Shifting to the Theater District and Discovering His Neighborhood

Moving to the Theater District and Finding His Community

Peace and quiet don’t come easy in Midtown, but Alexander Tom has managed to find it across the street from the Gershwin Theater’s wicked witches.

Mr. Tom, 29, is the interim program head of the musical theater program at Pace University in Manhattan; he also moonlights as an audition coach, working out of his apartment and local studios.

Moving from his previous apartment in Harlem to one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods this May has, for him, meant surrounding himself not just with theater, but with his community: He’ll often leave his home and see a friend dipping into a theater for rehearsal. West 51st Street can feel, at times, less like a two-way thoroughfare and more like a small town. Moving before rental prices started to rebound from the pandemic slump turned out to be the right move for Mr. Tom.

“It’s quiet, but it feels like I can make it as loud as I want,” Mr. Tom said of his one-bedroom apartment. His biggest pandemic purchase was a Kawai piano, which he can play with gusto thanks to his building’s prewar walls. In fact, his next-door neighbor plays the piano too — they could duet, if only they could hear each other.

“I don’t hear the hustle and bustle of Midtown,” he said, “but I can walk outside and be just where I want to be.”

$2,025 | Midtown West

Occupation: Interim program head of the musical theater program at Pace University in Manhattan.
Favorite local coffee shop: “Bibble and Sip is an AAPI-owned coffee shop, with a llama as their mascot,” Mr. Tom said. “They’ve got great cream puffs, the coffee is great — I love me my Bibble.”
The show you need to see right now: Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over.” “The writer does an amazing job of having a conversation onstage, but also provoking the audience to have the conversation with themselves,” he said.

Earlier this year, while living in a studio on 125th and Broadway, Mr. Tom found himself itching for more space. The studio was so small that it had taken him months to properly arrange all his furniture in a way that felt livable. He had plans to spend two months this summer in South Carolina, to work on a student production of “Hello, Dolly!” and he worried that rents would increase significantly by the time he returned to the city.

Moving downtown was a top priority. The commute from Harlem to Pace’s campus in the financial district — which could take up to an hour and a half, depending on the whim of the M.T.A. — had begun to put a strain on Mr. Tom. Many of his workdays began with 9 a.m. classes and ended with rehearsals that went late into the night, meaning that he would arrive home after midnight and need to be up at 5 a.m. to start all over again. “I’m young and sprightly,” he said, “but I’m not that young, and I’m not that sprightly.”

The commute would need to shorten. So he set his eyes on an apartment below 72nd Street and above 14th, looking primarily at apartments in Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown West, or near Lincoln Square. In Harlem, he had become accustomed to certain amenities that he knew he wouldn’t want to part with, namely a dishwasher and a gas stove, which helped narrow down his options. (He loves to bake and regularly makes fresh pasta by hand.)

He ultimately found a one-bedroom apartment on 51st street in the heart of the Theater District, with laundry in the building and a small but well-appointed kitchen. The part-time doorman was a bonus, and he was thrilled to be across the street from the Gershwin, where he has plans to see “Wicked,” his favorite musical, for the eighteenth time. It’ll be a celebration of his birthday in early September, but also his first musical post-Covid, and a return to the second musical he ever saw as a child growing up in Arizona.

His new living room is about the size of his old apartment, and filled with light despite the density of the neighborhood, which has allowed him to develop his plant-rearing skills. “I’m no longer an over-waterer,” he said with cautious pride. “Some of the plants are thriving, but with some of them, I’m unsure if they’re the angry middle child or just don’t want to exist.”

With an influx of plants and an upgraded couch, Mr. Tom has been careful not to crowd his apartment with too many plants, given the importance of acoustics to both his personal piano practice and his work as a coach. When a room includes more things that can absorb sound, the sound fades more quickly. In his relatively spare living room, he said, “I can play music, and I feel like I’m immersed in the music.”

The one piece of art hanging in the room is a large abstract piece that Mr. Tom commissioned from the painter Ariel Messeca, who is a friend. A trio of abstract paintings from Joseph Dermody, a Connecticut-based artist, hang in his bedroom. Abstraction appeals to Mr. Tom: “I sit at my desk and my piano a lot,” he said, “and I like to look at something that doesn’t have a prescribed meaning to it, so I can give myself a creative mind break.”

Beyond the ample space and saner commute, this new apartment has allowed Mr. Tom a better work-life balance even when he works in the neighborhood. The location has allowed him to take freelance coaching jobs he would have previously turned down for commuting reasons. Now, when he gets a break for lunch and dinner, he can go home to recharge.

For those in the theater industry, “the pandemic forced us to ask: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the industry was better to us?’ And I think part of that is making sure you can advocate for yourself, and take care of yourself,” Mr. Tom said. “Being around theater is great because I can step into it, but also step out of it for a moment when I need to.”


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