La Marqueta, a retail and food market located underneath an elevated train track, is a vibrant space where people come to not only shop, but to sit and share their stories with one another. On the occasions that I have visited, I have witnessed the strong community felt by so many of the people spending time inside. This is, without a doubt, a venue that combines the arts, food and people in a beautiful way. Historically, La Marqueta has been a cultural staple of the Latino community of East Harlem. When it first was opened in 1936, it was a bustling economic and social center of the neighborhood. Later, it began to decline. Now, after recent efforts to revitalize the market, it houses a variety of specialty vendors and artists and regularly hosts community cultural events. When I entered, I was greeted by the smell of rising dough wafting through from Hot Bread Kitchen toward the back of the market. In addition to baking their own breads, HBK is a non-profit organization that invites startup food companies to use their kitchen facilities. On either side of the narrow walkways of the market, artists and vendors stood in their stalls, chatting, laughing, and working. As I strolled through, a stall filled with handmade dolls, jewelry, books and other curios caught my eye. This is where I met Mercedes. She told me that she was a single working mother of three when she began making her dolls. They were an instant hit and after she had created three for her own children, "suddenly everyone wanted one. " After a while, however, the work became overwhelming as every tiny face was hand stitched - but genius struck, as it tends to do. “My muse came to me again, ” recalled Mercedes, and she began to paint the faces instead. Today, people stop in to purchase her dolls for their children and grandchildren, as collectors’ items, and even for spiritual purposes. For this, Mercedes explained, she attaches a special panel of fabric at the top of the head through which people can put charms or talismans. Her stall at La Marqueta has now expanded to other items. Mercedes makes “piece dolls” from the leftover scraps of her bigger dolls, pins and magnets with two-dimensional images of her dolls. When a loyal customer told her “I want one for my baby’s hair, ” Mercedes began to make wearable dolls on pins and barrettes. Mercedes takes a great deal of pride in her craft, but similar to the other members of the community at La Marqueta, she is also very supportive of her fellow artists and vendors. On the back wall of her stall is a shelf she calls the “Artisan’s Bodega Exchange” where she showcases the work of her neighbors - from jewelry to books and much more. According to Mercedes, there is a tremendous sense of camaraderie at La Marqueta, and she feels that the community is in many ways a kind of family.
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during a walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events. The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I'd had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures — including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams — to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone. The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother. This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles — and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
Crepe Master opened in November 2017. After a trip to Japan, owner Fumi wanted to bring the uniqueness of the country's crepes to Harlem. Unlike French crepes, the Japanese version is traditionally served in a cone — and a classic street food dish in populous cities throughout the country. Top recommendations include Chocobana, a sweet crepe comprised of banana, crushed chocolates, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, custard cream and almonds, the Suzette, a simple butter, sugar, lemon crepe, or any savory crepe with tofu.
Sojourner Coffee, located on W 116th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr and Frederick Douglass Boulevards in Harlem, is more than just a place to grab a fresh brew; it's a tale of a community coming together and a couple turning dreams into reality. When the previous coffee shop, Shuteye, closed its doors in September 2020, the neighborhood lost a cherished gathering spot. Locals Madison Ritter and James Miller live at 112th St and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and were regulars at Shuteye. Madison, a bartender, and James, a barista since 2008, felt the loss and saw an opportunity where others saw an end. The couple decided to use their savings — initially intended for an apartment — to invest in the community they loved and bring the coffee shop back to life. It wasn't just a business opportunity for them, but a way to fill a void that had been left by the pandemic. "It's been great. We love the neighborhood, we love our community. We have really wonderful regulars. One of 'em over there, Kendall's, one of our favorites, " Madison laughed with one of her mainstay customers. The team have got involved with local artists. When we were at the store, they were displaying the work of Emo Kiddo — and plan to continue with regular exhibitions. Barista Jacob Scherer said: "We've all got a bit of art in our background, so we feel it's important to use the space to contribute to that a little. "And what about the name? "A sojourner is a person who’s on a path, and they're taking a break on their journey, " said Madison.