Category Archives: Society

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.

Zlarin: Anchors at Sunset

The double anchors of Zlarin

By Johna Till Johnson

Last September I paddled the Croatian Adriatic coast with Peak and Paddle Croatia. It was enchanting.

For the first part of the trip, we stayed on the island Zlarin.  It’s a small island (winter population of 284), but has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and is famous for its coral divers.

This double-anchor monument was erected in 1977 to honor Zlarin sailors and emigrants. (Interestingly enough, that group includes Anthony Maglica, the founder of Maglite, who was born in New York City of Croatian parents, but returned to their hometown of Zlarin during World War II.)

I took the photo from the kayak at sunset, after one of our first trips. Stories are to come!

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.

Watch Out For a Man With a Hot Grill!

He doesn’t LOOK that dangerous…

By Johna Till Johnson

Two years ago, a new falafel shop, Gyro 96, opened up on my street. It focused primarily on lunch, so I investigated immediately—there are few good lunch options near me, and I was looking for something fast, cheap, tasty and reasonably healthy.

It was a tiny hole in the wall, no seating, just a grill/kitchen behind a serving window. But the way the crowd of construction workers, hospital employees, and assorted denizens of the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem gathered around told me the food had to be good.

Aside from serving up the best chicken gyro salad I’ve ever had (and introducing me to hibiscus iced tea),  the shop did something better: it made me laugh.

I don’t know whether the sign behind chef/owner Waled Harady’s head is intended to be humorous. But the way he and his partner Inna Sobel laughed when they saw me taking the photo makes me suspect it is.

Harady seems to be the kind of guy who’s well aware of gender roles—and doesn’t mind upending them a bit. He’s a former aeronautical engineer who ended up running a falafel restaurant in Harlem, then after a few iterations ended up at the current location with his partner.  There’s a great piece about the story in the New York Times.

Harady’s recipes are all authentic. They come from his mother and his grandmother, and he makes them the old-fashioned way. And that hibiscus iced tea? It’s not only a lovely drink on a hot summer day, but may be a wonderful natural way to lower blood pressure.

So if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by. But watch out for those men cooking!

Tappan Zee Redux!

Unfinished span of the new Tappan Zee

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo composition by Brian Fulton-Howard

Four years ago this month, I wrote about the “New bridge over the Hudson” that was to replace the Tappan Zee. At the time, it was hard to believe the bridge would really be built; the project had been in discussions since 1999. At  $3.9 billion, the new construction would represent one of the largest infrastructure investments in New York this century. And it would be the first new bridge to be constructed since the Verrazano-Narrows in 1964.

A daunting prospect; skepticism was warranted.

Guess what? It’s here! And astonishingly, it was completed on time and on budget, as governor Andrew Cuomo was quick to point out.  The grand opening of the new bridge was last summer (though one span remains to be completed in 2018).

Right after it opened, on a bright summer day, Brian and I paddled up to see it. As we bounced over the slight waves, the twin peaks of the bridge’s profile (a cable-stayed design) slowly emerged from a dusting of clouds.

It looked strangely familiar…

The profile of the bridge emerges…

… Of course!  It was remarkably similar to the original artist’s rendering, below:

Artist’s rendering (New York Times)

I think the actual bridge is even prettier than the original conception, but it’s hard to say, as it’s still surrounded by the original Tappan Zee, which won’t be torn down until sometime this year.

As Brian and I paddled closer to the bridge, we were struck by the sight of the unfinished span that appeared in cross-section in the middle of the combined infrastructure.

It’s not every day you get to literally see the guts of a bridge as it’s being built, so we struggled to stay stable in the strong flood current as I took shot after shot. Brian finally figured out the exact location from which the unfinished span was framed perfectly (see photo above).


You’ll notice I’ve referred throughout to “the new Tappan Zee” and “the bridge”. The official name of the bridge, as of late last year, is the “Mario Cuomo bridge”, named after the three-term governor (and the current governor’s father). However, there’s a petition circulating to keep the original name.

As the petitioners explain, it’s nothing against Mario Cuomo, who “may be deserving of having something named after him.” (Don’t you love that “may be”?)

The problem is simply esthetic, petitioners assert. It sounds cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Tappan Zee,” the petition reads. “It does not sound cool to say, ‘I’m taking the Cuomo.”

I have to give them the point—”the Tappan Zee” sounds way cooler.  I doubt the petition will succeed, but I’m not sure the official name will stick, either. New Yorkers can be stubborn, and  even Google Maps still refers (confusingly to out-of-towners) to the Triboro Bridge rather than its official name of  RFK Bridge.

In any event, with my Tiderace now living happily at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, I look forward to many more trips to the, ahem, Tappan Zee.

Meantime, here’s a photo of Brian in the sunshine, just to remind everyone that summer will indeed return!

Brian in the sunshine (view looking north)