Tag Archives: New York City

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


One of these is not like the others…

By Johna Till Johnson

On a cold winter’s day, I sip my morning coffee, scan my eyes idly across the rows of identical windows in the apartment building across the street… and squint a bit. What’s that? Apparently one of the apartment dwellers  hasn’t gotten the memo.

Some people just have to be different…and I’m glad!

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!

Pool Paddling Practice: 1

Coach Don about to roll

By Johna Till Johnson

“What do kayakers do in the wintertime?”

That’s easy. We kayak! That’s what drysuits are for.

But even the staunchest of paddlers can’t do much when the water goes solid. So when Matt Kane of Prime Paddlesports announced pool practice sessions in Dobbs Ferry starting Jan 7, I was (literally!) the first to sign up.

It’s delightful to work on basic technique in water warm enough for a T shirt and swim trunks. And being around fellow paddlers in a group is something I’ve missed. Both are reasons I signed up for the Sweetwater Kayak Symposium in Florida in February.

But that’s still a month away. So in the meantime there is this:

Ready to launch

Calm, warm, and brightly lit, the water beckons!

Coach Julie and student

Coach Julie and a student prepare in matching boats…

Coach Don laughing

Getting wet is fun when it’s warm…

Coach Julie keeps an eye on the action…

Coaches Julie McCoy and Don Urmstrom did an outstanding job watching us practice and play. Surprisingly, in under two hours we were all tired and even a bit stiff—working on technique is demanding!

But I am looking forward to the next few sessions—and if you’re a NYC-area paddler looking to brush up on technique during a cold month, I’d love to see you there!

All men shall be sailors…

Sailing and freedom

By Johna Till Johnson
Photo by Vladimir Brezina

“All men shall be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them…” — Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

I’ve been listening to a lot of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lately. I’m not alone in this; he’s experiencing an (in my mind deserved) groundswell of popularity in the 14 months since he died.

His themes are universal and serious: the inevitability of loss, imperfectability of human nature, the ephemeral transcendence of love.

His fundamental stance is religious, but while it’s rooted in his native Jewish tradition (he remained devout all his life), it draws from a broad set of perspectives, with a pragmatic bent. He once told the New Yorker:  “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works.”

He wasn’t joking. Over the years, he studied Scientology, became an ordained Buddhist monk, and studied at an Indian ashram—along with pursuing various intoxicants (from acid to alcohol) and ascetic practices (particularly fasting). His goal was less the abstract pursuit of enlightenment than to ameliorate the bouts of depression that struck him throughout much of his life.

Sylvie Simmons wrote a wonderful biography of Cohen in 2012, “I’m Your Man,” One of the interesting paradoxes of Cohen’s life is that although he was deeply embedded in the contemporary cultural matrix  to a degree that’s almost Zelig-like, his essential formality was fundamentally out of step with the “anything goes” ethos of the times.

The Jewish magazine Forward has an insightful obituary that highlights this: “The “absence of the casual” may well be one of the singular characteristics setting Cohen’s work apart from his so-called contemporaries,” writes Seth Rogovoy.

And it paid off in the long run—Cohen is one of the rare artists who pursued his craft with intensity and diligence all his life, and  peaked as a performer in his 70s.

In a surprising twist that serves as a hopeful beacon to us late bloomers, after his business manager embezzled his money and left him broke early in the 2000s, he decided to go on tour to support his ex-wife and children. Although he had previously hated performing, he put together a stellar backup band and collaborated with them to develop innovative arrangements of his work.

The result was almost a decade of some of the best live performances in popular music history (you can find many of them in YouTube). Cohen not only accomplished his goal of earning back a fortune, he left a shining legacy that touches millions.

That “absence of the casual” is perhaps the most appropriate response to the inevitable tragedies of life, which may be one of the reasons Cohen’s work is experiencing a renaissance.

The lines above (“until the sea shall free them”) particularly resonated with me because the sea has always been associated in my mind with freedom. Towards the end of his life, my father (who was a naval officer)  turned to me and said, “The open ocean is closer than they led us to believe.”

He was referring, of course, to his imminent death, but what struck me was that he associated it with the open ocean—and freedom.



Snowfall by the River

East River in snow

By Johna Till Johnson

I’ve always loved the East River.

She’s not really a river at all, but rather a connector between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.  That topography accounts for her rapid currents, which are slightly out of sync with those of the Hudson (a tidal estuary). And it also accounts for much of her charm. To me, the East River has always been beautiful, mysterious, and slightly dangerous, with an allure that’s impossible to resist.

Before I learned to kayak, I’d walk along the river and think, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to go into the water?” Crazy thought! In addition to the swift currents, the East River was known in decades past for pollution and the occasional dead body. (These days, the water is much cleaner. There are even dolphins!)

After I took up paddling, I ended up actually in the East River more than once, usually by design (practicing capsizing in current) but one memorable time entirely by accident. And I’ve paddled its length many more times than that—my best count is that I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan around 40 times, and I’ve paddled out to Long Island Sound a handful of times as well.

But as is the case with most true loves, knowing the East River better only increases her allure.

It was natural, then, when a blizzard rolled in, for me to make time to go down to the East River and see what she looked like in snow.  I’m biased, but isn’t she gorgeous?