In the city’s ninth annual Immigrant Heritage Week (April 17-24), the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and its partners (including WNET/Thirteen, the parent company of MetroFocus) honor the histories and traditions of the city’s immigrant communities.
Even the first 17th-century settlers in New York, organized by the commercial venture of the Dutch West India Company, were a diverse mix of Europeans, Africans and South Americans who spoke a total of 18 languages. Four-hundred years later, 37 percent of New Yorkers come from another country and speak some 800 languages.
Immigrants are also the innovators of contemporary New York, and this week, MetroFocus profiles immigrants who are shaping the arts, activism and politics, and technology and science, today. A geneticist and tech entrepreneur are featured here.
The Scientist and the Tech Entrepreneur
Dr. Nir Barzilai came from Israel to the United States — “the land of opportunity” — to complete his medical residency at Yale University when he was in his thirties. A geneticist who researches aging and genetics, Barzilai met and fell in love with an American woman, married her and moved to New York City where he has lived ever since. The man of reason says New York also offered him the resources he needed to be a successful researcher.
“I came from a relatively developed country but it was a poor country,” he said. “The potential and the opportunities here was something I could never do in Israel.”
Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is the researcher behind the Longevity Genes Study, which seeks to determine whether those that have lived extremely long lives have some genetic semblance.
The study analyzed the genetic make-up and life habits of 500 physically and cognitively healthy individuals over the age of 100. The decades-long study has had a great impact, with scientists developing medications for age-related diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
In recognition of his research, Barzilai was the recipient of a prestigious award from the American Federation for Aging Research in 2010, and his work was described by the Wall Street Journal as “ambitious.”
Barzilai loves New York City, and says he has been welcomed with open arms, but the fact that he is an immigrant does not define him.
“I’m very grateful to this city, state and country. I was welcomed without prejudice,” he said. “But I never thought of myself as an immigrant. It was all looking forward.”
Andres Blank, originally from Venezuela, has called New York City his home for three years. He’s a co-founder of the tech start-up Pixable, a free photo sharing app that aggregates photos from a user’s social networks and puts them into feeds. Pixable won a coveted working space at the Varick Street Incubator in 2009, an office that is subsidized by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and administered by NYU-Polytechnic Institute.
The Pixable app is now up to some 1.5 million downloads in Apple’s App Store.
Blank says New York City is an inspiring place to launch a start-up, even if he acknowledges the city is “tough.”
“There are so many brilliant people in New York and so much talent,” he said. “There are great people from so many countries. That diversity is incredibly important.”
“People here are so ambitious and smart!” he said, adding that being an immigrant has advantages, too.
“We have different perspectives and ideas of how to tackle problems and mitigate risks,” he said.
And while many people in Venezuela start their own companies, Blank said New York City has been an incredibly supportive place for him, professionally.
“I’m impressed by the level of attention start-ups get in New York, from the incubators to help finding office space,” he said.
“And there’s something about being in a community that’s growing aggressively that’s special,” he added.
Micah Kotch runs the Varick Street Incubator and said in an email that Blank “had a vision that he was determined to make a reality,” he said. “Being an immigrant informed his experience in many ways; he was eager to meet new people and his enthusiasm was contagious.”
For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.