Originally Published in the Summer 2019 edition of Oculus, the magazine of the American Institute of Architects, New York. Text and photos by Tom Stoelker.
East Village, Manhattan: Ryan Haddad, Playwright and Performer at the Public Theater
“Multicultural can mean many things,” said Ryan Haddad, a 27-year-old playwright and performer. Haddad, who has cerebral palsy, holds a residency in the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in Manhattan, where he has no problem getting around. He comes from the millennial generation often celebrated for its multicultural awareness, but which, more often than not, overlooks the disabled.
“Whenever somebody plans a party in Brooklyn—because that’s where you have the cool parties, the cool performances, the cool clubs, and the cool places to go—I often groan because it’s hard for me to get there,” he said. It’s not just diffcult for him as an audience member, he said, but also as a performer. When producers get behind a piece he’s written, they discuss access for him as well as for the audience, homing in on ADA compliance of nearby public transportation, which often falls short.
Haddad’s experience is one of many where infrastructure influences how communities form or fall apart. In other instances, housing and highways built by Robert Moses from the 1930s through the 1960s continue to sustain middle-class families far from Manhattan’s gleaming towers and Brooklyn’s farm-to-table restaurants. Old Jewish, Irish, and Italian neighborhoods are now home to Bengali hip-hop artists performing off the Bruckner Expressway, and Dominican writers holding readings in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.
Bedroom communities that once housed white working-class families of police, firemen, nurses, and secretaries are now home to communities of color who have raised first-generation techies, artists, and activists—as well as police officers, firefighters, and executive assistants. These young New Yorkers, who have stayed on instead of moving out, are as much a part of Robert Moses’s legacy as the highways and bridges he built. They’re not looking for new neighborhoods closer to “The City” or Brooklyn—like their mid-century brethren, they just want to live close to Mom.
Likewise, there are the stalwarts who hunkered down when others headed out: the homesteaders of SoHo and the Italian butchers of Arthur Avenue. As E.B. White observed, there’s always “the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something,” the settlers who give the city its passion.
Here’s a small sampling of natives and settlers who posed for photos and talked about how civic infrastructure and their neighborhoods have helped and hindered the multicultural city.
SoHo, Manhattan: Charles Leslie, Founder of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, at the Museum
Charles Leslie and his life partner, the late Fritz Lohman, held their first exhibition of gay art in their SoHo loft the same month as the Stonewall riots, which mark their 50th Anniversary this summer. The couple were part of the original homesteaders who had settled in SoHo and fought Robert Moses’s plan to build a raceway through the Cast-Iron District. “We wanted 12 square blocks,” said Leslie, “and we ended up with 48 square blocks.”
When he moved to the area, it was called the South Village, if it was called anything. He remembers when City Planning Commission officials casually began using the term “SoHo,” instead of referring to the disputed neighborhood as the South Houston Industrial District. Many credit urban theorist Chester Rapkin with coining the term, a notion Leslie would hardly dispute. He remembers Rapkin standing in his living room, warning the activists that, though they’d won the preservation battle, the area was bound to undergo drastic changes. “‘You think you have a tiger by the tail, and you think you’re going to keep this fly in amber?” Leslie recalled Rapkin asking rhetorically.
He credited Friends of Cast Iron Architecture with making the most persuasive argument for preservation, positing that the prefabricated cast-iron building method represented a distinctly American contribution to international architecture. In addition, he credited gays. “Wherever artists, creative people, or gays live, change is inevitable,’” he said, riffing on something he recalled Rapkin saying. “Gay people have an interesting take on what’s beautiful. They can hit a walk-up tenement and find beauty. It’s a noticeable attribute wherever you go.”
Arthur Avenue, the Bronx: Michael Rella and Peter Servedio, Butchers at Peter’s Meat Market, the Arthur Avenue Retail Market
In an effort to get pushcart vendors off city streets in the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia set up several public markets, and Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx continues to be one of the most vibrant. Though the utilitarian buildings project civic blandness at its worst, the vendors more than compensate in vitality and color. Merchants at Arthur Avenue, many first- and second-generation Italians, continue to speak the native tongue with locals and customers traveling there from Long Island and New Jersey.
In an effort to get pushcart vendors off city streets in the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia set up several public markets, and Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx continues to be one of the most vibrant. Though the utilitarian buildings project civic blandness at its worst, the vendors more than compensate in vitality and color. Merchants at Arthur Avenue, many first- and second-generation Italians, continue to speak the native tongue with locals and customers traveling there from Long Island and New Jersey.Peter Servedio started there as a butcher in 1962. “The only two years I was missing was when I got drafted to go to Vietnam,” he said. “Then I came right back and I just loved it. I got discharged in ’69; in ’70 I took over.” He hired his nephew, Michael Rella, after Rella graduated from nearby Lehman College with a bachelor’s in economics, “in case something happens.” Rella had emigrated from Puglia, Italy, in 1966 after the rest of the family had already settled in. Just as they were making a home, the remainder of the borough was falling apart. “There was a time, especially in this neighborhood, when there were a lot of empty lots and many people moving out. But we loved the business, we loved the people,” said Servedio. “So we decided to build it up to what it is today.”
Soon Rella became a partner, and the two were joined by employees reflective of today’s revived Bronx.
“It’s a very diverse butcher shop: we have Mexicans, Albanians, Guyanese—all very excellent workers. They all have working papers, legal, which is important,” he said. “We take care of them, obviously. Most have been here for over 20 years, which is amazing, because usually you don’t hear that in a company anymore.”
Garment District, Manhattan: Nicola Caito and Camille Tetard, Patternmakers, at their Atelier
Late last year, in response to a decline in apparel manufacturing, the City Council lifted zoning rules in the Garment District that required landlords on the area’s side streets to offset any newly created office space with an equal amount of manufacturing space—most of it for the rag trade. But with much of the manufacturing moving overseas, the work that remains tends to be on the high end of the spectrum. It complements fashion showrooms and design offices nearby, to say nothing of the WeWork branches, non-profits, and tech firms moving in. For Camille Tetard and Nicola Caito, the 1920s loft-style buildings were perfect for them to put to their original use.
Coming from a line of Italian tailors, the French-born Caito spent several years working for the French couturiers before moving to New York. Here, the couple saw a market for his precise craftsmanship. Soon he was working with Thakoon, Carolina Herrera, and Hervé Pierre. With Pierre, he helped craft Melania Trump’s inaugural gown (and also created gowns for Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama).
The couple runs a multicultural firm with employees that have hailed from China, Korea, Japan, and Brazil. But the two said they hire based on humbleness, not culture. New York assertiveness, often encouraged by the big design schools, doesn’t fly here. “They come out of Parsons, where they don’t have a degree specifically in patternmaking, because it doesn’t exist, and they want $80,000 per year,” said Tetard.
Caito noted that the firm hired an “American apprentice—and she’s wonderful.” But the willingness to learn crosses international boundaries, particularly with couture-level craft. “The Italians and the French have hundreds of years of doing this kind of work, so it is a big part of the way we’re going to approach the world,” said Caito, adding that he can tell right away when someone is bluffing about their knowledge, usually because they’re aggressive.
“I look for that person who’s humble and not the bluffer,” he said. “You find these two kinds of people anywhere in the world: not only in New York, not only in Paris.”
Washington Heights, Manhattan: John Paul Infante, Writer and Teacher, at the Hispanic Society
John Paul Infante grew up in Washington Heights and feels no connection to the Hispanic Society or Audubon Terrace, the complex that also houses The Academy Arts and Letters, and long ago lost the American Geographical Society, the Museum of the American Indian, and the American Numismatic Society. Despite its name—and sporadic efforts—the society has held a fraught relationship with its Latino neighbors.
“It has nothing to do with me,” Infante said. “I appreciate it the few times I’ve experienced it, but I’ve only experienced it three times. Two times it was through an event I found out about through Dominican writers, the other time was when the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance had an event.”
Like most artists in underserved communities, Infante and his fellow poets and writers are on a constant search for space to congregate and share work. There’s Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center, a dedicated community space set aside in a new building at the Columbia University Medical Center that was fought for and won, but which presents a generational divide. “Alianza is serving the community in a real way for Dominicans and Latinos in Washington Heights and Inwood, but it’s run by an older group, and they have a set way of doing things,” he said. “We have a have a group with different ideas on how to use the space and do programming.”
Despite gentrification and recent developments, Infante has no plans to leave the neighborhood. He refers to the “Broadway divide,” where newcomers, co-ops, and condos sit to the west of the thoroughfare, and his old neighborhood to the east stays pretty much the same. It’s where he’s raising his daughter. “There’s that element where there’s some people like me who have a salary or have health insurance and are living decent lives who want to stay,” he said, “but at the same time, I see the segregation of the vision, like the Broadway divide.”
There are places where the community has always come together, he said. “When I was a teenager, I would go to Cloisters, and what’s interesting about that space is that you’ll see diversity in every sense—not only diversity in the people from all over the world, but people from the neighborhood, locals,” he said. “Which is interesting when you have a space like the Hispanic Society, because I don’t see locals in there.”
Infante said the area has three types: those who make money and want to get out, those who are stuck, and those who, like him, want to stay. “I enjoy this area, I know this area,” he said. “I appreciate it as a space, the proximity to everywhere. I love the community, the people, the diversity. And I might complain about segregation, but I like the fact that I can go to a bar, and it’s just an Irish bar. You have to readjust and look at the world through that Irish lens. You hear certain sayings and certain slang, and people are talking over you, and you just don’t get it.”
Grand Concourse, the Bronx: Basma Sheea, Bengali-American Singer, at the Andrew Freeman Home
Fully the Bronx and fully Bengali, Basma Sheea has a sound of her own: R&B merged with Bengali music and rap. She was set to perform at the Andrew Freedman Home for the “It’s the Bronx” music festival last spring, but when the promoters’ ties to real estate developers came to light, social media caught fire, with other Bronx collectives, like Hydro Punk, agitating for an embargo on Instagram. The pressure shut down the event. “I understand why this was such a big deal for them to go against it and to protect their community, but most of us artists weren’t really aware of where the funding was coming from,” Sheea said from the steps of the Freedman home, itself a dichotomy of blessings and curses, not unlike the concourse.
The Andrew Freedman Home was built in 1922 for rich industrialists who had come on hard times in their old age. The limestone Palazzo Farnese-esque edifice cost $1 million to build, which is more than $27 million in today’s dollars. Today, the Freedman home has slowly crept back from decay and anomaly to house artist studios, Fifth Avenue-worthy exhibitions, and events. The owners have become de facto leaders in the Bronx arts community, eventually holding a town hall for the opposing parties of the shuttered festival. Like the concourse, the once-grand facility has seen better days, but the organization has stepped up to its new role as the borough bounces back—though amidst persistent poverty. For many activists, the Bronx represents the last stand against gentrification.
“This whole drama brought together a group of artists,” said Sheea, “even though you didn’t get to perform.” Sheaa joined Yo-Yo master/rapper Richard Pigkaso and other Bronx artists to meet at an open mic night at an Irish pub in Pelham Bay, NY, to compete for a spot on NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. For Sheea and her newfound artist friends, including Hydro Punk, simply finding an open mic and audience was a triumph. Lest one forgets, this is the borough where hip-hop was born and where boogaloo, salsa, and bebop grew up—in spite of urban decay. Gentrification presents an unexpected challenge. “It’s music that ties everybody I know” said Sheea. “You have this story to tell, I have a story to tell. For me, it’s never really been about class. Honestly, I’ve never really thought about that divide until now.”
Midtown, Manhattan: Ness McKelvey at Home
Ness McKelvey lived for years in the Bronx before securing housing at Henry Hall, which bills itself as “a new concept in luxury living” that is designed “to feel like a boutique hotel.” Through the city’s effort to diversify housing, McKelvey got his space as part of the city’s affordable housing lottery, which stipulates that 20% of new housing be set aside for moderate-income families. But while he loves his apartment, he said high-rise living, while culturally diverse, isn’t economically diverse. Just a stone’s throw from Hudson Yards, the West 38th Street building exudes a hip vibe with rap playing in the elevators. McKelvey said he likes hip-hop but feels uncomfortable in the elevator with his more upscale neighbors when the N-word blasts from the speakers. “It’s supposed to be high class, it’s supposed to be upper echelon,” he said, “but people don’t act like that—they act like other people are peasants, beneath them.”
McKelvey is starting a new blog called NewCityNYC.com that talks about what to do for little or no money on Midtown’s burgeoning West Side. When asked how people in the new West Side developments can foster multiculturalism, he was blunt: “People need more involvement; they’re being too exclusive. They need to open up more—and say hello on the elevator.”
Astoria, Queens: Admir Ekmestic, Former Soccer Player, at Mrki’s Place, a Yugoslavian Private Social Club
Queens is by far the nation’s most diverse urban area, and Astoria, notably settled by Greeks, gives Jackson Heights a run for its money in terms of cultural diversity. Just off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, one block of 30th Avenue is home to an Italian baker, wine merchant, salumeria, and Catholic parish; a Bosnian butcher; Mexican, Chinese, and Thai restaurants; a Greek-owned laundromat; an Egyptian tobacco shop; an Irish pub; and two social clubs, one Greek and the other Yugoslavian.
Admir Ekmestic used to play soccer in Yugoslavia, until the civil war there. He and his friends from Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Croatia escaped the worst of the war, and now sit in front Mrki’s Place, drinking beers and nursing shots. “This gentleman is from Croatia,” Ekmestic said, gesturing towards a friend. “They fight over there; now everything is fine, now we enjoy.”
When asked why everyone gets along in New York City and not at home, he responded, “There’s a million-dollar question. Over there, the politicians just make a big setup for all of us—you know what I mean. And here it’s the right thing. It works.”
Tomkinsville, Staten Island: Veronica Arze, Café Owner at Duzer’s Local
Born in Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital and raised in Flatbush and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Veronica Arze found herself on Staten Island’s South Shore 21 years ago “chasing schools” for her three children. Indeed, she initially settled on the borough’s South Shore with her ex-husband because of the schools. But the North Shore, where she now owns a café, always reminded her of home just across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. The first-generation Bolivian started the business with her childhood best friend, Annette Bruno.
With Staten Island being the city’s only majority Republican borough, the South Shore stands apart as liberal and decidedly more diverse, though not Brooklyn-liberal. If a café has a point of view, this one is left of center with a dash of politically incorrect. One hears a CUNY student disparaging a professor’s film taste using the descriptor “retarded.” Shades of queer, nerdy, button-down, and retired were all represented on a recent Saturday. The café also serves as a venue for poetry readings and the spoken word. “I wanted it to be a space for everyone—that everyone would feel comfortable. It’s just a neutral space,” said Arze. “People here run the gamut from Trump supporters to non-Trump, and we can sit, we can have coffee. We can agree to disagree. Everyone is entitled to their views.”
Arze sees the borough through a parent’s lens, as a good place to raise kids. (She’s photographed here with her son Nicholas Silvestro.) She remembers her dad driving her from Flatbush to a Bensonhurst Catholic School every day until fifth grade. “I appreciate it now as an adult; I see what they did for me,” she said. “The schools in this area are lacking, and I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I wouldn’t be able to afford to send my children to a private school.”
Parents not unlike her own are stepping up locally. “There are groups of parents forming who want to improve the schools,” she said. “Kids need a foundation, they need structure, they need good food, and they need to know they’re safe. Nobody can learn in bad conditions.”
Astoria, Queens: Dee Flattery, Pub Owner at The Quay
Dee Flattery moved from a small town in Ireland because “there was nothing happening at home, really,” she said. Her pub in Astoria not only welcomes families, but it looks out for them, too. Several years ago, when a local boy was diagnosed with cancer, neighbors descended on the pub for a benefit. Gabriel Santini, the boy, is now a teen, and is pictured here standing to her right. The pub, like the block, is filled with a multiplicity of cultures. On a recent Saturday, however, it was decidedly Gaelic, with an Irish mother visiting her New York-based daughters, who filled the pub with Irish music and shoeless step dancing. The mother supervised the activities with a keen eye—and her own step at the ready.
There are more recent immigrants, too, Flattery says, from Brooklyn. “Five years ago, I’d meet people every day who say they’re moving to Brooklyn. Now I hear people are moving back from Brooklyn,” she said. “You can’t take my word because I don’t know Brooklyn, but I don’t think it’s as cool as people think it used to be. A lot of people are definitely moving back.”
The Quay, like most Irish pubs in the area, plays host to a variety of performers. Flattery quickly rattled off the names of other area pubs that provide home to artists. “We have open mic on Thursday nights, and then everybody bar hops—all the music industry stays together,” she said. “They go to The Shillelagh, The Brewery, Passage, Wolfhound, Irish Whiskey Bar, The Irish Rover, Conan and Finnegan’s, and Stones Corner. Everybody has different nights, and everybody comes together and stays together.”
Grand Concourse, the Bronx: Elissa Carmona, Lead Singer and Founder of the Marrisania Band Project, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
Elissa Carmona agrees about the need for Bronx artists to find a venue. She grew up in Morrisania in the South Bronx and Park Hill in Staten Island, and her voice was discovered early, at church, taking her on tour at a young age. But as a teen she started working. She soon joined the service, raised a daughter, and got her master’s in social work. Singing was put on hold until seven years ago. Carmona’s experience in grant writing for non-profits spurred a local effort to clean up Reverend Lena Irons Unity Park in Morrisania—aka Unity Park. Her skills also came in handy when founding her band sprung from the park cleanup, with support from the Bronx Council for the Arts. The band still performs at Unity Park each summer, describing its sound as “a blend of hip-hop soul, neo soul, afro punk, jazz, and funk.”
Carmona, who had looked forward to appearing at “It’s the Bronx,” had performed on the Grand Concourse only a year previously at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. She enjoyed meeting artists from across the borough, something that doesn’t happen enough. “We’re culturally diverse, but we tend to be clannish; we stay within our own separate enclaves,” she said. “Occasionally we mingle if we work together, but that’s not always the case in the arts.”
Artists in the Bronx, she said, need to be “strategic and very creative to find and create opportunities here in the Bronx that provide venue space.” For her, the social media pressure that shut down “It’s the Bronx” shut down a lot of opportunities, too. “It’s no secret that the Bronx is one of the poorest cities in New York State; we have a lot of homelessness, and people are hungry,” she said. “People figure the arts are not as important, and the limited funding that does go to artists goes to school-age youth—and rightly so, they need it—but it leaves us adults having to leave the borough to find any opportunity.”
St. George, Staten Island: Bain Coffman and Gui Junta, Restaurant Owners at Chang Noi Thai
“This is our home, this is our business, this is our neighborhood, and you have more connection,” said Junta. “In Manhattan, people might come in only one time in their lives, and then they’re gone. The tourists come, sit down, laugh, and don’t come back. In the restaurant here, I feel more connections, that everyone is like a friend.”
As the center of government in the city’s most Republican borough, the two see more customers from across the political spectrum than most city restaurants, even though the immediate area sways to the left. On a recent weekend, customers coming and going in the cozy eatery numbered about a dozen. Three languages were spoken at different tables. “It would be great,” said Coffman, “if people could understand each other and not say, ‘That’s weird,’ and instead say, ‘That’s just different; why do you do it like that?’”
Junta thinks the multicultural city would thrive if more people saw things through an immigrant’s eyes. “This is not my culture,” she said, “so everything is new in this country. As Bain said, I wish everyone would treat us kindly in the same way—if you are white, Asian, black, or anything.”
She has experienced prejudice, even in her own neighborhood. “Some people don’t like that I’m not the same color, the same culture, or the same people,” she said. But she believes that simply operating a business in the area has the potential to change perceptions. “People leave here and respect me and the restaurant; everyone respects each other. You can make peace together.”
Bain Coffman and Gui Junta met on the Staten Island Ferry when she was showing the city to friends who were visiting. Coffman grew up in upstate New York’s dairy country, and Junta grew up in Thailand. He lived in Staten Island; she lived in Queens and ran a restaurant in Manhattan. Junta had partnered in restaurants on the Lower East Side when he encouraged her to come see his neighborhood, which sits in the shadow of Borough Hall. Like every borough downtown, St. George has a big lunchtime crowd. But few business owners live in the neighborhood, even with its large residential population. The potential to connect with customers was something that drew Junta to the area, as her Manhattan customers were more transient.