Wang Chen is a famous female table tennis player who moved to the United States from Shanghai in 2000. In 2008, she gave a splendid showing at the Summer Olympics before ending her professional career. As part of her retirement, she founded the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club. For $20 each month, members can play unlimited table tennis. The Club offers after-school programs for children, one-on-one coaching for all ages, tournaments, and birthday parties.
Observing Chen play while teaching a student was a thrill. Her skill was immediately apparent as she casually hit the ball to a grown man who was sweating with the effort it took to return her swings. The Manhattan Sideways team then went to the lower level where we sat down on the steps overlooking several tables and became mesmerized as we watched both singles and doubles players hitting against one another. We all agreed that this was not the sport that we knew to be ping pong. These men and women took the game to a whole new level. Taking in my surroundings, I discovered photographs from Chen's professional matches covering the walls, as well as a paddle hanging that said: "To Wang Chen - thanks for kicking my..."
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.
Down the street from the Firemen's Memorial on Riverside Drive, Engine Company 76 has its home, earning it the nickname "Monumental Pride. " The firehouse is one of the largest in the city, since it was formed from what used to be two separate stations. In chatting with one of the firemen, I mentioned what appeared to me to be a firehouse on Amsterdam Avenue but belongs to Brusco Realty. When I inquired, he explained that this used to house the other half of Engine 76, thus the exterior resembles a firehouse. Oh the knowledge one gains when speaking to people in the know. While discussing the Firemen's Memorial, this devoted young fireman told me that on the second Wednesday in October, every year the entire Fire Department of New York assembles around the monument. "It's very impressive, seeing 8, 000 blue suits lining up, " he proudly stated. Right then and there, I added it to my calendar and have every intention of attending this event come the fall of 2016. As the fireman pulled down the firehouse calendar to find the exact date, a tiny firecracker went off, causing him to jump backwards. "The pranks around here are non-stop, " he declared with a wary smile. I was glad to know that firemen have such a keen sense of humor.
Even after walking 100 streets, from the East River to the Hudson, I continue to uncover fascinating stories about some incredible people. When I initially attempted to open the doors to the Trinity Lutheran Church, I could not get in. As I was standing across the street, however, a few minutes later, I noticed a young man exiting the door down below. I quickly crossed back over 100th Street and introduced myself to Hans, who turned out to be the Pastor's son - that pastor being Heidi Neumark, Hans' mom. Though I have visited dozens of churches in Manhattan, and I am sure that there are many women in senior spiritual leadership positions, Heidi was the first one I had heard of by name. Hans kindly stepped back inside the church and invited us in. He was not only as charming as could be, but also very knowledgeable about the history of the church and the building, itself, but then this has been his home for much of his childhood. Trinity Lutheran plays an important role in the neighborhood. "We've been here longer than anything else, " Hans pointed out. The church was built in 1892, before Robert Moses came along with his grand ideas for city planning. The building survived the reconstruction in the 1960s and has thrived in the same spot for over 100 years. Hans took us into the sanctuary, where natural light streamed through large, clear windows. He explained that though the church has stained glass, they had to take it down when the thirteen-story building next door was being constructed so that it would not be damaged. We were able to see some of the stained glass, however, when Hans showed the Manhattan Sideways team through the inside of the organ to the wooden staircase that winds around the interior of the church's steeple. Here, we discovered one window's stained glass that had been left in place. The church is very liberal. The congregation open to everyone, no matter their race, sex, income, sexuality, or gender identity. Heidi even welcomes congregants to change pronouns and nouns in sacred texts that give a gender to God. Signs of inclusion and openness are everywhere in the church. There is a beautiful mural hanging from the organ loft that depicts a black Jesus. "Everyone finds their own message in it, " Hans said. Trinity Lutheran continues its liberal vision in community outreach programs, including housing a homeless shelter for gay young men from age 18-21. After speaking about the history of the church, Hans went on to talk about his family. We were completely captivated as he relayed how his parents met while his mom was doing missionary work. Heidi was an activist, smuggling books into Argentina. When she returned to the United States, she worked with prostitutes, gang members, and drug addicts in the Bronx. Though she was raised as a German Lutheran, she learned in 2009 that her father was actually a German Jew. Afraid of further persecution, he raised his children Christian, and the family did not find out their true heritage until decades later. Heidi wrote a book about the discovery and her new questions about her identity entitled, "Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith. " It is her second book after "Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, " a memoir. In ending his story, Hans sweetly proclaimed, "She's the matriarch of the family, "