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Tompkinsville and Stapleton: Diverse Staten Island Destinations

Gallons of ink have been spilled in recent years about what has been variously termed Staten Island’s “boom,” its “renaissance,” or its “massive transformation.” “Look,” a chorus of Manhattanites says, “the uncultured, backcountry borough has become so civilized — it has craft beer and fancy apartments and Zagat-worthy restaurants.” Much of the yuppification has been concentrated in St. George, situated within walking distance of the ferry to Manhattan: Even now, a ritzy, futuristic mall-hotel is under construction right next to the slips, and the Voice’s Neighborhoods section last year highlighted a number of chic eateries and bars on the nearby blocks.

But the diverse neighborhoods of Tompkinsville and Stapleton, the first and second Staten Island Railroad stops down the island’s eastern shore, offer just as much diversity and just as many surprises, but at lower prices and with less pretension. Tompkinsville is home to one of the nation’s largest Sri Lankan populations, and a walk down Victory Boulevard presents one with myriad food options from that country as well as from Mexico and Jamaica. At the bottom of the hill is Tompkinsville Park, the site of Eric Garner’s murder and of a wound to the city that after almost four years has yet to heal.

Ten more minutes’ walk brings one to Stapleton, a community anchored by the historic Tappen Park and the former town hall for the since-dissolved village of Edgewater. The restaurants, delis, and bars that encircle this park offer everything that makes a city like New York great, but the surrounding residential blocks have the feel of a New England suburb: The hilly streets to the west of the park — Jackson, William, Van Duzer — are home to an incredible variety of nineteenth-century Victorian homes and churches. Walking these winding streets — some cobbled, some single-laned — on one’s way up from the waterfront, through Tompkinsville and into Silver Lake Park, gives one a distinct sense of just how vast New York is, and how many nooks and crannies it encompasses.

One of Wazobia’s chefs and hosts stand for a portrait during some downtime at Wazobia,
New York City; A plate of ox tail, creamed spinach, and rice; a traditional platter and recommended by starting dish for first timers by the chef’s of Wazobia, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City.

Wazobia

Billing itself as “the only African restaurant on Staten Island” (if this is off, it’s not by much), this casual restaurant bordering Stapleton’s central Tappen Park serves Nigerian classics including jollof rice, cooked goat’s head, and whole grilled tilapia with the bones still in, plus igbin, which is a kind of giant land snail that should be ordered only by the adventurous. This is probably the spiciest food in the borough, but those in your party with more sensitive tongues can find solace in the fact that the restaurant serves pretty good American food, too, including chicken fingers and fries. Lunchtime combos come with preposterous portions plus a can of soda and run about $7, which is a steal. 611 Bay Street, wazobiany.com

Lakruwana

When you enter this restaurant, the extravagant decor may give you the sense of walking into a small museum. The walls and nooks of the medium-sized establishment are bursting with what are presumably Sri Lankan artifacts; diners sit in tall thin woven chairs, the food is served on wooden platters and in clay pots, and there’s even a little gift shop at the checkout counter. The venue’s heavy golden doors, which can be spotted from a block away, move so much air when they open that an adjacent set of wind chimes loudly announces each person’s entrance, leaving little space for subtle peeks: Once you walk in, you’d better plan on staying for a while. It’s easy to spend over an hour here when you opt for the affordable lunch or dinner buffet, which provides unlimited servings of dishes that sample the full landscape of Sri Lankan cuisine. The recommended dining method is to fill each plate with a bit of every offering to figure out what you like — with coconut-infused curries, shredded eggplant, cumin-spiced lentils, and sweet-sour chicken, there’s something for everyone. 668 Bay Street, lakruwana.com

New York Public Library Stapleton branch

In New York, public library commissions frequently provide an opportunity for architects to show off in ways they usually can’t, especially when it comes to mingling the old and the new. In this instance, architect Andrew Berman left intact the original one-room brick library, erected in 1907 with money from Andrew Carnegie, and in 2013 expanded uphill with a large glass enclosure beneath a roof that slopes with the incline of the street. Inside, books line gray walls beneath a wood-paneled ceiling, while a central inner classroom is devoted to educational purposes. One can take in all the functions of the library — learning, leisure reading, resting — from a single glance on the street, and at dusk the building positively glows. 132 Canal Street, nypl.org/about/locations/stapleton

View from under a modern style sculpture of the five story buildings that make up the Staten Island Urby, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City. The areas open lawns, tidy sidewalks, and clear waterfront offer a contrast to the typical industrial view of Stapleton east of Bay Street.

Staten Island Urby

Looming at the water’s edge off the Stapleton railway station are two black buildings, five stories each, that together resemble a set of suburban office park towers or perhaps a regional NSA headquarters. In fact, they are the 900 rental units that make up Staten Island Urby, a $150 million development marketed at trendy city slickers hoping to unlock the “potential” of the neighborhood. A stroll around this city-within-a-city is worthwhile for purely anthropological reasons, especially when it’s warm out, since the development has an outdoor lounge area, a very large garden, and a crystal-blue pool. There’s also a coffee shop and a number of fast-casual-but-make-it-expensive restaurants, including the aptly named Gringo’s Tacos. 7 and 8 Navy Pier Court, urbystatenisland.com

Iconic sounds from the basketball game being played echo off the wooden walls of the establishment and chatter fills the air in The Hop Shoppe, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City.

The Hop Shoppe

Half the point of venturing beyond St. George is to see what Staten Island has to offer other than craft beer, but an exception can be made for this spacey Stapleton bar. There’s TV and Skee-Ball, if those are your thing, but the real attraction is the large rotating selection of serious, delicious craft beers at generous happy hour prices. On tap during a recent visit were a revelatory mango IPA from DESTIHL and a fearsomely potent oatmeal stout from Port Jeff. Right next door is a delicious bakery, Pastry Lover’s Choice, and two doors down from that is a beautiful Victorian home with fixtures painted a brilliant shade of teal. 372 Van Duzer Street, thehopshoppe.com

Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York City.
Used skateboard decks cover portions of the ceiling at 5050 Skate Park, and add to the parks gritty ambiance
View of the various types of quarter pipes, ramps, and spines that make up the course of 5050 Skate Park. Today’s milder weather has resulted in a lower than average attendance at the park, with many patrons taking advantage of the warm day and skating outdoors.
A child relaxes on the metal coping of a quarter pipe ramp after a long run through the 5050 Skate Park

5050 Skatepark

Skeptical readers may not expect Staten Island to feature the only anything in New York, other than perhaps the only precincts where a majority of the voting population supported Donald Trump. But Stapleton, it turns out, is home to the city’s only indoor skatepark. To be perfectly honest, I have never spent more than five consecutive seconds on a skateboard in my life, but everyone in attendance on a recent weekday seemed to be having a great time on the park’s bevy of ramps and rails, including those who were riding not skateboards but BMX bikes. You can pay by the hour or a flat fee for the day, and the park is just steps from the Staten Island Railroad, so car-less skaters can get a warmup doing laps on the ferry and hit, um, kickflips in the park less than fifteen minutes after stepping off the boat. 354 Front Street, 5050skatepark.com

Silver Lake Park

Staten Island’s answer to Central and Prospect parks — this isn’t a metaphor, it’s historical fact — is smaller than both but offers a far better picnicking landscape than either. Wide expanses of uninterrupted green provide ample space to unfold a blanket without stepping on someone else’s toes, and no matter where you sit, you’re afforded a stunning view of the lake itself, which was once a reservoir for water from the Catskills. There are a number of sports courts and a dog run, plus a walkway that runs all the way across the lake. Trails on the east side of the lake provide more than enough material for a post-meal stroll, but one does wish most of the green space on the west side weren’t currently occupied by a (quite good, I’m told) golf course. Enter from Victory Boulevard at Forest Avenue, nycgovparks.org/parks/silver-lake-park

Patrons of Every Thing Goes Book Cafe wait for their orders, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York City. The unique cafe attracts a variety of people from the diverse neighborhood to its cozy establishment.

Every Thing Goes Book Café

Every Thing Goes is owned and operated by the nearly 100 members of Ganas, a cooperative living nonprofit that’s existed in Tompkinsville since 1979, and the storefront manages to look and feel exactly like what one would expect from a combination café-bookstore run by a commune. Walking in, one instantly feels at home — that is, if home means navigating a warm, charming maze of clutter in the form of tables, bookshelves, and people, both very old and very young. Not only does the self-described “internet café” lay claim to the largest used-book collection on Staten Island, according to its own website, but patrons (of all ages) can even rent computers for $1 per ten minutes, or print documents for 25 cents per page. It’s really more library-with-coffee than artisanal java joint, which is precisely what makes it so comforting. (It also doubles as an art gallery and a venue for events like songwriter meetups and open mics.) Be sure to bring cash if you’re planning on buying anything — there’s a $10 minimum on cards, which equals about six coffees. 208 Bay Street, etgstores.com/bookcafe

Dosa Garden

The dosa is a crepe-like South Indian and Sri Lankan pancake made from rice and bean flour, and usually filled with potatoes or lentils. These pancakes are, as you might expect, the starring item at the most vegetable-centric of the island’s Sri Lankan restaurants. In addition to the standard flavors, there’s a mind-blowing chutney and cheese variety, and also a suite of flavors of utthappam, which is like a dosa but thicker. Dozens of masalas and curries round out the menu at what is probably the healthiest, cheapest, most essential stop on one’s journey through Little Sri Lanka. 323 Victory Boulevard, dosagardenny.com

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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So Why Is Staten Island a Part of New York, Anyway?

There’s an exciting, quirky story from the earliest days of colonial New York that goes like this: In the 1670s, New York and New Jersey were arguing over control of Staten Island, which lay in the waters separating the two colonies. The Duke of York offered to settle the argument with an unusual proposition: Any “small island” in the Hudson River or New York Harbor would be considered part of New York — and “small” meant that a boat could circumnavigate it in less than a day. This would seem to grant the sizable land mass of Staten Island to New Jersey — except that the crafty duke hired British sea captain Christopher Billopp, who used his nautical skills to race around the island in 23 hours. And that’s why Staten Island — nestled on three sides along the New Jersey mainland, and seemingly a “natural” part of the Garden State — is today part of New York.

The only problem with this story is that the events it describes almost certainly never happened. There’s no record of anyone telling it until 1873, more than 200 years after the boat race supposedly took place. What’s more, the story describes the boat race as settling the dispute — and yet in reality, New Jersey was still fighting for the right to control Staten Island all the way into the 1830s.

The real story of how Staten Island came to be part of New York — a perennial question for a borough that often seems like it wants to go its own way, and another four boroughs that might be inclined to let it — is more complicated. It involves an exiled prince, 100,000 beads of wampum, and a nineteenth-century out-of–Supreme Court settlement that gave rise to a twist ending in 1998.

***

The story begins with the Dutch, during a halcyon period before trans-Hudson rivalries. Most of us know that the Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize Manhattan, but on paper (parchment?) the Dutch claimed a huge swath of territory, stretching from the Connecticut River to the Delaware, and thus including all of present-day New Jersey. Most of the Native Americans living there were likely unaware that the Dutch had claimed their land; what European settlement existed was for the most part clustered along the Hudson River and New York Bay. The whole region, including small settlements on Staten Island (named in honor of the Staten-Generaal, the Dutch parliament) and in present-day Jersey City, was run as a single unit from New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan.

But in 1664, an English fleet sailed into New York Harbor and seized the colony without a fight. King Charles II granted it to his brother James, the Duke of York, who renamed it after himself.  But the duke, who never visited his new realm, almost immediately turned around and granted much of it to two friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton. Only a few years previously, England had returned to a monarchial government after a decade under the control of Oliver Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth; during the interregnum, Carteret had sheltered the royal brothers on Jersey, off the coast of France, and they owed both him and Berkeley a debt of gratitude, as well as a debt of actual money. To repay him, James assigned them the land between the Hudson and Delaware as a separate colony, which was named after Carteret’s home. This is how the two sides of the Hudson came under separate jurisdictions.

The charter granted to Carteret and Berkeley described the new colony’s shape in a manner typical for the period: vaguely and full of errors arising from wild misunderstandings of actual geography. Disputes arose in every direction, but the section that’s relevant for our purposes describes the border in the area around New York City:

James Duke of York…doth grant…all that tract of land adjacent to New England, and lying and being to the westward of Long Island, and Manhitas Island and bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river…

If you look at a map of New York Harbor, though, you can see why this description is inadequate. Upper and Lower New York Bay aren’t really part of the “main sea” (the Atlantic), but they aren’t part of the Hudson either. And while Staten Island would clearly be to the west of a line extended straight down from the mouth of the Hudson, you can also see why, if you’re looking at the map through the eyes of a seventeenth-century colonist, it makes sense to group it in with the rest of the New York archipelago. In the days before extensive road and bridge networks, when boats were the main form of transportation, bodies of water united the land masses around them rather than dividing them. That’s why Maryland and Virginia, settled around the same time, have land on both sides of Chesapeake Bay. Staten Island formed one half of the natural entryway into New York Harbor and the Hudson.

And so the leaders of New York did the natural thing: They bought it.

In 1670, five years before the boat race that never happened, Francis Lovelace, the governor of New York Colony, negotiated a treaty with the members of the native Munsee people who had been uneasily sharing Staten Island with a few Europeans since the days of the Dutch. Much has been written about the mutual misunderstanding and coercion that often marked these sorts of transactions, but it seems that the Munsees got a better deal than some, leaving with 400 fathoms of wampum along with guns, lead, powder, hoes, and knives.

In 1683, New York organized its first county governments, and Richmond, covering Staten Island, was one of them. New Jersey organized its first counties in the same year, and Staten Island was conspicuously not included. County governments were ways for colonies to stake out claims on disputed territory; one of the other original New York counties was Dukes, which included Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, now in Massachusetts. So this seemed to settle the Staten Island question, right?

Not so fast. It would take another 150 years, but New Jersey would finally have its day in court.

***

By the early nineteenth century, New York and New Jersey had settled the Line War — the dispute over their land border near the Poconos — but their maritime boundary in the New York City area was still hotly contested. The colonial charters were considered the ultimate authority, and New York took the maximalist interpretation of “bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river”: It claimed that the eastern edge of New Jersey was, at the high-tide point, where the water met the shore. By this logic, even the docks or wharves New Jersey built on its own shore were New York’s — and New York routinely sent tax collectors and other government officials to enforce its supposed rights.

New Jersey, to fight back, now made a sweeping claim of its own: It said that the line ought to run down the middle of the Hudson and then follow the channel out to sea, which would give it control not only of its own shore but of Staten Island as well, which by 1830 had 7,000 inhabitants and had never been controlled by the New Jersey government.

In 1832, New Jersey finally took New York to court over the dispute — specifically, to the Supreme Court. But it wasn’t clear that the court had the jurisdiction to hear the case; New York definitely didn’t think so, and at first refused even to send lawyers to argue its side. The case also arose during a delicate moment in U.S. politics. South Carolina was threatening to refuse to enforce a newly passed federal tariff, and the Jackson administration didn’t want another headache involving states’ rights. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had just ruled against Georgia in its dispute with the Cherokee Nation, and Georgia was similarly refusing to go along with the decision. Chief Justice Marshall may have worried that if New York ignored a ruling against it as well, the court’s prestige would be irreparably harmed, so he postponed the case until the next year. 

That gave Martin Van Buren, newly elected U.S. vice president and one of New York’s biggest power brokers, time to swoop in and arrange a compromise. New Jersey would get the line it wanted down the middle of the Hudson, and the right to build and control piers and docks on its shore. But the line would jog around Staten Island, leaving Richmond County as part of New York State and, once consolidation went through in 1898, New York City.

One wonders how serious New Jersey was about its claim in the first place; perhaps it was just a chip it could bargain away to get the shore rights that were its overriding goal. But whatever the case, that’s how Staten Island definitively became part of New York: no boat race involved, just a treaty with Native Americans and a little vice-presidential arm-twisting.

There’s one odd footnote: Van Buren’s line down the Hudson left two uninhabited islets that had long been administered by New York — Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island — on the New Jersey side of the maritime border. New Jersey was, again, mostly concerned about its commercial docks, so it agreed to let those islands remain New York land surrounded by New Jersey water. Bedloe’s Island became the base of a giant statue gifted to us by France and was renamed Liberty Island; Ellis Island, meanwhile, became the port of entry for millions of immigrants, and in order to accommodate them all, was expanded tenfold by landfill. New Jersey sued, claiming that the newly constructed parts of the island belonged to it, and in 1998 the Supreme Court agreed — which is what makes figuring out sales taxes on Ellis Island unduly complicated to this day.

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Parks, Arts, and Eats of Hunts Point

Diego León is the son of Ecuadorean immigrants and a native of Hunts Point, where he still lives today. He earned a master’s in education and worked as a preschool teacher before launching his current venture, a menswear and lifestyle blog called Dandy in the Bronx.

When I was growing up, Concrete Plant Park (Bronx River between Westchester Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard) was just this graveyard of a once-existing concrete plant. For me, the architecture looked cool. I guess the people behind it thought the same thing. So they left a lot of the infrastructure of the plant and built a park around it. It reminds me of a Sonic the Hedgehog level with all the ramps and stuff, surrounded by green hills. The Bronx River passes right by it. People use it for barbecues, to run, and it’s photogenic. Also, the Bronx River Alliance meets there sometimes to go kayaking.

Hunts Point, Bronx, NY 4/1/18:
Here City Tamale, a local eatery in the industrial section of the Bronx serving Tamales, smoothies, juices among other things.

If you go deeper into Hunts Point, there are a lot of warehouses and factories. City Tamale (1316 Oak Point Avenue) is just a little tamale place. The owner, Israel Veliz, just wants to have the best tamales ever. All the factory workers go to him. He’s open at 5:30 in the morning and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He also has gluten-free and vegetarian options.

The Point (940 Garrison Avenue) is an event space in Hunts Point where people host concerts, events — actually, a friend of mine told me he saw a wrestling match there! So there are a bunch of things happening. If you’re a family guy, there are always arts and crafts events. There are spoken word events, a lot of poetry readings. Awhile back, they had this T-shirt-making workshop where kids could come in and design T-shirts and they’d print them out. You’ve just gotta check their calendar, because there’s always something happening. There’s a café there as well!

When I think of New York City pizza — you know, big slice, greasy as hell, people patting it down with a paper towel — I think of Tetaj Brothers Pizzeria (957 Aldus Street). Growing up, whenever I had friends over and we wanted to get something easy to eat, we’d get a pie there. A pie, some garlic knots, and you’re set.

Hunts Point, Bronx, NY 4/1/18:
Here the Yes She Can! mural at 825 Hunts Point Avenue.

Yes She Can! Mural (825 Hunts Point Avenue) — there are a bunch of art initiatives happening in Hunts Point, including a lot of really cool graffiti. Seeing women in positions of power in a positive light, especially women of color — there’s no reason not to showcase that.

Hunts Point Library (877 Southern Boulevard) has been my library since forever. I remember going there as a kid, using their computers. They had computer classes and one-on-one sessions. Obviously, it’s so much more advanced now. But I remember going there with my aunt, taking out three or four books, researching. Nowadays, they have a lot of group reading sessions, and an amazing kids’ section. You can check out magazines, movies, and music — with your free library card! And they have Wi-Fi, so it’s a place you can just work and chill.

Casa Amadeo on Prospect Avenue, a Latin record store on the National Register of Historic Places, in New York, May 3, 2014. Funded by an $80,000 grant from the New York Community Trust, a series of 10 permanent markers will be installed next year, creating the South Bronx Culture Trail, a self-guided tour of the South Bronx and its cultural history. (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

Casa Amadeo (786 Prospect Avenue) has been around for, like, a billion years. It specializes in Latin and Caribbean music. Sometimes there are performances or random jam sessions. My Spanish isn’t great, but just being able to listen, hearing people talk, hearing the stories — and, of course, you can’t beat dancing to authentic Latin music up in there! And there’s something about having a physical piece of music in front of you — whether it’s an album, a cassette, whatever — that feeling is something you can never get from an MP3.

The Bronx ranks 62nd in health in New York State. But there are healthy places if you want to get something easy. You can get a nice smoothie at Hunts Point Juice Bar (620 Manida Street) for when you start your juice cleanse. You don’t have to get that Diet Coke! My favorite is a peanut butter smoothie with blueberries, banana, strawberry — and extra peanut butter, please!

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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Bedford Park: An Undisturbed Suburb in the North Bronx

Bedford Park, a sleepy community in the northern section of the Bronx, is home to tight two-way streets running parallel to the super-wide Grand Concourse, and century-old Victorian- and Tudor-style homes abutting Art Deco apartment buildings.

The neighborhood began to develop in 1869 after George Caulfield bought a 25-acre tract of land from a large plot owned by financier Leonard Jerome, Winston Churchill’s grandfather. Three years later, Caulfield sold the property to the Twenty-Fourth Ward Real Estate Association. Bedford Park’s suburban design was inspired by the London town of the same name, which was the first “garden suburb.” The neighborhood’s early settlers — working-class Irish and Italian immigrants — lived in freshly built suburban villas on a street now known as Villa Avenue. Many residents lived where they worked, helping to construct the nearby Jerome Park Reservoir, the site of a former racetrack also bearing Jerome’s name.

The neighborhood was annexed to New York City in 1874. The entire borough officially became part of New York City on January 1, 1898.

Drawn to Bedford Park’s new amenities and the introduction of increased public transportation to and from the Bronx in the early twentieth century, middle-class Jewish, Italian, and Irish families eventually replaced Bedford Park’s working class. They enjoyed many of the burgeoning community’s key attractions, including the impressive spacious Grand Concourse, the New York Botanical Garden, and several houses of worship. The expansion of transportation options coincided with a building boom, as construction of large pre- and post-war buildings continued through the 1950s.

An arrow-shaped neighborhood whose boundaries include East 196th Street, Mosholu Parkway, Webster Avenue, and Goulden Avenue, Bedford Park was a model of stability throughout the 1970s, when in the midst of New York City’s fiscal crisis, fires raged and city services were withdrawn in the South Bronx. The neighborhood went mostly unscathed thanks to the cadre of activists that sought to preserve the area’s family-friendly offerings.

Today, Latinos from various countries form a large part of Bedford Park’s community, along with a mix of Albanians, Vietnamese, and some Koreans. Bedford Park’s history of preservation defies the city’s current mania for development projects. Locals have recently lobbied their local councilmember to downzone Bedford Park in an attempt to keep the neighborhood from becoming redeveloped.

Mosholu Parkway

There’s something peaceful about watching cars zip along this verdant, bench-lined parkway, ideal for aimless walks or people watching. That’s about the only thing you can do on this leafy 3-mile stretch — which includes a 1.2-mile pedestrian walkway — tethering the Bronx River and Saw Mill River parkways. But residents like it that way. At its center mall, where it crosses Marion Avenue, pedestrians can stop to admire the Bronx Victory Memorial, a striking statue that features a U.S. soldier guarding a fellow serviceman. (Another Bronx Victory Memorial is located in Pelham Bay Park.) The bronze piece, sitting atop a pedestal, was conceived by Jerome Connor and is dedicated to Bedford Park’s fallen World War I servicemen. Friends of Mosholu Parkland, a volunteer group, serves as the sentinel to this neighborhood treasure, hosting monthly cleanup events to preserve the parkway. Mosholu Parkway between Webster Avenue and West Gun Hill Road, nycgovparks.org/parks/mosholu-parkway/history

NYBG Conservatory Aerial view

New York Botanical Garden

Bedford Park holds bragging rights as the home of the New York Botanical Garden, a 250-acre oasis that houses more than 1 million living plants and is frequented by millions of nature lovers. Its regular exhibits include the signature Holiday Train Show, in which motorized miniature trains snake past some 150 scale models of New York City landmarks. Kentucky-based artist Paul Busse conceived the project 26 years ago, utilizing twigs, bark, and other plants to expertly create this mini-metropolis. Along with being a tourist attraction, the 127-year-old institution doubles as a leading research facility for botanical studies, with more than 100 working scientists and academics on site. Before you leave, you may want to trek down Waterfall Walk, an embankment just past the picturesque Cherry Collection that leads to a waterfall crashing down into the waters of the Bronx River. Plenty of roads lead to NYBG, with transportation options that include the B/D and 4 lines, Metro-North, Mosholu Parkway, and the Bronx River Parkway. 2900 Southern Boulevard, nybg.org

Bedford Park Congregational Church

Among the oldest structures in the neighborhood, the Bedford Park Congregational Church was built in 1892 as a “symbol of growth and permanence of the community.” Founded by Reverend Shearjashub Bourne, the land was purchased from the Twenty-Fourth Ward Real Estate Association for what architect Edgar K. Bourne — Shearjashub’s son — envisioned as a tiny Queen Anne–style church. Its flock of loyal churchgoers successfully lobbied for the building to secure landmark status in 2000, a designation that helped secure $150,000 in fundraising for a renovation that preserved the church’s architectural integrity. It remains active, holding yearly flea markets and other get-togethers intended to forge community spirit. 309 East 201st Street, 718-733-3199

Academy of Mount St. Ursula

An all-girls college preparatory school founded by the Missouri-based Ursuline Sisters, the Academy of Mount St. Ursula claims the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating Catholic school for girls in New York State. Stepping onto the property is almost like stepping back in time. With its stately campus looming on a hilltop overlooking an entire block — including Marion Avenue, Bedford Park Boulevard, Bainbridge Avenue, and East 198th Street — the 163-year-old school moved to the neighborhood in 1892 after spending 37 years in the South Bronx’s East Morrisania section. Tours are available. The Ursuline Sisters leased part of the property to Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation, who built Serviam Gardens, a senior citizen building that opened in 2009. 330 Bedford Park Boulevard, amsu.org

April 17, 2013 – New York, NY : Having had a small collection of artifacts from the Holocaust on display in the school library since the late 1970’s, The Bronx High School of Science is preparing to open an approximately 1,000 square-foot “Holocaust Museum & Study Center” in the school’s basement. The collected works range from Nazi daggers and uniforms, to an array of propoganda posters from the era. CREDIT: Karsten Moran for The New york Times NYTCREDIT: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Bronx High School of Science

The Bronx High School of Science — a specialized high school whose distinguished alumni include astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, sports announcer Michael Kay, famous scribe E.L. Doctorow, and eight other alums who went on to win Nobel Prizes — sits at the foot of the Jerome Park Reservoir. Ambitious students from as far away as Brooklyn can be spotted rushing from the B/D and 4 lines to the prestigious school. Additionally, a fascinating Holocaust Museum and Studies Center is open to the public by appointment. 75 West 205th Street, bxscience.edu

St. Philip Neri Church

Overlooking the Grand Concourse, the Roman Catholic–affiliated Church of St. Philip Neri was founded in 1898. An accompanying elementary Catholic school, which still operates today, opened in 1913. The church’s name serves as a nod to the Italian saint, and honors the large working-class Italian families — many of them laborers of the Jerome Park Reservoir — that carved out a home in Bedford Park. An enormous stone excavated from the reservoir site serves as a cornerstone. Though two fires, in 1912 and 1997, nearly destroyed the church, it still stands following extensive renovation work. 3025 Grand Concourse, church.stphilipneribronx.org

Jolly Tinker

Irish pubs aren’t as ubiquitous in Bedford Park these days, but the Jolly Tinker, which opened in 1969, keeps on ticking. The Tinker serves as an off-the-beaten-path saloon for Fordham University students or a final stop for regulars after a long day’s work, making it a true neighborhood mainstay. A bright-green and yellow color scheme still holds at the exterior, but the interior hallmarks that made the Jolly Tinker a beloved watering hole for nearly half a century — including a wall where scrawls of signatures from yesteryear reigned — were erased after the original owner’s son, Michael Prendergast Jr., sold it in 2017. JT is still worth a trip, especially for its home-brewed Jolly Tea and Hennessy Punch. A fully loaded neon jukebox plays during the week, and live indie bands jam on weekends. Fun fact: The bar at one point had remained open for 16,433 consecutive days — the streak was broken after renovations in 2017. 2875 Webster Avenue, 718-364-8789

Bedford Cafe

Bedford Café

Situated across from the Bedford Park Boulevard 4 subway stop, the Greek-owned Bedford Café serves a litany of offerings 24-7. A half-mile up from the Jolly Tinker, the Bedford Café at night can appear to glow in the dark, since it’s illuminated when all other businesses around it are closed. It serves as a beacon for early risers and nighttime revelers. Breakfast is served all day, including a scrumptious Irish Mix that includes Irish bacon, sausage, fried tomato, and black and white pudding. 1 Bedford Park Boulevard, 718-365-3446

“Lindbergh House”

This Victorian-style home earned its moniker for once having belonged to Dr. John F. Condon, the man entangled in the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping case of 1932. Condon served as the conduit between Charles Lindbergh — the well-known aviator and father of infant son Charles — and the kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was later sentenced to death for the twenty-month-old’s abduction and death. Built in 1901, the three-story home is still a private residence, but the Bronx County Historical Society occasionally stops at the house during neighborhood tours. 2974 Decatur Avenue

John J. Fox & Sons Funeral Home

The John J. Fox & Sons Funeral Home has operated in this one-story building since 1959, when the eponymous undertaker’s sons moved from their original home in Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. The business has existed since 1897, making it one of the oldest funeral homes still operating in the borough. Thomas Roemmelt, a previous employee of the funeral home, purchased the business in 2003. 203 East 201st Street, johnjfoxandsons.com

 

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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Corona Is Queens’ Cultural Smorgasbord

The neighborhood now called Corona was originally christened “West Flushing” in the mid 1800s, after a new Long Island Rail Road line opened between the then-farmland towns of Elmhurst and Flushing. In 1868 a real estate developer named Thomas Waite Howard suggested the neighborhood be renamed “Corona,” since it was the crown jewel of Queens County. While some theorized that he took the name from an emblem used by a local development company, corona fittingly means “crown” in Italian and Spanish, languages that later became common in the neighborhood.

Italians settled the neighborhood in the early twentieth century, but residents are now mostly more recent arrivals from Mexico, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic. Early buildings from the neighborhood still stand, including intact Victorian houses and churches from the late 1800s, which now often share block space with multifamily brick houses, Latino grocery stores, meat markets, and flower shops.

It’s impossible to name every good restaurant in Corona, but you can find every kind: grab-and-go taco joints or family-style restaurants that invite hours-long sit-downs. In the warmer months, one can head over from the neighborhood’s spindly network of streets to enjoy Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, home to some of New York’s grandest museums and monuments.

Empanadas Café, Corona Queens 4/1/2018
Since it was Easter, this is kind of our story board where the empanadas are shown as we serve then on the right side and as people should serve then at home.

Empanadas Café

People start lining up at this tiny spot as early as 7 a.m. The café sells the usual cheese, beef, and pork varieties, of course, but also spinach, broccoli, pineapple, and even Nutella. The treats are all fried to order. The irresistible smell fills the small room, the narrow outdoor patio, and the surrounding street corner. The owners could have expanded to a larger space, but have opted instead to preserve the cramped, boisterous feeling of a family kitchen. 56-27 Van Doren Street, empanadascafe.com

Tortilleria Nixtamal

The corn tortillas, soaked in lime and ground in-house via a process that takes more than half a day to complete, are the stars of this sit-down Mexican eatery. Tacos of all the usual varieties are served on double shells that are still hot to the touch and brown around the edges. For more creative types, the restaurant offers a build-your-own option where a stack of sizzling tortillas, a slew of ingredients, and a personal molcajete are delivered to your table. Even at half past noon, servers will offer you a margarita. But if you have things to do later (I did), the horchata is not bad either. 104-05 47th Avenue, tortillerianixtamal.com

“The Lemon Ice King of Corona” April 9, 2013

Lemon Ice King of Corona

This Italian ice joint — featured in Zagat, Hidden New York, The King of Queens, and countless Instagram posts — is the undisputed king of Corona attractions. It’s worth the hype: The Benfaremo family has had more than sixty years to fine-tune the (admittedly rather simple) formula behind these iced treats. The menu now includes varieties like rum raisin and cantaloupe (no acai, last we checked). The main event, however, is still the classic lemon — a blinding white scoop of joy that gets slammed down in front of you on a metal counter. The place is open all year, too, which will prove convenient as climate change continues to confuse winter with spring and vice versa. 52-02 108th Street, thelemonicekingofcorona.com

Iglesia Amanecer de la Esperanza

Presently home to the Iglesia Amanecer de la Esperanza congregation on National Street, the church is the oldest surviving building in the neighborhood. Endowed by money from landowner Charles Leverich, the structure was erected in 1870 to house the Union Evangelical Church. The church’s white clapboard facade and oblong stained glass panels above the main porch recall not just a different era, but a different society altogether. In a testament to how fully New York, and Corona, has changed, the church now shares a block with a Jehovah’s Witnesses temple and one of the neighborhood’s biggest mosques, Masjid al-Falah. 41-16 National Street, amanecerdequeens.org

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visits William F. Moore Park in Corona to play Bocce ball with community members on Tuesday, July 18, 2017.

Bocce court in William F. Moore Park

Once you get your frozen treat from Lemon Ice King, you’ll want to find somewhere to eat it. The tiny triangle of nearby William F. Moore Park offers ample benches and plenty of shade under birch and maple trees. But the park also offers a bocce court. If, like most Voice readers, you don’t play bocce yourself, watching them play can be amusing and relaxing, especially when the weather’s nice. W. Between 108th Street and Corona Avenue, and 51st and 52nd avenues, nycgovparks.org/parks/william-f-moore-park

Rio de la Plata Bakery

This small bakery offers sweet and savory treats, ranging from croissants to chicken empanadas to a variety of dulce de leche pastries. The specialty — listed on the store’s awning — is the sandwiches de miga, which roughly translates to “crumb sandwiches.” The exact genealogy of this dish is unclear, but many believe the sandwiches are originally Argentine, although they resemble thin-bread cucumber sandwiches often served as hors d’oeuvres or the tramezzini served in Italian corner bakeries. The bakery has only five chairs, so there’s not a ton of space to eat your sandwich de miga. But they keep well, so order a haul and take them home. 94-65 Corona Avenue, paradero.com/riodelaplata

Leo’s Latticini (Mama’s)

First off, nobody calls it Leo’s Latticini. Everyone, except Google Maps, calls this sandwich shop Mama’s. The titular “Mama” was Nancy DeBenedittis (née Leo), a neighborhood matriarch who presided over the store, founded by her parents in the 1930s, for decades until her death, in 2009. Her daughters now mostly run the show, serving up gigantic heroes stuffed with salami, soppressata, and sweet peppers — a sort of overstuffed version of the traditional “deli sandwich” that’s native to so many bodegas. The Mama’s Special ($8) is the best, but those who build their own sandwich should make sure to order the store’s nonpareil fresh mozzarella. 46-02 104th Street, places.singleplatform.com/leos-latticini

Congregation Tifereth Israel

Believed to be the oldest synagogue in Queens (and Estée Lauder’s sometime place of worship), this gorgeous two-story wood building was named a New York City landmark in 2008 after a decade-long $1.6 million restoration. The synagogue had a remarkable revival story. The building — beset by termites and rot — went into disrepair in the twentieth century until a charismatic butcher-rabbi from Central Asia began holding services there for a local community of Bukhori-speaking Jews who had emigrated from the Soviet Union. The synagogue’s longtime Ashkenazi congregation rebelled at first, locking Rabbi Khaimov out of the building at one point. But Khaimov and his wife were instrumental in securing more than $1 million for the restoration of the building. Now its sky-blue paint and unique crown fixtures have been restored to their former glory. 109-20 54th Avenue, 718-592-6254

The mirrored bathroom is on display at the Louis Armstrong House Museum Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Corona

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Jazz giant Louis Armstrong moved to Corona in the 1940s with his wife, Lucille, and his house still stands on a residential block in the north end of the neighborhood. Armstrong eschewed the suburbs and chose to live in Corona so that he could be amongthe rest of the colored folk and the Puerto Ricans and Italians and the Hebrew cats.” He lived there for the rest of his life. Visitors to the small but informative museum can see Armstrong’s kitchen, den, and truly unbelievable mirror-walled bathroom. The museum also houses Satchmo memorabilia that will eventually be put on display in a $20-million-plus education center that broke ground last year. 34-56 107th Street, louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo

The owners of this Cuban mainstay, located literally steps from the Junction Boulevard stop on the 7 train, formerly owned a restaurant of the same name in Cuba. The Acosta brothers built the original location on the outskirts of Havana with their bare hands. But they left the island after the revolution and eventually set up shop in New York in May 1976, where they still serve ropa vieja, roasted suckling pig, and massive seafood dishes. For dessert, customers can order a doncellita — a traditional shot of crème de cacao liqueur mixed with evaporated milk and topped with a maraschino cherry. The prices aren’t modest, but neither are the portions. 40-09 Junction Boulevard, rincon-criollo.com

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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The Many Languages (and Foods) of Jackson Heights

Tania Mattos Jose is an organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United, which works to promote sustainable development without displacement in Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. Mattos is an unabashed cheerleader for the neighborhood where she grew up — and hopes that visitors arrive with an eye toward honoring its residents, their culture, and the community they’ve built.

Myself and my family migrated from Bolivia to Miami to Jackson Heights, and I’ve lived in the neighborhood for thirty years now. My aunts lived here, so we lived in their one room — me, my brother, my dad, and my mom — we stayed there for a few months so we could get on our feet and get an apartment.

What I love is that it’s a very tight-knit community. Even though there are so many cultures and languages and people from different countries, for the essential things that matter to people, we overlap each other. No matter what language you speak, we all have that in common: We think the rents are too high, our children need a good education — and we try each other’s food!

Jackson Heights, Queens, NY- March 28, 2018: Street Vendors along Roosevelt Ave are a staple of the community you can buy everything from fruits and vegetables to a new case for your cellphone.
David “Dee” Delgado for The Village Voice

Honestly, all of Roosevelt Avenue is a destination. If you get off the subway on 74th Street and walk all the way to 103rd, you are going to have the experience of your life. There is everything for everyone there. I love all the shops between 90th Street and 88th Street on Roosevelt Avenue. However, I highly recommend one bakery in that area, Market & Bakery La Estella (8804 Roosevelt Avenue). They have some amazing Mexican products and goods. The owner, Sergio Ruiz, works around sixteen hours a day to produce fresh-baked goods every day.

The street vendors on 82nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, as well as on Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt, are a neighborhood staple and have fed the working class and poor for years. Manhattan Cocktail Lounge, formerly Tempo Libero Bar (88-08 Roosevelt Avenue), is a local bar and a great place to hang out. The owner, Hector, is always there and is super friendly.

DRUM — Desis Rising Up and Moving (72-18 Roosevelt Avenue) — is a local organization that builds empowerment within South Asian low-wage immigrant workers, youth, and families in New York City. They are a fantastic organization, so please donate or volunteer for them.

Jackson Heights, Queens, NY- March 28, 2018: Maria Rivera is a food vendor on Roosevelt Ave
David “Dee” Delgado for The Village Voice

I’m co-founder of a group called Queens Neighborhood United. We are community members — local residents, small business owners, and street vendors — and we live either in Jackson Heights, Corona, or Elmhurst. We work around issues that have to do with community control over land use, police abuse, and also immigration policies. We successfully fought off a proposed Jackson Heights Business Improvement District, and now we are fighting against this development called the Shoppes at 82nd Street that is set to be built by Sun Equity and Heskel Group at 40-31 82nd Street. They are proposing a Target that will kill the small businesses in the area — as well as housing and community space. The developers were asking Community Board 4 (46-11 104th Street) to vote on upzoning, but the community showed up by the hundreds — and the community board voted no, and actually motioned a proposal to downzone the land that the development is on.

There’s a huge LGBTQ+ community in the neighborhood, and in the summertime, soccer matches where you’ll see people coming out for their country. On 74th Street, you get to experience parts of Asia — not just restaurants, but the culture, the language, the people. You walk all the way down, and you see Colombians, and Ecuadorians, and Peruvians, and Dominicans, and Mexicans. And then on the Asian side, you see Bangladeshis and Indians and Pakistanis.

We invite everyone to come in and experience this, but the one thing we ask is that people respect our cultures, respect our streets, respect our people — and know that you didn’t discover it, that this has really been a vibrant neighborhood for many years.

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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Where to Go When You’re Growing Up in Red Hook

Red Hook has a dual identity as both a working waterfront and a popular destination for fans of lobster rolls, key lime pies, cruises, Swedish furniture, and art. But for lifelong locals, the neighborhood’s go-to places evoke a sense of place and home. One of the youth leaders at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, Keith Pettaway gives us a glimpse into the Red Hook of the present and the future.

U.S. Fried Chicken & Pizza (129 Dwight Street) is iconic to the area I live in. We call it “the pizza shop,” because that’s essentially what it’s known for. If you’ve lived in Red Hook for a long time, you’ll know the pizza shop and know the guys that work there. They’re like family.

Coffey Park (bordered by Dwight, King, Richards, and Verona streets) is where we go for fun. It has baseball fields, basketball courts, a playground for kids, a big open field for picnics and barbecues. In the summertime, lots of barbecues are going on and kids are playing in the sprinklers.

27 MAR 2018, RED HOOK, NEW YORK: The Statue of Liberty is seen from Pier 41 in Red Hook.

The best place to relax is Pier 41 (toward the end of Van Dyke Street) because from there you can see the Statue of Liberty. The pier is right by the ocean, so it’s pretty peaceful and calming. And you can usually see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. And Valentino Park (Ferris and Coffey streets) — I’ve done the free kayaking on multiple occasions. I get seasick, but it is really fun, especially with friends and everyone trying to wet each other while not tipping over.

The pier is right next to Ikea (1 Beard Street). We go in and lie on the beds and sit on the chairs and couches and just walk through. We always come out with some type of food. Try the frozen yogurt next to the exit.

27 MAR 2018, RED HOOK, NEW YORK: Youth workers prepare for a jury meeting to begin at the Community Justice Center. Keith is a part of the local youth jury, where he has been working twice a week for the past year and a half. Today is his last day on the job. The center offers second chances to local youth.

The Red Hook Community Justice Center (88 Visitation Place) offers second chances to people that don’t normally get them. These are kids and people that have committed low-level crimes like petty larceny and truancy, and we can relate to them because of our age. These are things most teenagers go through. At these hearings, we’re assigned different roles, sometimes as judge, jury, or advocates. Essentially, the jury gets to hear out the respondent and they get to assign them a sanction — a second chance — with a workshop or program instead of punishing them. So giving back, seeing their faces when they receive a sanction instead of going to court or jail — that feeling alone makes it worth it.

The best thing about Red Hook is probably the people and the recreational sites, like the Red Hook Recreation Area (between Bay, Columbia, and Clinton streets) and Center (155 Bay Street). There’s a pool by one of the ball fields. If you live here a long time, you get to know a lot of people. You’ll have a really big family. And the recreational centers are where people hang out and meet, especially in the summer.

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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Bay Ridge Offers Small-Town Spirit Beneath a Soaring Bridge

Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, what we now know as Bay Ridge was something of a resort area. In its pre-Brooklyn days, the village, then known as Yellow Hook (before the yellow fever epidemic wrecked that color’s brand), attracted wealthy industrialists seeking a respite from New York life.

You can’t blame them: Even today, there’s something peaceful about Brooklyn’s southwesternmost corner. After you emerge from whatever fresh hell the notoriously unreliable R train just put you through, you’ll notice that the air off the river is fresh. The buildings are low. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, stretching out to Staten Island, soars above the horizon.

Today, Bay Ridge is a neighborhood of immigrants. The first to arrive around the turn of the twentieth century were Scandinavians, whose influence can be seen at Leif Ericson Park or during the annual Norwegian Day Parade. After the arrival of the subway in 1916, Italians and Irish families populated the area, followed, in the mid-twentieth century, by Lebanese, Syrian, and Greek immigrants. These days, the neighborhood is also home to Latino and Chinese communities and is renowned as the heart of Arab New York, boasting the largest population of Arabic speakers in the city. Lately, more families have started migrating from elsewhere in Brooklyn, as well.

On the tree-lined commercial avenues, mom-and-pop businesses give this enclave the feel of a small town. Delis, diners, greengrocers, falafel shops, and pizza joints, many of which have stayed within the same family for generations, abound. A steady calendar of festivals and parades — like the famed Ragamuffin Parade, featuring kids in Halloween costumes marching down Third Avenue — bring people out to celebrate community in the streets. The entire west and south of the neighborhood is bounded by the New York Bay, so a nature lover can duck out to the waterfront in minutes. For a taste of small-town Brooklyn, take the R train to the end of the line and just start walking. 

Owl’s Head Park

Once the private estate of a wealthy politician (Henry Cruse Murphy, newspaper scion, mayor of Brooklyn, and champion of the future Brooklyn Bridge), Owl’s Head Park now serves as a place where families from all parts of the community gather to picnic and play. The park’s gentle slopes offer the area’s best sledding come winter. At the park’s north end, teenagers play basketball or skateboard at the Millennium Skate Park. Leafy oaks and beeches stretch out above the winding paths and frame a wide overlook that just might be the best spot to catch a sunset in Brooklyn. It’s a little oasis above the busy Belt Parkway below. Enter at 68th Street and Colonial Road, nycgovparks.org/parks/owls-head-park

69th Street Pier/Shore Road

You could spend an entire day hugging the water in Bay Ridge, walking, running, or biking down the Belt Parkway Promenade all the way to the neighborhood’s southernmost tip (and beyond — but why leave when you just got here?). For an excursion that’s almost as dreamy, walk down Shore Road, cutting in and out of the vast stretch of park lining one side, or admiring the eclectic mix of lavish homes lining the other. At the American Veterans Memorial Pier on 69th Street, you can cast a fishing pole or just take in the view, which stretches from Staten Island, across New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty, to Lower Manhattan. Since last summer, a ferry from Wall Street has docked at the pier, saving visitors the hassle of braving the R train. Shore Road from 69th to 101st streets, nycgovparks.org/parks/american-veterans-memorial-pier

Cosentino’s Fish Market

In the days before Christmas, the line to Cosentino’s stretches around the block, as Italian Americans begin to plan for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But the shop does a steady business year-round, according to owner Mike Cosentino, thanks to a mix of health-conscious newcomers and old-timers whose families have been regulars since Cosentino’s grandparents opened the business in 1920. The store has witnessed a lot of change in the course of that near-century. When Mike took over forty years ago, his busiest hours were in the morning, when housewives would do their shopping; now, he says, more shoppers swing by on their way home from work. But one thing hasn’t wavered. “Fresh fish is our calling card,” he says. “You might pay more for better quality, but it’s worth it.” 6922 Third Avenue, 718-745-4710

Balady Halal Foods

The Arabic word balady roughly translates to “native” or “local,” a term that helps encompass the range of goods at what is now the biggest halal market serving Brooklyn’s largest Arab community. Colorful produce greets you when you enter, and the aisles are stacked high with everything from Medjool dates to Palestinian olive oil and Egyptian tea. Spices, nuts, olives, and pickles are available in bulk. Meats and cheese glow in display cases toward the back. The highest shelves are packed with cooking equipment and bath and beauty items, while baskets dangle from the ceiling. Every Ramadan, members of the Masoud family, who own the store, serve a large iftar feast on the sidewalk outside for hungry neighbors breaking their fasts. 7128 Fifth Avenue, facebook.com/baladyfoods

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn,
Gus Neamonitis, son of the founder of Mike’s Donuts, shows off some of the 35 varieties to tempt your sweet tooth.

Mike’s Donuts

Donuts are a family affair at this cozy, old-school bakery on Fifth Avenue. Mike Neamonitis opened his eponymous shop more than forty years ago, but now you’re more likely to catch one of his offspring behind the Formica counter, serving up fresh breads, bialys, muffins, and 35 types of donuts, a dozen of which’ll set you back eight bucks. The most popular variety is probably the marble cruller, a glazed vanilla-chocolate twist, according to Neamonitis’s seventeen-year-old grandson, also named Mike. The only employees who aren’t related, he adds, are the bakers, who work through the night to make sure pastries are hot and ready by 4 a.m., when the first customers start coming in to get their daily fix. Most mornings, Neamonitis swings by too. 6822 Fifth Avenue, mikesdonuts.com

Tanoreen

While Bay Ridge has no shortage of excellent Middle Eastern food, Tanoreen owner and chef Rawia Bishara blends dishes from around the Levant with some that may be unique to this corner of Brooklyn. The more standard fare — grilled meats, smoky baba ghanouj, fragrant stuffed grape leaves — is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but this place also does things to brussels sprouts and cauliflower like you wouldn’t believe. Platters of lamb sausage, chicken flatbreads, and a spicy shepherd’s pie will momentarily immobilize you (in the best way), while a cocktail enlivened with za’atar, an herbal spice blend, will help the golden dining room twinkle. On a typical Saturday night, Bishara herself wends through packed tables to check in on diners and make sure everyone is having a good time. 7523 Third Avenue, tanoreen.com

Skinflints

In Bay Ridge, you can swing a cat on any corner and hit a pub — or you can just go to Skinflints. The tile floor and century-old stained-glass windows are relics from the bar’s genesis as an ice cream parlor. With dark wood paneling, beaded lamps, and twinkly lights, the space is like something time forgot, nostalgic without getting creepy about it. Skinflints is known for its burgers — served on English muffins, and cheaper than anything you’ll find in Manhattan — and on warm days, you can head out onto the back patio to enjoy the sunshine (or the dulcet sounds of Fifth Avenue traffic). 7902 Fifth Avenue, 718-745-1116

BookMark Shoppe

A version of the Cheers theme song could be written about the only independent bookstore in Bay Ridge: It’s a place where truly everybody knows your name. “It’s like working in a bar without dealing with the drunks,” confirms Erin Evers, who runs the store’s monthly book club. Kids come through for story hour and writing workshops led by local teachers, and the crafty can pick up supplies or join a knitting circle. Sometimes bookstores are good for guilty pleasures, too. “I love trash TV,” said one customer looking forward to an upcoming meet-and-greet with a Real Housewife. These readings are often fundraisers for a local cause — and always a chance to run into your neighbors. 8415 Third Avenue, bookmarkshoppe.com

Owl’s Head Bar

When old-timers want to gripe about the ghost of gentrification future, they’ll sometimes mention, in hushed tones, the wine bar tucked away on 74th Street. But owner John Avelluto is hardly some hipster interloper. A prominent local artist, Avelluto learned the tricks of the restaurant trade from his father, who ran an eatery uptown serving the cuisine of his home region, Puglia, which you might know as the heel of Italy’s boot. The drinks menu at Owl’s Head is unique but unpretentious (and affordable). “We like to give more stage time to marginalized farmers and craftspeople,” says Avelluto. Community groups often hold meetings within the warm, low-lit space, which is also host to regular readings and the Bay Ridge Poets Society’s monthly open mic. On Thursday nights, a portion of all proceeds goes to LGBTQ causes. 479 74th Street, theowlshead.com

Bamboo Garden

There’s some argument about exactly where Bay Ridge ends and other neighborhoods begin (65th Street? 59th? Is the easternmost border the Gowanus Expressway or somewhere slightly beyond?), and Bamboo Garden exemplifies this beautifully. This dim sum restaurant presides over a corner of Eighth Avenue, the main corridor of Sunset Park’s Chinatown. But once upon a time, it was a disco — indeed, the very disco where John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, boogied down in Saturday Night Fever, the movie that once was (and maybe still is) Bay Ridge’s biggest claim to fame. The dining room may no longer resemble a dance floor, but you can chow down on dumplings, shumai, and egg tarts while ceiling chandeliers sparkle like disco balls. 6409 Eighth Avenue, 718-238-1122

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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City’s ‘Nightlife Mayor’ Faces a Tough Crowd on Her Home Turf

Last September, when New York City established its Office of Nightlife — a new entity meant to serve as an intermediary between club owners, residents, and city agencies — it came at the tail end of roughly a year of lobbying from advocates for struggling DIY spaces. The hope was that the new office, along with a director informally dubbed the “Nightlife Mayor,” would smooth the path for the operation of startup clubs and bars, revitalizing an industry many venue owners felt was perilously tangled in red tape.

Yet since her appointment was announced March 7, new Nightlife Mayor Ariel Palitz has drawn criticism on her home turf in the East Village. A resident of the neighborhood for two decades, she operated the nightclub Sutra Lounge, on First Avenue near 2nd Street, for half of that time — something some community leaders are charging will make her decidedly pro-bar, in a neighborhood famously more alive at night than during the day.

“People are cleaning vomit off their stoops Saturday morning,” says Laura Sewell of the East Village’s North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, which covers the stretch of Avenue A between 14th and 10th streets. “That’s an unfair burden to put on residents.”

Palitz, whose press office declined Voice requests for an interview, has worn many hats during her time in the East Village. From 2004 to 2014, she ran Sutra Lounge, which drew a hefty number of noise complaints, topping all bars in the city for 311 complaints between January 2010 and October 2011. (A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, representing Palitz, said this was largely due to the persistence of one unhappy neighbor.) From 2007  to 2014, she served on the State Liquor Authority subcommittee of Community Board 3, which gives recommendations to the state authority on matters of licensing.

Yet while this experience makes Palitz intimately familiar both with the challenges facing entrepreneurial business owners vying for a shot at success and with the gripes of residents who have had their fill of liquor-slinging outposts, East Village and Lower East Side locals vehemently disagree over whether Palitz has been willing to give both parties equal treatment.

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The Lower East Side and East Village’s reputation as a party hub is now so entrenched in the city’s collective consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine it being any other way — but longtime locals say unchecked hell-raising is a relatively new phenomenon on their blocks. Diem Boyd of the Lower East Side Dwellers Neighborhood Association, which covers the now notoriously booze-soaked cluster of blocks bordered by Houston, Delancey, Allen, and Essex streets that has been dubbed “Hell Square,” says she noticed the chaos start to ramp up between 2003 and 2005 — during that time, the Hotel on Rivington opened between Ludlow and Essex streets, concert venue Fat Baby popped up on the same block, and unfailingly popular drinking destination Pianos opened on Ludlow Street.

By 2006, the subdistrict had earned its ominous moniker. (The first documented use of the term “Hell Square” was reportedly in a post on Eater, though the original article seems to have been taken down.) In the years since, the DL opened at 95 Delancey Street (a bar that has butted heads with neighbors ever since, and last year was raided by police after spawning two violent brawls within two months), rancorous sports bar Hair of the Dog opened at 168 Orchard Street, and the ironically named No Fun (whose owners would sue the Dwellers in 2016 for trying to prevent their liquor license renewal) opened at 161 Ludlow Street. By 2013, the hellish nature of Hell Square was only escalating, and the Lower East Side Dwellers convened to combat the proliferation of liquor licenses they deemed responsible.

Meanwhile, the North Avenue A Neighborhood Association was formed in 2009 as a direct response to an explosion of rowdy nightlife establishments on a once reasonably peaceful stretch of Avenue A. That was the summer, notes association member Dale Goodson, that the block between 12th and 13th streets saw the opening of the notorious Superdive — a bar known for its frat-house atmosphere, keg stands, and champagne nights, for which a dwarf would lop off a champagne cork with a small sword. Upon its closing in the fall of 2010, a breathless obituary in Politico claimed the bar had signified a “tipping point” for the East Village into party central.

“It was the fuse that ignited everything,” confirms Goodson, noting another rowdy bar called Diablo Royale Este started giving neighbors near 10th Street grief in 2010. “Up and down Avenue A, things were starting to really go crazy.”

Locals ever since have lined up at community board meetings to air their grievances about thumping, sleep-disrupting basslines and shouting (and sometimes vomiting) partygoers. And those gripes are backed by statistics. An audit by the State Comptroller’s Office found that the area encompassing the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown in 2015 was the site of more noise complaints stemming from nightlife establishments than anywhere else in the city.

Beyond chipping away at residents’ quality of life, longtime locals complain, the explosion of nightlife has left establishments that don’t serve liquor unable to keep up with climbing rents, driving out daytime attractions and less-moneyed residents alike. The result, at least within pockets of the neighborhood, is more of a boozy Disneyland flush with sloshed tourists than a community.

“The Lower East Side and the East Village have been decimated by this,” says Boyd. “We’ve lost so many mom-and-pop shops, rents have skyrocketed — it’s a transient community in a lot of ways.”

The Dwellers, known for their antagonistic tactics in combating liquor saturation, years ago declared war on Palitz and her Sutra Lounge, calling for her removal from the community board due to the lounge’s “rap sheet” of violations. The group fretted the launch of an office they feared would favor the nightlife industry over beleaguered residents, tweeting last year that a nightlife mayor was “not the answer for communities suffering quality-of-life nightlife blight and crime.”

When they found the appointed nightlife mayor was one of their own, that anxiety only intensified.

Members of the Dwellers, North Avenue A, and the Orchard Street Block Associations all say that during her time on the community board, Palitz voted overwhelmingly in favor of new liquor license applications and brushed aside residents’ concerns in public meetings. (Community Board 3 declined to comment for this article and was unable to provide Palitz’s voting record.)

“They really couldn’t have made a worse choice, in my opinion,” says Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association, which covers a swath of blocks below Delancey Street and between Allen and Clinton streets. “She voted in favor of just about passing every [liquor license] application that came through the SLA committee.”

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Those who served on Community Board 3 with Palitz, however, recall a reasoned and evenhanded presence who was always willing to hear both sides. These former colleagues insist the harsh criticism from bar-weary neighborhood groups is unfair, especially considering the newness of the position.

“I am extremely happy that she got appointed — I think she is the perfect person for this job,” enthuses former board chair Anne Johnson, who says Palitz’s experience as a bar owner should allow her to effectively tackle the issues facing the Lower East Side and East Village. “I always found her to be reasonable and willing to listen to all sides and not just blanketly support one side or the other.”

Former community board member Chad Marlow, who has been a staunch supporter of limiting liquor licenses in the community, recalls Palitz as a voice of reason, attempting to bring “uniformity and clarity” to the process of supporting or denying liquor license applicants on the subcommittee. “I think [for] Ariel, her challenge is going to be to try and find a way to promote the interests of the industry while at the same time protecting the interests of the community, and I have no doubt she’s going to labor very hard to strike that balance,” he says.

Essential to that balance, as far as bar owners are concerned, is an understanding of the hurdles faced by incoming entrepreneurs looking to build a sustainable business, particularly in such skeptical and often combative communities as the Lower East Side. Rents for retail space in the neighborhood are so high, a liquor license is often the only way to stay afloat — yet the tenor of the neighborhood has become warily anti-bar, creating a snag for anyone hoping to make a living out of a rented storefront.

Longtime local and nightlife veteran Nick Bodor, owner of beloved First Avenue dive the Library and shuttered rock music staple the Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, says the process of garnering approval from the community board can be laborious. And all the hoops one must jump through to justify the business model in the meantime — negotiating a lease, hiring a lawyer, hiring an architect to draw up renderings, even beginning to build out the space before the promise of a license is secured — can be prohibitively expensive.  

The result, says Bodor, can be a stifling of creativity and a depressing homogeneity in the bar scene.

“Cake Shop couldn’t make it up to twelve years,” says Bodor. “When you have these $25,000-a-month rents, it’s causing people to do lowest common denominator shit like pubs. It’s taking away any kind of interesting vibe–type places.”

Upon securing a lease, those looking to open a bar will often pay exorbitantly high rents for months while wading through the community board process, which often asks that the operator prove its establishment will be a boon to the community. Sometimes, bar operators will try to go around the community board and appeal directly to the SLA — something Bodor is hopeful will no longer be necessary. “All of that should be ironed out [by] the nightlife mayor,” he says. 

And Palitz is the perfect person to do so, says Bodor, recalling her as a sympathetic and reasonable voice on the SLA subcommittee when he was vying for a liquor license for the Cake Shop’s top floor as a means of staying afloat, even as anti-bar sentiment in the neighborhood was mounting.

“She was like a voice of reason during that time period when she was there, and it was really crazy with really long meetings and lots of opposition — she really understood both sides,” he says.

To assuage fears, Commissioner of Media and Entertainment Julie Menin, who oversees the Nightlife Office, quickly arranged the first of several planned meetings with Lower East Side groups on March 14. Goodson says Menin “seemed genuinely engaged with resident issues with licensing, the SLA, and oversaturation.” Palitz recently made her first public appearance in Bushwick at the invitation of the NYC Artist Coalition, where she addressed the concerns of local business owners. A representative for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment says town halls will eventually be held in every borough so that Palitz can get a feel for issues affecting each community.

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The bulk of the inherent distrust in Palitz and her office may stem from the fact that Lower East Side residents have long felt neglected by authorities tasked with overseeing the flow of liquor in their streets. Some, including Marlow, have argued that the community board’s SLA subcommittee has a history of passing wishy-washy resolutions that greenlight new liquor licenses in violation of the SLA’s 500-foot rule, which prohibits issuing a new liquor license within 500 feet of three or more other licensed establishments. The results of this are evident on a map of the Lower East Side: The stretch of Ludlow Street between Houston and Stanton Street, which is roughly 500 feet long, contains six full liquor licenses according to SLA data; the full nine blocks of Hell Square contain over fifty full liquor licenses — and that’s not including beer and wine licenses.  

In early 2016, residents railed against a taqueria seeking a full liquor license that was set to replace a beloved Chinese bakery at 162 East Broadway — the spot was within 200 feet of a church (placing it in violation of another SLA regulation) and within 500 feet of a handful of other liquor-serving establishments. The business owners ultimately moved their entrance to skirt the 200-foot rule, and the community board issued a list of stipulations for them to observe. (The spot is now vegan eatery Jajaja.)

The resulting controversy led to a board resolution solidifying its commitment to the 500-foot rule; since then it has been more unwavering in its rejection of violators. (SLA Subcommittee chair Alex Militano has also pointed out that the board is merely advisory, and it is often in the best interest of the community to recommend stipulations rather than push for an outright rejection from the authority.)

In any case, once a new license has been issued, it is notoriously difficult to have it removed — community members have in the past found themselves saddled with bars that seemingly get slapped on the wrist for violations. Hookah bar Mazaar Lounge at 137 Essex Street earned a renewal despite accruing $20,000 worth of liquor law violations and a violent incident in which a drunk patron attacked a police officer. While the SLA has the authority to revoke, cancel, or suspend licenses for such violations, it often opts for less-damaging penalties — in the case of Mazaar, the lounge was hit with a steep fine as part of a plea deal — a tactic Boyd’s group has slammed as overly lenient. An SLA spokesman noted the authority does have a disciplinary process, pointing out that the DL was hit with a $40,000 fine last November, and could ultimately have its liquor license revoked. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment said there was no set interagency strategy in place for tackling nightlife issues, but that the office would work with the SLA and other agencies with a hand in nightlife. And in a written statement to the Voice, Palitz herself reaffirmed her commitment to pursuing nightlife parity: “I have tremendous faith that after we conduct a very thorough listening tour of all five boroughs and listen to all stakeholders in nightlife, we will be able to present a very comprehensive and realistic plan that will address the overall concerns of the residents and business owners alike.”

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Palitz and her cohorts no doubt have a difficult road ahead of them in her home neighborhood alone if they are to truly balance the interests of business owners grappling for the right to serve booze just to stay afloat, and a rattled community that lives in fear of more drunks pouring into the street below their windows.

But hopes and fears aside, nightlife is an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with — it provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars, both from New Yorkers and from out-of-towners flocking to the party hubs its residents hate so much. And so, the city’s logic goes, why should it not be maintained like any other part of the city’s economy?

There needs to be a balance between nightlife activity and residents, and this office can help to mediate situations that occur, and also focus on planning and managing nightlife, instead of letting it organically get out of control and then having to police it,” says Andrew Rigie, founder and executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who now serves on the advisory board of the Office of Nightlife.

“We focus on city planning, and there’s no reason nightlife shouldn’t be part of the planning. It’s vital to our economy and our culture. And after all, we have been called the city that never sleeps.”

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Documenting the New Towers of Old Hell’s Kitchen

The artist Gwyneth Leech has lived and worked in Hell’s Kitchen for nineteen years. Her installations and paintings record the dynamic changes in the skyline and spirit of her neighborhood. Currently, she is exhibiting works that take a detailed look at local construction sites, and how a new era is being shaped in an old ’hood.

On my way to the studio, I have a choice of coffee places: Empire Coffee and Tea (568 Ninth Avenue) or Corvo (542 Ninth Avenue). I like that they both use plain white cups without logos, which I prefer for drawing on them.

The best construction sites to watch at the moment are in Lower Hell’s Kitchen. I go out with my easel and paints and see how they change, with new shapes, patterns, light effects, and human dramas every day. If you’re out and about in the area, it’s good to know that Hudson Yards Park has a nice new public toilet!

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The construction site that I think is most interesting, though, is on Eleventh Avenue at 59th Street. I was actually on the street, painting, when a couple of tailors who work nearby told me there’d just been a murder there. After that, I found another site to paint for a while.

If you love to make art in this neighborhood, sooner or later you’ll find yourself in Garden Hardware (701 Tenth Avenue). It’s a treasure of a shop, with screws and wires and all kinds of bits and pieces in drawers, and enormous rolls of chicken wire in the basement. I was in there the other week, browsing around, and I ended up leaving with 24 mirror plates in a paper bag.

Photography by Esther Levine
Garden Hardware
701 Tenth Avenue
New York City

Esposito (500 Ninth Avenue) is another old-school institution. The guys who work there wear white jackets, which seems just how it should be. You take a numbered ticket, and they’ll talk with you about anything to do with ham hocks and Christmas turkeys. Nearby is Ninth Avenue International Grocery (543 Ninth Avenue), which has a terrific range of spices and beans and other things in barrels as well as spanakopita, baklava, taramasalata, and hummus. Every inch of space is packed with something interesting to see. There’s even produce hanging from the ceiling.

Photography by Esther Levine
Esposito Meat Market 500 Ninth Avenue New York City

Tulcingo Del Valle (665 Tenth Avenue) is the place to get chicken mole and fish soup, sitting at bright patterned oilcloth tables, and doing some people watching. It’s been in the neighborhood since 2001…and we’ve been going there almost every week since 2001! Lali (630 Tenth Avenue) is another Hell’s Kitchen classic. It’s a Dominican café, with the best pork and rice, and a lunch special that’s different every day. We sit up at the counter, with our backs to the bright lilac wall, and practice our Spanish. When my daughter Megan comes back from college, this is the place she wants to go to first.

Lali, Dominican Restaurant
630 Tenth Avenue
New York City

Now it’s just my younger daughter Grace at home; we seem to spend a lot of time at Pier 84. In the summer the Manhattan Kayak Club organizes free kayaking, or we just visit the dog park — it’s really more of a singles pickup place, but even so, there are dogs, and Grace Loves Dogs, so we like to visit. Afterward, we go to Underwest Donuts (638 West 47th Street), which is inside a car wash. You buy the donuts freshly baked and still warm, and watch the cars while you eat.

If your priority is dog watching — understandable — you should really go to De Witt Clinton Park (West 52nd Street to West 54th Street, Eleventh Avenue to Twelfth Avenue). There’s one section for small dogs and one for big dogs, and Grace knows a lot of them by name. A bit controversial, but just over the street, you can also watch the carriage horses going in and out of their stables (618 West 52nd Street). I find that fascinating.

Carriege Horse Stables
618 West 52nd Street
new York City

During the week, my favorite thing to do is walk from my apartment to Amy’s Bread (672 Ninth Avenue), pick up an Irish breakfast tea and a golden raisin oat bran twist, then sit in the Community Garden and draw. Afterward, I sweep the sidewalk.

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Anyone who lives in the neighborhood can get a key to the garden, but there’s usually a wait for plots. I was on the list for seven years. Being an artist, one tends to be in the studio alone for a big chunk of the day, so it’s interesting to have other things to do, like growing herbs and the odd cherry tomato, and sweeping the sidewalk, where you really experience the community. People see me drawing and get curious. Once a taxi driver offered me money to copy a Rembrandt.

If you volunteer for face painting at a neighborhood fundraiser, then Alcone (322 West 49th Street), which has been around since the Fifties, is the place you should know about. I pride myself on my glittery butterflies, and I always find the perfect colors there that will really stand out on all the different skin tones of the human rainbow of beautiful children I get to use as a canvas.

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.