Naomi Miller

I work at The New School on the 9th floor of 66 W. 12th Street until 6:00 pm. Last fall, I took a writing class on the 2nd floor of 65 W. 11th Street at 6:00 pm. I was often late, even if I left the office a few minutes early.

On the first day, I took the elevator to the 1st floor lobby, walked through the interior courtyard, entered the other building, and took that elevator to the 2nd floor. Taking the second elevator felt excessive and slow. I knew there had to be better ways to navigate the distance. After class, I discovered the stairs, walked up to the 3rd floor, through the bridge connecting the two buildings, and took the elevator to the 9th floor to collect my bag and bike helmet.

The following week, and for several weeks afterward, I tried to reverse that trip. But when I emerged from the bridge into the 3rd floor lobby of 65 W. 11th Street, I couldn’t find the stairs. Feeling pressured by time, I would run around the lobby in a blind panic, darting down the smaller hallways, to no avail.  I would take the elevator to the second floor, ashamed.

Flustered and frustrated, I cursed the architect; I cursed the sign next to the elevator that told me to take the elevator or stairs to Wollman Hall but didn’t tell me where the stairs were; I cursed the administrators who knew the answer but didn’t share it with anxiety-ridden late students who didn’t have time to wait for the elevator yet were considering running across courtyards and up stairs to arrive at a darkened classroom because the professor-mandated minute of silence and unwinding had begun.

I became so frustrated that I stopped going to the 3rd floor altogether. Sitting in class, I would try to remember to take an exploratory walk up the stairs to the 3rd floor so I could learn it once and for all. Even if I did this, I didn’t seem to remember the next time. The floor plan seemed intent on hiding the stairway door from me, willfully. I didn’t trust it, nor did I trust me. The thing is, I’m amazing at orienting myself in a given city, even if it’s new to me. Here I seem to have located the curious intersection of bureaucratic slippage and mental blockage.

What can I do to call attention to a physical absurdity that possibly no one else encounters without being foolish?  Am I alone in my conundrum?

What is more important: figuring out how to mark the way more clearly or finding people who share my confusion?

I’ve since taken a very slow observational tour of both 3rd and 4th floor lobbies of 65 West 11th Street. I get it now. But I protest the floor plan and the lack of signage. I’m willing to be a one-person march in the lobby, waving NYC’s Active Design Guidelines until an administrator takes note. I’m willing to make a sign for future flummoxed visitors. I’m willing to be the fool. Because isn’t this the risk that dissent requires?

Naomi Miller
Staff, The New School for Public Engagement