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I Live Here – A celebration of Queens neighborhoods

I Live Here – A celebration of Queens neighborhoods

In April 2017, the I Live Here project joined forces with others to create an event at Queens Museum, engaging museum visitors with hands-on activities celebrating migration and diversity in the borough. The other event partners were Queens Memory, Bridget Bartolini of the Five Boro Story Project and Fernanda Espinosa of People’s Collective Arts/Colectivo de Arte Popular.

Check out the write up and photographs on the Global Grand Central website.

“I live here” banner designs by Queens College students

“I live here” banner designs by Queens College students

Students at Queens College designed these beautiful banners, working with their teacher, the illustrator and animator Ryan Hartley Smith.  First they designed patterns based on cultural artifacts at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum (located at Queens College), and then created original three-D typography spelling the words for “I Live Here” in languages spoken in Queens.

Thank you Ryan and his students!

Six banners created by graphic design students at Queens College

Six banners created by graphic design students at Queens College






Meeting the Endangered Language Alliance and Wikitongues

Meeting the Endangered Language Alliance and Wikitongues

Recently I met with two Daniels to hear about their language projects.

Daniel Kaufman is the Executive Director of the Endangered Language Alliance.  There’s an excellent New York Times profiles of its work here.   As ELA’s website says, “Hundreds of the world’s languages are down to just a few speakers, and a significant percentage of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are set to vanish before the end of the century.”  ELA  works to document and preserve those languages – largely in New York City which is a major hub for them.

ELA recently launched a series of events called “Unheard of” featuring live poetry and oral literature in endangered languages.  The first was in September at the Bowery Poetry Club on the Lower East Side.  It focused on five Indonesian languages.  Here’s Queens resident Rose Monintja reading at that event in her native language Tontemboan, which is spoken by around 100,000 people.  She is reading a creation myth called “The Story of Lumimuut and Toar”:

And PRI’s The World reported on the event here.

I also met Daniel Bogre Udel of the Wikitongues project.  Founded earlier this year, Wikitongues is gathering videos of people speaking all of the world’s languages.

Here’s an example of one of the many videos already on the Wikitongues YouTube page.  Tatenda speaking Shona, a Zimbabwean language:

Watch this space for future collaboration between ELA, Wikitongues and the “I live here” mural project: as a first step we are hoping to record speakers of indigenous Mexican languages in Jackson Heights.

Meeting the Immigration Task Force at Queens Borough President’s Office

Meeting the Immigration Task Force at Queens Borough President’s Office

The Unisphere – built in Flushing Meadows Corona Park for the 1964-65 World’s Fair

On September 12, about 40 representatives of immigrant-serving agencies gathered in a room at the Queens Borough President’s building in Kew Gardens.  This was one of the monthly meetings of the QBP’s Immigration Task Force.  I had been invited along to briefly introduce the “I live here” mural project.  Members of the task force are as diverse as the communities they serve.  The many organizations represented included Women for Afghan Women, South Asian Council for Social Services, Ansob Center for Refugees and the Brazilian organization Cidadao Global.

The coordinator of the group is Susie Tanenbaum, the Borough President’s Special Assistant on Immigrant & Inter-Cultural Affairs.   In a conversation afterwards she told me a bit more about the Task Force’s role.  It first started meeting in 2003, and its main purposes are education and network-building.  Usually it meets at the Kew Gardens building, but sometimes elsewhere, for example Flushing Town Hall or, each June, at Queens Botanical Garden.

Themes that come up regularly are immigration reform, health care reform, and labor rights in the workplace.  As Susie puts it they are issues that go beyond the local community, even beyond the country.  Guest visitors come to give talks.  Joe Salvo, Director of the Population Division at the NYC Department of City Planning, has made presentations on the NYC Census and on the changing demographics of Queens.  A representative of OSHA has given a talk about health and safety at work.   On the day that I was there, NYC Council Member Daniel Dromm spoke to the group and took questions – he represents District 25 which includes Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Woodside.

As well as talking and learning about particular issues the group gets involved in Queens activities, such as preparing programs for Immigrant Heritage Week at Queens Museum of Art.

All the service providers, Susie explains, are keenly aware that even if they only serve a small population, they are working within a multi-ethnic environment.  That awareness – of many minorities, who together create the fabric of the place where they live – seems to get to the essence of why Queens communities are so strong.

At the beginning of the meeting, participants were asked to introduce themselves and to say a word that describes Queens.   Here are the words that they chose.  “Languages” was among them!

Diverse (4 times)
Beautiful (2 times)
Heart of immigrants
Like the UN
Best food
Home (2)
Melting Pot (2)
An everything bagel
Full of energy
Constantly improving

A huge thank you to Fred Gitner of Queens Library and Susie Tanenbaum for inviting me to this meeting.

The ideal mural wall

The ideal mural wall
A montage of New York City murals from the cover of "On the Wall"

A montage of New York City murals from the cover of “On the Wall”

I’ve been reading “On the Wall – Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City,” by Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman.  It includes a description of how a muralist views a wall – and the traits of the ideal wall for a mural:

“For a muralist, the magic starts with the wall, which can exert a powerful attraction.  For most people, a wall encloses, protects, confines, defends, circumscribes, safeguards and restricts.  To a muralist, however, a wall is a potential painting surface that presents limitless possibilities.  Each wall has its own personality, and every artist must take its measure before determining if it is suitable for  mural.  The ideal wall is smooth and highly visible, facing traffic if on a one-way street.  It is unobstructed by billboards street signs, and windows or doors and comes already scraped and primed with a coat of light-colored acrylic paint. The sidewalk in front of the wall is level for scaffolding, and there is a tree for shade as well as access to running water nd nearby bathrooms and storage space.”

Of course, as the authors go on to imply, the ideal wall rarely manifests itself.  I’ll be sharing updates on this website of the search for the “approaching-ideal” wall in Queens for this project – a mural that will include the words “I live here” in the 160+ languages that are spoken in the borough.

Speaking with Michael G. Haskins on WBAI radio’s “Light Show”

Speaking with Michael G. Haskins on WBAI radio’s “Light Show”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael G. Haskins of WBAI radio about the “I live here”  mural project.

You can listen to our conversation here.

Michael told me about the radio station’s World Language Initiative.  He collects station IDs from listeners in different languages and plays them on the air – for example, “My name is Elsa, and I always have my radio tuned to 99.5fm, WBAI radio”.  You can hear some of them after the song at the start of the show – which, by the way, was a great choice: Morphine’s “You Speak My Language”.  I’ve linked to a video of a live performance at the bottom of this post.

If anyone wants to record a radio ID for WBAI please get in touch.

The radio station is now based at City College of New York, in Hamilton Heights.  By coincidence on my way there I saw a mural being painted on 138th Street.  It’s a beautiful project by CAW4Kids (Creative Arts Workshops for Kids).  Some pics:

138th Street mural 1

138th Street mural 2

“I live here” in Armenian and in Serbian

“I live here” in Armenian and in Serbian

First of all, a big thank you to Queens Council on the Arts for featuring this mural project on their fabulous “Artists’ Opprtunities” page.  See the visual arts section.  The webpage profiles artistic projects throughout the borough and ways to get involved.

And here are the latest additions to this site.

“I live here” is written like this in Armenian:

Ես ապրում եմ այստեղ

Like this in Serbian:

Ja živim ovde

Which sounds like this:

Please get in touch with “I live here” in other languages spoken in Queens NYC – in written form or, if you’re a Queens resident, with a short video of yourself saying the words.

Many thanks!

Talking with Fred Gitner of the New Americans Program at Queens Library

Talking with Fred Gitner of the New Americans Program at Queens Library

Queens Library activities and programs – in multiple languages

Fred Gitner has a 1990s MTA subway poster hanging up in his office that says “No smoking” in about twenty languages.   The poster’s multilingual message is an apt reflection of his work as a whole.   Fred is Queens Library’s Director for the New Americans Program (NAP) and for International Relations.  The NAP team, currently of six people, is based at the library’s large headquarters in Jamaica.  Between them they speak Bengali, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi and Spanish.

I recently met with Fred to learn more about the NAP, which aims to meet the needs of immigrants in Queens.  While we spoke, my one-year old Conrad roamed around the place, entertaining himself with the office furniture.

NAP began its work in 1977 with funding from a federal grant.  “The library had a huge German collection, which was fine for earlier immigrants,” explains Gitner in this article by PaxEthnica author Karl Meyer.  But waves of immigration meant the borough was changing.  NAP was originally funded for three years and focused on three languages: Spanish, Greek and Chinese.  Its immigrant services directory (about which more below) now profiles organizations fluent in around 60 languages.

One of NAP’s core activities is to provide books and materials in relevant languages for the communities it serves.  The library usually starts to build up a collection in a particular language when the Queens population that speaks it reaches 3000 or higher.  Sometimes sourcing the material is straight-forward.  Books in Chinese, Spanish and Polish for example are easy to get hold of.  Other languages take more searching.  For example, the library gets its Haitian Creole DVDs from a small store in Queens Village.  The library takes steps to ensure that material it sources is not pirated and does not have inappropriate content.

Handling materials in so many languages poses challenges.  When the library started to create a collection of books from Afghanistan for the Pomonok community library, they purchased books in Dari and Pashto from a local merchant with the assistance of the organization “Women for Afghan Women“.  (Women’s organizations make great partners!” says Fred).  But the books got mixed up in their boxes.  As no-one on the staff at the time spoke those two languages they had to ask for them to be sent with labels.

NAP works closely with community organizations throughout the borough to match its services up to what the community needs.  They find some of the groups through the Queens Borough President’s Immigration Taskforce.  Among them for example are the Adhikaar Nepali organization in Woodside, and an Astoria-based Brazilian organization, Cidadão Global.

NAP also provides lectures and workshops.  From Chinese-language advice on coping with Alzheimer’s to immigration guidance in Urdu,  by making relevant information easily accessible the library can make essential interventions in people’s lives.  It also distributes details of English-language programs throughout the borough.  And its Directory of Immigrant- serving Agencies enables people to search by criteria like language spoken, services offered, target group and location.

Another major part of NAP’s work is organizing cultural programs.  As its Office Associate Madellen García told me, the cultural events are often what bring people to the library and introduce them to one another.  If someone hears a song being performed, it does not matter if it is in a language other than their own, they will be drawn to the music.  Among a pile of colored flyers that I was given while there were details of a Bengali and English story-telling session for children at three different locations, and glass-painting classes in Italian and English in Howard Beach.

Fred Gitner directs the International Relations program as well, which builds links with other libraries to share information, experiences and materials.  Currently Queens Library has cooperation agreements with libraries in Beijing, Shanghai, Cairo, Montréal, Seoul and St. Petersburg.

Fred himself started working with the NAP in 1996.  His career trajectory combined languages and libraries right from the start.  He studied French and German in college.  Soon after finishing graduate school he spotted an ad for a French speaking librarian at the French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan.  One reason he got the job, he thinks, is that he was the only candidate who submitted his application letter in French.  After many years there, he worked for a while in the multilingual Historical Collections at the Library of the New York Academy of Medicine on Fifth Avenue, before moving to Queens Library.

NAP’s work conveys what it really means to live in an area where people speak over 160 languages.   Any language barriers are far less strong than the efforts to communicate through them.

Fred Gitner, Director of the New Americans Program and International Relations at Queens Library

Fred Gitner, Director of the New Americans Program and International Relations at Queens Library

Videos for Greek and Czech – and “Different but the same”

Videos for Greek and Czech – and “Different but the same”

I live in Astoria, Queens, where there is a big Greek population (as well as people from many other parts of the world).  A few blocks along my street is St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and St Demetrios Astoria School, the biggest Greek-American school in the US.

Here’s the equivalent of “I live here” – “Ζω εδώ” – in Greek.  It was recorded outside Cafe to Go, near Astoria’s 30th Avenue subway station:

And this is “I live here” in Czech – Já žije tady.  This was recorded in another 30th Ave cafe, Bakeway.


A friend who is an elementary school teacher once told me how impressed she was by one of her young student’s poems.  The student called it “Different but the same.”  That’s one way to view languages.

On their “sameness”: The ability to speak language unites us as humans.  It is truly “a trait of the species” that makes humans distinct from other animals, says John McWhorter in his book “The Power of Babel”.  And there is a certain unity in languages. Whatever the language, our mind functions in the same way to learn and speak it.  In each one there are ways to communicate similar things – from something as simple as “I live here” to far more complex ideas.  And every language mutates over time, often borrowing from others.

On their differences: Within each language is a unique way of living in the world and viewing it.  People rarely feel the same communicating in a second or third language than in their mother tongue, however fluent they may be.  The differences between them are as essential as those between individuals.

I’m using the world “translate” or “translation” at times as a shorthand to convey what I’m trying to do – i.e. collect the way in which “I live here” (in English) would be said in all the languages spoken in Queens.  But translation implies the meaning can be shifted directly across from one language to another, while of course it is not as simple as that.  Already I’m coming across languages for which “I live here” is written differently if you are a man or a women, or if you are speaking formally or informally for example.  And others in which “here” sits strangely, as if it does not have so finite a meaning in that language.

So how many languages are spoken in Queens?

So how many languages are spoken in Queens?

A simple idea: To create a mural somewhere in Queens, New York City that says “I live here” in all of the languages spoken in the borough.  Each version of “I live here” will be written by someone who speaks that language.

But of course, it turns out not to be so simple.

Languages banner

For a start, how many languages are spoken in Queens and what are they?  The often-cited number of languages spoken in Queens is “over 138”, which is taken from the 2000 census.  I called up the Census Bureau to find out if the 2010 census had a more up-to-date number.  The woman who picked up the phone told me that the 2010 census did not ask a question about languages.  She put me through to the American Community Survey, which does track the languages that people speak at home.

I talked with a woman called Elizabeth who patiently guided me over the phone through layer upon layer of the American Community Survey website to a chart for the borough of Queens called “Language spoken at home by ability to speak English for the population 5 years and over –  2007-2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates”.  There, from French to Gujarati to Korean to Hmong were many of the languages spoken here.  But…there were only 80 categories altogether, and many were groupings like “Other Pacific Island Languages” and “Other Native North American Languages.”

I got in touch with Wai Sze (Lacey) Chan, the International Languages Librarian at Queens Library.  The library uses “more than 160” for the number of languages spoken in the borough, taken from the Department of City Planning.  Wai Sze broke the list of languages down a bit further.  There are still some gaps and questions though of course.  Over the next few months I’ll be working to fill them in.