At times, living in Manhattan can become a bit chaotic – and it is at this moment when Muji feels like a breath of fresh air. So different from our busy and cluttered apartments, Muji is the epitome of minimalist class. There is no rhyme or reason to what items are carried and yet while there are a million trinkets to browse through, the atmosphere remains effortlessly crisp and clean. Everything is made in neutral colors and simple materials, and labeled with clear descriptions. After wandering around, I suddenly had the urge to go home and clean everything out of my closet and start fresh. The store has a calming and almost meditative effect on people. The vast variety of items includes furniture, clothing, home goods – and yet everything feels unified. Some of the hidden treasures can be found within the office supplies – pens that glide beautifully across the page and notebooks that rival moleskin for utility and sophistication, but at a fraction of the price. Even the clothes are in soft, soothing colors, but made from fine fabrics and sold at very reasonable prices. Step inside to escape the bustle of the city, and do not be surprised if you leave with a new toothbrush or a pair of slippers.
I have discovered many fascinating places while walking on the side streets of Manhattan. I am sorry to say that I did not look up to see Belly Dance America when I initially walked on West 37th Street. It was not until a few years later that I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Hanna and Jehan, the wonderful couple behind the place that has been hailed as the center for all belly dance needs. As it is the first and only store of its kind in New York City, located on the second floor, it has definitely cornered the market. For anyone passionate about the art of belly dance, or for those who are only getting started, there is just about anything that one could want in this shop. It is more than just a belly dance store. Belly Dance America is a love letter to the passion and culture of the Middle East, paying homage to the richness of history and music that so often gets overlooked these days. As I walked into their shop, I was greeted by the sound of a breeze sneaking its way through an open window to rustle the costumes within, announcing its entrance with the soft jingling of the coins on the bottoms of the skirts. Every costume is made with a unique attention to detail. Some are imported and some are made right there in the shop, designed and assembled by Jehan’s husband and co-owner, Hanna. The costumes that are imported are made especially with the diverseness of the human body in mind, made by designers who know how to fit it perfectly. Even still, Jehan and Hanna take an honest approach to the sale of each item. “If something doesn’t look good, I’m going to tell you, ” said Hanna, “It’s not about making a sale. I’d rather have a loyal customer who comes back and is always happy. ”I found there to be a strong sense of community among the dancers and instructors. Everyone is welcome, whether they are a professional dancer or a hobbyist who is just starting out. It is never about competition, just the mutual enjoyment of a beautiful art. “The good thing about belly dance is that it welcomes all sizes, all body types, and all ages. ” In the studio, I watched a group of dancers go through a routine as the instructor, Layla, led. While standing there, I listened to the coins jingling in time with the music and the sound of beads swinging side to side. The ghazal of the singer’s voice wailed from the stereo system in the corner of the studio and the dancers looked very much at peace, some of them smiling, some staring at themselves in the mirror, all feeling the passion and richness of the music down to their very core. Returning to the shop, down the hallway, where Hanna and Jehan were, I commented on what an incredible experience it was for me to witness these women dancing. They smiled and responded, “It makes people happy, ” “the music, the colors, the dance. ”
Manuel Uzhca's story reads like a fairytale. He came to New York from Ecuador when he was seventeen with absolutely nothing to his name and spent time as a dishwasher in a number of restaurants. He met Jean-Claude Baker when both were working at Pronto, an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. In 2011, Jean-Claude offered Manuel the position of manager at Chez Josephine — little did Manuel know that only four years later, the restaurant would belong to him. Manuel still recalls the day that Jean-Claude asked him to bring in his passport. Confused by his request, Manuel chose not to comply. Jean-Claude teased Manuel by saying, “If you don't bring your passport, that means you don't want my restaurant. ” The next day, still perplexed, Manuel presented his passport. Jean-Claude marched the two of them to the bank and added Manuel's name to his account, giving him permission to sign checks for the restaurant. Shortly after, Jean-Claude announced that he was retiring, but Manuel did not take him seriously. Jean-Claude then told him that he was leaving and insisted, “I won't be back. ” Jean-Claude proceeded to his attorney's office, changed his will, and went off to the Hamptons. He called Manuel to make sure that everything was in order at the restaurant, and then, very sadly, Jean-Claude took his own life. “I did not believe I owned the place, not even when they showed me the will, ” Manuel declared. Jean-Claude was the last of the children adopted into singer-dancer Josephine Baker’s “Rainbow Tribe, ” created with a mission of racial harmony. He lived and performed with her for a time before making his way to New York and eventually opening this restaurant. It quickly became a haven for Broadway clientele, known for its charming and colorful ambiance as much as its haute cuisine. Since taking over in 2015, Manuel has continued running this famed French restaurant exactly how Jean-Claude left it — paying homage to Josephine Baker, who captured the Parisian imagination in the 1920s and did not let go for decades.
Opened on May 23, 1911 on the site of a former reservoir, this main branch of the New York Public Library is a true wonder of the city. Upon its completion, it was the largest marble structure in the United States, and the classical design elements ensure that it remains as breathtaking now as it was then. In 1965, it became a National Historic Landmark. The Main Reading Room is an enormous hall, with murals and intricate relief work lording overhead and large, open windows allowing for bright sunlight to pour across the books being huddled over. Small exhibitions to art and cultural histories pepper the halls. The entire structure is truly a pleasure to explore, one of the grandest and most wonderful buildings in the entire city, and we spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the halls in a book-drunk daze trying to absorb it all.
Known as the "Center for Social Change, " the Ford Foundation has been committed to helping the world be a better place since 1936. They work diligently to "protect human rights, reform governments, provide education opportunities and create space for artistic creativity and expression. " Without a doubt, one of Manhattan's finest atriums greets visitors. Entering the glass structure from either 42nd or 43rd Street, a world of green awaits. There are trees, plants, a fountain and short paths to wander through. The atrium is a hidden oasis in the middle of the city.
As part of the restoration of Grand Central Terminal in the late '90s, Pershing Square Cafe opened under the Park Avenue viaduct. The fare is American and straightforward, with burgers and chicken pot pies, steaks and fish. The pancakes, served all day, are a big crowd pleaser. Up front, commuters sipping coffee, reading, and chatting while awaiting the next train, inhabit a more cafe-esque area. When speaking with the manager one day, he was proud to tell me that both Friends with Benefits and the Avengers were filmed at Pershing.