The historic building that houses the 125th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, a Harlem staple since its opening in 1904, was in the process of an extensive renovation when the Manhattan Sideways team visited in the summer of 2017. The exterior is still well preserved, and parts of the inside, such as the staircase and banister leading to the second floor, have been kept in their original state. In 2011, however, the entire second floor was transformed into a colorful children’s reading room, equipped with a computer lab, a cozy lounge area for story hour, and a set of tables that serve as the site for afternoon Homework Help sessions.
There is more yet to come. The Library’s senior clerk told us that they will be adding a “much needed room for teenagers,” an elevator, and other features that will allow the library to reach a wider audience. In 2018, the Library is expected to close to complete the remainder of the planned changes, but will reopen to the public in 2020.
A remarkable aspect of this renovation project, we learned, is the way the East Harlem community’s needs have been taken into account. The library has been distributing surveys both online and at their physical location that ask for patrons’ feedback and suggestions as to what they would like the library to offer. There have also been several community meetings to discuss ideas and effectively determine how to best serve the area.
This approach is just one aspect of the Library’s “Building for You” initiative, which is meant to introduce a community-specific focus as the library adapts and improves over time. As part of this program, the library has taken steps to match the neighborhood’s diversity by adding books in Spanish as well as English and by expanding its offerings by African American writers.
“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. )
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.
The modern, stylish setting of Capsule is the perfect backdrop for the well-curated collection of clothing and sportswear. I was fascinated to learn that the owner, Daniel Farouk, originally from Ghana, always had a passion for fashion, but actually studied aeronautics and trained to be a commercial pilot. It was only after finishing his pilot certification that he found he missed fashion, prompting him to emigrate to the States to delve into the industry. He never received any formal training - instead, what he knows he learned “on the streets and on the job. ” For a period of a few years Daniel worked at Sammy’s Fashion in the Bronx as a buyer and then became head buyer before opening his own stunning sportswear store. Stopping by in the middle of the afternoon on a warm July day, in 2017, it became immediately apparent that many are attracted to this beautiful shop. I was surprised by the number of people from every age group that were there chatting with the friendly, knowledgeable sales staff, while browsing through the well-presented racks of men's and women's clothing. I loved that not only were there jeans, jerseys, sweatshirts, athletic shorts and baseball hats, but there were also women's handbags and an adorable pile of t-shirts for little ones. Walking towards the back of the store, and up a step, a sliding door opened automatically to reveal an eye-catching display of unisex sneakers, as well as a selection of other stylish shoes and boots. When Daniel got a moment to breath, he came over to speak with the Manhattan Sideways team. He was proud to share that he had personally designed the store and its decor, focusing on a vision of brick walls and wood pallets to display his merchandise. Daniel told us that his goal in opening the store two years prior in 2015 was to “supply customers with stuff that is rare, ” and he takes care to order clothes that are exclusive and high-end. “We’re trendy, in that we try to stay ahead of the trends, ” he explained. A big advantage in accomplishing this is the fact that he works the floor and interacts with customers on a daily basis. That way, when the time comes to order new items, he can search out things that he knows will be “hot for the customers” rather than relying on general fads. Daniel chose Harlem as the ideal neighborhood to set up shop because he felt it was the “birthplace of fashion” and has a colorful past. His particular location on 125th Street has a very rich history, as it housed the famous M& G Diner, which was used as a filming location for movies like Precious and Belly and even a James Brown shoot. To respect this legendary site, Daniel has kept the diner’s sign displayed on his storefront. Despite his fondness for their current location, Daniel is hoping to open more shops around the city and in other boroughs. He was happy to say that they have “gotten a lot of love” from their customers and the neighborhood over the past two years. This is partly because Daniel is dedicated to providing an approachable shopping experience, where anyone can feel free to peruse his high-end wares without feeling any scrutiny or pressure. As a result, people who frequent the store range from Harlem locals to well known athletes and celebrities. When asked how he attracts so many high-profile clients, Daniel stated simply, "social media. " He then went on to say, “We have the hottest brands, the hottest fashions, and we’re growing daily. ”