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167 West 74th Street
Levain Bakery 1 Bakeries Cookies Upper West Side

If you do not already know of Levain Bakery, it is time that you did. Imagine my excitement to finally be on West 74th Street and able to introduce Tom and Olivia, members of the Manhattan Sideways team, to this exceptional bake shop that they had been hearing about for over a year. Knowing their love of anything freshly baked, gooey, and sweet, I had no doubt that this was going to be a special day.

I have stood on the line to enter Levain many times with friends and family to purchase cookies. On this particular day, we were ushered inside and had the absolute pleasure of not only meeting the lovely ladies who have been baking their phenomenal cookies for the past fifteen years, but also getting to go behind-the-scenes to observe where the baking takes place.

Unexpectedly, much of the history of this well-loved, independent Upper West Side bakery is tied up in athletics. Connie McDonald and Pam Weekes met while doing competitive swimming at the YWCA. Connie told us that when she arrived at the Y not knowing a soul, Pam warmly invited her to join her group. At the time, Connie worked in investment banking and Pam had a job in fashion at Norma Kamali. As their story goes, the two women, who had become fast friends, decided to train together for the Ironman. The constant physical strain left them very hungry, which inspired them to talk about opening a bakery.

Whereas Pam grew up loving baking and "never had store-bought bread" in her house, Connie spent her childhood in a sweets-free environment and had done very little baking before meeting Pam. In 1993, Connie left her career and enrolled in Peter Kump's New York Cooking School. The two women started worked in wholesale at One Fifth Avenue, making bread for restaurants. They quickly started looking for a storefront, even though, as Pam said, "We had no money." They were very close to opening on Avenue B and 3rd Street, but the deal fell through on the day they would have moved. Once again, however, they were led in the right direction by an active lifestyle: One of their friends was running in the park and then jogged along 74th Street on her way home. She spotted the vacancy, told the women, and in 1995, the two opened their bakery, naming it after a French word for a bread starter made with flour, water, and yeast.

Contrary to what people may derive from the long lines continually wrapping around the block, Levain was not an immediate success. As Connie said, "When you start a business, you aren't immediately rolling in dough." After several years of literally rolling in flour-filled dough, the two women admit that the bakery is doing very well. In fact, they have opened another location in Harlem and one in the Hamptons. When I asked if they had further expansions in mind, the women shook their heads. "We are very involved in everything," Pam stated, mentioning that the bakery also does a high volume of mail order. Another shop would make it more difficult for the two women to be as hands-on. Also, as Connie commented, "We've never had a big business model – we just want to be a neighborhood bakery."

When we stepped outside to take some photos of the two women in front of their store, Pam broke away to look at the customers happily sipping Levain's locally roasted coffee around the doorway. "This is great – sometimes we forget how fun it is just to hang out here." Connie nodded and added, "We used to hang out with the neighbors a lot more." She described a day early on in their tenancy, before people came from miles around to sample the cookies, when the two women planted a tree and attracted a "block party" of passersby. As if summoned, one of their neighbors walked by as we were speaking to Pam and Connie and greeted the two owners. She was with her son, who had worked for Levain in the past, and so we witnessed a warm reunion. "I came in at the ground level," the customer said, explaining that she was one of the first people in the door when the bakery opened. She then added, "These women are animal lovers of the first order. They give the dogs of the neighborhood so much love, and so stopping by Levain is a huge part of me and my dog's walk."

Connie and Pam told us that there are many customers who have been with them since day one. One neighbor, they said, came in on the first day they opened with his newborn, and now that baby is in college. "We love being on a side street," added Connie, gushing about all the wonderful people she has met on 74th. Pam nodded, saying, "We are not cold or anonymous." Despite the long line and the amount of press, Levain continues to be a warm, neighborhood - and, might I add, outstanding - bakery.

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Lost Gem
Little Baby Face Foundation 1 Non Profit Organizations Plastic Surgeons Headquarters and Offices For Kids undefined

Little Baby Face Foundation

Like many surgeons, when Dr. Thomas Romo III graduated medical school, he hopped on a plane to India and Vietnam in order to fix cleft lips. "We felt like we had time and a reason to give back, " he said of himself and his peers who choose to travel the world doing medical procedures before settling down and developing a practice. Though Dr. Romo operated on numerous lips, he realized after a while that the program he was traveling with was only fixing a quarter of the problem. After the lip healed, the palate still did not close correctly and teeth did not grow straight. Patients would experience chronic Eustachian tube problems, resulting in earaches. Dr. Romo wanted to fix the rest of the palate, but the mission that he was with focused solely on lips. "I wanted to change the paradigm, " Dr. Romo declared. Back in New York, he began developing a plan to help children with facial birth defects through all operation stages, not just cosmetic. 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He then went on to say that when these children come in to meet this large group of doctors, they are experiencing something unique - this number of medical professionals is rarely seen in one room. For the entire stay, including during the operation and recovery time, the child and his or her family are taken care of every step of the way: their flights are paid for, "Mario picks them up in a car service, " and they are welcomed with open arms at the Ronald McDonald House. What most impressed me about the Little Baby Face Foundation is that every doctor volunteers his or her time. It has been worked out so that no one needs to perform more than a handful of procedures each month. Occasionally, when Dr. Romo is met with slight reluctance from one of the doctors, he often responds with a poignant, yet witty response: "How much fat do you want to suck and how many boobs do you want to do? Or do you want to change a child's life? "Dr. Romo performs a significant number of the operations. He sometimes ends up doing as many as ten during the winter holidays. Speaking with him is an enlightening experience, as he is so full of energy, compassion, and joviality. He shared a few stories of patients who had touched his heart. He told me about operations that involved a Texan child with nerve paralysis and another from Harlem who was born deaf and missing an ear on one side. On the latter, Dr. Romo performed a cochlear implant and that the child "heard his name said at graduation. "Speaking about a few other patients from abroad, Dr. Romo continued to touch my own heart as he spoke of a child who came from farther afield - in Ethiopia. The girl had a large mass on her neck that no other doctor would touch. Dr. Romo said, "We had to fly her from a small village to Addis Ababa to Dubai to New York. " Not only did the girl have the mass removed, but she also got to have a New York adventure. As he continued on, I learned about a couple from England who came with their eighteen-month old son, who had a tumor falling over his eye. The parents, who were only nineteen and twenty-one, themselves, were given the opportunity to spend several weeks in Manhattan while their child was having his life changed. Dr. Romo is proud of how far the foundation has come since it began in 1990. He recently experienced a year in which he raised enough money in order to pay a small staff. One of the members of his team is his own wife, Diane Romo, who is the surgical coordinator. She deals directly with the children and has the extreme pleasure of contacting families to tell them, "We're going to bring you to New York. "Now that he has a model and a brand, Dr. Romo hopes to expand. "We can helicopter to Chicago, LA, or San Francisco, " he told me excitedly. But he is also devoted to New York, and emphasizes the concept of "New Yorkers helping New Yorkers. " He wishes that more people knew that the Little Baby Face Foundation existed. He said that a lot of hospitals are in the red, which should not be the case, since there are so many doctors willing to occasionally work for free for the sake of the greater good. His need to give to the community in any way he can is inspiring. As he perfectly phrased it for me, "I'm a surgeon. This is the only way I know how to give back. "

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The Baseball Center 1 Baseball For Kids undefined

The Baseball Center

Coach Jellybean, a man who was only introduced to us by his universally-used nickname, has endless good humor. He told us, "I am world famous on the Upper West Side among kids aged nine to twelve. " He added with a cheeky smile, "I'm a big deal. " He is often spotted on the street or at the zoo by gaping mouthed kids who are shocked to see their coach outside his natural habitat. It is not surprising that he is recognized so frequently, since two to three hundred kids go through the batting cages each week. It is, after all, the only place in Manhattan with an indoor facility. Jellybean took us past the large bank vaults that are a permanent part of the Apple Bank basement and into the Green and Blue rooms chatting enthusiastically. The Center can host six different classes at the same time, thanks to its size and equipment. It has every kind of pitching mechanism one can imagine, from a big ancient beast that is still "one of the best machines in the business" despite its age, to an LED display that lights up to resemble an actual pitcher. There are even simulators that can show where the ball would end up going in Yankee Stadium (with handicaps for younger batters). Not only does it motivate kids with a little firework display for home runs, but it also serves as a helpful statistical tool for older players hoping to improve their technique. One of the most impressive machines was the "pro-hitter" which can shoot out balls at 100mph and can basically mimic any kind of major league pitch. Jellybean also showed us the party room, which was decorated on one side for the Mets and on the other for the Yankees, in an effort to appeal to fans of both teams. As I was admiring the countless photographs of kids that lined the hallways, Jellybean pointed out that the center is not just for children. Far from it: the facilities have been used for bachelor parties, special needs adults, and even "big league guys" who want a place to practice in between seasons. The Center is also popular among foreign tour groups who want to try out America's pastime while visiting New York. Jellybean was particularly proud of the charity events that the Center hosts, where people pledge money for hitting pitches at a certain speed. After our tour, I took the time to speak with Jason, who told me more about the programs that the Center offers. There are tournament teams, after school programs, summer camps, and birthday parties, weekly classes, and, during the warmer months, outdoor leagues. He explained that the space's main purpose is to "Promote the experience of baseball. " When I asked how the Baseball Center accomplishes its mission, he replied without hesitating: "the coaches. " Some of the coaches played in college, some are former professionals, and some are still playing, but what binds them all together is their love of the game and their ability as teachers. "A good player doesn't always make a good coach, " Jason admitted, and assured me that each of his coaches is thoroughly trained as a teacher. With a grin, he told me that a mother had recently said to him, "I don't think I've ever seen so many men who are good with children. " With pride, Jason pointed out the sign that marked the Baseball Center as a designated New York City "safe house. "Though Jason has seen some real baseball stars come through the Center's programs - including Clayton Kershaw of the LA Dodgers - he was pleased to tell me of a child who had been coming for years, and had recently been offered a full ride to Stanford via baseball. He went on to say that he enjoys seeing every child thrive, no matter what level they ultimately achieve. He told me that his favorite part about working at the Baseball Center are those happy moments when he witnesses a child get their very first hit. "It's magic, " he gushed. It is a personal victory not just for the child, but for everyone at the Center. "We are a part of each child's team. "