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Covid Reflections from Pamela

COVID REFLECTIONS

By Pamela Puchalski, Executive Director, OHNY

Three years ago, I experienced one of the most unsettling moments of my adult life. I’m walking down the street with my then 9-month-old daughter in a stroller. And I’m afraid. Afraid of my neighbors, especially the runners, sharing the sidewalk with me and my baby. Those were the early days, when masks were not required and even if they were, who runs with a mask on? We were trapped in our apartment and that simple beautiful thing of taking a baby for a walk left me fraught with anxiety. So we left our idyllic Carroll Gardens neighborhood for a beachfront golf resort in South Carolina. Not at all my vibe but I was desperate to keep space free from others—a protection Brooklyn could not provide.

I spent months shuttling back and forth between the Carolinas and Brooklyn. I even bought a car, something I believed I would never do. In this way, the pandemic was dramatically reshaping my identity. Runners don’t wear masks, and urbanists don’t own cars. Who was I becoming?

It was during this time that I began contemplating leaving New York. I was working from home like everyone else, and with a baby and caregiver in the adjacent room. Although my neighborhood had never felt more important, I felt deeply disconnected from my city, a place I had dreamed of belonging to since I, myself, had been a little girl. Six months into the pandemic, I got news of an opening at Open House New York, a mission-driven organization I had been attached to since its founding in 2001, shortly after I had finally become a New Yorker. OHNY unlocks the city, offering New Yorkers and visitors behind-the-scenes access to places across the five boroughs that are both little-known and globally recognized. I knew immediately that the job was a calling: a gateway to reconnect to my city in a profound way, something I desperately needed and longed to give to my daughter. I decided with startling clarity and ease that if I didn’t get the job, I would leave.

The pandemic turns three this month and I’m celebrating my two-year anniversary at OHNY. Over the past two months, we have been inundated with requests to partner with organizations of all stripes—places and institutions that recognize the profound importance of bringing our fellow New Yorkers back out into the city again—its streets, public spaces, cultural and community anchors like libraries and museums that have never felt more vital to the diversity of experiences that comes from living in the greatest city in the world. These requests remind me of what New York was like in the aftermath of 9/11, when the city defiantly rejected the knee-jerk reaction to close its doors. But it’s also a dramatically different time. A time coinciding with massive protests and reckoning around persistent and stark inequalities, infused with an energy and righteousness that I cannot quite describe. Residents from every corner of the city are only beginning to share their stories about what it means to belong and thrive here. And they are stories I am desperate to hear.