Founded in 1990 by a group of Dominican immigrants, the Mirabal Sisters Center devotes itself to living up to the legacy of its namesake by fighting against injustice. The Mirabal Sisters, three Dominican heroines who protested Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship and were martyred for their cause, serve as a central inspiration as the organization works to serve its community, people of color and working class families in particular. The Center has led a series of initiatives over the years, such as youth programs that educate adolescents on substance abuse, a partnership with public schools to arrange for more after-school activities, and a cultural program with a focus on arts and crafts. In 2017, the organization has focused most of its efforts on a collaboration with the Urban Justice Center and tenant associations in order to support the rights of tenants. Pio Tejada, brother to Luis Tejada, the head the organization, explained to us that the increasing gentrification of the city - and Harlem especially - has resulted in numerous conflicts between landlords and tenants. “Landlords are trying to drive off and profit from tenants, ” he said, citing examples of escalating rent prices in non-rent-controlled buildings and even sabotage to the facilities to force residents to pay additional maintenance fees. To help right the injustices being wrought against tenants, the Center holds open consulting hours every Tuesday and Thursday, during which anyone from the five boroughs are welcome to bring up their concerns and grievances. In return, the Center offers advice and connections to legal counsel or similar organizations that can aid tenants in the fight for fair treatment. The Center is Luis’ passion project, almost entirely self-funded, since it is a relatively small organization that has difficulty garnering significant support. “Work like this can only be done from the heart, ” Pio insisted with pride, sharing how his brother, once a high school teacher and university professor, left academia to start the Center out of a genuine desire to help others. Much of their work involves educating the community on their rights as renters, since a common issue that Luis and Pio face is people’s lack of trust in the system. Many are resigned to mistreatment and do not believe that their circumstances can change for the better, so it is the Center’s job to encourage people to speak up.
As I reached the end of 140th Street, I was intrigued by an imposing structure designed to resemble a castle on the corner of Riverside Drive. Further investigation revealed that the building, aptly known as “the Castle, ” was opened by the Fortune Society in 2002 as a housing unit for those with a history of incarceration who are in need of a place to reside. The adjacent building, Castle Gardens, opened in 2010 as an expanded version of the original program that allowed for long-term rather than just temporary housing. The residence is designed to facilitate the tenants’ transition into society after their incarceration and reduce the number of repeat offenders. Residents are assessed on an individual basis to determine the best course of action for them, including their projected length of stay and what programs they might need the most in order to readjust smoothly. To this end, the Fortune Society offers services in education, counseling, and career planning. Just as importantly, the shared housing creates a community that helps combat the feelings of isolation that commonly afflict the formerly incarcerated. Since opening its doors, the Castle has housed and helped nearly 1, 000 people. Yet this is only one of several efforts the Fortune Society is involved in that aim to correct the injustices of what can be an excessively harsh penal system. The Society has a series of programs that improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated, such as readily available mental health services, treatment for substance abuse, a nutrition program that encompasses both free meals and cooking lessons, and even opportunities in the arts. In addition to this, it tries to attack the root of the issue through its Alternatives to Incarceration programs, which seek to reduce the potential for reoffending by providing adequate mental healthcare and various other support services.
When the Manhattan Sideways team entered Mia’s Bathhouse during the summer of 2017, we were greeted by the enthusiastic barking of Bella, the five-month-old German Shepherd mix who was watching over the shop alongside her owner, Melody, the manager of Mia’s. She very kindly offered to chat with us about the business while Bella acted as a model for our photographer. LaChena, who also owns the adjacent laundromat, Sudsy Water, opened Mia’s Bathhouse in November 2014. Not only does Mia's offer full service grooming, but also the unique service of self-washing. In fact, Melody told us that they are the only groomers in Harlem with self-serve dog washing available. This has made Mia's a popular option in the neighborhood, since, as Melody pointed out, “It beats doing it in a bathtub at home. ” For those who prefer to leave the pampering to the attendants, the store also has chairs available so “our pet parents can sit and watch their baby get groomed. ”Mia’s also does its best to give back to their community. “We love rescues here, ” Melody exclaimed, adding that there is a ten percent discount on services and merchandise for all rescue dogs. There are also “breed months, ” where certain dogs are selected each month to receive discounted services.
From the outside, there might not seem to be anything particularly remarkable about Joe Eady’s Fashion City. However, when the Manhattan Sideways team ventured inside during the summer of 2017, we met the person who makes the store special: Joe, a warm, wonderful man who told us that he has been on 145th Street for over fifty years. A born and bred Harlemite, Joe was exposed to tailoring at a young age by his mother. Despite not being a seamstress, she was thrifty and knew her way around a sewing machine, and she enlisted Joe as an assistant in operating the foot pedal. After this early introduction to the field, Joe went on to attend Central-Needle Trades High School, where he graduated at the top of his class in men’s tailoring in 1953. His achievement is made even more impressive by the fact that he was the first high school graduate in his family. “College was never an option in my family, ” he went on to say, which is why he sought a job right out of school. Laughing, he told us that he wound up in the Garment District “doing anything but men’s tailoring, ” which prompted him to try for higher education. Joe enrolled in the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he completed his teacher training in 1958. But before he could make use of his degree, Joe was drafted into the army and did two years of service. When he eventually returned to New York in December of 1960, he said teaching jobs were scarce and he had to pick up odd jobs. “The landlord doesn’t ask you where you got the money from; you have to do whatever it takes to pay the rent, ” he remarked. It was not until 1964 that Joe was able to open a tailoring shop on 145th street. We were fascinated to learn that when he started out, many of his clients were local hustlers who needed custom suits. Custom tailoring, and trousers in particular, was his main enterprise. As a result, the rise in popularity of blue jeans in the ‘70s put a substantial dent in his business. Joe was undeterred, however. “I’ve been thinking outside the box all my life, ” he declared - a mindset that spurred him to add leather and fur to his offered services. Fur refurbishing and restyling was especially in demand at the time, since it was impractical for the average consumer to purchase new or real fur frequently. Joe added, “People are fine with wearing old fashions as long as I can bring them back to life. ” Nowadays, the popularity of fur is dying down due to the efforts of organizations like PETA, but Joe is confident in his ability to keep evolving, simply saying, “I’m an optimistic person. You have to be optimistic in business. ” This philosophy has obviously paid off, as he continues to thrive so many decades later. He has served three generations of customers and has weathered the many historical events that have struck Harlem, including the riots and a slew of break-ins that took place following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Joe insisted that the only secret to his longevity is his devotion to customer service. “This is my neighborhood; you have to have a good reputation. ”As for his plans for the future, he revealed that he eventually hopes to combine his knowledge of teaching and tailoring by opening a training school to instruct others in the basics of his craft. “I’ve got all kinds of crazy plans, ” he finished, cheerfully.