Queens: What does it mean to write a profile of a neighborhood?

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.

Jackson Heights: Raw Profile

An intro…

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.

Hiring rates, Jackson Heights
Hiring rates, Jackson Heights

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!


Feast on Good Blog: Development through Stock Exchange

A new form of investment may be ushering in a new era where we can weigh investments based on financial returns, impact, and transparency. In response to the growing demand for more companies that have a triple bottom line, financiers and social entrepreneurs are working to provide you with this new option for investment, called Retail Impact Bonds. Retail Impact Bonds will help investors and entrepreneurs to start comparing returns on your investments through not only financial data, but also impact..

Shujog, a company based in Singapore that identifies and reviews social enterprises, works with them to scale their businesses, helps them develop strategies to measure their impact, and instructs them on better ways to reach their audiences, and its sister company IIX are trying to change the landscape for social entrepreneurs. Their impact measurement system aims to provide more transparency to an industry as we compare key players in fields like sustainable agriculture.

IIX is the stock exchange that lists Asian Social Enterprises and sells Retail Impact Bonds to investors who want to issue capital to business working industries like clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and education. IIX is clear – it is not collecting donations: these bonds are still financial tools intended to return capital to the investor while improving access to capital for social enterprises. These bonds give social entrepreneurs access to capital to help scale their businesses, and investors are promised returns on their investments as well as clear information about how this company functions and measures its impact.

Social stock exchanges are intended to be more than points of sales or trades for financial tools. They are also meant to give the public better access to information about social enterprises, see what issues are being addressed, and allow the public to support these businesses through conscious investment decisions.

Besides IIX in Singapore, the U.K, the U.S. and Canada also have their own social stock exchanges. All of these platforms seek to provide a better platform for social enterprises to reach interested investors and improve outreach towards potential volunteers and supporters.

While there is currently interest in building these sorts of platforms and improving access to capital for social enterprises, each of these stock exchanges is struggling to define its priorities, develop financial tools that will keep these programs sustainable and keep attracting investors, and have social enterprises register their companies. Social enterprises have different reasons for wanting to preserve their privacy or they may have trouble navigating the regulations necessary to list themselves. There are also major concerns that the return on investments for the stock exchanges might not be enough to go through the trouble of getting a social stock exchange up and running.

Social stock exchanges are not the only programs having trouble recruiting businesses; a number of new national stock exchanges demonstrated low registration rates. In many countries, there are significant hurdles for businesses to prove that they are reputable, including a company’s limited access to clear financial data or hesitation to release financial data publicly. Cambodia, for example, launched its stock exchange in 2011 and by June 2014 only had two companies listed.Sierra Leone launched its stock exchange in 2009 and also has trouble getting companies to list publicly, despite substantial investment in the iron and other natural resource driven industries, because many companies are hesitant to disclose financial statements.

One major barrier to entry is that these exchanges need to establish their businesses and financial tools as legitimate investments. Canada’s exchange and the U.K’s exchange both benefit from significant government support as they seek to establish themselves. It will take further interest and support from the public, for both social enterprises with enough resources and growth potential and the social stock exchanges themselves to get the programs to grow and operate independently.

These programs are certainly novel and offer promising direction for social enterprises seeking funding and support. While Shujog and IIX have developed one proposal for measuring impact and comparing social enterprises with different functions/goals, another challenge all of these groups face is how they can present “impact scores” along side financial return data.

The Retail Impact Bond may be the first serious proposal for socially minded financial tools. As an investor or interested supporter, would you purchase a bond that may promise lower returns, but also promised capital towards a cause like clean energy research and transparency in the impact your capital had within an organization?

By Diana Enriquez

Diana studies informal economies, social enterprises, and economic systems at Locus Analytics. She spends a lot of time exploring new neighborhoods, especially in Latin America.

See Original on Feast on Good

Visas, Civil War and Other Culturally Relevant Material

I am on the cape for a long weekend for a family reunion that I’ve had to miss for the last couple of years. It’s always interesting — we have a very quirky family. Our interests range from an encyclopedic knowledge of rap artists between here and the Middle East, a journalist who just returned from a year long assignment in Afghanistan, a geneticist, a modern art curator, and several other characters. And yes, I would describe all of my family as “characters.” (In a good way!)

This morning’s coffee table conversation, as people were waking up and joining the rest of the group, was about Syria. Not in the typical “Obama should do this… or that…” conversation.

This is about a group of refugee women who wrote and perform a play called “Syria: the Trojan Women.” This group of women adapted the play “Trojan Women” by Euripides to tell their stories and explain what it is like to live in a city after it has been sacked.

The group was invited to perform at Georgetown University by my aunt, Cynthia Schneider and then they were set to perform at Columbia University. They offered another perspective about Syria and what life is like during Civil War based in the community living it, rather than the material curated and presented by ISIS.

The story was picked by the Washington Post and then went live through Scott Simon’s NPR segment. We listed to the feed when it went live this morning. We tried to think through next possible steps to help the women come to the US, despite the State Department’s denial for their visas. There might be other ways to help!

For now, Georgetown is still finding ways to host the event, even if it means video calling the women while they are still abroad while hosting other guest speakers.

If anyone has any ideas or thoughts about how we can continue with this event or help the women with their visas… please let us know!

[The image is from the NPR story that went live this morning]

Writing: Hearing You Loud and Clear

One of the most influential classes I took at Yale was my English 115 class… a class intended for Freshmen and Sophomores who wanted to learn to write very clearly and concisely.

I took it as a senior while I was writing and editing my thesis. It was funny — I was the “class senior.” The other students asked me about my thesis with curiosity and interest (I was writing about cartel activity in Colombian politics and other black market activities). I appreciated the enthusiasm, after spending months with other seniors huddled in 24 hour cafes, surrounded by our respective piles of books and rarely sharing more than “please pass the coffee/pen/goodnight I’m going home.” In this respect, it was definitely refreshing.

The other piece of it was that this very demanding class was extremely helpful to me while I was editing. Professor Andrew Ehrgood is an amazing professor, editor and listener for the period in which I was only able to complete the homework for his class (I really cared about learning and doing good work in this class, despite taking it Credit/D/Fail) and cranking through rounds and rounds of edits and improvements on my thesis.

Perhaps the best part is that I still think about the class and the principles it taught me… now that I am learning to program. This is the poem written about Python by one of the language’s core developers:

The Zen of Python, by Tim Peters

Beautiful is better than ugly.

Explicit is better than implicit.

Simple is better than complex.

Complex is better than complicated.

Flat is better than nested.

Sparse is better than dense.

Readability counts.

Special cases aren't special enough to break the rules.

Although practicality beats purity.

Errors should never pass silently.

Unless explicitly silenced.

In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.

There should be one-- and preferably only one --obvious way to do it.

Although that way may not be obvious at first unless you're Dutch.

Now is better than never.

Although never is often better than *right* now.

If the implementation is hard to explain, it's a bad idea.

If the implementation is easy to explain, it may be a good idea.

Namespaces are one honking great idea -- let's do more of those!

Apart from the very code specific pieces… this sounds a lot like the principles we used in Ehrgood’s English course.

The same principles matter beyond English papers — I think about them when I am writing emails, explaining my research in a presentation and now programming. I am a huge advocate for clear, concise language. I’m not perfect with it; it’s something that I am constantly learning to do better.

Especially in a city where no one has time to read through overly wordy, imprecise project proposals or emails. New York is an interesting city. Words are thrown around to make projects, jobs, events, and places seems more appealing than they are in real time experience. Marketing language argues that more is better. Brighter words, more description, over the top compliments…

But I’d rather be loud and clear.        

Reforming Health Education Through Community

[Originally posted on the Feast on Good Blog]

Community Health Blog post imageimage via

Typical health class models are changing and growing through community input. Cities across the country are promoting social and community reform through health classes that go beyond the basics and help students make informed decisions about their lifestyles.

At first, local governments tried to address the need for health education. Every state in the United States has a different way of handling or recommending health education programs in public schools. Some states, like California, have specific guidelines for the topics that must be covered and when they are to be taught in schools, for example, HIV/AIDS prevention instructions between 7-12th grade and parenting education in 7th or 8th grade. Others are much less strict about the material and expected outcomes.

State funded health education programs are also facing major budget cuts. For some, health education in school is the first time they learn about nutrition, mental health, and negotiating healthy relationships with future partners.

Today, locally communities are building curricula to meet the needs of their students and provide up to date information about medical services. There are a number of great organizations like Yale’s Community Health Educators or the Peer Health Exchange that try to create safer spaces for young adults to discuss and learn about health issues like nutrition, STIs, and mental health. These programs target teens and young adults to give them tools to make informed decisions about their health.

Some communities have begun to answer the need for health education by pooling their own resources and building health curricula. Community Health Educators (CHE) was started 1999 when a teacher from Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven and a group of Yale students developed a comprehensive health curriculum for high school students. Today, CHE is a group of 150 volunteers, teaching health education courses in 24 middle schools and high schools in New Haven. The program regularly reevaluates its materials to make sure that they are relevant, up to date and ready for their audience. Teachers from the host schools are involved in the material evaluations and reform, to make sure it fits the audience.

CHE strives to give students tools to make their own choices about their health and relationships. Michael Solotke, a former Coordinator for the program, says that the curriculum “is designed to empower students with skills and knowledge to help them make healthy decisions throughout their lives.”

The presentation of the material may be just as important as the material itself. “We really value being able to teach on a peer-to-peer level,” says Katherine Rich, one of this year’s coordinators for Community Health Educators. Rich believes the peer relationships between educators and students helps open up conversations around challenging topics like sexual and mental health.

The Peer Health Exchange (PHE) grew out of the original CHE to address gaps in health education on a national level. Colleges in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and many other cities across the United States partner with PHE to provide similar comprehensive health education in schools that are also under resourced. PHE reports that 92% of their high school students said that they will use information from the program to inform their health decisions and another 68% said they had already used information from the program to make a decision regarding their health in the last six months.

The Peer Health Exchange is also growing quickly with the support of local communities: 97% of the principals in the schools that offer PHE programs said that they would recommend this program to other schools. New York City is one of the largest markets for the program. While Barnard College, New York University and Hunter College, among others, have already partnered with the program to send volunteers, PHE and CHE could always use more help.

Both programs rely heavily on volunteers who enjoy teaching and talking to students about health. Their biggest challenges lie in building relevant material that their students can relate to and finding the right educators to engage with these student groups. Interested in doing more? Check out what your local school district offers in terms of health education options and see how they are trying to grow this year!

By Diana Enriquez

Diana studies informal economies, social enterprises, and economic systems at Locus Analytics. She spends a lot of time exploring new neighborhoods, especially in Latin America.