Office Space: A Mini-Memoir of Desks, Views and Water Coolers

I now have an office at City College in Harlem, where I teach and co-chair a social justice leadership institute.  It’s the twentieth, by my count, of my career — going back to the first office I shared with other part-time policy staffers at the ACLU national headquarters on 40th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan in the mid-1970s – and likely one of the last.

I work mostly from home these days, a practice borne first of the pandemic and now of the fact that the teaching and consulting gigs I have in what I call my “post-leadership” period (since they all add up to at least a full-time job, I can hardly call it retirement) don’t really require my presence in an office on a regular basis.  In Connecticut, I hang out in a study that doubles as a guest room/TV room while my wife, when not in her own organization’s office in Manhattan, commands the dining room table as her base of operations.  I like working at home, and the freedom it permits me to go for a swim or putter in the garden if I have an hour or two between Zoom sessions.  But I loved all the years I went every day to an office, and almost every one was special to me in some way.

There’s a lot of debate now about the value of working in an office with your colleagues, now that most people have had a taste of working at home and by many measures productivity has not suffered.  If I was still running an organization, I’d encourage staff to spend at least some time in the office together.  Thinking back on my own career, there are many relationships that are valuable to me personally and professionally that would not have developed had my colleagues been adjoining boxes on a Zoom call. 

To cite just two cases from the brief time I worked at the ACLU national office over forty years ago, there were two people from small or fledgling organizations that we sublet space to, whose doors were just down the hall from me.  One was Dorothy Samuels,  who soon went on to head the New York Civil Liberties Union, and hired me there.  The other was Tim Sweeney, the young director of a new gay rights organization, Lambda, who years later, when I was running the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs, introduced me to Evan Wolfson, a key architect of marriage equality whose visionary plan for what then seemed like a farfetched Supreme Court victory we were privileged to support.  Those relationships turned out very well, as Dorothy and Evan remain close friends.  The relationship with her led to my first management job, and the one with him helped contribute to the major civil rights advance of the last generation.  But they first developed in what you might call water-cooler conversations.  I don’t know how or whether they would have bloomed in a virtual environment.

I moved into the first office I ever had to myself in the summer of 1979 when, still 24, Dorothy hired me as the Assistant Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, then the ACLU’s largest affiliate office.  The NYCLU was located just north of 14th Street on at 84 Fifth Avenue (the same building is still in the same place, though I noticed passing by it the other day that it has been renumbered 90 Fifth Avenue), and my first office there was small but it had a window on 14th Street and a little sofa where my guests could sit.  It was only a few blocks from my apartment, then on 17th Street, the shortest commute of my life before the Zoom era.  (When my first daughter was born early the next year, I’d run home for lunch many days, eager not to miss a moment.)

I got a promotion at the NYCLU a year or two later and with it a bigger office with more windows and furniture.  One summer day in that period my ten-year old niece, who lived in California, was visiting us in New York and came to work with me one day.  I might have given her a few office chores, and I’m sure I took her out to lunch, but for most of the time she sat on one of my guest chairs and drew or read while I went about my day.  At the end of the day, with a child’s directness, she asked me a question few others have posed during my career:  “How much money do you make?”  I told her what I earned, which was probably in the low to mid-thirties at that point – not bad for the time and the sector, and enough to live on, but no fortune. Either because she had a child’s distorted sense of what things cost or because her single mother was always struggling to make ends meet, she practically jumped out of her chair, repeating the sum and asking, “You make all that money just for talking on the phone all day?”

And of course from a child’s perspective, that was my job – talking on the phone or in meetings.  Today we could add staring at a computer screen and tapping out letters.  I wasn’t building a house or saving a child from a fire or pushing a wheelchair-bound elderly person around the park to get some air.  My output was in the form of words.

By 1984, still not yet thirty, I was restless to run my own ACLU branch.  After flirting with a few on the Eastern seaboard, I ended up as Executive Director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, then based in Austin.  My dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker wife at the time saw the opportunity as she might an experiment in international living.  The TCLU in those days was in a beautiful, slightly run-down turn of the century (that is, turn of the previous century, from the early 1900s) home at 7th and Nueces, a short walk from the Texas Capitol (where I would spend many hours as our chief lobbyist).  It was owned by two lawyers who had bought it as a headquarters for their practice but who were then in public office – David Richards (the ex-husband of the future governor, Ann Richards), who was a Deputy Attorney General, and Sam Houston Clinton, who was serving a term as a justice on the State Court of Criminal Appeals.  We shared the building with the Texas Observer, the great progressive magazine, and though Molly Ivins — pictured at right with her co-editor Kaye Northcott on the lawn in front of the building — was no longer its editor, she was in and out of the building a lot, and I wrote for the Observer on a regular basis.

The building had for many decades been a great private home before its conversion to a law office, and my predecessor as TCLU director had given the grand parlor room to the organization’s legal director (who, in the manner of ACLU legal directors vis a vis their ostensible bosses, the executive directors, thought that was nothing less his due) and taken for his own office the former bathroom of the primary bedroom.  Actually, it was not quite a former bathroom.  All the fixtures were still there, some shelves built over the toilet and the desk was a shellacked door spread over the enormous claw-footed bathtub.  I grew to like it.  A few years into my tenure we bought a bungalow next to a funeral home on the east side of Austin, decades before its eventual gentrification, converted it into an office, and I finally moved from a former bathroom into a former bedroom.

My family moved back to New York in 1988 and for a few months, on a year-long fellowship at Columbia and doing some freelance writing, I worked from my home in Brooklyn.  But the fellowship stipend was far less than I needed to live on (now with two kids), and before long I was drawn back into organizational work when recruited to direct the Freedom-to-Write Program at PEN American Center.  PEN’s office was in a loft on Broadway in Soho and was set up newsroom-style with almost all of the desks in one big room.  This approach to office design would later become very trendy in the “open office” movement of the last decade or two, something in my experience that bosses like and workers generally don’t.  The only private office, albeit with glass walls so no visual privacy, was occupied by my boss and PEN’s Executive Director, Karen Kennerly, who may have had it because she then smoked.  (But back then a lot of people smoked, and this was before office smoking bans, so I may be wrong in that recollection.)  Karen was extremely well-read and politically-informed, which made her a good choice for the literary/human rights organization, but not so up on the popular culture.  I’ll never forget her bursting out of her office one day, in the middle of a phone call, carrying the phone on a long cord, one hand cupped over the mouthpiece, calling out to the assembled staff in the big room, “Has anyone here ever heard of a Johnny Carson?”

I was only at PEN a few years before Aryeh Neier recruited me to Human Rights Watch, then in its first decade and growing fast.  I ran a free expression project and then became its Associate Director.  Human Rights Watch was then on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street, and while it had private offices, in only a few did the walls go all the way up to the ceiling, so most workers lacked auditory privacy. I learned quite a lot about my colleagues’ marriages, and if you wanted to have a truly private conversation, you had to take your co-worker or guest into the large conference room (with a giant wood table that had once been at Random House, where our Board Chair Bob Bernstein had been President) or one of the few other fully-walled offices.  If your supervisor suggested that your performance review discussion take place in one of those offices, you knew you were in trouble.

As I acquired broader administrative responsibilities at Human Rights Watch, overseeing the fundraising, finance and human resources operations, I had the principal responsibility for signing off on office space and became aware that you can tell a great deal about a colleague by the value they attach to office real estate.  For some, light was essential.  For others, privacy. And for still others, proximity to whatever the perceived seat of power was, and closely correlated, where other colleagues were situated and how big their offices were.  It was the rare colleague who didn’t lobby me about at least one of those things.

And as I rose, because in fact in almost all institutions office space aligns with power dynamics, I got a bigger office facing Fifth Avenue and the first of my great office views, of the lions gracing the entrance of the New York Public Library right across the street.

In 1996 I went to work for George Soros and the Open Society Foundations to found a U.S. program there.  In those days, the foundation was in the same building as Soros’s hedge fund on West 57th Street, so we were given part of a floor there and my first office overlooked another New York City landmark, Carnegie Hall. I was tickled that the facilities staff found two rust-colored wing chairs for my new office, the kind Alistair Cooke sat in before a crackling fire introducing Masterpiece Theater, and in my new life in philanthropy I imagined myself ensconced in one for a few hours each morning reading policy books and grant proposals.  But that fantasy bit the dust early, as the activist sense of urgency that Soros brought to our work, coupled with my own tendencies in that direction, left little time for reflection, and hardly any unscheduled time at all. We grew so fast – from a few to over a hundred employees in our first year – that we quickly had a space crisis, and since I was asking my staff to put up with office-sharing and overcrowded conditions, I cut my own office in half to make a second one for someone else.  Before long we moved to a new building a few blocks away where I spent my longest tenure so far – almost ten years — in one physical space. Over the years I acquired more books and bookcases – when you run a foundation, people send you a lot of free books – and over ten summers brought back a lot of smooth stones collected on the beach and placed them along the window ledges and on other surfaces. I couldn’t bear dealing with moving them to a new office years later, so I invited staff to come and take a few in my last few weeks there, as a kind of memento.

As my offices grew in size I had more and more wall space and more and more framed items – about which more in a bit. I’m a little compulsive and order-focused, and my staff noticed a tendency on my part to jump up on the middle of a meeting to straighten a picture that seemed askew to me. (Something I have to admit I do in other peoples’ offices as well.). I never realized until someone spilled the secret to me recently that at times my staff would slant the pictures before I came in just to screw with me.

Up to this point in my career my offices had been in modest suites – either in non-profits concerned about costs or at least trying not to seem ostentatious, lest foundations think their money was being squandered on digs that were too posh.  Though a rich foundation, Soros’s Open Society Institute, in both in its salary and office culture, went for modesty too.  We weren’t the kind of place – unlike, say, the Rockefeller Foundation, whose custom doors brought to mind the Ghiberti panels on Florence’s Duomo — that a grantseeker would feel intimidated by, or grumble that we were diverting grant money to our own comfort and edification.

When I became President of the Atlantic Philanthropies in 2007, I got a taste of the high life, office-wise.  My corner office at Atlantic’s  42nd and Park location, in a well-maintained pre-war building – continued my pattern of landmark views, as I looked down over the roof of Grand Central Terminal. It was large and wood-paneled, with built-in bookcases and a conference table I could seat ten people around comfortably.

Yet Atlantic’s workforce, even before I got there and replaced an army of consultants with another half-dozen staff, had grown to the point where there was no room large enough to seat everyone for a meeting – and certainly not for the events open to a broader audience that I aspired to do.  So when our lease was up I decided we should move.

We found a place downtown, on Varick Street, not quite Tribeca and not quite the Village or Noho, on the top floor of a building that had once housed a number of printing businesses. We got to build it out to our specifications, and it became a lovely, airy space with a great deal of meeting room that could accommodate not only our own staff, but was made available to grantees and community organizations as well, so almost daily the offices were filled with activists who we encouraged to think of it as their space as well.

Befitting the CEO-exalting history of Atlantic – a tendency my tenure strained greatly – my office was not only the largest, but quite large, with built in bookcases, a few seating areas, an adjacent conference room with video capacity (with a global staff, Atlantic was well ahead of what became during the pandemic Zoom culture), and a door to an outdoor terrace that wrapped around the building.  On that terrace, we inherited a giant flagpole (flying the US flag) that could be seen – and still can, long after Atlantic shut its doors and left the building — for blocks.  It was the nicest digs I’ve had or am likely to have.  What it lacked was a bathroom, thanks mostly to my wife.

In the original plans for the floor, I noticed a private bathroom adjacent to my office.  I thought this was a little much, but wasn’t inclined to put up a fight until I mentioned it to my wife, who thought it an elitist extravagance, and what feeble evidence I could muster – the President of the Rockefeller Foundation has a private bath AND a server who brings a hot breakfast on silver trays!  The Ford Foundation President has not only a full bath but a little daybed for napping! – only served to harden her position, so I made sure the plans were changed so the “private” bath was not mine, but across the hall for anyone to use.  Which they did, since it contained the only shower in the suite, and runners found it very useful.

It was in that office that I first put up my “me wall.”  I was inspired by a visit to the office of the late Dr. Kevin Cahill, the epidemiologist, to get some anti- tropical disease shots before a trip to Vietnam.  As he was sitting at his desk writing me a prescription, I noticed that the wall behind him was crowded with framed certificates – various diplomas, honorary degrees and awards.  A lot of professionals have such walls, and I have my own share of meaningful certificates, but it occurred to me it would be fun, since I am a person who has thrown away nothing since first grade, to pull together a collection of impressive-looking but dinky certificates – my promotion to third grade, my third place in the Daughters of the American Revolution patriotic essay contest, my seventh-grade honor roll – and frame them nicely.  Visitors to my office would look at the framed array behind me and be impressed – until they looked more closely.

For a few years after I stepped down from Atlantic I was a Senior Fellow at NYU’s Wagner School, and they gave me an office in the historic Puck Building at Lafayette and Houston. It was about the size of my conference table at Atlantic,  but a place to hang out and meet students or other visitors when I chose.  Because classes took place elsewhere, there weren’t a lot of students around, and I soon learned that faculty did not exactly follow a nine-to-five routine. Moreover, as an adjunct – albeit one with a made-up title to tide me over between leadership posts, I was neither fish of faculty or the fowI of administration. I barely knew the people in adjacent offices, and there was almost none of the camaraderie I associated with office life (Hey, everyone, it’s Naomi’s birthday and we’re having cake in the conference room!) and have tried to foster before or since.

For a few months toward the end of my post-Atlantic sabbatical in the spring of 2013, I was a Visiting Scholar at the Haas Center at Berkeley for three months, giving three public lectures during that period, and they gave me an office at the law school that was several times larger than my NYU office but so hard to find in the labyrinthine building that I was ready to go back to New York by the time I got the hang of it.  There, too, I hardly interacted with colleagues or used the office to meet anyone, but its spaciousness was great for filling the walls with giant post-its mapping out my lecture notes.

Later that year I became President of The Democracy Alliance, which was based in DC, a city I had no plans to move to, so I rented a small apartment on Capitol Hill and became a long-distance commuter, spending three days a week in DC, before the pandemic ended office life for a few years.  The office itself, on Eye Street around the corner from the White House, was in one of those DC professional buildings that is studiously nondescript inside and out.  But I liked walking past the White House each day and taking some measure of pride that Barack Obama lived and worked there.  In a year or two, we moved to a prewar office building a few blocks away and was glad not to have to be reminded each day that it was then occupied by Donald Trump.  For a while, the Democracy Alliance rented me a shared-workspace office near Wall Street for the days I was in New York, and I looked out on the New York Stock Exchange, the fourth, if I am counting right, of my iconic views.

When I stepped down two years ago from the Democracy Alliance, my staff wanted me to film a short video packing up my office, and I used the opportunity to reflect a bit on things I’ve taken with me from one office to another over the years.  You can see it here.

Which all brings me back to the office I am in now.  It’s on the City College campus, a storied place at one time dubbed the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” and indeed for 175 years it has been a public institution dedicated to providing higher education for working class people and immigrants.  Many of the buildings on campus are gorgeous Gothic structures, chock-a-block with jutting gargoyles, that can hold their own with any leafy Ivy in the northeast.

I don’t happen to have my office in one of those.  Mine is in a more recent brutalist building designed, I am told – not surprising, if you’ve been there – by an architect who specialized in prisons. My grimy sixth floor window looks out over Harlem to the east, but more immediately to rutting pigeons on a ledge nearby. 

But I’m happy there, and the halls are constantly filled with students.  I have my “me wall” up behind me – the backdrop now for Zoom calls, because that’s still the way most of my meetings take place – and just to the right of that a Navajo hanging that my late Aunt Jackie, a Sister of Mercy who taught at one point on reservations in the southwest – sent to me for a Christmas present more than forty years ago, and which has followed me to every office I’ve had since then. 

In addition to City College, my other main gig these days is as a Senior Advisor to the Raben Group.  Raben is based in DC, and I can hang out at their office there when I am in town, but they also have a small shared workspace in New York, toward the foot of Wall Street.  I don’t really need a second office in New York, but I’m going to make a point of hanging out there from time to time, since I’m told it has a view — of the Statue of Liberty.