People do not only stop into Grandma's Place to pick up a gift for a birthday party, or something special for their own child. During my visits, on several occasions, it seemed that the entire neighborhood was dropping by simply to receive a warm hug from Dawn Harris-Martine, and possibly sticking around a bit longer to entertain their little ones, or share some local gossip with the owner of this remarkable staple on 120th Street. Without a doubt, Dawn has earned the beloved title of "Grandmother of the neighborhood. "Discovering this children's educational toy and book shop, was totally unexpected. There was nothing to indicate that tucked away, just off Lenox Avenue, I was about to come upon this incredible Harlem hidden gem. Being a grandmother of three, myself, was enough to make me want to venture in, but having also owned my own children's book store, I was absolutely thrilled to look through every inch of space in this welcoming, well-curated collection of items for children of all ages. Kids are encouraged to play, to look through the books, and little ones are enthralled by being able to take the mini shopping cart and fill it up with different items that they can reach and take for a whirl through the space. Dawn and her pleasant staff never seem to mind and parents, in turn, are respectful of their child's play. From board books, to picture books, beginning readers and chapter books, there is something for every child at Grandma's - with a strong representation of both current and classic multi-cultural titles. There is also a wonderful section of non-book items. The shelves are filled with dolls, stuffed animals, puzzles, craft kits, bath toys and a selection for babies. Dawn told me that she is constantly on the lookout for things that are not sold in the big chains. "Since I opened, I have always felt that I must have a reason for my customer to want to shop in my store. "Right next door to the shop, Dawn owns the brownstone where children's books are wall-to-wall including the bathrooms. On February 28th, 1982, Dawn "won" the brownstone where she resides - in the first New York City lottery. She paid $5000 for what she described as just a shell with no roof. "But I had a vision. " Partially funded with a loan from the City, Dawn made it into a duplex. "Since this was a gift to me, I had to give back. " Today, she continues to donate to shelters and to give books to local day care centers. Originally, in 1999, Dawn used the space next door to her home as a literacy center. She stayed with this concept for five years and then transitioned into a children's book store. "I was doing this as a school teacher and I realized that I could not stay in business this way. " In 2006, she made the decision to add toys and dolls. "My thing was ethnic dolls, and I found a woman in Florida who made them based on the picture of a child. " Dawn has watched the business continue to grow the last few years as the area has become more gentrified. There have been more and more people moving uptown and they have helped her to stay in business. Sitting in her 100 year old rocking chair, during the winter of 2016, Dawn revealed endless stories of her own childhood and those who impacted her seventy-seven years. She was born and raised in Harlem. "Every phase of my life I believe influenced me in so many ways. "As a child, Dawn never had toys of her own. "Each holiday, I got a piece of clothing and fruit - I was never given a toy in my life. " When she was twenty-one, however, she bought herself a GI Joe doll. She then became hooked on collecting toys. "I always wanted a toy store in the back of my head, but I never really intended on doing it. "Listening to the description of her childhood, I learned that Dawn taught herself to read. In fact, she said that she raised herself, for her mom had three jobs. "My babysitter was the public library. " It was Dawn's older sister who dropped her off each day at the library where Dawn read until her sister returned for her. "I read every children's book and then the librarian allowed me to move onto the adult section... I raised myself through parenting books, including Dr. Spock. " Books became her best friends. If she read about skiing, she figured out how to get on a bus and try it. As Dawn got older, if she read about Puerto Rico, she managed to find the money to get on a plane and visit there. "I went on my own and just met people wherever I went. I didn't know that I wasn't allowed to do the things that I did, so I just did them. "Dawn was the first in her family to go to college, "My mother was a chamber maid and my father was a barber. " As she described her situation, "I was blessed with intelligence and blessed with teachers who recognized my intelligence. I came through the school system loving learning and loving reading. " In 1957, Dawn graduated high school, but it was not until 1970, when she won a scholarship, that she was able to attend Sarah Lawrence College. After college, for the next forty years, Dawn was a teacher in Harlem. Continuing on, Dawn expressed herself with great emotion. "I am a conduit - I feel it is my responsibility to pass this on to others. I want other black parents to know who are raising kids alone to stay on point and know that they can do it. Things that are thrown at you are not reasons to give up, but rather get back on track. "Her words of wisdom have certainly resonated with many in her life. Her own two daughters have gone on to become successful in their careers, and she is quite proud of her two granddaughters. They both are attending college while also working at Grandma's Place, and one even lives with Dawn. "It is the destination not the journey - the destination is the gravy, where you start and how you get there is what matters. We all have challenges but we manage and can be successful. " To young people today, Dawn's message is a simple one. "I want them to follow their passion, for what's the worst that could happen? "On a subsequent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting Grandma Annette. She was the quintessential example of why Grandma's Place runs so beautifully. "I am the volunteer and good friend who comes every once in a while when needed. " She exudes love and warmth to each person - big or small - that steps into the shop. And as Dawn, herself, so eloquently chimed in, "It is always good to have a grandma in the house. "
Tucked away in the basement of an unassuming brownstone on 130th Street is an exhilarating find for Harlem’s music aficionados. Every Monday, the New Amsterdam Musical Association holds open mic nights, where anyone is welcome to join in and perform. When the Manhattan Sideways team and I visited during the summer of 2017, we witnessed everything from original pieces written by up-and-coming singers to spoken word poetry to jazz played on a hodgepodge of instruments. In short, everyone with a talent or passion is welcome and encouraged to share their art at these jam sessions. The atmosphere is laid back and fun, helped along by the charismatic presenter’s boundless enthusiasm as he announces each act. “This is the way to enjoy a Monday, ” he shouted, to the roaring approval of the assembled audience. We were frequently invited to respond to and interact with the performers, either through singing along to a chorus or participating in a call-and-response chant. It was easy to get caught up in the energy of the performers. As I watched, one of the jazz players asked if there was a singer in the house. Without hesitating, a young man who had just moved to the city from Texas jumped up and improvised some lyrics to a blues song as the makeshift band behind him free-styled along. It was fantastic to witness a group of people of different ages and backgrounds who have never met before come together for the simple pleasure of creating something for everyone to enjoy. As I chatted with some of the people around me, I learned that NAMA provides an ideal platform for aspiring artists to practice in front of a non-threatening public, while more experienced artists still view it as a chance to experiment with their craft, knowing they will never be received with anything less than cheers and approval. We were lucky enough to witness one of these experiments: one performer tried out ways to “mix art forms” by reciting a poem that transitioned into snippets of songs, all with the accompaniment of the jazz band. The presenter’s response to her performance summed it up perfectly for me: “Every time you come to NAMA, you’re making history, because this place itself is history. ” A banner draped above the stage declares that NAMA was established in 1904, making it the oldest African American musical organization in the US. Pieces of its distinguished history are proudly displayed on the walls, including framed newspaper articles that feature NAMA and pictures of past performers, which include the likes of John Coltrane and Max Roach. The Association was created to fill a gap during a time when black musicians were denied performance opportunities or entry into American musical institutions, and it has since upheld the tradition of promoting African American artistry. Open mic nights are only one aspect of what the New Amsterdam Musical Association does. It also has an affiliated music school, where anyone can take vocal or instrumental lessons free of charge, regardless of age or skill level. Through this and their ongoing events, the organization hopes to foster an appreciation for music and its importance in creating and uniting a community.
“People gravitate towards Harlem, ” said Leon Ellis, the accomplished entrepreneur behind Harlem Underground. Leon Ellis grew up on the island of Jamaica and went to college in Alabama. He would often stay in New York over the summers as he sold Black history books door to door to pay for his education. Upon graduating, he chose to remain in Harlem permanently and embark on a bevy of intriguing business ventures throughout the 1990s, including a gaming store, Emily’s — a restaurant named after his mother — and a barbecue joint named for his father. Today, his clothing shop is surrounded by two newer ventures: Chocolat, a full-service restaurant, and Ganache Cafe, a coffee shop. His projects as a restaurateur aside, Leon felt that he wanted to “spread the word about Harlem all over the world. ” With the neighborhood already a recognizable name, when Leon would travel outside the city dressed in Harlem gear, many people wanted to know where he purchased his clothing. Thus, Harlem Underground began with a mission: “We look to create an image or projection of what Harlem is — its music, its culture, its people. ”The shop hires local designers to create merchandise that revolves around the “raw theme of Harlem NYC. ” To Leon, this is the essence of his success. “Our resources are developed here, and we expend those resources here. We embrace the Harlem community, and we believe it embraces us. ”(Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after years of operating on 125th Street, Harlem Underground consolidated its locations and now remains open on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. )
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.
Stopping into the firehouses on the side streets of Manhattan has continued to be a true joy for me and the Manhattan Sideways team. There is always an interesting story to be heard and warm, generous people to meet. When we visited the fire station on 125th, we were greeted by an apologetic fireman who told us that their trucks were out responding to a gas leak in the area. He did, however, show us the truck they had on loan, which some of the men were busy cleaning and which he called their Special Operations Command vehicle. We were immediately curious about the truck, and he explained that it is equipped with a dewatering shower unit intended for use after any kind of catastrophe that has potentially contaminated firemen or civilians. This was conceived following 9/11, but we were pleased to learn that in 2017 it had still only been used for training. It has never been needed in the real world. “It’s something we hope we never have to do, ” the fireman confessed.