Once Upon A Place

Aman Mojadidi

Times Square Arts and artist Aman Mojadidi bring Once Upon A Place, an interactive public art installation that creates a platform for immigrant voices, to Duffy Square (46th Street and 7th Avenue) from June 27- September 5. Visitors will be invited to open the door of one of three repurposed telephone booths, pick up the receiver, and listen to oral histories of immigration from the newest New Yorkers. Visitors can also open the phone book inside each booth to read more about the storytellers' communities both here in New York and the countries they have traveled from, and to leave behind a part of their own story if they wish. The installation includes 70 different stories that will last anywhere between 2 and 15 minutes.

According to the Pew Research Center, by the year 2065 one in three Americans will be an immigrant or have immigrant parents. In New York City currently, more than a third of the city’s residents are foreign-born and close to 800 languages are spoken across the five boroughs. Once Upon A Place brings the city’s residents together by using three personalized phone booths to share stories of immigration, told by the New Yorkers who lived them. Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi recorded these stories over several months as part of his residency with Times Square Arts, creating a safe environment for residents to share the experiences that brought them to New York, either in English or in their mother tongue.  

During Mojadidi’s residency, he traveled across the city — from Jackson Heights, Queens, to Westerleigh, Staten Island — and spoke with dozens of people for whom the experience of immigration has been a turning point in their lives. Some arrived in the U.S. seeking refuge from social and political upheaval, while others came in pursuit of opportunity. Together, their perspectives will highlight the incredible range of human experiences that continues to shape American culture.

Mojadidi collaborated with 25 local businesses, community organizations, and cultural spaces throughout New York City to organize workshops and record the oral histories that will be shared in Once Upon A Place. Held in 18 neighborhoods across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, the workshops created a safe environment for residents to share the experiences that brought them to America, either in English or in their mother tongue. Partner organizations were chosen for their commitment to fostering equitable, inclusive communities in neighborhoods that are home to a broad cross-section of immigrant populations. Locations for Mojadidi’s conversations with New York City immigrants ranged from the Bronx Museum of the Arts to the Liberian Cultural Association in Staten Island, New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Queens and Yemen Café & Restaurant in Brooklyn.

In current political and social conversations about borders, bans, and citizenship, the word “immigrants” can be used as a monolithic block, sweeping under a single label people from a wide variety of backgrounds. By giving participants a platform to tell their individual stories, Once Upon a Place instead explores that rich variety of personalities and journeys. Listeners are drawn into the lives of New York City residents from Bangladesh, Belgium, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, Sierra Leone, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Yemen, bringing an intersection of experiences to the Crossroads of the World.

In the heart of Times Square, thousands of local employees and residents walk side-by-side with visitors from around New York, around the country, and around the world. The three phone booths – three of the last phone booths that were removed from the streets of NYC, which were de-installed by the same man who first installed phone booths in Times Square in the 1980s – establish an intimate space for reflection and connection with our neighbors.

Listen to the Times Square Arts audio interview with Aman Mojadidi about Once Upon a Place:

Image courtesy of Brian William Waddell / FT SET for Times Square Arts.