While traffic is streaming in and out from the Lincoln Tunnel and the Port Authority, a striking structure emerges on the west side of 41st between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. This imposing Roman Catholic church serves as New York's Croatian-American parish. It was built in 1902 to serve the Irish Catholics of Hell's Kitchen, and 1974 saw a merging of nearby parishes to create the current configuration. In this sparser side of the city, the church emerges as a breathtaking find, casting quite the shadow with its powerful twin spires and gray stone. It is a beauty to behold and an ideal way to end my walk.
In 1984, the Metro Baptist Church of Manhattan settled into a building on West 40th Street that had previously been St. Clemens Polish-Catholic Church and a drug rehabilitation center. At the time of purchase, the church pastor prayed, “Lord, don’t give us this building if we can’t put it to use for people who need it 24/7.” That call has been answered in many ways. “There is always so much going on,” explained Rev. Tiffany Triplett, pastor of the church and executive director to Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, “but it is exactly the way we want it to be.”Stained glass windows and ceiling murals, both relics of the Polish-Catholic church, adorn the airy multiuse sanctuary. Without pews, this place of worship doubles as a space for the arts. Housed in what used to be the balcony, the educational space serves as a classroom and after school library. “We are blurring the lines between sacred and secular,” Tiffany clarified, “Dance is sacred, and tutoring is sacred.”The downstairs space is equally multi-functional. During the summer of 2015, it served as a cafeteria to the children of the day camp as well as a food pantry and clothing storage area for items to be divvied out during the harsh months of the winter. These efforts are largely aided by Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, a nonprofit founded by the church in 1995 and named after the “father of social gospel,” a radical during his time who preached that the physical being should be emphasized alongside the spiritual being.And, up a long, steep staircase is one of the most innovative structures the church has to offer. Standing in the middle of the fairly flat roof, I was surrounded by fifty-two space-efficient, plant-filled kiddy pools, as well as several bags hanging on the rails with more vegetation. To my left was the bustling rumble of the Port Authority, presenting a dichotomy of progress that opened my eyes to the capabilities of urban agricultures: even in one of the most urban areas of Manhattan, rural growth could exist.The rooftop garden is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also practical, with vegetation like bush beans, rhubarb, tomatoes, and apples that are maintained by volunteers and distributed to those in need. Starting with only about sixty hands on deck in 2011, this previously unutilized rooftop has garnered a consistent supply of hundreds of working hands, and now also serves as an educational tool for the followers and children of the church, and the surrounding community.It does not stop there. “While we are proud of the amount we grow,” Tiffany informed me, “we are more importantly showing how people can grow a lot of food inexpensively. We want to be invited into the conversation on food security and food justice.” Considering how many vacant roofs exist in Manhattan, I understand how impactful this larger message can be.
Manuel Uzhca's story reads like a fairytale. He came to New York from Ecuador when he was seventeen with absolutely nothing to his name and spent time as a dishwasher in a number of restaurants. He met Jean-Claude Baker when both were working at Pronto, an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. In 2011, Jean-Claude offered Manuel the position of manager at Chez Josephine — little did Manuel know that only four years later, the restaurant would belong to him. Manuel still recalls the day that Jean-Claude asked him to bring in his passport. Confused by his request, Manuel chose not to comply. Jean-Claude teased Manuel by saying, “If you don't bring your passport, that means you don't want my restaurant.” The next day, still perplexed, Manuel presented his passport. Jean-Claude marched the two of them to the bank and added Manuel's name to his account, giving him permission to sign checks for the restaurant. Shortly after, Jean-Claude announced that he was retiring, but Manuel did not take him seriously. Jean-Claude then told him that he was leaving and insisted, “I won't be back.” Jean-Claude proceeded to his attorney's office, changed his will, and went off to the Hamptons. He called Manuel to make sure that everything was in order at the restaurant, and then, very sadly, Jean-Claude took his own life. “I did not believe I owned the place, not even when they showed me the will,” Manuel declared.Jean-Claude was the last of the children adopted into singer-dancer Josephine Baker’s “Rainbow Tribe,” created with a mission of racial harmony. He lived and performed with her for a time before making his way to New York and eventually opening this restaurant. It quickly became a haven for Broadway clientele, known for its charming and colorful ambiance as much as its haute cuisine.Since taking over in 2015, Manuel has continued running this famed French restaurant exactly how Jean-Claude left it — paying homage to Josephine Baker, who captured the Parisian imagination in the 1920s and did not let go for decades.
Opened on May 23, 1911 on the site of a former reservoir, this main branch of the New York Public Library is a true wonder of the city. Upon its completion, it was the largest marble structure in the United States, and the classical design elements ensure that it remains as breathtaking now as it was then. In 1965, it became a National Historic Landmark. The Main Reading Room is an enormous hall, with murals and intricate relief work lording overhead and large, open windows allowing for bright sunlight to pour across the books being huddled over. Small exhibitions to art and cultural histories pepper the halls. The entire structure is truly a pleasure to explore, one of the grandest and most wonderful buildings in the entire city, and we spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the halls in a book-drunk daze trying to absorb it all.
As part of the restoration of Grand Central Terminal in the late '90s, Pershing Square Cafe opened under the Park Avenue viaduct. The fare is American and straightforward, with burgers and chicken pot pies, steaks and fish. The pancakes, served all day, are a big crowd pleaser. Up front, commuters sipping coffee, reading, and chatting while awaiting the next train, inhabit a more cafe-esque area. When speaking with the manager one day, he was proud to tell me that both Friends with Benefits and the Avengers were filmed at Pershing.