When the photographer Jackie Dixon & I decided to take a week-long trip to New York over Halloween in 2006, we borrowed our friend Todd Selby’s studio apartment in the East Village – he was shooting in LA, and left us the keys. Jackie knew the city well from her many trips over with British Vogue, and inducted me into her New York, a city far removed from the one that existed in my head, cobbled together from the movies.
Until then, Manhattan to me was an island of easily recognisable landmarks and architecture: the canyon-like avenues of Midtown, the townhouses of the Upper East Side, the skyscrapers of the Financial District and, of course, the verdant abundance of Central Park. The East Village was an eye opener to me: I had no idea that Manhattan could be so…low-rise. So green. So grubby. So mesmerisingly, endearingly wonderful.
When I started to discover New York and make my own map of the city, as opposed to the fantasy one, it was under Jackie’s auspices. She showed me the tenement buildings of the LES and East Village, the box-like industrial buildings of SoHo, the brownstones of the West Village and the neighbourhood parks from Washington Square to Tompkins Square which had completely passed me by.
Of course, on that first trip, it was all about the East Village. Walking, shopping and, above all, eating. Seeing the size of Todd’s kitchenette, I immediately caught on to the New Yorker dining philosophy: dine out. Always. And one of the very first places in which we ate was the Life Cafe, a couple of blocks over on the north east corner of Tompkins Square Park.
Back then, Dixon & I weren’t blogger and photographer: I was a freelance fashion writer; she was a freelance stylist and contributing fashion editor on British InStyle. We loved our trip in October so much that we decided to move over eight weeks later at the beginning of 2007.
I found us a sunny fourth floor walk-up to rent on Craigslist on East 6th, between 1st & 2nd, and so the East Village became Jackie’s home for a few months until she returned to London, and my home for the next two years on and off. The Life Cafe became a regular eating haunt, both with and without her.
If Jackie hadn’t suggested that first trip to New York in October 2006 one slightly tipsy evening around our lovely fashion editor friend Anna Rimmer’s flat, I would never have moved to Manhattan, would never had this blog, would not be running my own business. And the Life Cafe seems all bound up in that: the place where we sat eating lunch on our very first trip to Manhattan together, all over excited about meetings and opportunities in the city. Jackie took the photograph of me, above, in the Life Cafe, and it remains one of my all time favourite portraits.
So, although I’m now based in London again, I’m sad to read that the building is up for rent, and that the Life Cafe will be no more*. Of course it means different things to different people – it’s where the musical Rent was mainly composed, and where countless writers have sat eating and thinking. But to me it will always represent both one of the happiest periods of my time in New York, and the big thank you I owe to Jackie for suggesting we go to New York in the first place.
*The Life Cafe’s newer branch in Brooklyn remains open