Q: How has Diversity Plaza served as a public gathering space for unique events that traditionally happen indoors?
A: On a summer evening last June, Queens Community Board 3 had its monthly public meeting outdoors because of SUKHI New York’s initiative to host the first ever Community Board meeting in public, at Diversity Plaza. More than two hundred people attended the event, while hundreds of passersby lingered to watch the proceedings.
Last fall, hundreds of immigrant New Yorkers gathered in this same plaza to watch live screenings of the Presidential debates. This was democracy in action, in the public realm, in the heart of one of New York’s most diverse neighborhoods.
Q: The concept of “diversity” encompasses acceptance and respect. How does Diversity Plaza live up to its name?
A: On July 4th for American Independence Day, SUKHI brought the local community together for a picnic party with the unifying theme being “diversity of one nation”. Hundreds of new American families gathered in celebration of their mosaic of culture, heritage, and faith. Adults and children prayed together and sang the Star Spangled Banner. The entertainment also included a Desi Drummer “Dholl”, songs, food, and live fireworks on a big screen.
Q: The neighborhood of Jackson Heights has one of the largest foreign born populations in New York City. How has Diversity Plaza become a place for immigrants to call their own?
A: Diversity Plaza is decorated with flags from every nation in Jackson Heights, which we see as a living United Nations in the street. South Asian residents gather to discuss politics, while people of all religions – Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jews, and Muslims celebrate Ramadan Iftars, Eid, Diwali, Chanukah and Christmas together.
This spectrum is also reflected in the art, writing and poetry featured in the plaza where we hold regular screenings and festivals. The annual Jackson Heights Pride Parade makes a stop here too.
Q: After Diversity Plaza was constructed by the Department of Transportation, the engagement of the local community has been key to its longevity. How is the plaza managed on a day-to-day basis?
A: Diversity Plaza is managed by SUKHI New York which I run with my daughter Fatima Baryab. SUKHI New York is a non-profit aimed at empowering women, promoting diversity and small business. Shazia Kausar the President of SUKHI, and owner of Café K2 “a Green Café” also provides management support. On a daily basis, Diversity Plaza is maintained by staff from ACE NY as part of our support from Neighborhood Plaza Partnership. The plaza maintenance service gives formerly incarcerated and homeless people transition employment through the ACE program.
Q: Managing an active public space and its programming is no small task. What are the next steps for SUKHI and Diversity Plaza as it plans for long-term sustainability?
A: SUKHI is developing a community advisory council for the plaza, to help with fundraising and programming. SUKHI has collaborated with the office of the New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm and Neighborhood Plaza Partnership, to involve the area residents, local businesses, arts, civic, and environmental organizations active in Jackson Heights.
One of our central goals is to ensure diverse community groups have equal opportunities to enjoy and celebrate cultural festivals with a both a sense of ownership and collective responsibility.
Q: What advice would you give to other neighborhoods who would like to create a vibrant, shared public space like Diversity Plaza?
A: It is hard work, but managing these spaces is performing small miracles of civic engagement and neighborhood improvement. The success of our plaza has been largely thanks to sweat equity, a philanthropic spirit, and much creativity. The support of local elected officials is also essential.