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Acts III Bagels

There was a hole in her part of Harlem - large and obvious in its absence: the warm, bready, circular New York City bagel was missing from Naomi's neighborhood. Every morning at the end of her commute, she had no other option than to purchase her bagels from the food trucks in front of Harlem Hospital, where she worked as a hospital administrator. However, even the most amateur of bagel lovers can tell that there is a distinct difference between a food truck bagel and the round wonders of the Jewish bakery on the Lower East Side that welcomed Naomi when she first moved to New York from Texas fifty years ago, in 1969. The Jewish bakery bagels were what Naomi calls “real good bagels.” The Jewish bakery had lox. They had sandwiches, and it was there that Naomi was educated in bagel appreciation.

Since moving to Harlem in 1970, her appreciation has grown, but her access to the good stuff sharply declined. The bagels in Naomi’s new neighborhood were cold like the cream cheese, which was slapped in slabs across the hard and solid surface of the bagel bread. In the food trucks, there were no lox, no sandwiches, no changing flavors of cheese, just plain, unappetizing cream. Each morning, before beginning her shift at work, Naomi was faced with the unsatisfying choice of either warming up her Harlem bagel in a microwave or scraping off the cold cream cheese. “That’s no way to eat a real good bagel,” Naomi complained. “A real good bagel is a bagel that’s toasted and served with a good cream cheese or a side order of meat or eggs. That’s what we needed [in Harlem].”

In 2012, when Naomi retired from her hospital job, she spent a year traveling, and when she returned home to Harlem, she sat down with her family, and they decided that, together, they would fill Harlem’s bagel hole. In February 2015, Acts III Bagels served its first real good bagel. According to Naomi, for nearly two years, aside from Acts III, there was no other real good bagel shop in the coldly undercooked and underserved Harlem community. As of 2019, the neighborhood is now shared between two shops. Bo’s Bagels, on 116th Street, which serves the lower half of Central Harlem and Acts III, almost twenty blocks away on 135th Street, the upper.

Acts III may very well also be one of the only biblical bagel shops in the world. Naomi, who is a self-identified Bible-reader, chose the name Acts III because, she said, “I believe in the miracles of Acts III… The people were healed, and I see bagels as a way of healing this community in terms of what they didn’t have… We are contributing to Acts III, the healing of the people, because we are bringing something to them that gives them a space for communal activity.”

Keeping a sense of community is especially important in Harlem as gentrification revises the recipe of the neighborhood. In response to the community’s changes, Naomi attempts to keep her prices low to ensure that her bagels may be eaten by Harlemites both old and new. “[I’m] trying to accommodate those of us who’ve been here for a little while,” Naomi explained. “Those senior citizens, the people who have menial jobs or who are working from salary to salary.”

Naomi believes that gentrification will bring even more real good bagel shops to Harlem. In fact, she posits that the lack of gentrification in the past may have been largely responsible for the bland, bagel-less-ness of Harlem just a few years ago. As the neighborhood becomes more diverse, its dining options will as well, and so Naomi expects to see many more coffee shops and bagel shops continue to emerge in the coming years.

For health reasons, Naomi has had to quit her daily bagel habit, however, she does nearly everything she can to sustain her store - the shopping, the salads, the chilis, the ordering, the serving, the decorating, almost all of it is done by Naomi, who works every day except Sunday when she walks from her home across 138th Street to St. Marks A.M.E. church, where she can be with The Bible apart from her bagels.

Slowly though, Naomi is giving up control of the shop to her family. “It’s time for you to relax. It’s time for you to give up,” they urge her, but she is reluctant to leave her bagels behind. When Naomi eventually does go, her name will stay. Her relatives want to change the shop from Acts III to Naomi’s. Naomi is laidback, quiet. She feels no need for recognition. She would rather the name of the shop remain the way it is. “You know, I could have named it anything,” she reflects. “[Acts III] was just the name that came to mind, and I think that it was supposed to be.”

Besides, she points out, mixing spiritual nourishment with physical nourishment as she has done by calling the store Acts III may seem unusual to some, but it is, in fact, a very old idea. In The Bible, there is manna, food given by God to the Israelites, and in Harlem, there are bagels.

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Harlem Stage

Founded in 1968, the organization once known as Aaron Davis Hall, Inc. used to operate in a facility owned by City College New York. A fundraising campaign was initiated in 2000 to restore the stunning structure on the corner of 135th Street and Convent Avenue, built in 1890 as a part of the Croton Aqueduct system, and transform it into a space for performing. Six years later, the organization's efforts came to fruition when it moved into the new Gatehouse facility and officially renamed itself Harlem Stage. When the Manhattan Sideways team toured the space in the summer of 2017, we were impressed by how seamlessly the historic attributes of the building were merged with the modern needs of the renovated theater. In particular, I had to admire the door with the antique, elaborate hinges set into the wall of the staircase leading to the stage on the second floor. It came as no surprise to learn that Harlem Stage had been honored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy for the remarkable job that it did in preserving the original structure. Executive Director Patricia Cruz told us that spearheading the movement to transform the building “from a community eyesore into a community jewel” has been one of the most significant accomplishments of her tenure. Even so, she added, “It is not as important as what we do inside. ” Upon moving into the Gatehouse, Harlem Stage launched the WaterWorks series - “Our most identifiable program, and what makes us unique, ” Patricia explained. Appropriately named in homage to both the facility’s past and its current role as a conduit for culture and artistry, the program serves to find and present new work. In the ten years since its creation, it has commissioned and supported fifty artists, five of whom went on to become MacArthur “Genius” Fellows. Monique Martin, director of programming, emphasized that the WaterWorks series identifies an artist as extraordinary and encourages new, original work in the process. “Our identifying them before the rest of the world did is a sign of our curatorial excellence, ” Patricia added. The staff at Harlem Stage take pride in their ability to incubate new artists, especially artists of color, and support them through offering mentorship, frequent workshops, and plenty of available space to work. The two women stressed the importance of what they do, as “it is rare for artists of color to be given the resources they need to develop new work, which is so critical to the diversity in the field. ” Recognizing the significance of this mission, they are now embarking on a $10 million campaign to continue running WaterWorks for another ten years. While creating a platform for original work, Harlem Stage has also built an audience. Through programs such as Dig Deeper, they encourage the community to meet and interact with their artists while learning more about the process of putting on a performance through arranging open rehearsals, panel discussions, and more. Their efforts have paid off thus far, as their performances typically boast sold out audiences. “The identity of Harlem is part of the larger legacy of Harlem Stage, ” Patricia explained, which is why they place such importance on connecting with all members of the community. This focus is not limited to adults - the Frances Davis/Harlem Stage Arts Education program is centered on exposing children to the arts. The program serves 4, 000 children in the Harlem area annually and has reached over 400, 000 in total. Its goal is to try to fill the gap in public education caused by a reduction in funding for the arts. To this end, Harlem Stage sends teaching artists to schools and ask them to engage with students, upholding the philosophy that “all art is appropriate and available for young artists. ” Patricia mentioned that the question of age-appropriate subject matter is a common concern when creating youth theater programs. She maintained, “We’re selecting and curating an experience for them, but we don’t pander to our young audiences. ” Adolescents are also encouraged to participate in various high school programs that connect them with Harlem Stage’s production team, allowing them to learn the technical side of theater under the guidance of experienced mentors. These are only a small sampling of Harlem Stage's offerings, we were told, as the organization has taken pains to create “programming that has range and depth. ” Those at Harlem Stage provide opportunities within as many areas of the arts as possible, including dance, film, and music. By creating a space that is versatile and open to creative expression in all its forms, they hope to accomplish their ultimate goal - “to continue to build on the legacy that Harlem has made in our culture and that Harlem Stage has done since its inception. ”