Not of the hiking boots and rain-soaked maps–sort. Her adventures sought truth beyond what was directly stated.
A few years ago, I was writing my thesis, and she was completing her dissertation in parallel. We both wrote about Colombia, though I wrote about drug cartels and how they invested in political campaigns, whereas she focused on twentieth-century and contemporary Colombian artists and how they documented the violence of the drug wars.
We found that writing about Mexico, where I was born and she had lived for a quarter of her life, was too raw, too close to memories we weren’t ready to talk about, so we shifted our focus to Colombia.
She asked, “How do you sit down and focus? Help me remember what it’s like to be a student.”
I offered some notes on my study habits.
I asked, “Can I borrow your books from the artists?” Sometimes, they offered a perspective closer to the truth. She’d challenge me to go beyond the text.
We explored truth together.
I finished my thesis and graduated from Yale. A year later, she submitted her PhD dissertation to Harvard. Mine was to satisfy my burning questions about black markets in Latin America, an important step towards embracing myself wholeheartedly as an explorer of truth (a researcher). Hers was a project of love and defiance that shows it is never too late to chase your dreams.
Now, a few years after college, my mentors remind me that I should start my PhD now, if I want to sample all that life has to offer. They tell me the investment of my time and energy into a PhD has to happen now, if I want to have a family and a career. I left academia to try my hand at research inside industry, first for a think tank and then TED, and to try pursuing other people’s questions.
Sometimes, I am consumed by anxiety. And just when I wonder if my window of opportunity to return to my questions is closing, I remember my mother’s journey, and how she fearlessly pursued her degree while working and caring for her children. It would take fourteen years from start to finish for her to complete her PhD. It was interrupted with adventure: she left her program when she moved to Mexico City, had children, worked as an art critic, and taught art history, before she eventually returned to her PhD.
Timelines for the questions we pursue, she taught me, can be adapted, and sometimes a researcher requires different types of personal growth to reach her fullest potential.
My Mom is an explorer. My path (and my timeline) is my own to determine. With her as an example, I embrace my adventures.
Diana Enriquez is by day TED’s Content Researcher, and by night an informal economist. She loves experiment design, trying to answer difficult questions, unusual businesses, and the informal economy. She grew up in Mexico City and Boston and now lives in Brooklyn.
This was originally published as an essay in a collection of essays here.
This guidebook by Diana Enriquez with design by Kaela Gallo plays on our love of adventure… and people watching. Or the reasons why we’d prefer to meet you at the Blue Whale than the Met, and we’ll buy dinner at the Hong Kong Grocery store and meet you for sushi on a stoop nearby, with some change and our hearts in our pockets.
Kaela Gallo: Pigeons on a rooftop in Bushwick, Brooklyn
For Christmas this year, I wanted to give my boyfriend a year of adventures. New York as a choose your own story guide sounded exactly right… but it needed to be a little more thoughtful, better tailored to us than the guidebooks I have stashed in every corner of my bookshelf.
Already, I take him to lots of strange things all the time… For example, he first met my father entirely by surprise (for both of us) at a lecture about voguing and underground clubs in New York. He is willing to indulge me by going on my walking tour I put together covering the History of Organized Crime in lower Manhattan. He’s followed me down to DC for TEDxMidAtlantic and into a MOTH story slam about “Guts.” I needed to think bigger, this time.
Why Write a Guidebook?
I love the physical thud I feel in my heart while I am savoring a particularly good memory, but especially moments from my adventures and discoveries. I am perpetually curious.
Sometimes I find these moments in other people’s traveling writing. I find myself again and again, highlighting and scribbling in the margins of Pico Iyer’s books and currently in Patti Smith’s M Train, identifying my own slices of experiences happening in parallel to theirs.
In my own written work, it’s the moments where I’m reading outside in an urban garden in Mexico City, and someone sits down on a bench nearby to tune their guitar and take a private moment before heading to a gig. Before I leave the park, I will scribble it down into a notebook. Or the smell of the mango I picked up off the pile in the crowded street market… and when I touched its curve to my nose, all the busy stands and calls from street hawkers disappeared, until it was just me.
I set off to create a guidebook written entirely through people’s hearts. I wrote to a number of my friends asking them to share five of their favorite places and the memories that they associate with each of these spaces. In this way, the book was more about creating a “memory tour” of the city.
For three months, I collected these memories. Tagging and organizing them based on themes that emerged through the memories. Every email with the subject line “Eccentric Guide to NYC” that returned to me was immediately opened and devoured. For weeks, I was spoiled by beautiful memories.
I wrote a number of entries between September and December 2015, sprinkling them through out the collection of stories I gathered from 27 different New Yorkers, in various stages of their relationship with New York.
Unlike normal guidebooks, we had a lot of eclectic entries that didn’t fit neatly into groups
I took each entry, tagged it with the themes that most moved me about the entry… and then cut them up and tried to organize them into groups. Some of the groups are definitely “loose categories,” where I was hoping to combine an entry about a yoga teacher in Chelsea with a story about a laundromat, a room in the Standard Hotel that becomes a creative lecture space, and a handful of other eclectic entries.
Then I reformatted the entries in their new order and send them to my lovely designer, Kaela Gallo with some ideas for colors, type fonts, and themes. In about a week, she sent me a new copy, beautifully formatted and ready for a rough print for me to give Alistair… before we take another crack at making the final, beautiful copies.
In the next step, we build out a tour of memories, leading the adventurer from Harlem through Manhattan and into Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Each leg of the adventure, beginning with some walks through parks and meditative spaces along the way, offers windows into moments of time. One friend talked about her favorite entrance to Central Park, where she’d go to think when she needed private moments away from the boyfriend she had just moved in with. Another friend talked about the little park outside the 72nd Street 1/2/3 stop where he had come after a concert to make sense of the music and the experience he had just had, not wanting to lose the moments, instead crystalizing them then and there forever.
One author (and friend), Alex Rosenthal, recommended visiting the Blue Whale in the Museum of Natural History while you’re on the Upper West Side:
This is one of the most spectacular spaces in NYC: a huge dark void dominated by a flying model of a Blue Whale (to scale), that’s ringed by dioramas featuring various marine creatures. The floor under the whale is strangely calm — strange to find calm in an environment dominated by scores of children running around, barely avoiding trampling other children who have lain on the ground to stare at the whale. Yet you feel like you’re on the bottom of the ocean in the shadow of a magnificent creature. I like to go there and contemplate big ideas, like the meaning of existence, the future of humanity, and what it would be like to jump on the whale’s back and ride it around.
I recommended standing on a street corner, on Crosby Street and Howard Street in Soho, where I frequently find myself falling back in love with New York.
This street ends up in a lot of “street scene” shots in movies, but there is something gritty and old New York about it in a way that appeals to me. De Vera is a store full of old and super creepy antiques artfully arranged behind glass. Each glass chamber is more mysterious than the last. Stop for some amazing coffee and treats at Smile. Watch the fashionistas, people wandering off Canal street and sitting on the iron stairs along the street sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Take in the remnants of gritty, warehouse filled soho. I love standing at the corner watching the ecosystem move by.
My friend Emily Ludolph grew up in New York City, but made herself a promise to explore the city as a new world when she returned in her 20s… and this promise kicked off on a visit to the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side.
This place is so darn beautiful. It has a blue stained glass galaxy window that’s really neat. There’s a story about how this congregation got into an innovation arms race with a neighboring synagogue when Edison in- vented the electric light. Which explains the insane light bulb chandelier. I first went when I got back from study abroad my Junior Year and was determined to explore hometown NYC like it was a brand new city.
After that, my Kim Nederveen Pieterse offered us a sincere moment about living in New York while you’re close to broke in your 20s:
When I first came here, I felt like I stumbled into a place I wasn’t supposed to know about. Jellyfish and unfamiliar animal bits lay on crushed ice in the back, while almost exclusively asian shoppers hunt with their overworn carts without saying excuse me. When I was first interning on a thousand dollars a month, the aisles of vegetables at 88 cents a pound meant that I, also, could eat produce. Today, the $2.50 California roll handcut by the old man in the front still tastes best from a dirty Chinatown stoop.
And my friend and co-worker Cloe Shasha took the reader to her favorite arts space in Brooklyn, where she found her jumping point into adventure.
A magical building in Red Hook full of artist residencies and event spaces,Pioneer Works hosts an event on the second Sunday of every month, aptly named Second Sundays. A lineup of multiple live musicians, performance art, and other surprises fill the space, and people gather for food and drink in clusters. As the afternoon turns to evening, strings of lights blink on, and people dance to music — whether it’s a brass band or a drum line — and lounge outside on a little hill. Next to the hill and an outdoor bar, groups of old and new friends talk around the fire pit overlooking the East River. When craving quiet time, people go back inside and climb up the stairs to the second or third floor to explore colorful rooms and take in the art made by the current artist residents of the building.
My first time going to a Second Sunday was this year. The place holds a lot of meaning for me because of a series of connections to the space. I first visited the space two years ago with a few colleagues when scouting for a TEDYouth venue. Though we didn’t end up using that space for TEDYouth, we absolutely loved being inside the building, and it was there that we first met the artist Dustin Yellin who runs Pioneer Works. His artwork — layers of glass with collages on each pane which, when completed, are stunning sculptural figures with depth — were being created by his art team and exhibited all over the place. He told us about how much damage Hurricane Sandy did to the building, and that they had only recently restored the space. During the storm, he was so moved by the violent intensity of the water rushing into the building that he didn’t leave right away — instead he stood on his glass structures and photographed the chaos. We were so blown away by his work that we ended up inviting him to speak at TED@ NYC and TED2015.
It was on that first visit to Pioneer Works that a personal realization struck me for the first time. The building felt magical and open to the air and the sky in a way that I rarely experience in New York City — the city that I grew up in — and that openness brought me so much joy and a sense of possibility. Being there reminded me just how powerful a beautiful physical context can be for the energy and experiences within it. A year later, I moved to San Francisco for a few months — a city with physical dimensions, architecture, and outdoors that I love — where I was delighted to find that from the high hills of the city, I experienced that context-induced magic on a daily basis. When I returned to New York City in September, I really missed that feeling, and wondered if it would be possible to find it in New York City. I had forgotten all about my experience at Pioneer Works in the midst of moving apartments and work. But a couple of months after my return to the east coast, a friend invited me to join her at a Second Sunday. The moment I arrived at the building, the magic all came back!
And the person who inspired the project… received his christmas gift: An Early Draft!
The first copy has been well received by all. My coworkers and friends, like me, dove right into the text, looking for people they knew who had written something for it and started collecting ideas for their yelp bookmarked lists.
I am excited to announce that we will be looking into a better binding option and turning this into a real guidebook. Look for our Kickstarter later this winter! (And thank you to everyone who wrote for this, Kaela for the beautiful design and layout work, Julia for guiding me through the mine field that is typography, and Helen for helping me organize all of the beautiful content I received.)
To the dear friends who watched me squirrel away into working on my TED talk and do my “homework” for a mysterious class… here is my confession.
I am working on something really cool. Something really cool, that I hope will change the way we do data collection for especially complicated fields like… informal economies.
One reason I decided to come work in New York City instead of going back to Mexico or Colombia for more research is that I wanted to learn more about smart design and business models. I started taking the General Assembly User Experience design course this fall to address my interest in design… and smart research. I like the way designers think and problem solve, sketch, test and produce work that is meant to appeal and engage with you. UX goes a step beyond that and designs based on input and existing behaviors observed in their customers. US designers notice how people interact with technology and images on small iphone screens or larger web based programs. I like how carefully it combines new design features with existing behavior patterns.
UX designers create products with specific goals for their users in mind… their job in general is to advocate for users! The types of questions we discuss in the course are about aesthetics, mechanisms that can be learned by playing with the program, and using existing behavioral cues to help people navigate software. Maybe the best line of the introduction class was:
“The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” – John Maeda
I am spending a few hours a week sketching and thinking through the details of survey design, from the point of view of the individual administering the survey and the person receiving the survey. For especially complicated data sets, I think this will really make a difference.
In my time in the field, I have tried a variety of different information gathering techniques. I canvassed for several of the past election cycles while I was a student in New Haven, I ran surveys on the informal economy and urban development in a dense Mexican city and again in a rural town of 350 people. I ran a second series of surveys on the undocumented population in Boston and New Haven to understand public opinion on the Dream Act as it was going up for a vote. These are just a few examples, but each of these events had different goals and audiences in mind.
I learned a few things early into each process that I think are important to keep in mind throughout this redesign process:
1) Surveys CANNOT be too long. Short and sweet, figure out in advance what information you need and what holes are missing from the data set you are trying to build. For some of these longer conversations, explain that it will be a longer conversation and not a standing-in-someone’s-door-way-this-will-be-really-quick-I-promise conversation
2) If you have to explain the question beyond basic clarification questions, this piece of the survey has failed and will probably not yield great results from this particular question
3) the advice I received (if you are quiet and wait long enough, people will keep talking and providing more info. Sometimes information that is more useful or relevant than you would have thought to ask for) is particularly relevant for Americans, who really do tend to fill silence when they are uncomfortable, and not applicable across the board.
4) Just like business negotiations, the best case scenario for surveys is when both parties have time to make small talk and get comfortable with one another. The answers tend to be more authentic and it is possible to explore beyond the initial questions the survey listed going into the conversation. This is also a difficult piece to navigate.
For these next few weeks, I am thinking through technology and design opportunities for survey design. It’s been a fun process — much more zoomed in to specific locations for buttons, gestures, design features, information storage and organization, and a number of other things that I took for granted before this course. But so far, the results seem promising.
On Tuesday, I presented my talk at TEDGlobal 2014 to close out the TEDUniversity session. Here is a recap of the full event.
It was a really great experience. I rewrote and edited this talk frequently to get it right and try to fit my 7 minute mark. I had a lot of help and feedback from a number of mentors and the TED content team, which really helped me think through the content, sequence and strategy of the talk. It was, in essence, a very basic intro to why informal communities are interesting. I hope I will get to dig into more of the reasoning slowly as I keep moving forward with research.
I think I ran over in the end, but I was really in the zone during delivery… so I never looked at the clock beyond the 2.30 mark, where I was still making great time. After nervous run throughs all week and early early that morning in the hallway of the Copacabana Hotel… it felt good to walk on stage. Take a deep breathe and grin before delivering the best run through of my talk I had done yet.
It felt so good.
I received a lot of wonderful feedback and had really wonderful conversations about informal economies for hours (and now days….) afterwards. Which is essentially my ideal place to be.
It’s also helping me find ways to explain the ideas floating around in my head. The larger reasons why informal economies are interesting and worth noting. Especially for governments that want to understand fuller profiles of their cities.
To end, I’ll share one particular victory moment. A personal hero is a really talented researcher who works on black market/criminal activity and has spoken at TED before. I have asked him to advise my work before and he has been very supportive of me/my research. He was at TEDUniversity and saw my talk on Tuesday. And then found me Tuesday evening to tell me that I had done a great job. The feeling was comparable to what it would be like if Neil Armstrong told a young Astronaut that they had done a good job on a NASA mission. Not to say that my work is anywhere near as complicated and/or delicate as a NASA mission. But this was… well. I am very pleased with how this all turned out!
Thank you to everyone who sat through edits, run throughs, exhausted and frustrated phone calls/drafts/discussions with me. You are all so wonderful 🙂
What does it mean to write a profile for New York City? Would it be easier to write one for Queens? Or perhaps, just an avenue and a few side streets of Queens?
Is it too ambitious to hope that we can build collaborative profiles that dig into the hearts and moving limbs of our neighborhoods, cities and districts?
As I started working through these questions these last few months, I went hunting for inspiration.
All of the books I could find on the shelves of the Strand were about food tours in Queens. They recommend trying the Chinese food in Flushing, Latin American food in eastern Jackson Heights (Streets above 77), Indian food South of 77th street in Jackson Heights. It’s harder to find books digging into the history of neighborhoods and community organizations in Queens in a broader context.
Brooklyn is perhaps one of the best known boroughs of New York: a friend who recently visited Stockholm told me everything she found in the Boutiques of the city were “Made in Brooklyn,” because it was seen as THE trendy place to be. I also remember considering where I wanted to live when I first moved into New York City and having everyone ask if I was moving to Brooklyn (it seemed to be followed by a “… because that is where everyone is moving now, dahhhling.”).
It is interesting to watch as more and more of the people I know living in Brooklyn are moving up to Long Island City, Queens. This seems to be a new hub for the artist community. We’ll see what happens!
What I do find, however, is that the stories of Queens come through the talents and pursuits of people from the area. Is this the best way to remember an entire neighborhood’s history? Not really, but I am digging through the material I can find so that I can learn. [Side note: if anyone does know of a great history of Queens piece, please send it my way!]
We found a photographic history of Queens, discussing the neighborhoods through primary sources like flyers for events, local decrees, etc. All for a population that lived in the area around the 1930s. This book is also great, but it was printed in the 1980s and doesn’t answer questions we have about the communities there today. I also found a pictorial history from the NYTIMES describing Old Queens. In terms of more recent texts on the neighborhood, it seems someone is addressing the pan-hispanic communities of Corona and the neighborhoods of Queens through collaborative mapping efforts. In terms of a comprehensive profile, however… there are so many things I would love to dig into or see in another writer’s work.
Some authors are trying to highlight some of the narratives coming out of the community today: Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms With Queens seems to be more about remembering specific pieces of communities and how individuals interacted with these neighborhoods.
I think part of the challenge in developing maps that communicate cities as organic, moving organizations (as I am right now) is that good profiles of cities can really only exist if they can come together as collaborative pieces. It needs to be at the center of a network of different thinkers and doers and people who are able to take all of the overwhelming amounts of information that come from a moving breathing city… and distill it into something we can each sip slowly.
A profile isn’t a good profile if it is afraid to dig in and get its hands dirty — but it is also required to be approachable, in some capacity. If I cannot keep you engaged with my maps and what I want to think about, if I cannot inspire you, you as my partner in developing and understanding my city profiles, to remember corners of the city and the people that move and breathe and create and build there… then I have failed.
But I’m still digging and learning and I want to listen. Teach me how you would listen.
I am working on a few interesting projects right now, but I wanted to get through a sort of raw profile/information dump of my first day time hike/fact finding trip for a project I’m on in Queens. We spent a few days planning out what we hoped to do here and searching for books on the history of the area. Besides food books and “Eat Your Way Through Queens: The Guidebook,” the Strand carries very little on the history of Queens. We ordered a book from their warehouse on Jackson Heights (our subject for today) and found a book capturing Queens through photographs and narratives from the 1930s. We have an interesting narrative to build from here… This first piece is my raw impression of the area we explored and what stayed with me. I want to allow you to see how this evolves over time, because its a fascinating place and project.
Now we find ourselves on set in… three, two, one:
In what looks like it will be a long term project, I spent this morning walking through Jackson Heights getting to know the area. This wasn’t my first time visiting, but it was my first time seeing it during the day. My first trip was as a member of a midnight tour group — we walked up Roosevelt avenue taking in the busy scene of the street, the 7 train roaring overhead and the community gathering and passing time together on the sidewalk.
I am writing about informal economic communities, and this was the beginning of a very interesting trip. It felt totally different — far few consumer directed informal businesses on the sidewalks and off the side streets. Instead, it was a lot of people commuting to and from work, passing through with their children or grandchildren, older people gathering for lunch and enjoying the beautiful summer weather… all of this.
Walk with me:
The layout of this particular part of the city was fun. We started on the edges of Jackson Heights, on the part of Roosevelt where there is still a strong Indian population. The area is very orderly and full of wonderful bright colors, sari stores, grocery stores with specialty spices, Ghee and Naan, costume golden jewelry and other odds and ends. Scattered between some of these stores, we saw the occasional Chinese owning, advertising legal services and medical services, among other things.
We had the repair-all tech stores, offering to “unlock” your cellphones [this is a service directed, typically, at phones that are either stolen and resold and therefore need to have the previous user’s information wiped off them or it allows you to remove the factory settings on iphones to use them in ways the initial software would not let you. It made me smile because it reminded me of some of the underground economic activities of college campuses — I definitely knew people who would “jailbreak” iphones for other students and get paid for the service. Usually it was for more of the techy crowd that wanted to write code for their phones and build apps. Some of them were the variety of hackers who enjoy breaking everything into little pieces to examine all of it while they put it back together. Sort of like design thinking… but through someone else’s preexisting model.
The series of streets after the low 80s is predominantly Colombia and Ecuadorian. Slightly further up, we found a lot of Mexicans. They helped us navigate this transition and understand where we were through the particular branding mechanisms that they offered. The stores owned by Ecuadorians had the country’s flag somewhere in the images on the front or inside of their stores. Colombian stores followed similar branding schemes — both groups sometimes included some version of word play about the products this business offered and country of origin of its owners.
Perhaps my favorite moment of “I really am in Queens and this is the coolest immigrant community in New York” happened when I was wandering around the Indian mega-grocery store (Patel Brothers) and found Northern and Southern Indians working there next to a Mexican man who was rearranging different types of amazing curry powders in 3lb bags, a Puerto Rican family was going through the MASSIVE bags of rice deciding what they wanted to purchase, and a few other Latin Americans scattered between enormous glass jars of Ghee, an aisle of Goya offerings and the frozen Indian dinners section. I found the aisle with Naan and Paratha, which, of course, smelled wonderful. And… it was quiet. There was space between aisles for me to walk comfortably without being afraid I might bump into someone coming around a corner or end up juggling and dropping things I was carrying. What a special place to find in this city!
We did spot a few cool examples of informal business.
I found a group that sells “herbal remedies” made in-house for everything ranging from immediately good luck, love potions, potions to help exercise spirits and hexes, to connect with the dead… you name it! They managed to create their own products, sell products that were clearly manufactured somewhere (aerosol cans… of love or retirement potions????) and they offered “spiritual consulting services.” We did not exactly figure out what the last one was from this particular trip.
We saw computer classes, offering basic computer skills at $2/hour. We also noted a number of other medical offerings, many of which offered services like dentistry, massages, and basic medical care within their own homes. I found a “freelance” tow truck operator who also offered general maintenance/repair services. We spotted a few “cars for sale by owner,” and independent video/production design for people who “had something to say and wanted help shaping it.”
There were also a number of people advertising with sandwich boards for recruiters. This photo is one of the offerings with full transparency in the rates they were offering to potential workers. The list includes help in kitchens, cleaners, Deli men and Pizza men. The highest paying offer was for a pizza guy at $700. They also hire for “factory” though we did not end up getting an answer on which factory/where and that position offered the lowest pay of the group of offerings. We noted one woman had at least 2 offices on Roosevelt Avenue not too far apart down the same street. I was given a card for her office by someone handing them out on the street.
The neighborhood is a different creature during this “shift.” People were working in the stores and advertising their services in the streets. There was only one particular street that was walked down where the hawkers shouted about their wares offering us passage into their stores. This seems to happen less than I would expect in Jackson Heights, given the number of businesses competing very closely together.
It feels totally different after 8pm, when many more vendors come back to the neighborhood and sell food along Roosevelt Avenue. The vendors are completely unfazed while the trains roar overhead, rattling everything nearby. The streets are full of families and workers sitting down along window ledges eating their take out. It’s beautiful and smells completely divine. But that is a story that will have to wait for another day!