“The wonderful thing about Sunnyside is that we are all here together and that it hasn’t made the transformation yet to Bed, Bath and Beyond.”
Sandra Robishaw likes to get to know her neighbors. An activist, painter, hobby photographer and census enumerator, she has always been drawn to the fringes in Sunnyside: Think Indian goat milk soap, hand-painted signs of beauty salons, cemeteries, illegal immigrants and littered sidewalks along railroad tracks.Sitting by her mysteriously tail-less cat, Sandra explains that she isn’t drawn to things that are beautiful in the traditional sense. Instead, she attempts to illustrate an object’s quirkiness and ambiguity, giving glimpses of its owner’s unique personality. “The wonderful thing about Sunnyside is that we are all here together,” Sandra says, “and that it hasn’t made the transformation yet to Bed, Bath and Beyond.”
Sometimes the owners of Sunnyside’s Mexican, Turkish, Romanian and Lebanese delis are reluctant to let her photograph the displays inside of their stores, but being “a nutty little lady” she quickly wins them over. “I had storeowners take my photos and rearrange things, so they look better. People are ready to interact,” says Sandra, whose goal it is to one day be able to say “hello” and “thank you” in every language spoken in the neighborhood.
Her ability to get people to interact came in handy when she took a job as a Sunnyside census taker. Going from house to house to count those who didn’t respond to the initial mailings, she sat down with illegal immigrants who confided their fear of the Department of Homeland Security. Sandra patiently explained to them the long history of American census-taking and the need to provide the Census Bureau with headcounts in order to secure ESL programs and quality education for their children. “I think you can relate it to them on a level they [understand], especially if they have kids,” she says. Like the storeowners, the immigrants gave in to Sandra’s entreaties.
Sandra moved to New York in the early 1980s after receiving a graduate degree in art from the University of Colorado. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sandra met her husband on the N platform in Astoria, and that the couple decided to buy a home in Sunnyside that was once a socialist meeting place. (The house on 49th Street appeared “on the crest of thinking,” she says.)
In the podcast Sandra talks about her interactions with Sunnyside storeowners.