Nature and urbanization have often not worked well together and yet, many profess otherwise, believing in the therapeutic, restorative effects that a bit of greenery can have.
Situated underneath an elevated train track amidst the incessant whistling, rattling and shaking of whirring locomotives and the chatter and horns of the bustling streets, I discovered the Urban Garden Center. It is a whimsical, unassuming little contradiction, bringing the wild beauty of nature and an equally wild urban world to one place.
Walking through the outdoor paths of the Urban Garden Center, I found a charming refuge from the city, filled with intertwined branches, trees, and string gardens (clumps of moss cradled in strings with plants growing from them). Farther through the aisles, was a semi-covered section that resembled a greenhouse, as well as cactus gardens, orchids, barrels of bulbs, and hanging plants. (The greenhouse is not truly indoors I realized – there is just a frame of a roof, but Dimitri Gatanas, one of the owners, suggested that "It makes it feel like people are walking indoors."
The Urban Garden Center is owned and operated by the Gatanas family. They have lived in the city since the 1940s. I have had the pleasure of meeting several members of the family when stopping by, learning pieces of their history from both mother Aspasia and her sons. Dimitri told me that the Urban Garden Center has been around almost as long as his family - since the 1960s - though it has gone through a few iterations. They originally opened on 89th Street, and then moved to 86th, and later to 102nd. In 2010, the sons discovered an empty lot underneath the train track, running from 116th to 117th Street, and converted it into its present day green oasis. Aspasia told me that when her boys came to her to say that they had found the perfect space to move their long-established family garden center, she thought they were insane. "It had no electricity, no running water, no bathroom and I was supposed to smile and say, 'great.'" She then went on to say, "When you're around this long people take notice, no matter where you go."
And, while sharing the family's collection of New York stories and photographs, Dimitri was quick to point out an old photo of his grandmother, Calliope Gravanis, standing on a rooftop in Harlem. He was proud to elaborate on his mom's comment, “Our family has gotten to know the neighborhood really well over all of these years.”
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during my 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 had 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, Japanese crepes are traditionally served in a cone. They are 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.
Bright colors abound inside the semi-covered market on West 116th Street - and it has been this way since 1994 when vendors gathered under one roof to sell their African wares. From traditional fabrics, and handmade clothing, to jewelry, accessories, and wood carvings, to native instruments, the collection at Malcolm Shabazz represents numerous countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Kenya. I found the experience to be exhilarating as I strolled through the stalls carrying on conversations with the vendors. There is a true camaraderie amongst them that is palpable.