At times, living in Manhattan can become a bit chaotic – and it is at this moment when Muji feels like a breath of fresh air. So different from our busy and cluttered apartments, Muji is the epitome of minimalist class. There is no rhyme or reason to what items are carried and yet while there are a million trinkets to browse through, the atmosphere remains effortlessly crisp and clean. Everything is made in neutral colors and simple materials, and labeled with clear descriptions. After wandering around, I suddenly had the urge to go home and clean everything out of my closet and start fresh. The store has a calming and almost meditative effect on people. The vast variety of items includes furniture, clothing, home goods – and yet everything feels unified. Some of the hidden treasures can be found within the office supplies – pens that glide beautifully across the page and notebooks that rival moleskin for utility and sophistication, but at a fraction of the price. Even the clothes are in soft, soothing colors, but made from fine fabrics and sold at very reasonable prices. Step inside to escape the bustle of the city, and do not be surprised if you leave with a new toothbrush or a pair of slippers.
I have discovered many fascinating places while walking on the side streets of Manhattan. I am sorry to say that I did not look up to see Belly Dance America when I initially walked on West 37th Street. It was not until a few years later that I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Hanna and Jehan, the wonderful couple behind the place that has been hailed as the center for all belly dance needs. As it is the first and only store of its kind in New York City, located on the second floor, it has definitely cornered the market. For anyone passionate about the art of belly dance, or for those who are only getting started, there is just about anything that one could want in this shop. It is more than just a belly dance store. Belly Dance America is a love letter to the passion and culture of the Middle East, paying homage to the richness of history and music that so often gets overlooked these days. As I walked into their shop, I was greeted by the sound of a breeze sneaking its way through an open window to rustle the costumes within, announcing its entrance with the soft jingling of the coins on the bottoms of the skirts. Every costume is made with a unique attention to detail. Some are imported and some are made right there in the shop, designed and assembled by Jehan’s husband and co-owner, Hanna. The costumes that are imported are made especially with the diverseness of the human body in mind, made by designers who know how to fit it perfectly. Even still, Jehan and Hanna take an honest approach to the sale of each item. “If something doesn’t look good, I’m going to tell you, ” said Hanna, “It’s not about making a sale. I’d rather have a loyal customer who comes back and is always happy. ”I found there to be a strong sense of community among the dancers and instructors. Everyone is welcome, whether they are a professional dancer or a hobbyist who is just starting out. It is never about competition, just the mutual enjoyment of a beautiful art. “The good thing about belly dance is that it welcomes all sizes, all body types, and all ages. ” In the studio, I watched a group of dancers go through a routine as the instructor, Layla, led. While standing there, I listened to the coins jingling in time with the music and the sound of beads swinging side to side. The ghazal of the singer’s voice wailed from the stereo system in the corner of the studio and the dancers looked very much at peace, some of them smiling, some staring at themselves in the mirror, all feeling the passion and richness of the music down to their very core. Returning to the shop, down the hallway, where Hanna and Jehan were, I commented on what an incredible experience it was for me to witness these women dancing. They smiled and responded, “It makes people happy, ” “the music, the colors, the dance. ”
Nora’s story begins in the same way as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs: she encountered a problem and decided to fix it herself, instead of waiting for someone else. Nora worked on Wall Street for nearly six years, during which time she discovered how uncomfortable and unflattering women’s business-wear could be. She decided to leave Morgan Stanley and develop the skills needed to manufacture functional, appropriate business attire for women. Fortunately, she already had a lot of the training needed to make her dreams a reality. Though Nora had majored in economics at Georgetown, she had minored in Studio Art. “I love drawing, ” she said simply, and added that she has always been able to sketch. She had a very clear idea of what she wanted in her clothes, so she took some draping and sewing classes in Williamsburg, attended fabric seminars, and visited factories in the garment district. In addition to this hands-on education, Nora went to bookstores to find literature on garment-building and “learned everything under the sun. ” When I asked her if she ever considered simply hiring a secondary designer, she explained that she considered it very important that the primary designer understand the business lifestyle, and that that quality was more important than being highly skilled in fashion. Therefore, this determined young woman learned enough in an effort to do it all. Nora spent the first year or so perfecting the stitches and the design. “The first season was very different from what we are now, ” she explained. She began working with five or so factories and got her website off the ground. She believed it was very important, however, to have a physical presence in order to introduce the brand in person, so Nora started traveling the east coast, setting up pop-ups. Through these “little bursts all over the place, ” she was able to gain followers, including some notable TV personalities and news anchors. After residing inside a community space on West 38th Street for a short while, Nora is excited to now have her own boutique. Women can take a break from their day by stopping in during the afternoon for a cocktail and browse through Nora's creative clothing line. "I now have a women's workwear oasis. "I asked Nora about the other businesses cropping up throughout the city that are similarly trying to solve the dilemma of business clothes for women. I learned that she does not consider them competition. “We support each other – we are all trying to do something that is really hard. ” Just like with lifestyle clothing brands, women will either choose the company that best fits their style or buy bits and pieces from each label. “There are so many women on this small island and in the world that need work clothes, " Nora said, judiciously. Though Nora currently wears a lot of blacks, since she is constantly running through the streets of New York to the Garment District, she is proud of the vibrant colors in her collection. “During my hard, routine days at Morgan Stanley, wearing colors made me really happy, ” Nora admitted. “Color can do a lot for your mood. ” Another source of pride is the fact that everything is made in New York. Above all, however, Nora is very happy to say that, so far, she has proved herself “resilient to all obstacles to creating a business. ”
After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Neon lights, on the back wall, greeted us as we entered Trademark Grind, the “boutique coffee bar” serving Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters from Brooklyn. In this quaint space, we were treated to excellent cups of hot chocolate, perfect on this winter day. A few minutes later, the PR manager, Matt, greeted us and invited the Manhattan Sideways team to follow him through a small entryway where we discovered Trademark Taste, a cozy, dimly lit restaurant... a safe little hideaway in the middle of bustling Midtown Manhattan. Opened in the spring of 2016, by In Good Company Hospitality, Trademark Taste & Grind serves a mixed clientele, from guests at the attached hotel and the pre-show crowd from Madison Square Garden to those looking for a unique weekend bar scene. The menu is impeccably curated by culinary director, Jeff Haskell, to featured favorites like Burrata and Knots and Tuna Poke. However, with its dark, mellow colors, graffiti motifs and hints of industrial flair, Trademark is all about the space. The walls are white and black with accents of red. Intimate hidden booths circle a large center bar, the anchor of the room. As soon as I took a look around, I wanted to settle into one of these booths for the evening. When I repeated this to Matt, he replied, “People tend to not want to leave. ”
Built originally in the mid-1800s, Sniffen Court encompasses a small alleyway running between two quaint rows of brick buildings. With vegetation lending further tranquility to the scene, a wrought-iron gate protects it from the public. The buildings, which were once stables, have now been repurposed into commercial, residential and artistic spaces. Next door, the historic and private Amateur Comedy Club hosts shows performed by, and for, members. Sniffen Court now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.