Today’s newsletter, our last of 2020, deviates from the usual to bring you a message from me, S. Mitra Kalita, publisher and co-founder of Epicenter. A longtime journalist, I live in Jackson Heights, Queens, with my two girls, mutt and artist husband Nitin Mukul, who founded this newsletter with me.
I begin with a heartfelt thank you. What a difference you’ve made as a member of this community. Examples:
- A call for large diaper donations yielded six boxes sent to a food pantry in Jackson Heights.
- A cardiologist offered to donate 100 masks and we connected her to a mutual aid group in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in need of exactly that.
- Stories about small businesses and NYC institutions, their wares and their pandemic pivots helped them sell out — of flowers, meats, honey, virtual events around making rent and grieving and mourning.
- A teacher in Geneva (Switzerland, not N.Y.) offered to tutor teens in physics after reading a plea for male mentors.
- We have a really cool partnership with the Haitian Times to share content, and our pieces on community fridges, tenant rights, poet activists and Broadway actors have gone on to be followed by big media.
- Apparently many of you never knew you can canoe on the Gowanus and have now tried and liked it.
So thank you. Thank you for signing up. For donating. For contributing ideas. For sustaining each other. Our Epicenter-NYC community rests on the simple but revolutionary idea that we journalists often do not have the answers. You do. Our role is one of disseminating, facilitating, connecting, enabling, spotlighting.
As the year ends, I want to share our origins, mission and vision for 2021. Epicenter-NYC effort was launched in July 2020 after our corner of Queens was among the hardest hit in the pandemic, the so-called Epicenter of the Epicenter.
In the face of crisis, with government help feeling distant or unlikely or untrustworthy, tight-knit communities turned within. Since March, every day brings new opportunities to help our neighbors: Our bike mechanic died in Elmhurst Hospital and his body needed claiming from the city; a husband-wife couple both got Covid and had no child care; and business after business struggled with paperwork and also sought advice, discussions evolving into how to switch revenue models for the new world (dis)order. We were part of a network being activated as a matter of survival.
We thought a newsletter like this might amplify the need beyond our circle but also sustain us through the pandemic — after all, it’s possible to struggle to pay your rent and still need to find yeast or a good bike path ASAP. We decided that each item in the newsletter should not aggregate or summarize as much as help a user take action or feel connected. We leaned into our “outer borough” identity and ascendant neighborhood vibe, feeling like New Yorkers were newly discovering the 10- to 20-block radius around them even as they relied on the interdependence of our enclaves (i.e. Please respect my boundaries unless you are delivering takeout or toilet paper).
The idea for Epicenter-NYC was conceived of before the death of George Floyd. That we launched after the global protests pervades our mission. As national media and social media debate the role of perspective, we are clear on ours: Black Lives Matter. We do not have a view from nowhere. We live here. We love it here. We stick up for our neighbors.
Inclusion, baked into our mission, remains an ongoing focus of our work in 2021. We seek to center Black and Brown voices, a philosophy that extends to our business practices and who we commission as artists, vendors, our interns and lawyers. Next year, we hope to grow Epicenter, both in audience and ambition. We plan to:
- Pay the artists who appear in the “Last Word” at least $100 per published submission; we seek ways to amplify this give, partner with arts groups and welcome ideas.
- Grow partnerships to share content and achieve scale and impact. (And support efforts to link public ad dollars to community media; see this open letter on how effective it’s been.)
- Better help New Yorkers track elections for mayor, city council and other seats; shift the conversation to issues that matter to us — and through our lens — versus splicing and dicing literally dozens of candidates.
- Develop a network of small businesses and ways we can support them through an ambassador program launched with NYU’s Studio 20 program and journalism students.
- Continue successful experimentation into livestreams and podcasts.
- Rebuild our websites to better organize content, explore membership/advertising and optimize for mobile.
- Offer weekly yoga to our freelancers and contractors.
- Invite community members, partners and subscribers to news meetings.
- And better engage with you! Please send us your thoughts.
We express deep gratitude to the Ford Foundation for a grant that enables some of the above. We also thank all who so generously give to our tip jar. We still need you — to pay artists, freelancers, vendors and all the villages it takes to build this one. Please give and give generously. (And let us know if you are in a position to connect us to a sponsor or advertiser.)
Some of you have asked: What happens when we are no longer the Epicenter? What becomes of the pandemic newsletter when there is no pandemic?
We dream of that day, of course. Another answer comes from the evolving sounds of this city, ambulance sirens to 7 p.m. pot-clanging to the snowball throwing and tire spinning of the last few days. Several times a week, I walk down 34th Avenue, part of the Open Streets program we’ve written about frequently in the newsletter. I’m struck by how different a place it becomes each passing day, each iteration of this moment in history: Food drives to tamales vendors to ghosts and pumpkins hanging from trees to a masked Santa meeting kids this past weekend.
My father arrived in this neighborhood in 1971. Jackson Heights has changed so much since then — and yet that, too, is a constant. What the immigrants who define my home know better than anyone else is the need to constantly reinvent ourselves and thus the space around us. There is no going back. From here, change emanates and determines — as the anthropologist Roger Sanjek famously said – “the future of us all.”
Perhaps we have always been the Epicenter. Thank you for connecting with us and, more importantly, each other. Happy holidays.
S. Mitra Kalita
P.S. If each of you share this newsletter sign-up with five of your friends, that not only helps us grow but concretely helps more of our neighbors on the road ahead.
P.P.S. Please do consider giving here.