Although she didn’t want to be profiled, we thought it was high time Untapped Cities Founder Michelle Young had a little profile on the site she created!
What’s your favorite Untapped spot in New York City?
This changes all the time. My favorite areas are the neighborhoods which bridge industrial and residential. Sunset Park towards the water, Gowanus and Red Hook by Hamilton Highway. These transitionary places reveal the underbelly that supports the city. How the edges gentrify signals how development is going to unfold. Unfortunately, over time, these areas get lost and you have to find a new spot.
How did Untapped Cities start?
I had been working as a fashion buyer for years and as I was preparing to go back to grad school for urban planning, I realized how little you see of your own city when you just go from home to work and back every day. Simply by varying my path, I started uncovering things about New York City and seeing it differently. From the very beginning, Untapped was about sharing this experience with great images to bring the reader there–I’d drag my friends with me to Fresh Kills Landfill, play mini golf in a repurposed empty lot in Bushwick, to see Manhattanhenge, to take a gangster tour of St. Mark’s Place, to see the gorgeous abandoned station under City Hall. Then people starting writing in, wanting to share also, and that seemed like a much cooler idea than having just one voice–and the contributor community was born! I’ve met so many amazing people, across backgrounds and industries through Untapped, from all around the world. That’s really priceless.
What are you most proud of with Untapped Cities?
I’m most proud of the community that has developed around Untapped Cities. This idea of discovering your city in new ways is something a lot of New Yorkers and people around the world were already nurturing on their own, and we provided a platform for them to show it. People write us every day, asking to become part of the community and we just love hearing from everyone and enabling them to share something cool about their cities.
We have a “feel good” wall in the office, with all the awesome tweets, comments, and email love we get from our readers. We also really aim to break down the idea that writers for publications are sitting at a desk, working in a silo. Some of the best ideas bubble up from the streets and come from engaged, passionate residents.
Favorite piece you’ve written for Untapped:
This is really hard! There was the time we stumbled upon an old water plant in the industrial suburbs of Paris that turned out to be where the museums of Paris restore and store art that’s not on display! It’s like a cathedral to unshowcased art. There’s a Richard Serra just sitting in the backyard. The security guard connected us to the office in Paris and we got a real tour.
The favorite piece I ever wrote may have been about Christopher Payne’s photography of the Steinway Piano Factory. As a musician and architectural photographer, I felt really moved by his documentation—meticulous yet full of silent meaning.
I’ve been lucky to go behind-the-scenes (both legally and illegally) into some of New York City’s coolest projects and places: Domino Sugar Factory, 1 WTC construction, Calatrava train station at WTC, the third section of the High Line, the Glenwood Power Plant. I’m also proud of some of the more policy pieces I’ve written about the legalization of street art in Rio de Janeiro, the demolition of historic neighborhoods by the government in Istanbul. All things I witnessed first hand. I was also really happy with the piece on the TWA Flight Center, which helped jumpstart the movement for its conversion to a hotel. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being the only person in that amazing building with just your guide from the Port Authority.
What’s your favorite Untapped place you’ve visited while traveling? Where do you want to visit next?
Going to Papua New Guinea was one of the craziest things I’ve done, and it was totally on a whim. I was on the way to Vietnam on a backpacking trip when friends emailed me who were working there. I dropped everything and made my way there. Sarajevo was another city I just instantly connected with. I’m going to Africa for the first time this year to Mafia Island and separately to the Grand Canyon–can’t believe I haven’t been there yet.
Best Celebrity Sighting:
There have been a few notable ones. Mostly, random. I was actually a principal actor on the Steven Soderbergh film, Side Effects. They needed a classically trained cellist on-screen for a funeral scene, so I got cast while in grad school and had my own room in a trailer. I got to work briefly with Soderbergh on what song should go in the scene. I remember telling him (nicely) that he should listen to one more song, then make a decision. He went with that last song. Jude Law, Rooney Mara and Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) were in the same scene.
Last year, I met Obama on the tarmac as he got off Air Force One. He has this amazing deep look when he meets you, as if he would really love to chat with you longer but he just unfortunately doesn’t have enough time. Earlier that year, I had escorted the Tuskeegee Airmen to Obama’s inauguration, and that was truly an honor to meet such historical figures. And finally, a big shoutout to my grandfather, who survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and passed away almost a year ago.
Get in touch with Michelle @untappedmich.