As Founder and Professional Organizer of OrganizeNY, Juli Oliver is probably one of the most together people in Hell’s Kitchen — but her early days in the neighborhood were a little rocky. Here’s Juli’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born in upstate NY — Syracuse (the real upstate, people!). I moved to NYC in 1995 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to study fashion photography.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
Like many other 2nd year students, in 1996, I found myself looking for off-campus housing because FIT gave the incoming freshmen first priority to the dorms and placed the rest of us in a housing lottery. A group of my friends, homeless students and I that got rejected, took part in a rally one morning at Rockefeller Center and we made it on the NBC morning news with our handmade poster board signs, because 280 returning students got kicked to the curb. After a lengthy search, I ended up moving to the 17th floor in what is now the Hudson Hotel.
The late great comedian/actor Nipsey Russell was also a resident, as many old-time actors/entertainers lived in the building and I would frequently run into him. One time he mistakenly thought that my mom driving in her metallic salmon color Lincoln Town car was his livery driver, opened the door and just about jumped in the back. She reminded him politely that they met before and that she was there to pick me up to take me home.
I recall schlepping all my photography supplies on a granny cart back n’ forth 30 blocks via the 1 train to school each day. It was at Columbus Circle where I heard my first close-range gunshots down in the subway. Thankfully, I was on a different platform.
Fast forward to 2009: Amid a wild year with four business trips to China to organize my clientele there, I moved into the apartment I’m currently in. That turned out to be just 3/4 of a block west of my HH apartment from 1996. So it seems that I was meant to live on this street and really can’t see myself living on any other one. It’s also the longest I’ve ever lived in the same apartment.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
The community of course. I walk the streets humming “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood” because there’s not a day that goes by without running into someone you know, a fellow resident, or someone at a place I patronize. As I step outside my building many hellos and smiles are in order. This ‘hood has a dazzling vibe and I like to say: #ILiveInHell 😉
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
It’s a tie between years-long 9th Avenue street construction with no end in sight AND neglected bike lanes with constant unnecessary clutter in the way (ie: people, cars, trash, POTHOLES). I ride my vintage bike (named the Pink Caddy by friends) all over Manhattan and the boroughs as means to get everywhere for work and fun, and road conditions are the pits.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
I was already upstate for my dad’s birthday before the pandemic hit and ended up getting stuck there for six weeks. When I found my way back to Manhattan I truly enjoyed the temporary, empty, quiet mood.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I’m the Founder and Professional Organizer of OrganizeNY. It’s our Sweet SIXTEEN this year! My passion for helping others with my creative skills and understanding our client’s needs to find a solution to any problem in a home or office space, designing and organizing has always come naturally. Seeing you happy, makes me happy.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
That so many people didn’t know simple hygiene like how to wash their hands. Gross.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
No matter the situation — we adapt, we connect, we bounce back.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
My friends were staying at the Holiday Inn, now the Watson on W57th St. and they let me sneak into the rooftop pool on a Tuesday. After a refreshing swim, we got busted and I was kicked out. This pool is huge for a standard NYC rooftop. It was well worth getting in trouble for.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
Oh wow. I have so many stories. Ask me another time what 3 actors were dancing/bumping into me at CBGB’s or why I was on 20/20 once. But to keep it in the neighborhood: Kurt Russell almost got run over by the Pink Caddy when he stepped out into the street without looking. Matthew Broderick is a regular at Townie. Ice T and I shared a nod when I walked my bike through a set trying to get home one night. Honestly though, celebrity or not, we’re all just beautiful people trying to live our best lives.
What’s your superpower?
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
Sing in the shower? Nope. I’m in and out. So fresh and so clean clean. I save singing for the Fieldston Choral Society a chorus I’ve been part of for the past 5 years.
Which people inspire you the most?
Those that have drive, spirit, a strong work ethic, and who are creative. My parents are a great example of all that.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“Don’t assume, know the facts.” ~me
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I have three — Hot and Sour soup from Zen Palate, Lee’s Art Shop, and the late Le Bar Bat.
Anything we missed?
I’d love to continue to volunteer more and keep active around the neighborhood. If anyone has any interesting suggestions, please send them my way. Thank you.
HELL’S KITCHEN HAPPY PLACES
D.J. Reynolds (W57th St between 8/9th Ave). It’s my townie bar. You know, my Cheers bar. Where everybody knows your name. My go-to place. I’ve met so many fabulous people here throughout the years who have become friends. The customers are such an eclectic mix from regulars to tourists who were there a dozen years before and came back, to Broadway stars post-performance, to other hospitality workers after their shifts. The staff and the owner, Denis, are the best. It was their 30th anniversary in 2019 and I tried to convince them to let me plan a party to celebrate and bring everyone together. But life got in the way, so I guess we’ll have to wait for a 35th event!
North River Lobster Company (Pier 81 – 12th Avenue). One of my favorite warm-weather activities. Chilling with my people, lobster rolls, cold beverages, floating on a dirty river, wind whipping through my hair, all with a gorgeous skyline (look east, not west) as the backdrop. Yes, please!
Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center (W60th St between West End/Amsterdam). If you want to get technical, it’s just on the border of HK, but this my pool. I’ve been swimming laps my entire life. Water makes me feel most alive! It’s been a goal of mine to do a casual open water swimming race someday.
Seeing as it’s Woman’s History Month… In 1926 Gertrude became the first woman to swim across the icy waters of the English Channel, having already broken seven records in a single afternoon at Brighton Beach, New York, four years earlier. She trained in freezing water, pushed her body to new limits, and froze for this epic swim. She broke the cross-channel record — set by previous male swimmers — by nearly two hours. Ederle proved that female sportswomen were more than capable of taking on the same challenges as men. BOOM!
Guantanamera (8th Avenue between W55/56th St). Never have I had a bad meal here. The food is so delicious and the Mojitos with sugar cane stalks are out of this world. This restaurant has a friendly, upbeat environment and the live Cuban music is fantastic.
B&H Photo (9th Avenue and W34th St). Such a busy and chaotic place but photo equipment and supplies are aplenty. B&H has been a wicked resource for decades.
Hammerstein Ballroom at Manhattan Center (W34th between 8/9th Ave). Over time, many concerts and live music heard here plus volunteering for American Heart Association events. My favorite memory: NYC group, Luscious Jackson is one of my top 3 favorite bands, and the first time I saw them perform was here with G. Love & Special Sauce in 1997. Also a first — I got on stage and danced with LJ then. Going to add that each time I’ve gone to a show since then, dancing on stage with them is a recurring theme! They are such cool women.
VIV Thai (9th Avenue between W48/49th St). Thai food is my favorite cuisine. The atmosphere and the food here never disappoint.
Blue Ruin (9th Avenue between W39/40th St). Best dive bar in the ‘hood for heavy metal and hard rock music.
Hudson River Park. Nature inspires every freaking day.