52 Places in New York: Working on the Census

In a pre-pandemic world, I loved reading the New York Times’ travel section. While in graduate school and during a time when travel seemed theoretically within reach but financially out of my grasp, flipping through photo-essays was one way I could escape. Profiles of places in India always humbled me, or infuriated me. I remember talking to a loved one about a profile of a coastal city in Italy, what it would be like one day to travel, eat, and wander through the city; together, we dreamed.

One of my favourite parts of the coverage is the 52 Places column. It is not without its faults — when cities are pitched as “up and coming” they become sites of mass gentrification at the expense of the communities that have lived there for generations. When Puerto Rico was selected as the number one place to visit in 2019’s 52 Places listing, the discussion was criticized for taking advantage of a recovering island, a site for potential disaster capitalism. A playground for the wealthy and mobile at a time of loss and grief for communities who had lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones.

The criticisms were valid yet, 52 Places remained a mainstay in my reading. Seb Modak, the 2019 traveller reminded me of many friends from Bombay as Modak too has family from India. The column also remained a way for me to digest the vastness of the world — I cherished the mini video from the passenger seat of a rickshaw which was familiar in a city that wasn’t, Hampi. Learning about Tunis, a place I really want to visit, complemented what little I knew about the city having only read about it in policy terms. I am guilty of taking an inordinate amount of pictures of sunsets, so this about the “peak sunset” in Croatia was funny and relatable.

As I reflect on my time working on the decennial Census, I have been thinking a lot about how to digest the experience, the ambitious attempt to count each and every resident in New York.

This is not how I expected the Census period to go. Conducting research on the Census since Spring 2018 and having worked with community-based organizations across the city since September, I thought I’d meet March 12th with community, maybe elation and a round of drinks. I thought I’d be with people, potentially a lot of them, a lot of new people. Instead, I was quarantined by myself in BedStuy, Brooklyn.

In a pre-pandemic world, working on the Census in New York was like being a 52 Places traveller for the city. Any given day was a whirlwind.

The Census took me to a group of seniors who look after their neighbourhood and plan “Proms” with local artists at a Civic association in Rosedale, Queens. That evening we celebrated one of the oldest volunteers, at 95, who remembered advocating for her community members to complete the Census for the last four decades.

The Census took me to a high school in the Bronx with teens who didn’t make eye contact with me but asked me about how much New York State receives in terms of Federal fund apportionment based on the Census per every dollar paid in tax, questions I may have fumbled. To meeting pre-teen girls who just wanted me to tell them about what India was like and asked whether they could braid my hair.

The Census took me to Baptist churches in Queens and a community of pan-African Muslims in Manhattan. They wanted me to tell the other millennials to slow down and listen to their elders.

To Brighton Beach to meet with the Russian Jewish community where four Borises told me to make sure I ate the borscht at 10 AM before it got cold, to meetings in the Upper East Side where no one ate the Chobani-sponsored spread but me.

To bookstores where all we discussed was Bad Bunny. To Albany, speaking with older legislators of colour about how they are inspired by younger voters but have felt like they’ve never had the opportunity to vote with hope. About how they feel like younger voters need to vote strategically, ending conversations with just such human thoughts, such human fears about becoming obsolete or forgotten.

To desi aunties and uncles convincing me I could speak in Hindi for the camera (I cannot), and the organizers who taught me so much about the desi communities across New York. To my laundromat, where the Sikh owner told me with disappointment of his own immigration journey, that he didn’t move halfway across the world to fall sick during a pandemic.

To public housing in the Rockaways where residents exchanged notes on whose building got the Carson-era refurbish, whether theirs was going to be the next elevator with a mirror, a marker of the privatization. They spoke about chosen families looking after each other, especially in the absence of any sort of social safety net.

Next to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum after dark to talk about how artists wanted a publicly-funded arts space and one that was accessible and touch-friendly for children. And also, where we remembered that Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress in New York-12, Central Brooklyn’s district, who after winning her seat in 1968 served as an enumerator for her district for the 1970 Census.

The Census took me to community board meetings, to Complete Count Committees, to parks to hospitals to living rooms to WeWorks to City Hall.

To so many aunties, always the aunties, they find me. To times with so many kids, young people who taught me about the Census and what it meant for their future. To seniors who put me in my place when I needed them to. To focus groups in lower Manhattan, where Indo-Caribbean communities spoke about how they pass the time living in New York without families. Working out, many of them said, to find girls.

The Census took me to lives that the stories that leave New York and go to the rest of the world just don’t capture. The Census introduced me to parts of New York and parts of my conviction to work in policy that I hadn’t really reflected on.

At this time when we spend time inside, keeping each other healthy, supporting our loved ones by checking in on them, our neighbours by making sure they have something to eat, essential workers by giving money when we can, the Census is more important than ever. (A full list of organizations you can support right now.)

The very parts of the city we love and miss and want to fiercely support, are all made possible by a fair and accurate count.

A count of our people, where they live, allows us to be a small part of the story we tell about who actually makes up this city.

Historically we know communities of colour have not had this chance. We know this. The Census began as a racist mechanism to count each and every land and slave-owning white American in 1790. Communities of colour have not always been able to self-identify, with Black individuals being counted as 3/5ths of a white man, and an enumerator choosing their race at the door. Cut to present day and communities of colour remain chronically undercounted due to factors like distrust in the government and confusion over who is eligible, factors instilled by the very state that purports to want to count each and every individual.

The fear and distrust around the Census persists today.

A good faith pursuit of representation and documentation of the people living in the United States on April 1, 2020 would require us to dismantle histories of slavery, surveillance, and means-testing first. And go beyond binary questions when it comes to gender and race.

That fight is important and will begin in earnest in 2021 for the 2030 Census.

For now, the 2020 Census will determine which communities get relief for small businesses, and get to rebuild for the next ten years, which hospitals get the resources they need for the next pandemic, which schools get enough seats and books and hot lunches for all kids not just a few. And so much more.

The Census helps our communities advocate for services in languages our communities understand which can mean the difference between life and death, the Census helps our communities advocate for school holidays for Eid and Diwali. It even helps determine whether your bacon, egg, and cheese is halal. It determines whether the stores in your neighbourhood actually carry the products you need, the spices, the hair products, options for baby formula.

What we love about New York was never equally shared.

And as a newcomer to this city, I have been immensely privileged in how I have been able to move, work, and enjoy the city. Who gets to stay here, and rebuild after this period of uncertainty and immense collective and real devastating grief, will depend on a series of decisions, some highly politicized and some entirely reliant on the count on the 2020 Census.

I’m not entirely sure how I found myself caring about and working on the 2020 US Census — it was certainly not a goal of mine five years or even one year ago. But, often it feels so natural that the distinct puzzle pieces of my life and interests in meeting as many people as I can, making policy more accessible, working to represent immigrants and communities of colour, a love for great cities and great stories have come together.

I feel so lucky to have worked so closely with this complicated, lonely, inspiring, frustrating, exhilarating city, travelling between the five boroughs, exploring the 52 places as it were. I think about these places, and the people I’ve met and the ones I never will. I hope they are doing okay. While I try to do as much as I can, I hope you can too, by supporting your local organizations or mutual aid group that are working to feed people and get them sheltered and ensuring you get counted.

Fill out your Census: my2020census.gov

Torontonian from Bombay in Brooklyn. Digital rights, immigration, and the Census. Read me on aunties: https://medium.com/@digitaljusticelab/not-like-the-aunties