When I walked East 96th Street in June 2016, I arrived ten minutes before Gyro 96 was to open its small window into eighty-five square feet of sumptuous Egyptian food. Expecting to be the first one there, I was slightly taken aback to see a small huddle of children, construction workers, working moms, and police men already chatting by the window. In fact, even before the passionate duo of owners, Waled Haredy and Inna Sobel, could serve me their choicest bites, a friendly resident told me what to expect – “it’s the best falafel in the world.”
Waled’s ardor to cook food that is “clean and made with love” is rooted in 100-year-old recipes passed down from his Egyptian family. While growing up in Saudi Arabia, he savored tastes and spices from Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, and India. While I marveled at his diversity of cuisine, it was his persistent dedication to making food as it was made in his home – fresh, and healthy. He told me, “we had a rule in the kitchen: we never kept hummus the day after it’s made. If there is any left at the end of a day, we throw it out and make a fresh batch the very next morning.” Gyro 96, although priced just as affordably as most halal trucks in the city, distinguishes itself in offering the balance between inexpensive fast-food and freshly-cooked sit-down meals.
Inna - a real estate worker who believed in Waled’s food and insisted that he move from his previous locations in Harlem and the West Village to 96th Street - confirmed what I could see in their every interaction with their customers – “we try our best to keep them returning for new dishes.” Indeed, one of their greatest fans came down from her work in the Bronx to eat at Gyro 96, as she claims to do almost every day. When I asked her what keeps her coming back, “I come here six days a week and find a new bite to try every time.” I couldn’t wait to have Waled cook up his most prized flavors for me."
Before biting into any of the food, I sipped on karkadé, a deep crimson respite from the oppressive heat of June, and truly a power drink. Originally extracted from hibiscus flowers along the border of Egypt & Sudan, karkadé was a drink for the Gods and pharaohs. Waled brought the tea, now proven rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, and weight-regulating nutrients, to the US in 2005. I delighted in the delicately sweet tones of this refresher. His renowned falafels, the secret recipe for which I unfortunately could not pry out of Waled, were crunchy and wholesome in every bite – a texture that comes only with a special style of cooking the chickpeas. Gyro 96’s hummus and tahina sauces were light and laced with tangs of ripe olives and grape leaves. But beware of the hot sauce. It packs as much of a flavorful kick as it does a spicy heat when served with the eggplant over basmati – an Indian rice which he claims works best with his cuisine. After sampling this last enigmatic dish, I was more curious about the story behind its name than the tastes itself – The Rocket.
Waled grew up with a strict father (“as they tend to be in Upper Egypt,” he says). His father wanted Waled, the eldest son, to follow closely in his footsteps; but when his appetite for duck contrasted with Waled’s distaste for it, the apple fell a tad bit too far from the tree. Waled’s father insisted that he eat duck when served, to which Waled refused and would go hungry instead. His mother, sympathetic, would offer him two Egyptian pounds to buy himself a meal elsewhere. Going to the local falafel seller, Waled would give up his money and ask the seller to put in whatever ingredients he had. And so at nine years old, when Waled saw a wrap with falafel, hummus, eggplant, fries, tomato, Egyptian pickles, cilantro, hardboiled eggs, and tahini sauce all in one, his childlike imagination could only dream up one name for the dish - The Rocket.
Inna and Waled are culinary stars in their neighborhood, and it is a wonder they do it out of a small window at such affordable prices. Although rent is high, the two are committed to keeping their prices low and expanding their customer base outside the area. Their customers, often working late into the night, are always disappointed when they close in the evenings, but do not fail to greet the duo with bright smiles as they pass by again in the morning. Conversation flows when such friendly faces serve you karkadé, falafels, chicken gyro, and more at a range of $3 - $6. After all, as Waled asserted, “good food doesn’t need to be expensive. Good food doesn’t need a reservation. Good food just needs love.”
The Islamic Cultural Center of New York started in the 1960s with a vision of housing a mosque, school, library, lecture hall, and museum in one institution. Thanks to over ten million dollars donated by the Saudi, Libyan, and Malaysian governments as well as dedicated fundraising efforts by the Center’s board, the plans came to fruition in 1991. The completed Center, which spans a block on Third Avenue with an entrance on 96th Street, brought traditional Islamic architecture into New York’s modern landscape and created a safe space for the city’s Muslim population to worship.
Even without taking an art class, I began to feel a sense of calm and purpose in the presence of Rebecca Schweiger, the owner and founder of The Art Studio NY. I arrived in the middle of an adult class in which the students, all women, were being taught how to create photo transfers of architecture. I watched the women critique each other's work good-naturedly, pointing out "lines that move your eye" and "good use of layers. " The students were comfortable enough that they were not afraid to make suggestions, using comparisons between the other pieces in the group as inspiration. In the background, classical music played unobtrusively. The walls of the classroom were covered in art that ran the gamut from a pop art Alice in Wonderland to a gray scale still-life. After focusing on each photo transfer individually, the ladies seemlessly shifted towards talking about their experiences during the project. As one woman pointed out, "The key is knowing when to stop. "After the class, I chatted with the women, who were probably close to my own age and were all friends. "This is our favorite day of the week, " they uniformly agreed. Not having an ounce of artistic talent, I was so inspired by these ladies, and simply having a wonderful time being creative. I actually considered signing up on the spot. As they filtered out, I was then able to speak with Rebecca and hear her amazing story. Rebecca started The Art Studio NY in 2004 in her apartment with five students. Rebecca is a trained painter who has always been "enamored by the power of creativity. " In addition to being a painter, I believe she should consider herself a poet. She told me, "Art is one of the best kept secrets. It's an elixir for all life experiences. " At a certain point in her own life, Rebecca realized that she wanted to teach. "I always wanted to make a difference in people's lives. " Her goal in The Art Studio NY is to bring art to people who do not think that they are creative. From weekly classes for the very young to "paint and sip" sessions with groups of adult friends - complete with wine - her days are jam packed with interested artists on any and every level. Rebecca's style of teaching is very different from that taught in art schools. She attended Boston University's College of Fine Arts, where she found that their philosophy did not mesh well with how she wanted to experience learning. As she explained, "They taught well if you wanted to be cutthroat and competitive. " In The Art Studio NY, Rebecca makes sure that the environment is relaxed and that people can work at their own pace. Fifteen different teachers work at the studio so that class sizes can remain small and Rebecca lets each teacher's strengths shine. "It is important that my instructors bring their greatest passions, " Rebecca said, adding that though there is structure to each class, she does not stifle any teacher's creativity. As for the studio itself, it is a unique space that became available to Rebecca by chance. She lives in the building and is very friendly with the doormen, who know everything there is to know about the neighborhood. After teaching out of her apartment for a few years, she asked the men if they knew about any available space in the building. They came back to her with the news that one of the basement apartments, which was zoned to be commercial, was soon to be vacated. Although it is a little out of the way and can only be accessed by riding the elevator, Rebecca has been quite pleased with her location. She considers the elevator a great safety measure for the children, as they can never escape without the doormen's knowledge. This is a good precaution for a studio that caters to children as young as two-years-old (for the Mommy and Me programs). On the subject of children, Rebecca was sure to tell me that, "The kids' classes are not babyish. " She recognizes that little ones are sponges, and so she teaches them the same things as adults. She was proud to tell me that one woman who interned with The Art Studio NY had started taking classes from Rebecca when she was seven-years-old. She is now a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). "It feels great, " Rebecca shared. Though the 96th Street classrooms are Rebecca's main studio, she and her fellow instructors teach throughout the city in after school programs, and work with corporations on team building events. When discussing the adult instruction, Rebecca commented, "Many of these people have never picked up a paintbrush since Pre-K. " Not only do the professionals get to try something they may have never done before, but they also get to work next to people they usually do not work alongside. A story that Rebecca relayed was when she was asked to organize an event for the entire staff of the newly branded Lexington Hotel. "It was a lot of paint and a lot of canvasses, " but she loved it. During the art class, one of the housekeepers was painting right next to the CEO. Rebecca remembers that at the end, a different housekeeper came up to her and said, "Ever since I was a little girl, I've always wanted to take an art class. " It warmed Rebecca's heart. In addition to these outreach art lessons, The Art Studio NY offers events outside of its normal classes, including drawing classes at the park or in one of the museums. Rebecca even holds Date Nights, in which two people work on the same project. Thanks to the studio's relationship with hotels, they are able to cater to tourists who are only in town for a short time but are eager for this art experience. No matter whom Rebecca happens to be teaching, she has the same goal of wanting to "bring people's creative spirits alive. " She clarified that the classes are not just about art: they "are about growing and gaining self-esteem. " As the mother of a talented artist from the time he was a very young child, I fully appreciated Rebecca's philosophy on teaching, but also her kind and gentle way with each of her students. She told me that parents often tell her that they can sense a physical and emotional shift in their child after they have taken a class. They notice that "there's a happier, more relaxed person in front of them. " Parents have described their children as being "more mellow" on days when they have a class at The Art Studio NY. Rebecca says this is because art "gives them wings and space to express themselves. " I am sure that she is correct; however, I am also certain that it because of Rebecca, herself, that everyone is happier after spending an hour in her presence. I could have sat and listened to Rebecca for another hour, as I found her to be totally enchanting, but we both had other appointments. Before leaving, Rebecca revealed to me that she was recently contacted by a publisher to write a book about creativity. This means that she is now benefitting from two artistic outlets: painting and writing. In closing, Rebecca left me saying that she feels strongly that the world is at the beginning of a "creative revolution. " If this is true, I see Rebecca as one of New York's most passionate revolutionaries.
Unlike many houses of worship that moved north from the Lower East Side, St. Francis de Sales's roots began on 100th Street. In 1894, a new parish was formed under Reverend Joseph L. Hoey. Only a year later, the church was deemed too small for the growing congregation and plans were started for a new church on 96th Street. Construction ended in 1903, and the church as remained in the same location ever since.
Chogyesa, a Korean Zen temple, was founded in the 1970s in Queens by Zen Master Seung Sahn. In 2003, the temple moved to its current home in a twentieth century townhouse on the Upper East Side. The Jijang-Bosal room, named for the boddhisatva of compassion, is located on the lower level. The mezzanine level contains a meditation room, garden, and gift shop and upstairs, there is a library for quiet study. The temple also boasts a beautiful garden. The monks are led by Abbot Do Am, who practiced Zen in the mountains of Korea for twenty-five years. People of all nations are welcome to come to the Buddhist Sanctuary to meditate, chant, and "practice together as one people. "