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Lost Gem
Harlem Grown 1 Gardens undefined

Harlem Grown

Like so many of the amazing community gardens throughout Manhattan, stepping into Harlem Grown is like entering an oasis in the middle of the city. Beyond the gates is a carefully cultivated grassy area surrounded by neatly labeled patches of fruits and vegetables and colorful flowerpots. The distinct difference, however, is on our first meeting with Tony Hillery - the founder of the organization behind Harlem Grown - is that when I introduced myself to him explaining that Manhattan Sideways was interested in learning about the garden, he immediately replied, "Excuse me, I have to correct you, it is our farm. " Listening to the variety of birds chirping around us during the summer of 2017, while sitting and chatting with Tony Hillery, was a unique Manhattan experience. Harlem Grown sprouted in 2011, when Tony decided to leave his successful limousine business in favor of finding something that he felt was "more worthwhile. " He told us that he started out with no master plan, and just had a general idea about getting involved with the local public school on 134th Street. His hope was that he could teach parents that education is the way out of poverty. Three weeks into his program, he had a conversation with one of the mothers at the school that permanently altered his understanding of the problem at hand, as she maintained that she lived a perfectly good life despite never having received an education. He was blown away to think that for some living in low-income housing, feeding their children on food stamps, and depending on benefits was the best or only lifestyle to aspire to. This, he explained, was his introduction to what he defines as "generational poverty. " The encounter sparked a realization that simply telling parents about the importance of education was ineffective, because it ignored the reality they were facing. Tony proceeded to share with us a series of alarming statistics about the community: 80% of the kids in the area come from single-parent homes, 98% percent of them live on food stamps, 92% percent of them live in poverty, and 40% of them are homeless. Tony decided to change tactics and embrace a “from the ground up” approach that focused on mentoring children and improving every aspect of their lives. "What we are fighting is generational poverty. "One of the issues he identified, immediately, was the amount of altercations that happen between children in the school, usually during lunch time in the cafeteria. He clarified that the kids at the school were not predisposed to violence, they were just scared, angry, confused, and hungry as a result of their circumstances. “I’m a fifty-eight-year-old man, and if I’m even one of those I can get ornery myself, ” he remarked. With this in mind, he decided to find something that the kids could get involved with, serving his purpose of educating them as well as giving them a productive outlet for their energies. First off, Tony began a recycling program in the school, and the students quickly became enthusiastic about participating, forming a green team, a composting program, and even organizing a salad bar in the cafeteria. Tony was pleased to tell us that as the students became more engaged in this project, the number of arguements in the cafeteria dropped from six to eight incidents a week to zero. With the success of his in-school program, Tony began thinking of what he could offer outside of school. This, in turn, led him to contact the city to request a license for the plot of land on 134th Street that had been intended as a community garden. The space was overgrown after being neglected for six years, and it had been taken over by people engaging in illegal activities. In fact, Tony revealed that in his first year of trying to clean out the land and set up the farm, he had to contend with numerous acts of sabotage from people in the neighborhood upset at losing their hangout spot - including vandalism and chemicals thrown over the gate to contaminate the land and plants. While we were sitting on a bench near the gate of the garden, I commented on so many of the people passing by saying a quick "hello boss, " referring to him in the most sincere and warmest way. Tony revealed that many of them were those same people that he had to force out of his space a few years back. Despite the initial resistance from the people who were using the garden, Tony persisted. He was soon joined by several students at school who were eager to help clean up the space, which snowballed into people from the neighborhood asking if they could volunteer, too. He remade the former community garden into what he calls a “youth garden, ” which he inaugurated with a seedling ceremony where each child planted something. This instantly won him the dedication of each of those children, as they were all naturally excited to watch what they had planted grow. Better yet, Tony found, “if they plant it, they will eat it. ” Kids that proclaimed to hate vegetables would happily eat them if they were involved in the growing process. He even said that he found that eight out of ten kids acquired a taste for vegetables over time. However, this is when yet another component of the issue Tony was combating made itself known. He described the neighborhood as a “food desert, ” which is when the population of an area lacks access to affordable, fresh, healthy food. We were shocked to learn that in a three-block radius, there are 53 fried chicken restaurants, 29 pharmacies, and not one affordable healthy food option. As such, even as children were becoming excited about fresh produce, there were no markets from which families could purchase them. Tony’s solution to this is to allow his volunteers to take home 100% of what is grown in their farm and their greenhouse next door, which produces 10, 000 vegetable plants per month. Tony then told us that he goes a step farther by offering cooking lessons on Saturdays so that children and their families can learn what to make with healthy, fresh ingredients. This exemplifies the effectiveness of the “education from the bottom up model, " as it is through engaging the kids that Tony is then able to access and educate their parents. “What we’re really growing is well-adjusted little humans. ” He went on to say that he knows the children, the boys in particular, tend to mimic him and follow his example. He attributes this to another significant issue the children face - namely, a lack of positive male role models. Less than 20% of teachers in public elementary and middle schools are male. Nationally, only 2% of teachers are men of color. Statistics like these bolster his belief in the importance of mentorship, a philosophy that is an integral part of both his organization as a whole and his individual interactions with the kids he serves, as he acts as their surrogate dad of sorts. We were able to witness this in action during our conversation, as he traded jokes with a visiting group of high school students and confessed to us, “They eat that goofy stuff up. ”Moreover, Tony also works with the Police Athletic League and the Harlem Justice Corps, giving internship opportunities to young men, many of whom have been imprisoned and are unemployed. He shared with us that most of these men want to work and be productive but do not know how, due to a lack of employable skills or a shortage of opportunities. For those who show a great deal of promise during the internship, he goes on to offer them "real" employment with Harlem Grown under the condition that they get their GED, open a bank account, and acquire financial literacy. Once these young men are educated and have been influenced by Tony’s mentoring, he then sends them to the public schools to be the new mentors to the next group of students, following the methods Tony initiated. Tony said that there are about eight men who have undergone this process and are now the employees at six public schools in the area, all of which have their own gardens and in-school programs. One cannot underestimate the importance of the great number of passionate and exceptional people Harlem Grown employs. While we were visiting, we had the chance to meet Vanessa. Smiling, Tony said, “She has one job title but does five jobs. ” He was pleased to share with us that she left a high power job on Wall Street in an effort to give back and help those in need. She started working for him in 2015 and is in charge of development, social media, mentoring high school girls, scheduling, marketing, and more. Tony emphasized that Vanessa Vincent best embodies everything he wants Harlem Grown to be. Tony finds that having these positive examples makes a real, tangible difference in the children’s lives. "When I first started, every boy wanted to be LeBron James and every girl wanted to be Beyonce. Six years later, these kids want to be CPAs or coders, " he noted. “We shoot high here. ” The older kids are given help filling out college applications, and many of them who have been with Harlem Grown since it first started are now training to be counselors for their seven-week intensive summer camp. Harlem grown hosts three to five classes of about thirty-five children a day at the garden, which adds up to 2, 300 young people passing through their gates a month. When asked what was the turning point that allowed his project to grow to such a large scale, Tony attributed it to the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. They had approached him, a few years ago, and asked if they could volunteer. The company was so impressed by what he had accomplished that they gave him funding and three consultants to determine how to replicate his results elsewhere. Today, Tony travels the country to talk to others about food insecurity, poverty, and the methods he has utilized to combat them. Throughout his travels, he is continually reminded that “this is not a black, white, or brown issue - it’s a poor issue. ” He then added, “We fight generational poverty and we use urban farming as our tool. ”Tony has gained increasing recognition and acclaim for his project, and he even surprised us by sharing that he is one of the finalists for the 2017 CNN Heroes award. Despite this, he insisted, “This story is not about me; I’m just the storyteller. The real story is the kids and the participants here. ” He then admitted to us that since starting Harlem Grown, he lives a more fulfilling life and is happy for the chance to make a positive impact on the community. He sees this impact every day when the men who used to vandalize his garden six years ago now greet him by name, having been won over by seeing the difference Tony’s project has made on the lives of their children and grandchildren. He was then quick to point out that working with these kids is equally as rewarding for him. He described the kids’ amazing response to him, saying, “I get about a hundred hugs a day. ” He reflected on the changes that Harlem Grown had caused in him, and concluded our conversation by telling us, “It’s the new me - it’s simple, it’s genuine, and what I get back from these kids is unbelievable. ”

Lost Gem
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Amy Ruth's

My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during a walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events. The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I'd had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures — including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams — to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone. The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother. This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles — and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.

Lost Gem
Lexington Pizza Parlour on E101st Street in East Harlem Italian Pizza undefined

Lexington Pizza Parlour

E 101st Street’s Lexington Pizza Parlour may sound like your typical New York slice shop, but all it takes is one meal at the family-run, intimate Italian bistro to see that the popular neighborhood eatery is anything but. Operated by local restaurateur Charles Devigne, the Lexington Pizza Parlour offers a wide variety of traditional Italian fare — from their signature Roman Artichokes to a six-layer Lasagna, Veal Saltimbocca to freshly made desserts from their in-house Harlem Baking Company — and of course, a comprehensive selection of hand-crafted, brick oven pizzas. “My wife can’t stand the name, ” Charles laughed, referencing the leftover moniker from its previous owners. While the “pizza parlour” denomination may belie the cafe’s full assortment of fine dining entrees, it’s a callback to 2015, when Charles first walked by the space on the way to drop his son off at school and noticed a previously undiscovered slice shop. “I came to this restaurant with my son for a slice of pizza, and I was really shocked to see the menu — the previous owners were Italian guys who had been in the restaurant business in Queens importing Italian products, ” he told us. “We started chatting and it was at that point that he told me he was looking to sell the place. We bought it from them, and I kept the name as it was. ” Building a restaurant from the ground up, Lexington Pizza Parlour quickly garnered attention — and some confusion — from New York diners, said Charles. “I really started to think about changing the name in 2019 — I was even sending out surveys for people to make a list of names, because it just was killing us, ” he added. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and overwhelmed the city’s hospitals, they shifted focus to support healthcare workers in need. Raising over $50, 000 for New York hospitals and delivering more than 18, 000 meals to field hospitals and overfull emergency wings alike, “we started getting a lot of press as Lexington Pizza Parlour, ” said Charles, who spent the early days of COVID-19 personally delivering pies citywide. “It was a really great thing to be a part of, and now it’s almost that we can’t change the name, ” he told Manhattan Sideways. “I’ve decided that we’re sort of a ‘culinary speakeasy’ — you have to come find us because somebody recommended it to you. ” Those who do find Lexington Pizza Parlour, however, keep coming back. “Our clientele is very loyal, ” said Charles. “Once they find us, get to know the space and my staff and enjoy the food, they become very special, loyal customers. One thing I know is that ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses are dying, unfortunately, and while we’re never going to get wealthy doing this, we have a great product and I’d rather make two slow nickels than a fast dime. ” He added, “It’s really become a family tree — there are different seeds of people, from the first customer base of a dozen people to everyone who they’ve brought since. I’ve come to make peace with the name Lexington Pizza Parlour! ” 

Lost Gem
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Oasis Jimma Juice Bar

Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has moved to 3163 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. As we enjoyed a nutritious quinoa and vegetable bowl and a "Times Square" smoothie, Abdusalam, the owner of Oasis, was kind enough to sit down with the Manhattan Sideways team and share his story. He was born in Ethiopia, “the birthplace of coffee, ” and grew up on his family’s farm. His view of food as essential to health was shaped early on by his parents, as his father had a holistic clinic that used what their farm produced to help the community and provide adequate nutrition. His mother would cook for the visiting patients, and she taught Abdusalam to do the same — even though it was uncommon for boys to learn to cook in Ethiopia. After his father’s passing, Abdusalam left home at 14 and entered the mining industry to make a living. It was quite a change from his upbringing, he confessed, since he went from a farm where food was fresh and readily available to an area where both food and water were scarce. In retrospect, he realized that this is where his troubles with nutrition began, as it was the first in a long string of environments where he had little to no access to healthy foods. Even so, he drew on his mother’s teachings and chose to become the cook for the other miners. He retained this position until the outbreak of war forced him to flee the country and join a refugee camp in Kenya, which suffered from a scarcity of resources. It was during his stay at the camp that he was diagnosed with diabetes, a condition that played a large role in reshaping his understanding of food. Abdusalam faced many trials upon emigrating to the US in 2004. When he arrived in Harlem, he was broke and did not speak any English. Language was not the only new element he had to adapt to: he was astonished by American food. Living in refugee camps and traveling across the Middle East left him malnourished, and he admitted that, “supermarkets looked like heaven to me. ” But the most shocking aspect for him was not the abundance of food, but rather its high fat content and overly processed nature. “I didn’t know food was unsafe. In my country, food is safe, and if we don’t have it, we don’t have it. ” He was struggling to provide for himself and his family by working three jobs, so fast food and other cheap, unhealthy options were the most convenient for him. With time, he developed increasing health complications as a result of his poor diet, heavy workload and diabetes. To combat these, he began researching nutrition and wellness, which eventually led to the decision to eliminate all processed foods from his diet. He quickly saw what a positive impact this made for him and his overall wellbeing. These results motivated Abdusalam to open his first juice store on 125th Street in November 2012, where he could impart his philosophy about food to others. “It’s not about business for me, it’s about sharing my idea that food should be good, affordable, healthy and delicious. ” To aid in this goal, the walls of his shop are covered in facts about food and tips for healthy eating. Since its opening, according to Abdusalam, Oasis Jimma Juice Bar has become one of the top five juice bars in the city. Inspired by this success, in 2017 he opened another location on 139th Street, in his own neighborhood, to continue providing Harlem with access to better options. His passion for his mission was obvious. “People should learn about food — how to eat, how to cook, how to buy, ” he insisted. When we visited during the summer of 2017, Abdusalam told us that he was in the process of opening the Oasis Power House on 139th Street. His plan is for this to function as a “no judgment zone” where people will be encouraged to teach their particular talents and passions to anyone who wants to learn them. He envisions it as a space where those who are seeking meaning and purpose in their lives can find it by sharing what they love with others, be it piano lessons, arts and crafts, writing, or any other skill. Abdusalam hopes to continue giving back to Harlem, his adopted community, by sharing his story and ensuring that others can learn from and be inspired by his life experiences.

Lost Gem
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Maggie's Garden

The shaded garden on 149th street was not always the peaceful hideaway it is today. It was once an abandoned lot littered with garbage - a blight on the side street. Although the garden is now managed by Edo, it was her good friend Miss Maggie Burnett, a resident of the building across the street since the 1980s, who was the original driving force behind its transformation. "She was a cop, so no one messed with her, " Jahanah, Edo’s daughter, told me when I stopped by one Saturday afternoon during the summer of 2017. She was in the garden selling baked goods and cold water. She said that there were "so many badass stories" connected with Maggie. One such legend was that Maggie stopped a shooting outside simply by confronting the instigators and saying, "Not in my garden. ” In fact, she had been known to almost single-handedly police the street. Her dedication to keeping the neighborhood clean and safe is what drove her to contact then-mayor Ed Koch to request the restoration of the abandoned lot, which had long been a site for illegal activity. Mayor Koch offered her the space, and Maggie made it into a garden where she grew vegetables and even kept some chickens, “which was a nice treat for me to hear in the city, ” Edo shared. When the New York Restoration Project - founded by Bette Midler - became involved in 2002, the garden was revamped. Thanks to generous funding from the Brownstone Family Foundation, a team of horticulturists and landscape architects was able to design a place that would best serve the community. Maggie’s Garden officially reopened in 2003 in a ceremony hosted by Bette Midler and attended by guests such as former President Bill Clinton and Representative Charles Rangel. Although Maggie passed away in 2016, she remained devoted to maintaining her garden well into her eighties. “It’s visibly noticed that she’s no longer here, and you feel the absence of Maggie, because she did keep things clean, ” Edo reminisced, adding, “She was almost like a neighborhood staple. ” Edo has done her best to keep the legacy alive, explaining that she is just “tinkering in Maggie’s shadows. ” Edo does, however, allow her own philosophy on gardening to influence her modifications. As we walked down the path to the central arbor draped in hanging vines, Edo showed us the newest wind chime she was planning on putting up. “Part of gardening for me is using all of the senses, ” she explained. For this reason, she has planted more colorful flowers “to give the garden more personality, ” while also including sounds that serve as a pleasant backdrop for anyone resting on one of the benches arranged along the gravel paths. We were curious to find out about the members of the garden and their role in supporting it. Edo told us that anyone can be a member as long as they attend monthly meetings and do their shift working the soil. There are even areas specifically designated for members to grow new plants, and although they do not generally grow much food, we were assured that whatever they do harvest will be shared as a communal meal with all members. “That’s what this is for - sharing. ”