When Manhattan Sideways team visited the Harlem Art Café during the summer of 2017, we were given a full tour by the owner, Mahmut. He was kind enough to show us around the gallery, café, and basement workshop, introducing us to the many different facets of his business. In addition to running a cafe and selling works of art, he provides framing services, custom printing, and furniture and hosts frequent art shows. He is clearly a man of varied talents and interests: when asked why he offers such an array of services, he explained that, as a creative person, when a client comes to him, he finds a way to meet all of their needs. He has managed to dabble in and become a master of many trades in the process. “In a way, I had no choice but to be in art,” he confessed, since his two brothers are also artists and he feels that he was born into the art world.
The gallery was his main enterprise for much of his career, as it has been in Harlem since 1993 and in its location on 125th Street since 2006. Nevertheless, he had always envisioned having a space for people to enjoy artwork at their leisure while also indulging in a cup of high quality coffee and some snacks. He described his space as a “hangout place for the elite and artists of all kinds.” As a result, when he added the café to his existing gallery in November of 2016, it was the culmination of his vision for the business.
The space that combines the gallery and cafe is eye-catching. Pieces from local, national, and international artists line the walls and are stacked neatly throughout one half of the shop for visitors’ perusal. Mahmut even has some of his own art on display. The side that houses the café is painted in light greens and blues, which he selected because he felt they were “spiritual colors” that would foster a positive and relaxing atmosphere. An assortment of frozen yogurts and bubble teas are available, but Mahmut told us that the biggest attraction is his coffee - a claim that was backed by one of his customers, who took the time to tell us that she has been coming to the café for her daily coffee fix since it opened. Mahmut proudly revealed that he created the café’s menu after extensive research and taste-testing, since he was determined to provide a product that is “strong, smooth, and won’t give you heartburn.” He attributed his dedication to quality to the fact that he is from Turkey, “where they even have songs about coffee,” he joked.
Below the main floor of his store is the workshop, where he takes care of the framing and printing aspects of his business. The back wall is dominated by his impressive stock of materials, and the rest of the workshop houses the various machines and tools needed for framing. We were fascinated by Mahmut's demonstration of the program he uses to design and then create the custom mats for printing and framing projects.
We ended our visit by looking through the pictures of Mahmut's past art shows. He organizes these to expose local art and artists and advocate messages of unity, activism, and culture. His largest show was in 2011: It boasted over two thousand attendees and featured many talented musicians, performers, and artists from around the world. The show’s theme revolved around promoting peace among people from differing countries, and was meant to underscore how art can act as a means of transcending political disagreements and cultural barriers. Mahmut said that the people that come to his shows “expect to see uplifting things and historical art - art that tells a story.” When we stopped by, he was busy preparing for two shows, one of which would highlight the Latino community in Harlem and another that would feature the work of three local Harlem artists. He had no plans to take a break after these shows, however, as he was also looking forward to his new project - opening a room in the back of his shop that will display high-end, original artwork.
“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.