When I visited the Center for Family Music, the home of East Side West Side Music Together, a class was just getting started. Danny, one of the program’s talented instructors, was leading a room full of toddlers and adults in a welcome song. Everyone sang “Hello everybody, so glad to see you,” before specifically greeting all the “mamas,” “nannies,” “grandpas,” and then each child by name. The entire group was welcomed and included in each part of the class, from the funny little noises made with mouths and hands between songs to the tunes themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Danny's accompaniment on his autoharp as the class sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Children were allowed to wander around and dance instead of being forced to sit still, but most of them sat with their eyes riveted on Danny or their parents, slowly catching on with claps and sounds.
Fleur, the Center Manager, took me into the office, which will soon be partly turned into a space for birthday parties, in order to tell me more about what I had seen. Music Together is a worldwide music program for newborns through the age of five. It began in 1985 and is now taught in over forty countries. Fleur excitedly told me that the first Music Together had just opened in Sydney, Australia, thanks to a family that Fleur taught in New York: the mother loved the program so much that she became certified as a teacher and started a group when her family relocated.
Music Together works by having the adults who take the class with the children model certain musical behaviors that the kids eventually copy. Semesters are long – ten to twelve weeks – in order to let the young students fully absorb the material. The program works through different “collections” named for instruments (I witnessed a class in the “Fiddle”). There are so many collections, Fleur told me, that a family can be in the program for three years before they get back to the original one. Even better, the Music Togethers around the world are always on the same collection, so if a family moves away, they can find stability in a new Music Together class, picking up right where they left off.
The caretakers who accompany the toddlers make up a varied demographic (as the song said, from nannies to grandparents!) and during weekend classes, Fleur explained, entire extended families sometimes show up to participate. Often in New York, it is a nanny who introduces Music Together to their families. Fleur went on to tell me that she once had a nanny say to her, “I’ve been doing Music Together for 23 years!” She told me stories of how, in some cases, it is not just the kids who end up learning: For example, one father could not keep a beat, but had managed to teach himself to keep time with the others by the end of a Music Together semester. As Fleur pointed out, the classes are not about being good at music; they are about appreciating music, singing out, and introducing music into a child’s life. For that reason, tone-deaf parents who still sing their hearts out are some of her favorite people.
The goal of Music Together, Fleur informed me, is to give kids “Basic Musical Competence” by the time they start school. This means being able to sing a song, keep a beat, and change the key of that song. Instructors never play an instrument more than three times in a class because, as Fleur pointed out, “You are the music maker.” Music is known to activate more parts of the brain than any other activity, and so Music Together is not only giving kids the gift of music, but also preparing their minds for further learning. One thing Fleur emphasized about the program is that it is research-based and educationally-minded. She reminded me of the funny lip trills that I saw the kids doing. She demonstrated how a simple motion like that can activate the lips and tighten the diaphragm while still keeping it fun and silly for the children. This combination of learning and fun is why, in Fleur’s words, the program has “stood the test of time.”
The staff comes from a variety of backgrounds, but they appear to share two core elements: a love of music and a dedication to teaching. Danny has been teaching for almost twenty years, but has been performing professionally since he was seven years old. Fleur moved to New York City after going to school for acting. Music Together was brought to her attention while she was working as a babysitter, and she immediately decided to get certified. “I didn’t want to wait tables, I wanted to do this!” she said, adding, “Once you’re in, you sort of drink the Kool-aid: You get hugs for a living! You’re around happy people for a living!”
I spoke with Deanna, the director, who started West Side Music Together in 1993 before uniting it with East Side Music Together in 2005. She was first introduced to Music Together as a mother. In 1992, when her oldest child was a baby, the mom’s group that she hung out with in the park suggested she take a class. She told me, “As a mom it made a lot of sense, and as a musician it felt really grounded.” She added, “It was about all of us – not just about a teacher entertaining my kid.” Deanna is a performer, but she took time off from auditioning when she became a mom. She thought Music Together was the perfect way to “keep [her] sense of herself” while taking a break from the theater world. She inquired about training and after getting certified, she decided to offer Music Together on the Upper West Side, where there was no outpost. She opened a little place on Riverside Drive with seven families and has since grown, thanks almost entirely to word of mouth, serving close to 50,000 families since 1993. In the late nineties, Deanna partnered with her acting friend, Sally Woodson, who helped her to rent a space in her apartment building. Sally has sadly since passed away, but the space that she found is now the Center for Family Music.
Deanna says that she feels especially happy to be offering this opportunity in today’s electronics-driven society. She pointed out that since kids and parents are always “Nose to nose with their electronic devices,” it is easy to get disconnected from one’s own children. Music Together allows families to have “real quality time with their children in a musical setting.” Deanna is also pleased that her own chapter of Music Together has spawned new centers around the country, an obvious sign that she is doing something right. She says that she encourages any curious family to come see what a class is like, because being able to have the musical experience is the best way to see what Music Together is all about. Deanna continues to thrive on her school, even (or especially) after over twenty years. “What more could you ask for from a career than to say you love what you do?”
J.D. Merget, the owner of Oslo Coffee Roasters, a company that began in Williamsburg in 2003, noticed a dearth of independent coffee shops on the Upper East Side and decided to fix the problem. Fortunately, J.D. had a friend who owned a garden store that he was looking to sell. Thus, Oslo Coffee Roasters moved into the cozy space in 2011 in order to provide high quality coffee to the neighborhood.After speaking with J.D., it became clear that he knows a lot about coffee. Originally from Seattle, he had his first introduction into the world of coffee at the age of twenty-one, while working for Starbucks. He explained that the company “got [him] very excited about coffee” and that it fueled his need to find out more about the product and introduce people to better brews. He has been in the coffee business ever since, working for different companies from Seattle to Dallas to New York. It was his wife, Kathy, whom he met while working in New York, who encouraged him to venture out on his own, saying, “You know so much about coffee – you’ve got to open your own store.” And so he did.The name comes from the fact that Kathy's family is from Norway, where they are still known for drinking more coffee per capita than most other countries in the world. J.D. wanted to steer his customers away from the idea that Italian coffee is the only good coffee and highlighting the Northern European coffee tradition seemed to be the best way to do that. They do not specifically feature Scandinavian coffee, preferring to focus on farmers who use sustainable and fair practices, rather than a specific geographic location. The result is a high quality coffee that can be sipped guilt-free.When I asked if there were plans for more locations, JD says he is happy where he is and that he prefers to focus on connecting with customers and selling a better quality product, rather than expanding. He loves the Upper East Side and is so happy to have been embraced by the neighborhood. “The support from the community is outstanding.” He is very proud of his staff, and is glad that they have received love and recognition from a community that has been waiting for an independent coffee shop. “You become a rockstar,” he said, telling a story of how he was recognized by customers as far south as China Town. His general manager, Liz Pasqualo, echoed his sentiments. She even added that some people double-park in order to get their coffee. For many of the children that live in the area, they are often on autopilot as they enter Oslo, assuming that their parents will follow for one of their frequent visits. Liz told me, “I am really proud of the sense of community,” and how comfortable the place has become. “Strangers sit down and chat together about current events." I was able to witness this sense of camaraderie when a gentleman named Hugh Fremantle, who has been coming to Oslo for the last four years, sat next to Liz while sipping on his coffee to ask how she was doing. “I’m being interviewed!” she said gleefully. Hugh turned his attention to me and said with a big smile, “In that case, you are talking to a very happy customer.”
After visiting many century-old synagogues, it was a refreshing change of pace to tour the modern facilities of Temple Israel of the City of New York. Sun shone through the colorful stained glass throughout the 1960s building and a winding spiral staircase occupied the front hall.The Manhattan Sideways team and I were met by Michele Amaro, the Communications Manager, who took the time to guide us through the eight floors. She led us into the sanctuary, which, as she explained, has “that mod curvy look like the Metropolitan Opera.” The space is enormous, seating 330 people on the first floor and 500 more in the balcony.The congregation was started in Harlem in 1870 and has since been providing a place of worship for many. Today, on East 75th, it is Rabbi David Gelfand - who joined in 2006 - who continues to keep the traditions alive. According to Michelle, it is he who has helped to revitalize the Temple. Cantor Irena Altshul, Rabbi Melissa Buyer, and Rabbi Jim Stoloff round out the clergy team. Michele mentioned some of the more modern programs that Temple Israel offers, including a “Rockin’ Shabbat” (an interactive worship using modern methodologies and technologies) with Sheldon Low, artist-in-residence, , and a Lunch & Learn talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist and clergy.on Fridays, which uses multimedia screens in worship, and a talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist. “This is an extremely, extremely active synagogue. We have things going on all the time.”Michele continued showing us around, taking us by multiple display cases full of Judaica, including an exquisite menorah donated by Herbert G. Lane, who was one of the chairman of the board of directors for the temple. We also passed multiple pieces of art, photos of smiling congregants, and teaching tools. On one wall, there is a Visual Torah with cartoon-like drawings so that children can better understand the stories. Michele emphasized that education is deeply important to the Temple before taking us to see the religious school, run by Rabbi Melissa Buyer. I was most impressed by the amount of space dedicated to teaching children, including a lounge for the older ones, and “Mitzvah Gardens” where students can plant food that will later be donated to those in need. The preschool rooms, which are color coded, also sport two terraces with playgrounds. We were impressed by their use of the latest technology complete with Macs and smart boards. Though the school plays a significant role in preparing children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Michele stressed that the school is K-12 and covers every stage of religious instruction, creating a foundation of lifelong Jewish learning.Located underneath the sanctuary, we were amazed by the ballroom, an enormous space, that is in continuous use for various celebrations, including Hanukkah concerts, and Passover seders. When we visited, we observed an early childhood program, headed by director Lisa Samick. The space was filled with toys, and very young children were being rocked to sleep by mothers and nannies in an adjoining room. When I commented to Michele that there was no doubt this is a warm and welcoming community, she beamed, and let me know how proud she was to be a part of Temple Israel.
When we were walking by the firehouse of the Fighting Forty Four, founded in 1881, we were thrilled to find the door wide open. Children on their way home from school were gaping wide-mouthed at the fire engines while smiling firefighters looked on. We joined the ogling children and met the men, Wayne, Kenny, and Bobby, who showed us around the house and spoke about the history of the New York Fire Fighters. Over the course of our conversation, an occasional call would come in to the men. Not knowing what it meant, I asked, “Do you need to run?” “Oh no,” Wayne replied, “We don’t need to run. If we’re running, it means you should be running, too.”One of my first questions was about the number “44.” I learned that it is essentially arbitrary. It refers to when the squad was formed, long before the Brooklyn and Metropolitan fire departments merged. 44, however, is a designated specialty unit, meaning that only men who have a certain level of experience are assigned. This is because they are a Hazmat division. The men showed us the Hazmat truck, which has a big sticker that says “Zombie Outbreak Response Team.” It matches a sticker on the main truck that imitates the “Ebola Emergency Outbreak Response Team” symbol, only with zombies. Smiling they said that little children often ask, “Is that for real? Do you really fight zombies?”Although full of good humor, the men became somber when I commented on a memorial for Michael Lyons, a firefighter who was killed while responding during 9/11. Wayne and Bobby began sharing stories about several of their friends who were present at the World Trade Center that day. One survived by diving under a truck, while The 9th Battalion lost all of its men. Many of the firefighters from 6 Truck in Chinatown also responded that day, but not everyone came back. Men who turned one way coming down the stairs lived, and the men who turned the other way did not. As Bobby said, “If they had yin-ed when they had yang-ed, they would've have made it.”We continued our tour of the house: There is the old hose tower, painted red, as well as the cubbies where the men keep their uniform. I was like a child, gazing at the two traditional firemen’s poles stretching to the upper floor. When I asked if they still slide down them, the answer was a definitive "yes." I appreciated the fact that they had photos of men who have retired. I never realized that even though there are about thirty men assigned to 44, they are frequently traded around to different houses. As a rule, this firehouse usually has six men present at any given time, and never fewer than five. Another interesting fact that I never stopped to think about, of which Bobby informed us as he showed us a map, is that on the East Side, there is a firehouse right by every subway stop.Irish history is still deeply woven into the culture of the fire department. I noticed that along with the Leprechaun in the logo for the “Fighting Forty Four,” there were many other references to Irish heritage scattered around the firehouse, including little Irish flags on the fire engine. Historically, there is a huge Irish connection to many service jobs in the city, including police work. As Bobby explained, “No one else would take the shit jobs. So they’d send in the Irish.” There are no longer any Irish accents in this firehouse - as Wayne stated, “We’re all Bronx guys.” Coming from uptown, the men told us that they respect the fact that they can keep their firehouse open and wave to smiling children of the Upper East Side. As if to demonstrate this, Wayne’s daughter ran into the firehouse and skipped upstairs to do her homework before heading to a hockey game with her dad. “It’s a good neighborhood,” Wayne continued, “So we can keep the door open.”