It was October 2016 when data artist and National Geographic Fellow Jer Thorp and his studio were asked to create an art installation for New York City’s annual Times Square Valentine Heart Design Competition. The project, which would be placed in Times Square for the month of February, needed to fit the central idea of a heart design while also speaking to the topic of diversity.
A data expert, Thorp knew that he wanted to find a way to bring stats to life in a tangible way and place them in a public space. Aesthetically, he says, his team wanted to create something that would change depending on the angle at which people looked at it.
“We thought that would play nicely with the idea of diversity,” he says.
But exactly what data they wanted the art to embody was a question mark—until, Thorp says, the 2017 election results showed that a new administration would take over. He and his team were angered by the negative rhetoric floating around about immigrants and immigration, and so they saw an opportunity to make a political statement.
“Being New Yorkers, and knowing a little bit about the history of the city...we decided that we would do the piece about immigration,” Thorp, himself a Canadian immigrant, says.
So the team constructed a piece called “We Were Strangers Once Too” using 33 steel poles that were inscribed with immigration statistics for New York City.
What they learned surprised them.
Using data taken from the 2015 American Community Survey, Thorp and his studio learned that 3.2 million people—nearly 40 percent—of New York’s residents are immigrants, having been born in a different country.
“New York has the biggest population of immigrants of any city in the world, both by number and by percentage,” Thorp says. “I didn’t know that specifically, although I certainly had a sense of it.”
The poles were painted in pink and red and the color blocks were positioned to form a heart when looked at head on, symbolizing the immigrants’ fundamental role to city life.
The project went up within days of Trump’s first executive travel ban, and each of the seven countries affected by that ruling—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—have “significant populations in New York City” represented in the piece.
The work fits into a long tradition of self reflection in the city.
“New York is America’s quintessential immigrant city,” writes Nancy Foner, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and author of the book One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the 21st Century.
New York experienced a major immigration wave at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of Europeans, many of whom were Russian Jews and Italians. People continued to come to the United States, and New York continued to act as a gateway for many, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the cultural makeup of the city’s immigrants began to evolve.
Whereas many of New York’s early immigrants came from Europe, immigrants today are from more varied cultures and countries, including Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.
“A striking feature of New York City’s immigration population is its striking diversity,” Foner writes. “No two, three or even four countries dominate.”
Thorp’s installation represents more than 130 countries that make up New York today, among them Ghana, Mexico, Canada, Bangladesh, Australia, and the Dominican Republic.
Though the installation was taken down on March 5, Thorp says he has received requests from other cities to create similar pieces.
“Every city has its own immigration signature,” Thorp says.