively challenged with my public reputation and resume. Between the lobbying interests of practicality, responsibility and love. The space in this world that I had carved out had a sturdy foundation, clean and straight walls, but I was uninspired. I had built a space in which I felt trapped. It wasn’t until I actually shared this publicly with my loved ones that I wholeheartedly accepted that I needed to leave my career.
There is a battleground happening inside all of us between our private and public selves and we are all trying to be our own arbitrators. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. And sometimes we are just a bunch of confusing roles that don’t make sense.
I cried as I walked out of my job on the last day. Not because I was having regrets but because I was shedding a piece of me, which made me feel a little empty. But now I have the space I need to stretch out. It’s a win for me this time.
I will still spend as much time as I can in cities. It’s where I feel understood. The competing interests, dark nooks and crannies, the ugliness and beauty that reside within me are echoed in its mural of the same, giving me assurance of what is and hope for what’s possible.