When Susan Weber, an American historian, came across the six-story townhouse at 18 West 86th, she knew that she had to do something extraordinary with it. Though Susan received an art history degree from Barnard College, in 1993, she chose to establish the Bard Graduate Center, where advanced students can study humanity's past through the materials it leaves behind. The Center, which is affiliated with Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is one of only three schools where someone can receive an advanced degree in decorative arts. The degree also focuses on Design History and Material Culture. The program has an excellent reputation for students who wish to pursue a career in a museum.
Hollis Barnhart, the Communications Manager for the Center and Gallery spoke to me about the Gallery as "a way of opening something to the public." The gallery had its first exhibit in October of 1993, called Along the Royal Road: Berlin and Potsdam in KPM Porcelain and Painting, 1815-1848. Since then, the gallery has hosted countless exhibits that, in Hollis' words, "study the things that people have used from antiquity to now." The exhibits have spanned a wide range of topics from Central European cast iron and English silver to Swedish glass and Indian jewelry. Hollis was proud that the gallery exhibitions can feature everything from “caveman spoons to gold pieces.”
The gallery does not have a permanent collection, and so items are often borrowed from museums and collections from around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Gallery displays have included many exhibits in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. One of the gallery’s most popular shows was a collection of hats curated by Stephen Jones, a famous British milliner. Since 1996, the gallery has worked with Yale University Press to print beautiful catalogues that accompany each exhibition.
Though graduate students occasionally have a hand in designing the main exhibitions, they are very hands-on when it comes to the smaller exhibits, called "Focus Projects." These are curated displays that mark the culmination of a workshop or seminar. They function both as final projects for students and additional learning opportunities for guests. When I visited the gallery, the graduate students were preparing a collection of materials that demonstrated how the indigenous people of Oceania in the Pacific displayed and adapted their identity in the face of colonial powers.
The main exhibition fascinated me: it was an in-depth look at the history of wooden toys from Sweden. The toys dated back to the 1600s and included everything from little planes to detailed doll-houses. The show explored how the toys underscored Sweden's reliance on their expansive forests and how wooden toys are respected throughout the world. As Hollis explained, many of the exhibits tend to have "An international flavor."
City Swiggers, which opened in 2011, is where casual and professional overlap. The atmosphere of the beer shop / tasting room is neighborly and homey, but each staff member is an encyclopedia of beer information and each bottle has been chosen with the utmost care. The eclectic space, which contains both bar stools and tables, can seat a few dozen people, while the shop experiences the majority of its business from clients grabbing beer to-go. We heard an all too familiar story from owner, Alan Rice, who left the world of finance in order to further explore his passion for beer. Alan said simply, "I loved beer" and then corrected himself: "I still love beer. A little too much, maybe. " The shop, which carries over 900 beers, always has samples of new varieties. Regulars often come in and try the new brews with the staff. Alan believes that he may have the largest selection in the city. The taps are constantly being swapped out, to the point where after two weeks, the beers provided at City Swiggers have completely changed over. In addition to selling bottles, cans, flights, and pints, Alan mentioned that City Swiggers will fill any growler, even those that are not their own. Alan's wife, Pam, has a lot to do with the cozy atmosphere at City Swiggers. She has created most of the artwork - often made from recycled items - that adorns the store. When Manhattan Sideways visited during the winter, we noticed the snowflakes made from six-pack plastic on the front doors, as well as the beer can mobile in the back. Though there is a set of prints on one wall that Pam designed, the larger paintings lining the walls were created by a friend. Pam is also the inspiration behind the small bites offered at the bar. She is the leader of the Veggie Pride Parade and the head of a Vegan newsletter, so City Swiggers offers vegan empanadas from V-Spot. In addition, there are soft pretzels from Schaller and Weber, a German cafe. And for those of us who are not fond of drinking beer, City Swiggers offers wine by the glass and a large array of ciders. Samantha, the extremely knowledgeable bartender who began working at City Swiggers in 2014, was discovered by Alan while she was working at a nearby cafe. He was impressed with all the facts that she was able to rattle off about beer. He invited her to join him and she started that week. Samantha began educating us as she explained that to "tap" a beer is to attach a hose to a keg, but to "pour" a beer is to fill a glass from the tap. She went on to say that one of the most important things to think about in choosing a beer is the freshness of the hops, and that the definition of "cider" differs not only from country to country but from region to region. She also informed us that she had just taken her test to become a cicerone, which is essentially a sommelier for beer. The first master cicerone, we learned, was a woman from the UK. Whereas Samantha admitted that she liked sour beers and super fresh IPAs, Alan stated that he has "always liked variety, " which explains why his store contains such a diverse array. Samantha poured a flight for us so that the team could see just how varied the stock could be. They tried a light melon Gose (a German beer that was cooling and fruity), a tart Wild Ale with red-currents, a red double IPA that was especially hoppy, and an imperial stout with a chocolaty finish. The Manhattan Sideways Team left City Swiggers with their bellies warmed, their thirst quenched, and their heads bursting with beer knowledge.
When I sat down in the minister's office at West Park Presbyterian Church, the first thing I asked was his name. He responded, "I am going to give you the whole thing, and you decide how much you would like to include. " It is a name to be proud of - Reverend Doctor Robert Brashear. Though originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert has been at the church since 1995. He first came to New York for an internship from 1982-83, and enjoyed his time in the city so much that he leapt at the opportunity to return when it was presented to him years later. The church has a fascinating history. It was originally formed under the name "North Presbyterian Church" on Bleecker Street in 1829 in response to the growing population of people moving north to escape the Yellow Fever. The congregation soon split and one group became the West Presbyterian Church, moving to a building on Carmine Street. In the meantime, the Park Presbyterian Church was formed on 84th Street thanks to the efforts of A. Phelps Atterbury in 1887. In 1890, Park Presbyterian moved into the red sandstone structure on 86th Street and the two congregations, West and Park, merged in 1911. The church received landmark status in 2000. West Park Presbyterian has always been at the forefront of a lot of political and social issues. In 1978, the church was one of the first to jump into the LGBT movement - the Reverend believes that the shift towards the religious embrace of homosexuality actually started in this church. He explained that the church was the first to perform gay marriages and "acknowledge them as just that. " In terms of other social movements, the Reverend also declared that Senior Housing had its birth on 86th Street. Additionally, during Occupy Wall Street when the people were pushed out of Zuccotti Park, activists were invited to take up housing in the church. Some remained for close to a year. Robert is proud that although the church's membership only consists of a few dozen families, they are continuously written up and receive excellent reviews for the cultural events that they hold. According to the Reverend, the tightly knit community at West Park Presbyterian will always be on the "cutting edge" - where things happen.
Everybody at Maz Mezcal, whether they work at the restaurant or dine there as a customer, is considered to be a member of the family. It is difficult not to break into a smile after entering the space and being greeted not only by the warm, bright colors of the decor, but also by the friendly staff, led by their matriarch Mary - or most commonly and affectionately, "Mama. "Mama's story seems to be right out of a fairytale. She is possibly the only non-Mexican member of the restaurant staff, having grown up in Indiana. She met the now-owner of Maz Mezcal, Eduardo Silva, when she was sixteen-years-old and he was eighteen. Eduardo, whose family is from Mazatlan, Sinaloa in Mexico, was stationed in Indiana with the army. One day, his car ran out of gas and along came young "Maria" to his rescue. She helped him out by purchasing the necessary gas. Eduardo left for Vietnam, but the two teenagers wrote to each other throughout his time overseas. When he returned, the couple moved to New York, where Eduardo's father already had a few restaurants on the Upper East Side, and joined the culinary world. Mary, who had never even eaten in a restaurant and had never heard Spanish spoken before meeting Eduardo, was thrown into a totally new world that she embraced from the beginning. She told me that when the couple was living with Eduardo's parents, Eduardo's mother refused to speak to her in English, even though the older woman knew how. As a consequence, in part, Mary is now fluent in Spanish. Maz Mezcal originally opened up a few doors down from its current location in 1972. Though she has since handed over the full responsibility of cooking to the chefs, Maria prepared most of the meals for many years after they opened. Eduardo was, and has always been, the primary decorator. Mama got a bemused look on her face when she spoke about the eclectic items that Eduardo brings back with him every time he visits Mexico. The restaurant is filled with the beautiful and quirky calacas (the skeletons commonly used for Day of the Dead decorations) that Eduardo collects during his travels. And they are particularly popular when the restaurant hosts a set of Halloween parties each year - "one for kids and one for adults. "In 1987, Maz Mezcal moved to its current location. Just as Mary and Eduardo were starting to settle into their new location, and one month before their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, their daughter Gabi came along. "She was a huge surprise, " Maria said, giving her daughter a hug. It was clear even from my limited interaction with the mother and daughter that not only is Gabi a wonderfully friendly, polite, and jubilant member of the team, but she is also an enormous help. She knows the restaurant like the back of her hand, having essentially grown up in it. Gabi happily told us that she has been walking across the street to Maz Mezcal from their apartment almost every day since she was four years old and she has been taking on the duties of a hostess since she was eight. Her best friends growing up were the children of Maz Mezcal's employees, who have now similarly grown up to join their parents at the restaurant. "It takes a village, " Gabi said, to which her mother gave a proud smile. This particular village includes the customers. Mama is proud of the strong following that Maz Mezcal has accrued and loves when diners say things like, "How old is Gabi now? So old! " Today, decades later, people whom Mama remembers as teenagers are now dining here with their grandchildren. The whole circle of life is contained under Maz Mezcal's roof. Always one to appreciate a walk through the kitchen, I stopped to take a look at the lineup of ingredients that tended towards bright red, green, and purple colors. There were bowls of multi-colored chips and vats of freshly made guacamole and salsa - at three different levels of spiciness. I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the other "family" members. Jose, who has been with the restaurant since the early 1980s, was there, along with Antonio, a fifty-one year old man who started working with Mama when he was fifteen. I learned further examples of how everyone at the restaurant is part of the same network: Gabi's nanny when she was a baby was Antonio's godmother, and Juan's aunt is grandmother to Johnny, another one of Gabi's co-workers and former playmates. While sampling some of the amazing dishes and sipping on a variety of margaritas, Joe, a regular, came and seated himself at the bar - but not before giving Mama a hug. He then turned to no one in particular and declared, "This is one of the last authentic places on the Upper East Side. " We understood perfectly: Even though we were sitting in a beautifully decorated restaurant, we felt as if we were being treated to a home-cooked meal surrounded by family. Gabi nodded when we said this and added, "Everything is made with so much love and attention because we want people to be at home here. It's great that after a long day, this is where people want to come. "