Agency through Art

What are the facilities, places and spaces that foster social cohesion for immigrant communities? What is the role of art in integrating immigrants in their neighborhood?

Designing for Integration in Jamaica, Queens
Juanli Carrión
Mariane Jang
Lakshman Kalasapudi
Eliza Montgomery
Audrey Wachs
Juanli Carrión is a New York-based artist, activist, and educator born in Yecla, Spain. He has developed an extensive body of collaborative public work to respond to the social, political and cultural histories of communities across the globe. In 2014 he founded Outer Seed Shadow (OSS), an interactive community art project whose mission is to create and support public green spaces with powerful educational capacities to address systemic and structural issues of social inequity.

Designing for Integration in Jamaica, Queens

“Social infrastructure is the interdependent mix of facilities, places, spaces, programs, projects, services and networks that maintain and improve the standard of living and quality of life in a community.” (Department of Planning Western Australia, 2012)

In studying Jamaica, Queens and the needs of its immigrant populations, we found early on that a clear and widely accepted single definition of ‘social infrastructure’ does not exist. A quick Google search gives a broad range of definitions that focus on physical infrastructure, communication, or information sharing networks.

When considering the real needs of immigrants, however, we found it was more valuable to focus on resources that might foster greater social cohesion, rather than on physical infrastructure. Infrastructure connotes images of bridges and roads, but infrastructure isn’t just what fills physical spaces. Rather, there is a conceptual distinction between “place” and “space”—place is any physical area where social interactions happen, and space is a “practiced place,” one that’s richer, thicker, and more layered with meaning because of the humans that shape it and dwell within it.

Social infrastructure undergirds what Canadian journalist Doug Saunders calls the “arrival city.” In his view, arrival cities are spaces where new migrants can build social connections that allow them to access employment and housing, build their own businesses, and interact with other immigrants in similar circumstances to form networks that enable individuals to establish a secure foothold in a new city. In other words, an arrival city is one that promotes strong social cohesion between its diverse residents and communities, supports a rich multicultural society, and enables immigrants to thrive. These cities also allow new immigrants participate on equal footing in social, economic and political life, develop relationships of trust with others and institutions, and have access to opportunity for social mobility.1

In thinking about innovative approaches to providing social infrastructure for integration, our team posed two main questions: What are the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City? In those neighborhoods, what social infrastructure exists to promote social cohesion, and what could be improved?

After some deliberation, we chose to engage these questions through Jamaica, Queens, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in the city’s most diverse borough. While a high cost of living and increasingly punitive federal immigration laws place tremendous stress on the city’s emerging and established immigrant communities alike, the positive frisson that characterizes arrival cities certainly describes Jamaica, a place where more than half of residents hail from outside the U.S.

Chart depicting the demographic breakdown of our study area in Jamaica, Queens.

Within our study area, the largest foreign-born groups include the Guayanese, Bangladeshi, Ecuadoreans, El Salvadoreans and Guatemalans, and there are more second-generation residents, and residents whose parents settled in the United States many decades ago. Jamaica is a large neighborhood with overlapping constituencies, so we chose to analyze the demographics of a roughly two-mile-long stretch of Jamaica Avenue, a main neighborhood shopping street and the site of most of Jamaica’s LinkNYC kiosks. In that area, 60 percent of the approximately 50,000 residents identify as immigrants (foreign-born).

In addition to being a vital commercial corridor, this segment of Jamaica Avenue connects residents to the other four boroughs, greater New York, and beyond, via bus, subway, commuter rail, and plane, with JFK Airport less than five miles away. These transit options make the neighborhood attractive to outside investment, too. In the coming years, developers intend to add around 2,000 new apartment units and about 1,500 hotel rooms to Downtown Jamaica.

It remains to be seen how these developments will affect neighborhood demographics, but there’s a pressing neighborhood need right now: Immigrants can’t always access the neighborhood’s arts and culture resources.

In Jamaica, there is an established, well-funded local arts scene, but main players Jamaica Culture Arts & Learning (JCAL) and others focus narrowly on formal aspects of arts culture (visual arts, performing arts such as dance, theatre and music). However, other forms of cultural production in the arts, culture and music that are geared towards new immigrants (for whom English is a second language), younger participants, and others who are not formally trained in the arts are emerging, but are underfunded, uncoordinated, and awareness about these programs is low. In addition, there is a recognition that these resources are not accessible to everyone, including many of Jamaica’s immigrant groups.

Through site meetings, interviews with local arts stakeholders, neighborhood tours and local surveys with Nadezhda Williams (Rufus King Park), Brendez Wineglass (Jamaica Is), Tyra Emerson (Cultural Collaborative Jamaica) and a sample of neighborhood residents, we learned that there is a desire from community-based organizations and immigrant groups to find ways to connect through arts and culture.2

Given these factors affecting the neighborhood, our project aims to develop a multi-directional interface in a public setting that will boost social cohesion between seemingly disparate immigrant groups in Jamaica, Queens by enhancing access to neighborhood arts and culture resources.

Rendering of the platform interface on a LinkNYC kiosk along Jamaica Avenue.

Our project idea is to create a multilingual platform that helps immigrant groups and the community-based organizations that support them access and disseminate information about local arts and cultural resources and events. Partnering with these organizations to initially populate the platform, it would include information about public events such as music festivals, art shows, dance performances and religious events. Eventually we would like to see the users, whether organizations or individuals, not simply consume the information but upload their own events, offers, or requests for resources to grow the platform into useful, widely-used network. While we think this platform could be accessed through diverse formats and vehicles, we are particularly interested in the ubiquitous LinkNYC kiosks that line Jamaica Avenue, as they provide the space for the kind of serendipitous, unmediated interactions that can help build social cohesion, especially among groups that rarely or never interact with one another.

Rendering of the platform on a smartphone.

Based on these observations, we believe the platform should:

• Be geared towards immigrants, but accessible to everyone (including those with limited technological proficiency)
• Ensure access to arts and culture for diverse stakeholders
• Encourage interactions between different immigrant groups to enhance multicultural appreciation
• Utilize the arts and culture to help immigrant groups integrate while retaining their cultural identities
• Promote immigrant entrepreneurship as a route to economic integration and prosperity for all city residents
• Strengthen and promote community-based organizations, as they are the backbone of immigrant integration efforts
• Be accessible on LinkNYC kiosks and as a downloadable smartphone app
• Have an easy-to-use interface, especially for those with limited computer proficiency

Map of our project area with cultural resources and LinkNYC kiosks highlighted.

The platform would be presented with a heavy focus on visual literacy (images and mapping) rather than text, which we hope will help overcome the barrier of poor translation. Organizations could “own” a kiosk and design it or program it in their own way as a way to drive people to use the kiosks. Those with IDNYC identification could obtain discounts to participating events and organizations.

In almost every locality, the arts are a means for new immigrants to express themselves in a way that is already familiar to them, in a new city that is far from home, and feel ownership, pride and a sense of agency. Music, art, dance, and cooking are fundamentally social and interactive, creating opportunities for knowledge and information exchange, culture sharing, and forming new acquaintances or relationships, all of which act as a counterpoint to the potential isolation that new immigrants might experience. Engaging in arts and culture could open up opportunities for immigrants to learn another language/culture, develop a business idea, start a new program, or otherwise strengthen ties to others in their ethnic group or beyond. We hope this will be the case in Jamaica.


1. “Perspectives on Social Cohesion – the Glue That Holds Society Together | UN DESA Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations. Accessed April 05, 2018.
2. JAMAICA IS… Building Community Capacity in Southeast Queens. Report. New York, NY: Department of Cultural Affairs of New York City, 2017. 1-44.