Category Archives: Art

Urban Garden Center NYC

Urban Garden Center

By Johna Till Johnson

When it’s cold and snowy out, where does a New Yorker in search of lush greenery go? The Urban Garden Center, of course!

It’s a whimsical wonderland hidden under Park Ave at 116th St., and one of the many crown jewels of Spanish Harlem.  In summer, there are live chickens (because what’s a garden center without chickens?). Children love to come and visit, and feed the chickens.

In winter the fauna are more limited: Teddy bears and mermaids.

Fairyland (with teddy bears!)

And speaking of fairyland, the center’s owner, intrigued by my picture-taking, regaled me with stories of New York “back in the day” (we are pretty much the same age).

My favorite was the time when he, as an 18-year-old from Long Island City, Queens, drove his brand-new Honda CRX right into the middle of a gang war in Spanish Harlem.

As he drove into a narrow alley, the two sides stopped fighting each other and attacked him. They lobbed a Molotov cocktail at his car, lighting the hood on fire.  There was nowhere for him to turn, so he threw the car into reverse and burned rubber backing out of the alleyway, flaming hood and all.

Ah, New York… those were the days!

Fairyland fauna: Mermaid



Welcome to Spanish Harlem

Welcome to Spanish Harlem!

By Johna Till Johnson

They say old New York is dead.

The city’s hot lifeblood has gone thick and sluggish. Starbucks and suburbanization have driven a stake through its  heart.

They’re wrong.

The beating heart of New York never dies. You just need to know where to find it.  The pulse is particularly alive in Spanish Harlem, which shimmers with dynamic energy. It’s bright with color, even on a dark snowy day.

Spanish Harlem street corner

Like much of old New York, Spanish Harlem (also known as East Harlem or El Barrio) is known for many things: Poverty. Addiction. Gang violence (the area is home to the most dangerous block in the city, according to police statistics).

But Spanish Harlem is not defined by those things, or not defined only by them.

It’s diverse: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Asians, and a remnant of the original Italians who settled there in the early 1900s mingle with displaced WASP Upper East Siders and the influx of international staffers working at Mt. Sinai, the steadily-growing medical complex that dominates the southern part of the neighborhood.

There’s also a spirit of pride, and neighborliness. You’re more likely to be greeted with a nod and a smile here than anywhere else in the city.  “We’re all in this together,” is the unspoken sentiment.

Helping each other

More than that, Spanish Harlem is characterized by hope. It boasts one of the best high schools in all of New York state,  Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, which regularly sends local students to top-ranked universities.

There are a number of community gardens, decorated with whimsy and offering bright spots in the urban landscape.

And a surprising number of artists, poets, and musicians hail from Spanish Harlem. A notable one is Marc Anthony,  the top-selling salsa artist (and Jennifer Lopez’ ex-husband).

Above all, Spanish Harlem is the land of dreams.

Hall of Fame

I am not certain, but I suspect that the graffiti in this mural refers to the song Hall of Fame, which celebrates setting high goals and working to achieve them.

Yeah, you could be the greatest
You can be the best…
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself…

Standing in the hall of fame
And the world’s gonna know your name
‘Cause you burn with the brightest flame
And the world’s gonna know your name
And you’ll be on the walls of the hall of fame…

Do it for your people
Do it for your pride
How you ever gonna know if you never even try?

Harlem: Do it for your people

Zlarin: Rainbow

Rainbow sidewalk stencil on the island of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Croatians can be whimsical.

As I was walking along a pier on Zlarin, a small Croatian island in the Adriatic, I noticed a rainbow stenciled on the sidewalk. Who put it there? And why? There are no answers.

But it made me smile.

Democracy is Coming

American flag at the Intrepid, as seen from my kayak

By Johna Till Johnson

July 4, 1976. The Bicentennial.

I remember it vividly. Earlier that year with the rest of my sixth grade class I’d prepared a multimedia report, with photos and artwork and carefully crafted text. That night as the fireworks lit up the sky, and the grownups chatted over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, I thought to myself, “Pretty cool! I need to catch the next one!”

Then I realized that meant I’d have to live to be… 111 years old.

Not impossible. But definitely a stretch. It would take luck, work, and considerable scientific and technological advancement. (My interest in life extension stems from that moment, because I really do want to be around.)

And then something else occurred to me: What if we didn’t make it? What if I lived to be 111, but there was no longer a U.S.A.?

By then I’d learned something about the Greeks and Romans, and that democracy was an inherently unstable form of government. Like many children, I couldn’t truly believe that anything bad would really happen. So I tried to shut down the thought. But it remained: What if…?

In the decades since, I’ve become increasingly pessimistic, while still clinging to my native idealism. I’m an American not because I was born here, but because I believe in the principles on which this country was founded, however imperfectly we’ve managed to adhere to them over our history:  Every person is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every citizen gets a vote. And most importantly, government is here to serve us, not the other way around.

Over the years, I’ve thrown citizenship parties for more than a few friends who have chosen to throw their lots in with the U.S.

And I’ve shared with them the hope that we can defy the odds, remain a democratic republic, and continue to adhere as closely as possible to those cherished ideals.

Sometimes, that hope feels faint and flickering.

So it’s no small irony that it’s the Canadian Leonard Cohen who helps fan that flickering flame.  His song “Democracy” was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It’s apolitical (neither right nor left, as he says in the song). And as he said in an interview: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country…This is really where the experiment is unfolding…This is the real laboratory of democracy.”

That’s as true today as when he wrote the words below. Every day, every hour, democracy is being tested. Sometimes it fails the test. And sometimes, against the odds, it succeeds.

If you haven’t heard the song,  it’s worth a listen.

Lyrics ©Leonard Cohen 1992

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
O baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on…

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA

Note: Astute observers may note the British Airways logo on the airplane in the photo. That’s the British supersonic airplane the Concorde, which was donated to the Intrepid museum upon its retirement in 2003. As in so many things, the U.S. remains indebted to Britain.

Screams and Surprises

The iconic “Scream”… but what’s that off in the distance?

By Johna Till Johnson

Last night, some friends and I went to go see the Munch Exhibit at the Met. I’ve been a fan of Edvard Munch since I first saw his work as a teenager in Norway. So when one of my friends mentioned he had never seen the iconic “Scream” in real life, I was delighted to accompany him, his wife, and another friend to the exhibit.

Munch made many versions of his most famous work, including “Scream”, some as wood cuts, others in oil. So although we weren’t lucky enough to see a color version of the piece, we did get to see a black-and-white woodcut.

But while looking through images in preparation for the visit, I noticed something I’d never noticed before.

See if you can see it in the image above… Look towards the horizon… on the water…

Do you see them?

The paddleboarders?

Yes! Quite clearly those are proto-paddleboarders in the background,  braving the cold Norwegian waters. All the way back in 1900! Norwegians have always been avant-guard, and Munch was famous for his innovative eye. Apparently he could see into the future!

I pointed this out to my friends when we saw the wood cut. And we all agreed. For sure, those were paddleboarders. Somehow Munch had managed to place a sport that did not yet exist in the center of his most iconic image.

It wasn’t until we compared the image with a photo of the same area that we had to acknowledge they were the masts of small sailboats. But we still preferred our interpretation.

But that wasn’t the end of the surprises that evening. While inspecting Munch’s many self-portraits, I kept having a nagging feeling of familiarity, and  not just because I’d seen them before. Hmmm…

Separated at birth?

Yes, indeed! The resemblance was remarkable! Edvard Munch and Steve Buscemi share not only features but the same intense, haunted stare.

Finally, just because I love it so much, here’s Munch’s Madonna, which is my favorite work of his. Enjoy!

Madonna, by Edvard Munch


Shoes on cement wall

By Johna Till Johnson

“Where did these come from?” I held the tattered leather shoes up to my mother. They had curved toes vaguely reminiscent of Scandinavia, but also of Native cultures. Were they Sami, perhaps? After all, we had lived in Norway for a few years…

The answer surprised me: “Oh, I got those in Sarajevo. When I went there in…let’s see… that would have been… the summer of 1953.”

My mother had spent the early 1950s (her mid-to-late 20s) teaching in Germany and traveling through Europe.

I’d known that, but I’d somehow forgotten, or possibly never known, that she’d paid a visit to the then-country of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia in the 1950s

As she tells the story, her visit was in direct opposition to U.S. government orders. The iron curtain was beginning to fall over Eastern Europe, and the newly created “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, along with the other Eastern European countries, had initially aligned themselves with the Stalin-era Soviet Union.

By 1947 (just five years before my mother’s visit), that had changed: Yugoslavia, under Tito’s control, had opted to break from the Soviet Union and was accepting a limited amount of American aid. However, Tito remained a vocal critic of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and the American government was concerned about the stability of the uneasy peace in the region, sandwiched as it was between Western Europe and the Soviet Union.

So the U.S. issued a warning that Americans were not to travel there. Undeterred, my mother nevertheless obtained a visa. With just a backpack and a change of clothes, she hopped on the train from Venice, where she had been visiting her future husband (my father), a naval officer whose destroyer had docked there briefly.

As it does today, the train wound around the northern Adriatic coastline before plunging inland to Sarajevo. My mother had colleagues in Sarajevo from the Experiment in International Living. So she was able to stay in a youth hostel there.  And she was confident in her ability to navigate a foreign country, government warnings or no.

So when she arrived in Sarajevo, she immediately went out to explore.

“What made you want to buy the shoes?” I asked, expecting to hear that she wanted a souvenir of her adventures.

“Oh, I liked them and needed a pair of shoes,” she replied cheerfully.

She wore them? Sure enough, when I inspected them closely I could see the soles were well worn. I slipped my feet inside and discovered they fit me almost perfectly. And they were surprisingly comfortable.

More comfortable than you’d think…

“And you know what the Yugoslavian college students told me about the curved toes?” she asked me mischievously.

No, what?

Apparently toilets in Yugoslavia at that time were often… primitive. (Think hole-in-the-ground.) So the curved toes were useful to..ahem…hang on to while squatting.

That was the story, anyway. Not that my mother ever had need of them for that purpose, she hastened to clarify.

But she did wear them as she traipsed happily around Sarajevo… until the evening she was comparing visas with the Experiment in International Living team.

“Let me see that, ” demanded one of the students, who could read Serbo-Croatian. “How long did you say you were staying in Sarajevo?”

“I have another week here,” she replied.

Except apparently she didn’t—the visa expired the very next day. And you didn’t fool around with expired visas in Eastern European countries, at least not at that point in history.

So that was the end of my mother’s Yugoslavian adventure… but she brought the shoes home, for me to discover 64 years later.

Closeup of shoes




Merry Christmas 2017!

Christmas lights in Ivoryton Connecticut

Photo by Johna Till Johnson