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Three Reasons to Love NY (and How They Inspire Us at General Assembly)

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“Despite the crush and the noise, I never tire of plunging into the crowd. I love the crowd as I love the sea. Not to be engulfed or lost in it, but to sail on it like a solitary pirate, content to be carried by the current, yet strike out on my own the moment it breaks or dissipates. Like the sea, a crowd is invigorating to my wandering mind. Almost all my ideas come to me in the street, even those related to my work.”

— Frédéric, from Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon

Reason No 1:  SERENDIPITOUS ENCOUNTERS

I was standing in line the other morning waiting to order my latte, when loud squeals exploded behind me, interrupting my pre-caffeine haze. I couldn’t help but smile when I turned around to discover two young women in a heartfelt embrace. It was clear from their interaction that this encounter was an unplanned one, and long overdue.

It was a classic New York moment—one we, as inhabitants of this city, have the great fortune of observing on a daily basis far more frequently than those who elect to live elsewhere. It’s a constant reminder of the extent to which this city is defined by serendipity, by happenstance, by the certainty of crossing paths with those from our past, present, and future. Much of this can be attributed simply to the city’s density, diversity, and scale (as deftly articulated by Steven Johnson); much of this is likely the by-product of its pedestrian nature; and much of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that New York functions as the Main Street of the world, attracting natives and transients alike. We live in a city perpetually in flux—where the only constant is the lack of constants, where the cast of characters changes every day, and possibility lies dormant around every corner.

In early days, when General Assembly was a nascent idea, we talked about this notion of alchemy—of the inevitable magic that happens when you take a group of bright, impassioned people from a diverse set of backgrounds and put them in a room together. Having spent the prior three and a half years at IDEO, I was electrified by the rich dialogue and exchange of ideas that occurred on a daily basis among our interdisciplinary project teams, and was eager to see these types of interactions play out organically among a community of people with individualized agendas but with overlapping interests in technology, design, and entrepreneurship.

Our name, General Assembly, was inspired by the models set forth by schools (a community of learners), factories (a community of makers), and legislative bodies (a community of self-governing people). We worked with Andrea Steele, an architect well-versed in campus design, to design a spatial program that centers around a communal gathering area that we hope will become our campus green, our town square, our Main Street—encouraging the types of fortuitous introductions and cross-pollinating behaviors that enrich our lives and forge new paths ahead.

 

Reason No. 2: COURTSHIPS IN MOTION

Like those rare and fleeting moments when the local and express trains move in slow synchronicity through the city’s subterranean depths, New York perpetually offers us glimpses of lives beyond our own, but ones seemingly within grasp. It’s inevitable that at some point during our time here we will find ourselves musing: this could be my future apartment, one day I could have a solo show, he/she could be my future husband/wife, oh please please please let me get this cab.

Within the first few months of moving to New York as a fresh faced 21 year old, I realized why this city aroused such impassioned allegiance among its inhabitants. At the time, I was sharing a claustrophobic apartment in the area now known as NoMad, two doors down from a particularly rowdy (but friendly) brothel of transvestite prostitutes. Every month, I would eagerly fork over half of my meager monthly earnings to pay my rent—all while feeling incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be here at all. Imagined or real, I felt an instant camaraderie with those around me—they, too, were willing to forgo the pleasures of backyard gardens and flush savings accounts for the chance to pursue a greater goal. It occurred to me that sacrifice seemed to inspire both passion and will—the more we invested, the greater our resolve, the more staunchly we defended our decisions. How else might we rationalize denying ourselves the comforts of a more civilized existence for a shot at a dream with unfavorable odds? Similarly, how else might we explain the conviction of the sleepless entrepreneur?

The dehumanizing mechanics of this city do much to attract a self-selecting population. By nature, New York transplants are voyeuristic, opting for connection and broader exposure over a more controlled, hermetic existence. We are buoyed and enlivened by the success of others—especially those with whom we feel a certain kinship or whose lot in life most closely resembles our own. At General Assembly, we’ve invited some of the city’s most inspiring startups to join our inaugural class. Our hope is that they might benefit from a empathic relationship with like-minded individuals on a parallel track—fellow travelers on another train, hoping to arrive at the same destination.

 

Reason No. 3: LAUNDRY ROOM RECIPROCITY

A few weeks after moving into my current apartment, I braved a visit to the laundry room. It was your typical tenement building laundry room—underground, overheated, and smelling strongly of Tide®. But by far, the best feature was that the table opposite the washers clearly functioned as much more than a folding surface. It had been designated as the building’s barter site—the unofficial marketplace for the free exchange of goods between tenants. On this particular night, I discovered a stack of three books: a textbook on financial risk management, another on econometrics, and The Giant Book of Tofu Cooking. In the end I claimed the cookbook, but left the others to find a more deserving home.

The mechanisms for how knowledge sharing occurs within any community, organization, or institution are as varied as our individual preferences and aptitudes for learning. For some, a wall of books is as tempting as an aromatic bowl of Tofu Stroganoff waiting to be consumed. For others, the best resources are easily sorted, searched, and transported. For others yet, their best learning occurs within the context of a classroom where they’re freed from life’s daily distractions. And lastly, some prefer tacit learning experiences—through observation and discussion, hands-on application, internalization and reflection.

At General Assembly, our aim is to design educational programming that establishes a reciprocal relationship between the wealth of talent, experience, and expertise that exists within these walls and the community at large. We ask our members to submit blog posts or teach classes on a regular basis and are also establishing partnerships with leading academics and thought leaders to offer a comprehensive curriculum within the domain of technology, design, and entrepreneurship. Lastly, we’re hoping to assemble both an online resource and a physical library that helps to aggregate the vast range of content shared. Our hope is that from this emerges a collective brain larger than the sum of its parts—one that inspires a new type of discourse and creation reflective of the changing world in which we live.