5 Small-Towners on Moving to New York City

As a native New Yorker, deciding to move home after college was one of the easiest decisions I ever made. I already knew my way around the subway. I already knew where to get the best latte. I already had a network of friends and family in place. The transition was (somewhat pathetically) seamless.

Because of the ease with which I was able to nestle back into this perpetually weird, often wonderful, bustling urban cocoon, I have a deep respect for people whose “moving to New York” stories required a far greater leap, both mentally and geographically.

There’s a particularly special mystique that surrounds the narrative of people from small towns across America who pack their bags and relocate to the Big Apple to follow their dreams. It takes guts to take that kind of risk. It also takes honesty — honesty with yourself about who you are and how you see your life evolving.

To close out Honesty Month on Man Repeller, I asked five former small-towners to tell me their stories about moving to New York. Read on for the modern version of a fairytale chapter book, with all the triumphs, failures, pep talks, emotional Band-Aids and revelations you might expect.

Rebecca Alaniz

Rebecca is a fashion stylist living in the East Village. She is originally from Magnolia, Texas (population: 1,985).

What was it like growing up in your hometown?

Have you ever seen the show Friday Night Lights? That’s my hometown. Everyone was (and still is) completely fixated on the local high school’s Friday night football games. Local businesses would close down early on Fridays and post signs like, “Gone to the game! Go Bulldogs!” The whole town attended the football game on Friday nights, and church on Sunday mornings, followed by an afternoon of NFL and grilling. That was the weekend routine.

In high school, everyone worked at the local grocery store, including me. My first car was my dad’s pickup truck. I’m 5’2″, so you do the math on that one. Speaking of transportation, I had several friends who would ride their horses to school. Seriously. They wanted to save money on gas.

Fast forward to my life in New York. I love when Manhattanites ask me if I own cowboy boots. Well of course I do — two pairs, to be exact! What about a cowboy hat, you might ask next? You bet your bottom dollar. I have tons of pride for my state. Texas forever. Beyoncé and I were born in the same town, thank you very much.

When was the exact moment you decided you wanted to move to New York?

New York was always the dream. A year after graduating college in 2012 and a few weeks before Christmas, a relationship I was in came to halt. Minutes after it ended, I called my mom. I said, “Mom, it’s over, but that’s not why I’m calling. I’ve decided it’s time for me to move to New York City.”

At the time, I knew God was up to something. I just wasn’t sure what. In hindsight, I now know my “failed relationship” was a door that needed to be shut so I could open another one. That failure was, in fact, the start of my real success story. I left Texas two months later with only two suitcases to my name. I sold everything else.

What was it like when you first arrived?

When I arrived, there was no blueprint, only an objective: Find a job. At the time, I was still very private about the dreams I had for myself and my life in New York. I was too intimidated and insecure to openly admit that I wanted to be a fashion stylist. It seemed too absurd for a small town girl from Texas to try to do something like that.

Despite my reservations, I decided to meet with a fashion agency that was placing candidates in the industry. When I arrived at their offices, I felt like I had been dropped into the scene of a movie. The reception area was all white everything, with accents of hot pink — including the hot pink stilettos worn by all the “fashion agents.”

An agent, along with her hot pink pumps and matching clipboard, greeted me and asked for my resume. I explained the vision I had for my career: styling stories for fashion publications, maybe even attending fashion week — in Paris, if I was lucky. Then we sat in silence for a few minutes as she went over my background. When she was finished, she looked up and said, “Oh sweetie, you just aren’t qualified for that.” She went on to say that based on my credentials, the best I job I could get in the industry was a sales floor position at H&M or Zara.

Well (*SPOILER ALERT*), I just got back from attending my fourth season attending Paris Fashion Week, and Milan before that. Over the past few years, I’ve styled stories and fashion content for major magazines — the same magazines I would read during my lunch break at the local grocery store back in high school.

I think about that fashion agent often. Part of me wants to visit her again to let her know how wrong she was — you know, “Pretty Woman” her — but at the same time, I wish I could thank her. Her underestimation of me and my abilities was all the motivation I needed to prove her wrong.

How has your time in New York changed you?

Living in New York has changed my story completely, proving that the “small town girl moves to the big city and makes her dreams come true” cliché can actually become a reality. I feel privileged to set an example for other people who want to do the same. On that note, before I moved to New York City four and half years ago, there was a girl who followed me on social media. She followed my entire journey to the city and was so inspired that a year later, she decided it was time to follow her dreams, too, and move to the Big Apple. Now she’s my assistant.

What makes you homesick?

Can I be real? I want to pack up and move home at least once a month. Sure, I’m lucky to have a success story, but there are still lows that come with the highs. I have moments of weakness where I think, There must be an easier way of life in Texas. When work is slow because I’m freelance, or I’m stuck in the rain with no cab in sight while carrying four shopping bags and six garment bags as I text a client I’m going to be late to her fitting during fashion week — I just want to quit! I fantasize about a Texas-sized apartment (vs. my shoebox of a New York room), and life with a car, and the whole picture looks so appealing. During those lows, my parents usually step in and remind me that New York is uncomfortable for a reason. Those who really want it put their heads down and persevere.

What makes you want to stay forever?

New York keeps me hungry. There is always a new level to reach and a new line to cross. It’s a city tailor-made for underdogs, and I’m addicted to the hustle.

Matt Little

Matt is the Head of Operations at Man Repeller. He currently lives in Hell’s Kitchen and is originally from Springboro, Ohio (population: 18,452).

What was it like growing up in your hometown?

It was definitely Quintessential Smalltown, USA (picture Leave it to Beaver meets Married with Children). There was a literal Main Street running through the center of town, and Friday night football games were very much the place to see and be seen. I always appreciated how safe it felt growing up in Springboro, thanks to the strong sense of community you might expect from a small town, but it was also very homogenous as a result.

When was the exact moment you decided you wanted to move to New York?

I’m not sure there was a pivotal moment, but moving to NYC was a top priority during my job search post-college. I had spent the previous summer interning and living in Louisville, Kentucky, and that just wasn’t enough to quench my thirst for the big city (no shade to Louisville).

What was it like when you first arrived?

I remember feeling a sense of belonging immediately. When I mastered Seamless by day two, I knew I’d be alright. I actually experienced reverse culture shock going to my first gay bar in the Big Apple. It was like that scene in The Little Mermaid where Ariel finally gets her legs.

How has your time in New York changed you?

I don’t know about “changed” so much as “allowed me to find myself.” I remember crying on 8th Avenue after a rough day when I first moved to New York, and a friend told me that I never, ever had to worry about people gawking at me on the street (or in the subway), because there’s always someone doing something zanier or more ridiculous than you. That anonymity, and the community of diverse eccentrics the city attracts, has helped me to step into the person I am today. That, and I wear a lot more black now.

What makes you homesick?

Being sick.

What makes you want to stay forever?

The energy, the accessibility and the feeling of never quite knowing what the day will bring.

Madeline Grandusky-Howe

Madeline is a senior at FIT and works at Ars Nova Theatre. She currently lives in Williamsburg and is originally from Fairport, New York (population: 5,406).

What was it like growing up in your hometown?

I’m from a town outside of Rochester, NY, close to Canada. Fairport felt a lot like a typical American suburbia. In high school, everything revolved around sports, gossip and clique behavior. The community had a “family” mentality, but I never felt like I fit in. I was more into theatre and art than sports, and I loved reading blogs as means of escape. I was ambitious but lazy as a student; I was always bored by school, and I knew I wanted to leave home for college.

When was the exact moment you decided you wanted to move to New York?

I originally wanted to move to New York because it was the only big city I had ever been exposed to. I was very lucky to have family members who took me to the city once every year or so. I would save all of my money as a kid and skip out on having a birthday party because I would rather visit New York City. As I got older and tried to figure out my college plans, I was set on moving to Manhattan to study fashion at FIT and intern for my favorite fashion designer. I felt positive I was going to be a fashion designer, and that goal got me through high school.

What was it like when you first arrived?

I experienced a lot of anxiety and stress during my first semester of college. I was fresh out of high school, trying to get by in a very high-stress program. I hated my classes, living in my dorm and how isolated I felt. Even though I was surrounded by so much action, I felt helpless, uninspired and overwhelmed. In high school, I was always very independent, so my initial reaction to living in New York was totally unexpected. I had definitely idealized what fashion school would be like, and I wasn’t happy until I found new reasons to be in New York.

How has your time in New York changed you?

I changed my career path completely and no longer study fashion. Now I want to work in the nonprofit arts industry and run the business side of a performing arts organization, or eventually run my own space some day. Living in New York put me within reach of opportunities that I never would have had elsewhere. I’ve forged incredible friendships and connections while working for theatre companies here.

Living in New York also gave me the resources I needed to work through issues with my sexuality, and the friends I needed to support me during that process. I had a lot of internalized homophobia growing up, so I’m really grateful to finally live in a place where my girlfriend and I can hold hands in public and not feel weird about it. You get an education in this city just by learning how to live successfully while still being true to who you are. New York has taught me the value of a side hustle and how far work ethic can take you. This city can take a lot out of you, but it gives back what you put in.

What makes you homesick?

I get homesick when I think about my family and friends that still live in or around Fairport, especially my siblings. Not seeing my dogs. Diner breakfasts, thrift stores, abundant space, driving in the summertime and drinking lattes from the best coffee shops in the state (my personal favorites are Ugly DuckJava’s, and Glen Edith).

What makes you want to stay forever?

Bodegas, my creative and supportive friends, my girlfriend, the amount of restaurants and culinary choices, exploratory walks, the New York Public Library, rooftops, crossing bridges, picnics in the park, and all the ideas being born here at any given moment. I could go on and on. New York is full of endless possibilities!

Naa-Sakle Akuete

Naa-Sakle is the CEO and Founder of Eu’Genia Shea. She currently lives in Bed-Stuy and is originally from Hyattsville, Maryland (population: 18,449).

What was it like growing up in your home town?

My version of small town life was epitomized by community traditions:  the haunted house, the sock hop dance (which is why I know every Golden Oldie ever), the strawberry picking festival and even an annual musical. The most epic tradition was the May Fair. There were tons of rides and games — as many as the local school’s black top and soccer field could hold. Each year, the child stars of the annual musical would lead the May Fair parade through town in an old convertible, and every year, I dreamed of the day I would be one of them. I never was, but New York is where dreams come true, right? Please?

When was the exact moment you decided you wanted to move to New York?

New York won me over in spite of myself. When I graduated from college, I got a job in generic finance based in New York, so I migrated to the big city. First I was in Stuyvesant Town (living on a blowup mattress), then Hell’s Kitchen (which earned its name), then Brooklyn.

What was it like when you first arrived?

When I first arrived, I spent most of my non-working hours taking advantage of my Blockbuster unlimited DVD pass to watch Lost from start to finish. I somehow managed to miss out on all the legitimately cool things about living in New York, instead experiencing the myriad ways in which you can get by by being a complete sloth (that’s what I wanted to be anyways because of my job, and post-college burnout).

Even though I didn’t get out much, I was still eating fantastic food. It was ludicrous to me that I could eat so well without even trying, but that’s New York for you. In Hyattsville, Red Lobster and Chili’s were my only nice dining options. In New York, I can wake up and have Himalayan food on a whim. I still sometimes go to Uno’s on the UWS, but that’s because chains will always feel a bit like home.

I didn’t truly fall for New York until I started exploring it. My boyfriend (now husband) and I began a tradition of ambling through Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill and Williamsburg before crossing into the Lower East Side and into the villages. We’d stop for drinks or food or to see friends scattered along the way. In the city that never sleeps nor moves slower than an Olympic-paced speed walk, we meandered at our leisure, discovering new spots, people-watching and falling in love with each other and our new home.

How has your time in New York changed you?

For better or worse, everywhere that’s not New York feels quaint in the kind of condescending way that makes people refer to New York as  “the city,” which I always hated, even though I do it too, now.

What makes you homesick?

I have my own start-up: Eu’Genia Shea, a line of all natural shea butter-based balms, and all of our operations are in Ghana. As a result, I travel a lot. I have so much family in Ghana, both literal relatives and my work family, that my time there feels warm and energizing, which makes the return to New York particularly jarring.

Also, maybe it’s just me, but it seems like all the gateways into Manhattan are designed to repel. Taking a bus into Port Authority or a train into Penn Station always makes me want to about-face and never return.

What makes you want to stay forever?

I spent a few months living in San Francisco for work. Somehow the weather was perfect the whole time. I made new friends, caught up with old ones, ate healthier, worked out and saw daylight more than I had in all my New York finance years. But one night, I tried to order pizza to my apartment near the financial district, and no one would deliver. Not to start talking about food again, but that’s when the West Coast scales fell from my eyes and I realized I could never live there.

Because I’m my own boss at Eu’Genia, I could technically work from anywhere. In Ghana, I’d be closer to family and our company’s 1500 registered shea nut pickers. In Europe, or anywhere else, I could be expanding sales. However, it’s hard for me to imagine raising children away from the diversity of New York. If you want to expose your children to millions of different people and things with minimal effort (which I do), there’s no better place to do it.

Chad Ellis

Chad is an accountant. He currently lives in Hell’s Kitchen and is originally from Wildwood, Missouri (population: 35,756).

What was is like growing up in your home town?

If I ever needed absolutely anything, my mom’s step-second-cousin-in-law’s barber knew a guy. That pretty much sums it up.

When was the exact moment you decided you wanted to move to New York?

I was deciding between job offers and thought, why not try New York? I was young, the opportunity may not have presented itself again, and I figured I could always move back home if it didn’t work out. Plus, I wanted to live out my Friends fantasy.

What was it like when you first arrived?

Where I’m from, if you pass by someone on the street or supermarket, you smile and the other person reciprocates. In New York, smiling at at a stranger results in awkward stares, a disgusted face or verbal assault. Verbal assault only happened to me once, but I quickly learned to commute like a New Yorker: headphones in, bitch face on and walk like you have somewhere to be.

How has your time in New York changed you?

I came out in New York, so this city has had a pretty profound impact on my life. Even if I move someday, New York will always be a special place to me.

What makes you homesick?

Thin, St. Louis-style Pizza. On Friday nights, my family would always order pizza along with toasted ravioli and a salad with a cheese-to-lettuce ratio of 5:1. We often played board games at the kitchen table afterward; winning Mouse Trap gave me front seat privileges in the minivan for at least a week.

What makes you want to stay forever?

TWENY-FOUR HOUR COOKIES. Delicious food at all hours is a major selling point. More seriously, though, it’s the people, and the diversity of perspectives that foster an environment in which a suburban Midwestern boy can be who he is, and order what he wants, when he wants.

From a small town? Share your story below.

Photos by Savanna Ruedy. Follow her on Instagram @savannarr

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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