On Moveable Apartments

Mika in Hamilton Heights, New York City

<em>Mika told me about the artist Do Ho Suh during our interview. We had been talking about the Places that Mika has lived: Tokyo, California, New York. She brought up Suh’s <a href="https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/one_do_ho_suh">recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum</a>, which consisted of a full-scale replica of the artist’s former apartment, made entirely from cloth and therefore portable. In this way, home could be carried with him, anywhere.</em> <em>This sentiment was present in my conversation with Mika. Even if home isn’t carried in a literal, physical sense (she doesn’t have a cloth sculpture of her apartment, so far as I know), home is carried internally, in culture, attitude, and what Mika refers to at one point as a sense of what is ‘normal’. In this sense, each of us is an amalgam of the Places that have been significant to us. Much of what we reflect on below is what happens when we enter new spaces and make new homes, while still carrying with us the old ones. It requires, as Mika calls it, a sense of mindfulness:</em>

I’ve lived Uptown since I graduated [college]. I was in Harlem proper at 126th, right off the 1 train on 125th, for a year. And then my roommates were moving out so it was just time for that to end. So I moved into a duplex with four people in an apartment further Uptown, still on the West side. I lived there for, god, three years? No, two years in the duplex, and then coming up on our second year in my current apartment, but we literally moved across the street. So all of that to say: I really like Uptown. I just for some reason really like being on the island of Manhattan, and I like that there’s a lot of families. It still feels much more relaxed than being in downtown Manhattan, but still with the ease of getting around. And it’s lovely to be near the river. I think it’s a good combination of accessible, but still very community-oriented. And I like being away from places that I work. When I worked in fashion, I feel like everyone lived in the same parts of Brooklyn. So I liked being a little bit outside of that and having my own neighborhood, because I’d still go see friends in Brooklyn. Then it’s also an advantage because I know a lot of parts of Brooklyn well because I visit my friends so often, but I also have this other part of Manhattan that I’ve grown to really love and get to know well.

Yeah, I’ve lived in Inwood at the very top of the 1 train for the past couple of years and I love it. Do you have any favorite local spots or anything like that? Like libraries or bars, anything like that that you frequent?

Before everything shut down I was a big fan of the Hamilton Heights library. I was a heavy library user. I feel like all of the bars around here are a sign of gentrification, which in this neighborhood is impossible to not speak about, considering everyone in our generation came in the last ten years. But the newly opened beer store on 146th and Amsterdam, we can’t even remember what it was before, so I think there’s sometimes a plus to new things coming in and reviving a space. I think it’s better to have a new store, a new business, than an empty lot. So I think that mindfulness is really important, and I’ve always felt that the bars around here are diverse - I feel like everyone is mostly friendly and there’s a good energy on that stretch of Broadway, with At the Wallace and Harlem Public and the Chipped Cup. I think they do try to be inclusive and welcoming to all and they are independent owned businesses. Even when Bono closed temporarily, it just felt very strange to have it empty, so there’s definitely a point to new businesses coming in and making a neighborhood new because things can’t stay the same forever. It’s complicated.

I’m curious to ask: I heard you use the word mindfulness. I’m just curious if you could expand on that a little bit?

I think there’s always going to be new people coming into different places, and it’s important to acknowledge that people have lived here before you and to honor that and to make sure everyone feels included.

Definitely. This might have something to do with mindfulness as well, but just in a broad sense, how do you feel like in some everyday ways you give back to the Hamilton Heights neighborhood or how you care for where you live or build community?

That’s such a hard question. I think it’s a lot of things that people our age are trying to do now, to be mindful of what businesses you patronize and how you spend your money, which is straightforward and not really groundbreaking. I’ve lived here for four or five years, and I don’t know if I’ve contributed to the community to be completely honest. I try to be mindful and interact with neighbors in the best way possible. It’s good to think, what else can you do for the future? I don’t know, it’s hard to involve yourself without feeling like you’re overstepping, and to try to find something that you can do in a consistent manner, because you don’t want to show up one weekend and then not come back.

I mean I think you have a really good point with the overstepping thing. That’s something that I’ve thought about before and have talked to people about as well. Honestly I think that’s one of the reasons why I like that word mindfulness so much. I think that approaching everything with that mindset is a pretty good thing to do. Do you feel like you observe other people displaying mindfulness as well?

I guess yes in the sense that it feels peaceful, you know? Like for example when we lived in the apartment before, we were on the ground level. And every summer it would be really loud, because people sit outside and play music. But coming from Japan, that would never happen in Tokyo, especially in a residential area. It's helpful just knowing the existentent culture when you move. It’s just a cultural difference from where I grew up, and what I'm used to.

And where did you grow up?

I was born in Japan and stayed there throughout pre-school and then went to elementary school in the Bay Area. I then went back to Japan for middle school and high school then came to Fordham [University]. And of course, if you’re coming from Japan, things like the amount of noise that’s considered normal here is not going to be my normal. That's not wrong or right or bad, it's just different. And I think I need to be mindful and considerate. And you can fix things on your own and say, oh, maybe next time I shouldn’t live in a ground floor apartment, simple as that!

Are you on the ground floor right now?

No, the sixth floor! It’s so nice.

There we go. So kind of thinking about Place, what are some more of those differences that you notice between Japan, the Bay Area, and now here in New York?

That’s a great question. I do actually have thoughts on that. All three places are so tied with how old I was. Because in the Bay Area I was in elementary school, so I was always driven around by someone. And I still haven’t really had a period in my life where I drove consistently, so I technically have a driver's license but I definitely couldn’t drive in the Bay Area with all those hills. Bad idea. So when I go there I feel like I’m in elementary school again because I’m so dependent on other people to get around, and all the things I remember are from elementary school. And then Japan also feels like going back to middle school / high school because that’s the last time I lived there fully. When I go back, I'm with my parents 24/7 so again, I feel like a child. And Tokyo is a great place but I don’t know it like I know New York. So I think that mentality really affects my sense of Place in the places I've lived in the past. There’s a lot more freedom in New York, because I chose to come here, I’ve been here for the last nine years. Clare brought up a really good point on the concept of home, and how she feels about those different places. All three places are kind of like home, and then I always like the discussion of ‘what is home?’ because it takes on so many different meanings for different people and for yourself too.

Do you feel like New York is home?

To a certain extent. I don’t know how permanent home is supposed to feel. There are two artists that I was thinking of right before we started talking whose work concentrate on the idea of home. One is a Korean artist and he built this installation - a life-size scale of his apartment that he lived in in Chelsea. But it’s all made from cloth so it all folds up and it can be transported folded. And they sent it to the Brooklyn Museum and the installers had to try to put it together because he doesn’t offer instructions. But it’s so interesting, it’s a model of his home that folds up and can be transported. It was really beautiful.

Interesting. Just a last question before we finish up, keeping on our mindfulness theme if that’s cool. Why do you think mindfulness is important, especially related to these things that we’ve been talking about. Like why is that a good thing to bring to your senses?

I guess what you think is normal may not necessarily be normal for other people, and you have to be accepting of that. You may not like it, and that’s fine, but you need to be able to acknowledge and say, “That’s different, I don’t know if I like that, but that’s okay.” And since there’s so many different people in New York, I think it’s easy for anyone, and of course, myself, to every once in a while not agree, or not like something. But I think if you go a step further and think and contextualize, it pushes the conversation so much further than just saying to yourself, "This is not what I’m used to and I don’t like it." I think if you aren’t mindful and considerate, you automatically close the door and that’s harmful in a lot of cases. There’s no progress.

Mika finished our conversation by telling me about one of her favorite landmarks in her neighborhood: the now-abandoned RKO Hamilton Theater at 146th and Broadway. Looking at photos of its interior now is ghostly - you can feel its former grandeur hanging around it almost as if it’s in the air. The infrastructure itself, though nominally no more than bricks, stucco, glass, carries with it the weight of all that came before - the ‘existent,’ as Mika called it. And just as Place leaves impressions upon us (for instance, our comfort levels with noise), we leave marks upon Place with our use, disuse, arrival, abandonment. As ever, it is important to be mindful.

After our conversation, Mika introduced me to one more artist (she works at a museum, and so definitely did not disappoint on the Place/art front). Zarina’s exhibition at the Met entitled ‘Home is a Foreign Place’ is an excellent series depicting minimalist views of ‘home’. I was reminded again of Suh’s moveable apartment: in all of these myriad ways, we carry Places with us, a little bit of Tokyo, a little bit of California, a little bit of New York.

Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to dialogue over at placeloveproject@gmail.com.