The last side hustle
Waiting tables between gigs is over, now Rachel Berger is breaking the mold of co-working spaces
When Rachel Berger came to New York, she was convinced she'd be a famous Broadway actress. It was only a matter of time. A star is born. Jazz hands.
She was doing all the usual side hustles – waiting tables, dog sitting, baby sitting ... all the sitting things – but after two years, the fame thing still hadn't quite happened yet. So she figured, OK, no problem, I'll go get my masters. That'll be the stamp of approval.
But after auditioning for MFA programs, she realized she'd be back in the same pool of actors chasing the same dream. An actor's life. What to do?
“I was working in a show in 2015 that was going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival” she says. “and we were running around the city, going to different rehearsal spaces and coffee shops and people's apartments, having no space that really validated the work that we were creating. “Then this lightbulb moment came on when I was sitting in a co-working space. I was like, 'Why isn't there a WeWork for the arts?'"
She asked around. Talked to her friends ("what the fuck is co-working?" was the general consensus), did a ton of research, then, when she got back from Edinburgh, things turned serious.
"I met with the Small Business Development Center, where an adviser taught me about financial projections and pitch decks. And David Gise, the co-founder of the Centre for Social Innovation, became a mentor. His key piece of advice was, 'If you want to create a space, you need to befriend a developer or the landlord."
And so the search began, walking the streets, taking pictures of vacant retail spaces, talking to developers. But when she met Clinton Housing, something kind of clicked. It took a few months, but they eventually called to say they had a vacant space on W52nd St - an old piano factory from the early 1900s, complete with big freight elevator, naked walls, and concrete floors.
"It was completely bare, the floors were greasy,' recalls Rachel, “but did I see the potential? Yes."
That space is now The Artist Co-op.
It was created on a budget, for people on a budget. And it's almost completely furnished from pieces either found on the street or donated by friends. One wall is hung with old mirrors. String lights hang from the ceiling. Odd lamps light up the white-painted brick walls. There are random rugs to soften the concrete floors. And an entire wall has been painted by graffiti artist Rebel Air. Two rehearsal spaces – soundproofed and with pianos - complete what she describes as “a welcoming, creative environment. It's perfectly imperfect - it allows the artist to not feel constrained by the perfection.”
The working community includes theater companies, poets, producers, lighting designers, set designers, and a little magazine called W42ST – from all over the city, reaching as far afield as Brooklyn and New Jersey.
And the big difference between The Artist Co-op and other co-working spaces?
“We're affordable!" says Rachel. “$50 a month as opposed to around $300 for a hot desk.”
She has dreams of expansion - of growing her network of humans and of building an empire of spaces for artists to nurture their work. But what of the dreams she had when she first arrived? Is there still a little piece of her heart that lives on Broadway?
“This is my artistic pursuit now"she says. “It's time consuming, but it's artistically fulfilling. I get to be seen and heard in a different way, and I'm helping a community that can help more people get their stories told.”
This story was originally published in the September 2018 issue of W42ST Magazine.