The word “kvetch” is a key to understanding New York City. It means “to complain persistently” in Yiddish but has entered the vernacular of New Yorkers regardless of creed or colour. We love to kvetch. Summers are too hot. Winters are too cold. We kvetch when the subway, which usually runs around the clock, shuts down lines for maintenance and repairs. We kvetch about gentrification pushing out our neighbourhood bodega (corner store) and replacing it with another chain store. “Rent Is Too Damn High” is the rallying cry and name of a local political party.
"New York City has more foreign-born residents than Chicago has people and more college students than the total population of Boston. The city is home to as many as 800 different languages."
David Colby Reed and Lee-Sean Huang
Kvetching is a symptom of New Yorker’s sense of never being satisfied. We are a demanding bunch, never content with simply going with the flow. This fosters a culture of taking initiative. In reaction to kvetching about the city’s daily taxi shortage between 4-5pm, you’ll find bloggers publishing their analyses of optimal surcharges to mitigate the shortages.
New York is a city of hustlers and entrepreneurs, who flock here to break the old rules and to make new ones (including spelling). It continues to attract the world’s brightest and best, as well as its misfits and malcontents. For the waves of migrants who have landed here, it means a shot at a second chance, whether you are coming from Mississippi, Mexico or Myanmar.
New York’s biggest assets are its size and diversity. With 8.4 million people within its five boroughs, New York has a population greater than Switzerland. When you look at the broader metropolitan region, the headcount swells to 20.1 million. New York City has more foreign-born residents than Chicago has people and more college students than the total population of Boston. The city is home to as many as 800 different languages.
One of New York’s biggest challenges is its stark income inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor is comparable to that of Swaziland.
The city’s imperfections inspire us to do better. Most people know of New York as a centre for finance, fashion, media, and the arts, but it is also the home of a vibrant and growing social entrepreneurship and civic technology sector. Be Social Change is a major convener of the social impact community, which also gathers in places like the Impact Hub, the Centre for Social Innovation, and Civic Hall. New York’s density of social networks and convergence of industries has been beneficial to us in building our own interdisciplinary consulting practice working at the intersection of design, technology, and social innovation. Lee-Sean also teaches at Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts, the first masters programme in the field of social impact design.
We find inspiration in New York’s collision of cultures and draw motivation from the frictions of everyday life. The chaos is part of the charm. We’ll continue to kvetch about the noise, the congestion, and the cost of living, but we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
David Colby Reed and Lee-Sean Huang are co-founders of Foossa, a community-centred design and strategy consultancy.