Uptown’s New Art Scene, Fueled by Coffee

At the rear of Taszo Espresso Bar, patrons can use their laptop, sip on a coffee, and view local artwork and photography that are on display, (Photo by Reshmi Kaur Oberoi/NY City Lens)

At the rear of Taszo Espresso Bar, customers can sip on a coffee and view local artwork and photography (Photo by Reshmi Kaur Oberoi/NY City Lens).

On the wide, hilly streets of Northern Manhattan, where foot traffic outnumbers the car, places for locals to fuel up on coffee are far and few between. Is this another plus one for Downtown, the place of choice for the Manhattan-bound? Not exactly. Uptown’s three newest cafés, Buunni Café, Darling Coffee, and Taszo Espresso Bar, are not only dedicated to roasting and brewing New Yorkers’ favorite caffeinated beverage, but also double as concert halls, art galleries, and writing dens.

The Northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood—Community Board 12—are quintessentially residential, and the relatively slow-paced ambience there is not lost on its residents. Having long harbored an inferiority complex when compared to their downtown neighbors, however, Northern Manhattanites have recently come into their own. They have tapped into their artistic soul. The three new coffee shops provide a sneak peak preview into a burgeoning community’s artistic sensibilities.

In September, Jackie Parrott, the founder of Uptown Ballet Academy and a point person for Inwood’s Green Market, decided to market the recent relocation of her ballet studio from Riverdale to her uptown residence. She does so with a stack of 8.5 by 11- inch black-and-white printouts at Inwood’s Darling Coffee. Alongside her flyer, with its outline of ballet slippers, were a slew of pamphlets advertising upcoming auditions, concerts, and plays. A trifold pamphlet for a massage therapy center, “Inwood Healing Arts,” sat on a mini easel alongside a stack of comedy-show flyers, and others in the McDonalds-color scheme of ketchup red and mustard yellow but with text in a font style reminiscent of Japanese food advertising. In the far left-hand corner of the flyer read, “Sushi Specials.” A pile of bookmarks sat nearby.

For 22-year-old Myranda Caraballo, a staff writer on Baruch’s College’s newspaper and a barista at Inwood’s Café Buunni, the café’s 370-square foot space is conducive for patrons to gather and exchange ideas. Though equivalent to the size of a Midwestern home’s walk-in closet, “a lot of people have met through the shop, because we just have one community table,” Carballo said. “Parents and their kids meet, older people meet, people really get to know each other.”

Flyers and pamphlets advertising art-focused programs and classes greet patrons of Buunni Cafe. (Photo by Reshmi Kaur Oberoi/NY City Lens)

Flyers and pamphlets advertising art-focused programs and classes greet patrons of Buunni Cafe (Photo by Reshmi Kaur Oberoi/NY City Lens).

This kind of informal networking prompted two Inwood-based writers to hold a series of after-hours writing workshops at Buunni. Occasionally the cafe transforms into an art gallery, offering wine and cheese in lieu of scones and cappuccinos.

Although Washington Heights-based Taszo Espresso Bar, a black-paneled storefront with dim lighting and an industrial interior with exposed brick-faced walls, is in sharp contrast to the kiwi-green-and-white color scheme of Café Buunni, local painters’ work hangs in both establishments. “Any place can potentially be a venue for people to see your work,” said Tony Serio, a painter, graphic artist who had his landscapes displayed at Taszo.

Serio is a two-time recipient of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance grant, which ranges from $500 to $2,000 and is conferred only to residents of Washington Heights and Inwood. The selection process is competitive, requiring the submission of an application form, attendance at an orientation meeting—further fostering the sense of a neighborhood identity—and a detailed proposal and budget of the project the grant will fund.

A Brooklynite turned Uptowner in 2005, Serio’s glossy, colorful index-card sized flyers advertising painting classes sit on the espresso bar’s counter. Despite being steeped in the traditionally downtown art scene for over a decade, Serio says, “Uptown has a different audience”—one that is less critical and more embracing, he adds.

After showing at Taszo, he said, locals began to recognize Serio. ‘Oh yeah! You’re the guy that had those paintings in the café!,’ Serio mimicked the recognition he received while working on a canvas in leafy, Hudson River-lined Fort Tryon Park.

He credits Taszo café with helping him to make contacts, such as photographer Mike Fitelson, executive director of United Palace of Cultural Arts. Fitelson was one of a dozen public speakers at the community board 12 meeting on September 23. He announced that the Washington Heights-based art academy would be offering classes in hip hop, West African drumming, and visual arts. As soon as he began talking about the Hip Hop Nutcracker—“a new holiday show that is by Northern Manhattan, for Northern Manhattan”—background chatter came to a full stop. Once Fitelson had confirmed the show’s December 2014 opening, Uptown residents applauded and whistled.

“The Hip Hop Nutcracker is causing a stir because it makes people feel like a community,” Fitelson explained. Plans for the nutcracker ballet were made public at last December’s meeting.

Buunni Café, like Serio, had also received local support from frequenters of Fort Tryon Park. In 2011, the co-owners and husband and wife duo, Elias and Serena Prabasi, decided to debut a physical storefront for their solely online-based wholesale coffee enterprise. After receiving what Prabasi described as “a great response from the local community”  at the annual Harvest Festival in the park, the pair decided to buy a 30-year-old shoe repair shop and make it into their current storefront coffee shop.

Paying it forward, the Buunni team decided to showcase artwork, scenes depicting different interpretations of Thanksgiving, produced at the festival in the years since their café opened. One year later the café showcased what Prabasi called “a Thanksgiving Tree,” made up of leaves that paint “messages of someone giving thanks.” Though the Buunni Café team will be away during the 2014 Harvest Festival, taking place on October 18, the artwork may still make their way to the café’s walls, Prabasi said. In the meantime, the Café is showcasing their own artistic representation of the holidays with latté art: A white frothy drawing of a jack-o-lantern that floats on top of a steaming mocha-brown concoction – The “Jack-o-latte,” they call it.

There are 10 Dunkin Donuts and only 3 Starbucks between West 155th Street and Marble Hill, bordering the Bronx, but Uptowners have no qualms about the franchises’ absence. Carl Whipal, 24, a theater stagehand and carpenter, who frequents Darling Coffee, believes the coffee there is “better than chain coffee” and the ambience of a local business “allows for more socializing,” which he considers a “nice touch.” He had two books in front of him and sat at one of the ‘No Computer’ tables at the front end of the café.

Inwood's Darling Coffee alerts customers to their unplug-from-technology seating policy.

Inwood’s Darling Coffee alerts customers to its unplug-from-technology seating policy (Photo by Reshmi Kaur Oberoi/NY City Lens).

“It’s a good attempt to create an area that is less consumed with laptops and keyboards,” Whipal said.

Taszo Espresso Bar also has one communal table at the rear of the establishment for patrons who aren’t just wired on coffee. A Taszo barista, Valerie Green, believes one table is all that’s needed: “Lots of people will come in and just be chatting away.” According to Green, even those who come to work won’t necessarily need a computer. “I’ve seen lots of textbooks out and people studying music,” she said.

In addition to making caffeinated concoctions, Green converses with almost everyone who enters Taszo. “I see the same people coming in everyday,” she said.

“We had regulars from day one,” Prabasi said, referring to Buunni Café’s opening a little over two years ago.

M. Tony Peralta, a painter and a native Uptowner whose large paintings are on display at Darling Coffee, believes the regular crowd includes non-locals. “I see a lot of Columbia students at Darling Coffee, every semester there are more and more at the tables,” he remarked. His fellow uptown painter, Serio, believes he may be contributing to the phenomenon. Since showing his artwork at Washington Height’s in Boricua College in 2008, Serio said, “I’ve drawn some of my crowd from downtown up here.”

It may be too soon to declare Washington Heights and Inwood New York City’s new art and culture epicenter. Still, Uptown’s thriving art scene is not going unnoticed. “People are hungry to have art and culture in their own backyard instead of taking the train downtown,” Fitelson said. For now, Uptown’s newest cafés are sating that hunger and quenching that thirst.