Walking into this center supporting the survivors of some of humanity's darkest hours, I expected to be smothered by a somber mood. Not so. The folks working here assured me that the experience is positive, "The survivors are very active, going about their lives." The Gathering has the largest database in the United States and Canada of Holocaust survivors, and works tirelessly to support this group. They publish a newsletter, Together, with a readership in the tens of thousands to keep people abreast of the goings-on of survivors and their offspring. They are working to help people get restitution from Germany in exchange for what was lost during the Holocaust. Most importantly, though, the Gathering aims to keep remembrance alive in hopes of never forgetting what happened.
With all the centers we have discovered dedicated to children, pets, students, and shoppers, it was refreshing and intriguing to come upon Senior Planet – “the country’s first technology themed center for over-60s.” The center offers courses, skill-shares, workshops, special events and lecture series that help senior citizens deal with the ever-changing technological world. 22 computers, 3 Skype stations, a gaming area, a projector, mobile devices and a lounge create a space that one might think is fit for a youngster, but is, in fact, the perfect space for the senior folks. “Aging with attitude” is their motto. Computer basics, advanced computing, introduction to the iPad, digital photography, social networking and more are all taught in a welcoming environment. What a brilliant concept!
“We are pushing the boundaries of decorative arts,” Jen Lau, the Sales and Marketing Manager, told me as we rode the elevator to the Alpha Workshops’ studios and showrooms. Jen was referring to the way the decorative arts are taught at the Alpha Workshops and viewed in the world: it is a sector of the art world that is often inaccessible to the average person, a reputation that Alpha hopes to blow open. She was also referring, however, to the purpose the decorative arts have in society. “We heal through art,” she declared.The Alpha Workshops was founded in 1995 by Kenneth Wampler as a place where HIV-positive individuals could receive training and employment in the decorative arts. Kenneth, who came from a background working at the AIDS Resource Center, called his project “The Alpha Workshops,” which referenced the Omega Workshops, an English design enterprise from the early twentieth century. As Jen quipped, “They were the last word in decorative arts and we are the first word in new beginnings.” Many people get in touch with Alpha through caseworkers, flyers in pharmacies, or doctor’s offices. Today, the non-profit organization is expanding its community to include populations with other challenges, such as those living with autism, at-risk youth, and seniors, but the vision remains the same. Artists and students at Alpha Workshops are given a craft and helped to develop a plan for the future. While telling me about the series of classes that make up the Alpha Workshops school program, Jen emphasized that students are also taught how to represent themselves as artists, an important skill in a world where marketing can mean the difference between failure or success.The mission of the Alpha Workshops alone would make it an extraordinary institution, but the creations that come out of the studios offer proof of the extreme talent and creativity of the artists. “We have our own style,” Jen said, showing us the signature Negoro Nuri pattern that they use in much of their work and that dates back to seventeenth century Japan. As Jen guided us through a vast array of decorative finishes, wallpapers, and demo furnishings, displaying faux bois finishes, verre églomisé (gilded glass), faux marble (Alpha designed the faux marble in Gracie Mansion), and countless other textured patterns, I was continuously impressed with each new technique that the artists had created.Everything in the workshop is art, from the wallpaper in the hallways, to the cube seating, to the uniquely crafted lamps. Jen pointed out a gold lamp in a pattern that mimicked rock candy. She told me the story of how the executive director came into the workshop with a stick of rock candy and said to Obadiah, an artisan at Alpha in the 1990s, “Obi, can you make this into a lamp?” and so he did. The Eden Rock lamp is Obadiah's legacy, which lives on, though he is gone. Occasionally the studios will refurbish pieces, but mostly they are, in Jen’s words, “working with people who have ideas that they want to turn into reality.”Though they are mainly known for wallpapers, venetian plaster, and fine finishes, their expertise covers the whole discipline of decorative arts. I had heard from Harry Heissmann about how Alpha Workshops helped turn his friend’s illustration of a minimalist Easter Bunny into a 3D rendering, but Jen shared more stories, some of which involved adapting existing creations. For instance, the artists once made a sixteen-foot ceiling sculpture using grapevine branches: The sculpture was so popular that it then inspired another client to create a chandelier from the same material. As for how clients find the Alpha Workshops Studios, they have pieces in many showrooms around the city and have garnered a reputation for being a hub of creative, highly skilled artists. It does not hurt that the organization is also helping society on a grander scale. “More established designers know about us because of our mission,” Jen shared with a smile.Jen encourages any potential clients to come and visit the workshops, where they can see just how much the artists can do. Unlike many design centers around the city, Jen pointed out that clients “can visit the studios and classrooms right here and watch how it’s made.” The Manhattan Sideways team was excited to explore, even without having a commission in the works. We saw artists working on everything from ornate toilet lids to hand-stamped wallpapers. Steel and blush, we learned, were the colors of the season, and so we saw yards of wallpaper patterns in the soothing metallic gray and light pink. The head of the wallpaper department pointed out the more traditional patterns as well as the new ones, describing his job as “so Zen.” He explained that the mathematics of one geometric variation had been figured out on a computer before being completed by hand. “Artisanship meets technology,” he said with a smile. “This is tactilely satisfying work.”Our last stop with Jen was at street level where there is a showroom that doubles as an extra studio when there are no pop-up exhibitions. I have discovered many fascinating places as I have walked the side streets of Manhattan, but nothing that pulled at my heart strings the way that Alpha Workshops did. One person had a dream - a vision - and he was able to make it into a reality that some twenty years later continues to thrive. What was most important to me, however, is the number of lives that Kenneth Wampler has turned around, and in some cases, saved. I encourage anyone with an interest in art to discover this hidden gem, as the public is welcome to tour the facility.
Kadampa is one of the most tranquil indoor spaces that we have encountered. The Center, which is run completely by volunteers, has been housed at various locations through New York for the past twenty years, but moved into its current location in 2012. Just as the volunteers are trusted to run the center, guests are welcomed with a level of trust and openness that feels almost alien. Upon entering we were warmly greeted, and offered the option of sitting in on a free meditation session, or even of availing ourselves of private meditation rooms downstairs. Unsure what to do, we sat in on a pre-recorded meditation. Our host, Margaret, set us up with books, cushions and water. We took off our shoes and read along while the speaker rhythmically took us through the passage. The text was surprisingly smart and proscriptive; it was completely devoid of fluffy affirmations or vague mysticism. Rather Kadampa emphasizes Buddha's teachings, which at this center is done through examining the writings of venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Still the meditations do not dwell on intellectualism, as the central thrust at Kadampa is providing a place of calm in our bustling city. When we were ready to step back into Manhattan, after feeling thoroughly serene, Margaret invited us back, telling us that even if we did not have time to meditate, we were always welcome to stop by to relax.
Hailing from a family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu royalty, Renzo Gracie is not a good man with whom to make trouble. He is, however, a good man to train with, carrying several blackbelts and fight records, including bouts against past world champions. In 1995, while still an active (young) fighter, Gracie moved to New York and opened Renzo Gracie in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks north of its current location. Since then, the gym has moved south, added Muay Thai to its training acumen (as well as comprehensive MMA and boxing programs), and seen more than one world champion come to train.
Arriving from South Africa, Albertus Swanepoel attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, which led him to an apprenticeship and ultimately his own glove-making business. The appeal of gloves, however, was “incredibly limited,” as most people wear them only seasonally. So, renaissance man that he is, Albertus switched gears and slid seamlessly into the world of hats. Now he is firmly entrenched in his new niche, and has been producing haute couture headwear since the 1990s. Grounding his practice in old-fashioned millinery traditions, but using techniques from multiple fashion disciplines, he is able to approach hats creatively and expertly. This is a must for a bold garment that can fall flat if not done stylishly. “I try to make things that people wear everyday and look cool but not nostalgic,” Swanepoel explained. And New Yorkers are wearing his high-end hats across the city. Albertus has a very optimistic take on his environment: “I think that’s the great thing about Manhattan. There are so many people living here that you can almost do anything and people will want it.”
“We wanted to be that diamond in the rough,” explained Ashley, the co-owner of Blank Slate. When Ashley and Zach, spouses and co-owners, were searching for a location for their restaurant, they wanted to find a neighborhood with a large crowd but not a lot of quality spots to eat. Blank Slate is successfully that hidden gem located in NoMad, one of Manhattan’s up and coming neighborhoods. Blank Slate attracts a crowd full of young, creative professionals who are quickly changing the area.Ashley and Zach established Blank Slate, which opened in November of 2015, in an effort to create the first coffee-shop-restaurant hybrid in New York City. Ashley explains that they were tired of going to places that provided quality coffee but low quality food. She wanted a place that offered superb grab-n-go coffee as well as more formal dining where friends could meet for a long meal.Ashley and Zach’s vision has been realized. Blank Slate serves killer coffee as well as an impressive assortment of salads, sandwiches and even gourmet desserts. Their coffee is proudly served from farm to cup in close to 20 days. They have a sign at the cash register indicating the green date and roast date of the coffee being served that day. My intern, Emily, hesitantly tried their brussels sprout Caesar salad and only had positive things to say about it, even though she usually does not enjoy Brussels sprouts. Blank Slate also has a small but wonderfully curated market located inside the restaurant, which offers primarily locally sourced products such as cookie dough, yoghurts, pickles and a host of beverages.In addition to serving excellent coffee and food, Blank Slate has a fun, creative atmosphere. Ashley and Zach chose Blank Slate’s name because they wanted to convey the idea that people can make or create everything here. While customers wait in line for coffee, for example, there are etch-a-sketches on which to play. They even have Instagram competitions that reward one talented etch-a-sketcher with a free meal. Ashley hopes that Blank Slate can be a space for people to create. She explained that the etch-a-sketch sends a message: the “possibility of everything."
In the race among Manhattan restaurants to attract customers, simplicity is sometimes lost. But not so in the Mason Jar, a restaurant and bar that keeps it old school with good vibes and great tastes. The southern, barbecue-heavy menu and extensive list of craft beers and bourbons speak for themselves, complete with suggested pairings. Each month, a new craft beer is featured in an effort to support small breweries. If these beers attract a following, they are added to the full-time roster.While visiting with some Sideways members, I had a lively conversation with chef about the different styles of barbecue - our North Carolinian team member swears by vinegar sauce and appreciated Mason Jar’s variety. The food is fresh and not overdone, but at the same time the Chef “puts love into it.” The high quality meat is treated seriously - specialty ribs are coated with a dry rub, smoked using apple and hickory wood, braised, and mopped with a tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce. Then grilled. The brisket and boneless pork butts are given no less attention.Replete with wood, American Flags, and comfortable seating, Mason Jar also achieves a homey feel to match its Southern style. Many of the University of South Carolina alumni in Manhattan choose this spot as the venue to catch the Cocks football games, and Villanova basketball fans flock here for their games, as well. With the hearty food, good beers, and down-home feel, it is easy to understand why. To put it plainly and simply, Mason Jar was a good find.