The Uni portable reading room. Ozone Park Plaza. 2014.

Meet New Residents Street Lab aka the Uni Project

Street Lab is a nonprofit that creates unique programs for public space across New York City—pop-up reading rooms, open-air drawing studios, and more. Our passion is bringing people together and transforming public space, and we focus on solutions that communities can’t easily implement themselves, sharing our solutions across the city. We choose pop-up locations based on requests from community groups, and we work in partnership with NYC Parks and NYC Dept. of Transportation, prioritizing underserved areas. We also send kits around the world so that other cities can do the same. In New York City, we are known primarily as the Uni Project

Desiree Frieson: Tell us how The Uni Project got started. When was your aha moment? (Tell us about the process of starting up.)

Sam Davol: In 2005, we moved our family to downtown Boston temporarily (it ended up being for six years), and we wanted to contribute to our new neighborhood, which was full of empty spaces after a major urban reconstruction project called the “Big Dig.” We started doing pop-up experiments, to draw people downtown and activate space. We saw a vacant lot across the street, and we created an outdoor movie festival called Films at the Gate in Chinatown, inviting people to bring take-out from local restaurants. We did other projects, like dance rehearsals in a empty storefront, and eventually created a nonprofit called Street Lab to do this kind of work.

Before returning to NYC, we did one final project in Boston called the Chinatown Storefront Library which was a community-run library in a vacant storefront, with 5000+ donated books and events that ran into the evening. (https://www.storefrontlibrary.org/) Passersby could see library patrons on the inside of the storefront glass, displaying values that were important to us and other residents of Chinatown. The Storefront Library was our most popular project in Boston, but we noticed something interesting in our data: during good weather, our patron numbers dropped. It turned out that people were going to the park instead of our space. With that lesson in mind, on moving back to New York in 2011, we launched the Uni Project, which was a pop-up reading room designed to go where people already gather, including parks, plazas—anywhere, really. Last year, we completed our 500th deployment in NYC, and we now work city-wide, reaching all five boroughs with different programs for public space: READ, DRAW, BUILD, EXPLORE, and more. (https://www.theuniproject.org/programs/) In 2018, we’re expanding the scope of our programs further, and we are re-introducing our original nonprofit name Street Lab to be an envelope for programs that range beyond learning and education.

Desiree: Who is on your team?

Sam: Leslie serves as Executive Director, focusing on program management and development, partnerships, administration, fundraising. Sam focuses on logistics, design, fabrication, and communications. Leah Kaplan is our full-time Program and Operations Manager. And we have a roster of 10 part-time staff who work in the field, including several LCC students. We also have 35 active volunteers and other pro bono contributors (architects, designers, educators, etc.)

Desiree: Who are your primary customers?

Sam: For our programming work, we are focused on creating a great experience for the New Yorkers who walk up and engage with our programs (all of which are free). If it doesn’t work for them, nothing else really matters. We also seek to please and address the needs of the 100+ community partners and city agencies that host us in each location. We deploy only where we are invited, so without them, we’re not going anywhere. Finally, there are funders and sponsors who make our work possible, and they get our attention as well.

The other part of our work involves fabricating programming “kits” for other organizations and cities so they can copy our model. Most of our customers have been libraries, and we’ve also built for park conservancies, museums, and the US State Department. Here’s a list: (https://www.theuniproject.org/in-other-cities/)

Desiree: Tell us about your fundraising strategy as a non-profit. What opportunities are on the horizon for The Uni Project?

Sam: We’ve worked hard to diversify our revenue sources, so that we are not solely dependent on charitable donations. We bring in a significant amount of earned revenue from program fees and sales of kits to other cities around the world. One area where we feel there is room to grow is corporate sponsorship.

Desiree: Tell us about your biggest accomplishment to date and why are you so proud of it.

Sam: One of our goals is to be a 100% climate neutral organization by the end of this year. Our partnership with NYC Department of Transportation now includes a truck sharing arrangement, so that most of our equipment rides on existing NYC DOT truck routes. This partnership lets us reach hundreds of new locations with programming while cutting our organization’s trucking by about 75%. We think there will be an increasing demand for services in NYC that are provided sustainably and use cooperation to reduce energy use. We want to show how that can be done in our work.

Desiree: How can people get involved with the Uni Project?

Sam: Stop by our studio or reach out in any other way! Volunteering with us on the street is a great way to explore the city and meet fellow New Yorkers. Offering pro bono design or professional help is another great way to make a contribution that can impact scores of neighborhoods across the city. We’d also love help finding funders and sponsors.

___________________________