I went to Strand Bookstore a few days before my departure and stood in front of the endless racks of postcards for $1 near the checkout. There's everything from the classic shots of John Lennon wearing that New York t-shirt to the ubiquitous "Gay St." street sign and a sizable number of cobblestones and tall buildings. I had this idea to engage in a kind of reverse tourism - to hand postcards from New York City to people that took the time to visit with me in their home town.
Staring at the variety I struggled to make sense of the message I wanted to send or imagine the audience for the cards I'd yet to meet. A few in particular drew me in and began to fit a pattern. I thought the cards might serve as a tangible version of my larger goal: to create connection and to try to find overlapping values.
One of Central Park in autumn and another of the Brooklyn Bridge capture utterly recognizable places, but also great public works - a symbol of the beauty and practicality that is possible when government thinks big about infrastructure for the community. Having the government support and fund these kinds of projects seemed like a potential point of shared values between me and my imagined hosts. I nearly skipped one of the Statue of Liberty. At first it seemed too touristy or hokey. Now it feels like the best pick, though. Here is a symbol that is unapologetically American and embraced by citizens of many political beliefs, yet it was a gift of a European country (France no less!) and is an enduring symbol of our historic (if complicated) welcome to refugees from around the world.
At the end of each conversation I give my host a postcard. Sometimes these places and symbols come up in conversation and it's great to have a photo of the very spot to give them. Other times I let them pick which one they like best. On each, I write a little note about our visit and something encouraging them to come to New York. I include my cell phone number and offer to show them around if they visit. Most people I meet won't come or wouldn't be able to make a trip like that because of health or finances. Still, I hope just knowing they have a willing host across the country in a place that seems so 'other' softens their thoughts of those of us that call it home.
Scott Illingworth is an Assistant Arts Professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a freelance theatre director.