Stop Throwing Shade at Staten Island

How can overlooked places communicate their value to newcomers and naysayers?

Nobody puts NZ in a corner

If you watched Last Week Tonight with John Oliver last month, you probably remember laughing at IKEA’s map mishap. For some reason, a $29 framed map of the world from their BJÖRKSTA series was missing a crucial element: the entire nation of New Zealand. Not a good look, especially considering that the brand just announced plans to open its first store there in the city of Auckland.

Apparently, IKEA isn’t the only offender when it comes to making world maps without New Zealand. There are so many of them out there, in different shapes and forms, that entire Reddit threads and a Tumblr blog are dedicated to spotting the cartographical error. Even Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, launched a tourism campaign to #GetNZOnTheMap and help counter the problem.

Why do people keep omitting an actual place from the planet? Granted, the island country is easy to miss because the Mercator projection pushes it to the bottom-right of many world maps. “Out of sight, out of mind” may be a well-worn trope, but that doesn’t take the sting out of being written off by so many people.

Turns out that feeling is all too familiar even in our own backyard.

Meet the Forgotten Borough: Staten Island

As the southernmost point in New York State, a 20-minute ferry ride away from Manhattan, Staten Island has long been treated by New Yorkers like an afterthought. Residents feel overlooked by the NYC government and have called for a movement to secede from New York (or Stexit) more than once over the years.

One Twitter thread started by Stephen Colbert comes closest to capturing outsiders’ current attitude towards the borough. When Colbert joked that New Yorkers can relate to Amazon for bailing on going to Queens, someone suggested that actually sounds more like Staten Island — to which another person promptly responded, “No. Nobody has ever said that they would go to Staten Island.”

Ouch.

Now, others evidently want in on the fun. Several brands, in an attempt to sound clever and New York-savvy, have recently put out ads on the subway that poke fun at Staten Island. Take, for instance, the platform poster by cloud solutions platform 8x8 that claims you can video chat anywhere, “even in Staten Island,” implying that the island is located somewhere beyond the edge of the known universe. There’s also a subway ad by time management software monday.com that lists “Staten Island Revival” as a project task and marks progress level at 0%.

Both ads — which promote products that, incidentally, have nothing to do with serving the city or its neighborhoods — make a joke at Staten Island’s expense to appeal to the sensibilities of New Yorkers living in other parts of the city. Adding insult to injury, the ads’ placement on MTA trains and subway stations deliberately excludes Staten Islanders, who live in the only borough without a rail link to Manhattan. Indeed, brands would be wise to remember that almost half a million people live on Staten Island.

From the Forgotten to the Unexpected

Whether they’re left off world maps or disregarded for being inaccessible, places like New Zealand and Staten Island have to work harder to communicate their value to outsiders.

Therein lies a huge opportunity to surprise people by rewriting the story. Undervalued destinations like Staten Island have the power to overcome years of slight and rejection by taking back and shaping their own narrative.

Positive portrayal in media and culture reframes and redefines what a place has to offer. Native-born Staten Islanders like the Wu-Tang Clan, the pioneers of Shaolin Land’s indigenous hip-hop scene since the 1990s, have expanded the role a place can play in cultivating creativity. World-famous singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha proudly declared on ABC’s Dateline that she’s “just a kid from Staten Island, who dared to dream.” George R.R. Martin modeled King’s Landing in Game of Thrones on his grand view of Downtown Staten Island from his childhood home. Joe, Sal, Q and Murr from Impractical Jokers now have their own homecoming exhibition experience at the Staten Island Museum, on view through March 24.

As a team interested in exploring what creates a strong sense of place, we were invigorated by the opportunity to work with the Staten Island Borough President’s office to rebrand its tourism arm, Visit Staten Island. We took Staten Island’s lackluster rep as “the Forgotten Borough” and turned it on its head. Hidden in plain sight in one of the world’s biggest cities — a free, short ferry ride away — is an island full of surprises, local flavor, cultural attractions and outdoor activities. Its low profile is its selling point. You can’t forget something you never knew in the first place, and in this light Staten Island became the Unexpected Borough.

Underappreciated places in big, busy cities are constantly confronted with the challenges of attracting visitors while uniting residents, supporting growth and articulating value to newcomers while preserving local character. Any community looking to find its communications footing can take a tip or two from Staten Island and toss out the standard playbook for putting themselves on the map. NYC’s Unexpected Borough continues to leverage the power of proud locals, vocal advocates, positive impressions, and good design to go from being the butt of cheap jokes to rebutting the naysayers — regardless what they’re trying to sell.


This post was written by Shivani Gorle with thinking contributed by Wednesday Krus and Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.