A Community Comes Together at a Private Park in Sunnyside Gardens

Story and photos by Diana Coats

Parents help the smallest participants hunt for Easter eggs.

Parents help the smallest participants hunt for Easter eggs.

Taking advantage of a warm and sunny Easter Sunday, hundreds of children in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens and neighboring communities swarmed through Sunnyside Gardens Park in the annual Easter-egg hunt.

With 1,000 eggs hidden around the park, children ages 2 to 10 searched for eggs among the jungle gyms and bushes for three hours, while older children played the role of secret bunnies, hiding the eggs before the hunt began.

Sunnyside Gardens Park is one of two private parks in New York City. Unlike the better-known Gramercy Park in Manhattan, which offers membership only to nearby residents, anyone can purchase a membership to Sunnyside Gardens, which was established in 1926. Sunnyside Gardens itself was designated a historic district in 2007.

At three acres, Sunnyside Gardens Park is about 50 percent larger than its Manhattan counterpart, and over the past five years, membership has soared to more than 400 families, from about 230 in 2006.

Traditionally an Irish and German neighborhood, Sunnyside Gardens now includes Chinese, Japanese, Turks, Indians and African-Americans, as well as immigrants from Latin America.

Marret Cooper, 38, a gymnastics instructor and lifelong resident of Sunnyside Gardens, has been a member of the park all her life. Asked what he liked the best about it, he said, “A lot of trees, a lot of green, a lot of fun.”

Samarra Khaja, 39, an art director and graphic designer, joined Sunnyside Gardens Park last year even though she lives in Jackson Heights, about three miles away. Khaja likes the park because it provides a safe place for her children to play. “The big thing for me is that it is enclosed; it’s safe and child-friendly,” says Khaja, who has a 1-year-old and is pregnant. “Now with another baby on the way, I can come here and let my son play and run around, and I don’t have to be running after him.”

Girls hunt for eggs.

Girls hunt for eggs.

Sunnyside Gardens Park takes its name from the neighborhood, which sits on land that was occupied, in the late 19th century, by a farm known as Sunnyside. In 1907, the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased a large section of Sunnyside’s land to use as a train yard. In the 1920s, Alexander Bing, a developer and founder of the City Housing Corporation, used 77 acres of excess land to develop a model community of brick row houses with gardens, named Sunnyside Gardens. The idea was to provide middle- and low-income families with affordable suburban-style home ownership.

The first residents, most of them Irish and German, began moving to Sunnyside Gardens from Manhattan in 1924. Two years later, the park opened; its playground, baseball field, basketball hoops, tennis courts, picnic areas and a wading pool were intended to provide residents with outdoor recreational space, because the houses themselves had only very small yards.

Not much has changed. Today, all but the brick house at the center of the park, which was used as a theater and a nursery and burned a few years ago, remain. For years, members have used the park for family barbecues and birthday parties.

The park also hosts various public and private events. In addition to the Easter-egg hunt, public celebrations include one on Mother’s Day, an Oktoberfest, outdoor performances of Shakespeare, arts events and film festivals. Members-only events include camp-out nights and cookouts.

To join, members pay an initiation fee of $150 and an annual fee that ranges from $225 for a single-adult membership to $335 for a family membership. Members can also plant a small garden plot for $57 a year. In addition, members are required to complete 12 hours of volunteer work in the park each year or pay an extra $180. The park is open 364 days a year, from 10 a.m. to sunset.

On Easter, the children scrambling for eggs seemed delighted, whether they filled up a basketful of eggs or found just a few. Adults handed out chocolate and attended to the egg-hunt participants, helping the smaller children put the eggs in their baskets. Even after the hunt was over and the treats were gone, children ran around the park, playing and screaming, until the early evening.

SLIDE SHOW: Last Man Standing

Audio Slideshow by Ying Chan

For years, New York City has tried to transform Willets Point, Queens, a hub of auto shops and junkyards near Citi Field, into prime real estate space for apartments and offices. But local businesses, their workers – and the neighborhood’s only known resident, Joseph Ardizzone – have stood in staunch opposition. Ardizzone, who attends many Community Board 7 meetings, has much to say about the continuing three-year legal battle and his 78 years at Willets Point.

Offering Workplace Skills to the Visually Impaired

By Ying Chan

At first glance, Room 655 in Baruch College’s Newman Library looks like just one more computer lab, with wide-screen monitors in four rows, bare, white walls and a carpeted floor. But for Ellen Tarr and Carolina Vollo, Room 655 is a special place.

Ellen Tarr, left, and Carolina Vollo

Ellen Tarr, left, and Carolina Vollo, at Baruch’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, which helps teach computer skills to people from the metropolitan area, are visually impaired and blind.

Tarr and Vollo are legally blind.

In the lab, Tarr and Vollo are thoughtful and soft-spoken, careful that their voices do not carry far, as two students lean in closely toward the magnified monitors to write e-mails, review lessons and practice using Word and PowerPoint.

Tarr, who began teaching Excel classes in March, also tutors at the learning lab, which is operated by the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, a part of the Division of Continuing and Professional Studies at Baruch. The program is not intended for Baruch students, who receive similar services elsewhere in the college. Rather it is for the community, a way to teach skills that enhance the employment prospects of the visually impaired in the New York metropolitan area.

Last year, 186 students ages 15 to 81 attended the center’s courses, according to the center’s enrollment statistics. The majority of the center’s students are residents of New York City, with some from Long Island and New Jersey.

“Part of Baruch’s mission is servicing the community at large,” says William Reed, the assistant director of the center. “There was a real need for it and a growing need in our society.”

Like many, Tarr, who teaches at the lab, and Vollo, who takes classes there, learned of the center through the Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, a division of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services that provides funding and assistive technology to the legally blind.

“We teach blind and visually impaired people to use assistive technologies, such as JAWS, the screen-reading software, and Zoomtext, which is screen magnification, and we use those in training for Microsoft Office applications,” says Tarr, whose straight, jet-black hair delicately drapes her shoulders.

Tarr, who is employed part-time, is among the minority of the visually impaired and blind who are employed. An estimated 2.3 percent of non-institutionalized Americans reported a visual disability in 2008, according to DisabilityStatistics.org, a Web site that compiles data from several sources, and about 43 percent of them are employed.

Tarr, 31, has been legally blind since birth. Her friends, her family and the people around her, as well as her surroundings, are just faint, blurry outlines.

Under the Social Security Act, blindness is defined as “central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of correcting lens.” The term vision loss refers to those who are visually impaired and have “trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses” and have vision better than 20/200 and a visual field of more than 20 degrees, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. Before this law, many visually impaired and blind people, including Karen Gourgey, the director of the center, struggled in their search for employment.

Gourgey applied for a teaching job in California before becoming director of the center in 1983 and recalls her interview there: “On every question, every category, where they had to evaluate me, I was excellent and outstanding, and on the bottom, the guy wrote: ‘Unacceptable because of handicap,’” says Gourgey. “Now, they just might say: ‘Someone has slightly better experience.’”

Pensively, she adds, “They can do it very easily and make it very hard to prove— people still don’t want to deal with what they think is an enormous challenge and difficulty for them.”

Increasing employers’ awareness is the key to improving the employment prospects of the visually disabled. “The essential idea is that once you digitize information, then you can either enlarge the print or you can have it spoken, or if people need, you can have braille output,” says Gourgey. “As a basic, that makes many, many more jobs accessible than otherwise would have been the case.”

The intention behind the handbook published by the center, A Practical Guide to Accommodating People With Visual Impairments in the Workplace, is to make employers less fearful and prejudiced. It delves into assistive technology, as well as the ways in which employers can better relate to those with vision loss.

“There’s a need for employers to simply to get to know people—people who have vision loss, people who are totally blind or who are visually impaired— to find out that people are people,” Gourgey says.

Vollo, who lost her vision gradually over a span of nearly eight years and can see only light and dark, agrees. “If the employer would be willing to have a more open mind,” Vollo says, she is convinced that testing the visually impaired people on their performance using Excel and Microsoft Word applications is fair.

While the plight of the visually impaired and blind sometimes seems insurmountable, the center maintains a positive outlook.

In the classes themselves, the teachers, who are also visually impaired, are “there as models for the people who are coming in, particularly people who have been devastated by the loss of their sight, either totally or gradually,” says Reed. “ It’s very hard for some of them to understand it, to adjust to it, and to recognize that they have life ahead of them.”

Reed, a former training manager at JP Morgan Chase, has also worked on programs educating people about working with and employing people with disabilities.

In April, the center will host its fourth annual conference, “Success Breeds Success,” at Baruch.

“There’s been progress, which is part of the reason why we’re naming this ‘Success Breeds Success,’ because there have been some accomplishments and we need to empower people to go out there and make more accomplishments happen,” says Gourgey. “The people who are involved, you know the minorities and the groups that are involved, also have to be hugely involved in making our own rights realities for us.”

The conference, whose keynote speaker is Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer, will include workshops such as “Employment Success Stories,” which features a “panel comprised of blind or visually impaired employees and their placement specialists speaking about the process by which they developed an effective working partnership,” according to the conference schedule.

Half of the visually impaired and blind planning to attend, like Tarr, are returning attendees, according to Reed.

“It’s relatively new for me, this loss of my vision,” says Vollo, who is planning to attend this year’s conference for her first time. “I’m trying to get as much involved as possible with what’s going on and as a visually impaired, what’s out there for us for further education as well as jobs.”

Tribeca Film Festival’s New Venue: Your Home

By Gabriela Ramirez

From screening films only in New York City to offering them online, around the United States, the Tribeca Film Festival is expanding its scope.

The Tribeca Film Festival began experimenting with online streaming last year, making available a $45 pass that people could use to watch some films from the festival that were offered online.

Tribeca Online Film FestivalThis year the fee has been eliminated, replaced by a virtual seat reservation system, in which the public can purchase online the limited number of opportunities to view the film. ? “We are excited about this idea of virtual screenings and reservations,” says Jon Patricof, chief operating officer of Tribeca Enterprises, which operates the festival. “It has the potential to be a model for online viewing of films that hasn’t really been tried, as far as we know.” This year’s Tribeca (Online) Film Festival will show six feature films and 18 shorts. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, festival officials say.

“The opportunity to participate in the online festival was made to all of the films in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival,” Patricof says. “Filmmakers that decided to participate are excited about the idea of audiences from around the country having the opportunity to see their films and, of course, about the prospect of winning the online audience award.”

While online streaming of films raises some issues, such as piracy, for the documentary “New York says Thank You” it was the perfect platform. This documentary that has been filmed for six years and follows four New Yorkers who are helping communities around the United States to rebuild after natural disasters, The film offers an inspiring and positive take on the repercussions of Sept. 11, sending a message of healing through volunteering.

Scott Rettberg, director of “New York Says Thank You,” says his film is for whole country and he’s delighted that it will stream. “It was more about more people getting to see it and be inspired to volunteer,” He says.

Most people who will be streaming the movies online are young, one consideration Rettberg took into account when he made the decision to be part of this festival.

Megan Sleeper, producer of “New York Says Thank You,” says she sees another advantage to showing their documentary online: some people who were part of the film, those that received help in places like Kansas, who won’t be able to make it to the festival, and now will have a chance to see it.

Patricof notes: “Originally when we launched the festival last year, we thought the audience would be entirely people from outside New York. We were excited about offering people who can’t make it to New York during the festival the chance to see films, engage in the discussions and watch footage. We found out that it’s not just people outside New York who participate but also those who already attend the festival who want a richer, deeper experience.”

There is, of course, a big difference between the experience and reactions directors will get from audiences that attend the festival and those that will be commenting about the film via Twitter or Facebook. As a filmmaker, Rettberg says the reactions he gets from an online audience, as opposed from a live one, will definitely be different, explaining that there is a more freedom to be honest on the Internet and it’s a great place to inspire conversations. On the film’s official Tribeca page, it has more than 60 comments were posted about the film, its Web Site shows.

Jerry Rothwell, director of “Donor Unknown,” another documentary that will be streaming online, adds, “The online festival is experimenting with a new kind of festival, and it’s exciting to be part of that.”

His documentary is a story of a sperm donor and the children who want to find him. It raises several questions regarding family and biological connections and is likely to lead to many discussions.

Rothwell says his films are best viewed communally, and that the traditional way demands an audience’s attention. Regardless, Rothwell says, “people can still make an event out of watching a film they’ve found on the internet at home. And the exciting potential of an online festival is that you can have a very direct relationship with the audience – getting immediate responses, linking to other relevant content and offering a kind of individual Q&A to each audience member.”

And that is exactly the experience that Tribeca is creating. In addition to streaming films online, it is offering a number of interactive features, including: Live From…, Tribeca Q&A, Filmmaker Feed, the Future of Film blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. All of this content has created a new way to be part of the festival, linking people in the online community with others just as passionate about films.

The Tribeca (Online) Film Festival may very well be providing a look into the future not only of film festivals but also how films are distributed.

The Tribeca Film Festival starts April 20 and runs through May 1. The festival site is now live, and tickets as well as virtual reservations are available at www.tribecafilm.com/tribecaonline

Partying With the Tea Party

By Aleksandr Smechov

A dancing Batman and Robin; a passionate supporter of Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and now a Libertarian activist; a cacophony of anti-liberal debauchery – all were part of the Thomas Paine Park Tea Party rally on Friday, April 15.

Tea Party

David Webb, a co-founder of TeaParty365, speaks to a rally of about 200 people on April 15, in Thomas Paine Park, near Foley Square in Lower Manhattan.

You can’t have as much fun with liberals, I thought. I had gone wanting a good show, something to amuse me. What I got was something else, a well-organized movement that is increasing in momentum, a grassroots campaign growing into something serious.

And this is frightening; it left me dazed by its momentum and clinging to my apolitical agenda.

Hosted by TeaParty365’s David Webb, the rally – broadcast live on Sirius XM – offered, among others, Mike Church, who hosts a talk show on Sirius XM, and Charles Payne, a frequent contributor to Fox News.
In some ways more fascinating than any of the speakers was a 365 volunteer in the crowd, Wave Chan, who hissed and glared at people who kept their hats on during the Pledge of Allegiance, screamed his conservative sentiment in the middle of speeches and afterward stood for two hours in the bitter cold, holding a five-foot-high American flag.

Maneuvering through the unruly crowd of about 200 people, snaking around yellow-shirted petitioners and old timers, I came upon two dancing Brooklyn Tech students, dressed as Batman and Robin.

I asked if they knew any of the speakers. They were anticipating Mr. Freeze, a foe of Batman. Well, I thought, these two will get more than they expect.

Positioning myself at the front of the crowd, I watched Webb, co-founder of TeaParty365, whose website says it was “founded to advocate for fiscal responsibility, free enterprise and liberty; and that limited, effective, efficient and constitutional government must be our collective goal in order for this nation to maintain its place as the world’s leader.”

Webb introduced the first speaker, Andy Sullivan, a construction field supervisor who was apparently emotionally ravaged by the city government’s aversion to having a Wal-Mart in the city.

Sullivan recalled a meeting of the City Council where he was supporting the retailer. “For four hours I had to sit and listen to how evil Wal-Mart is,” he said, referring to it as “the greatest body of capitalism the country has ever produced.”

Afterward he shifted his focus to the more humdrum subject of mom-and-pop stores, blaming “taxes and regulation” for killing Americana charm. “This is a crisis of identity.”

I stepped back and looked around the crowd for a viable fanatic to interview – and found Rena Corey, a staunchly conservative grandmother who was holding up a yellow cardboard sign proclaiming Richard Mack as a hero.
Why is Mack a hero, I asked.

Corey glared at me. She said Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., was doing his job, and doing it for the good of the country.

Doing what for the country? I asked.

She gave me another sharp look. Again, she explained; Mack was arresting illegal immigrants, and the Obama administration sued him for doing the right thing.

“Thank you,” I mumbled, and turned to the next speaker, William Shea Jr., a financier, who began speaking about how rash and irresponsible the liberals were. “If a Democrat breaks it, you pay for it… if a socialist breaks it, Jesus, everybody pays for it,” and “the Democrats ought to be the red states.”

Shea ended: “You look at a little baby… it goes oops in its little panties, and that’s what the Democrats do.” Democrats keep spending money until they go oops, I’m out of money, explained Shea.

Webb then welcomed Church, the talk-show host. His topic was “Mordor on the Potomac,” and he told the crowd of 200 that nowhere in the Constitution did it specify that the “Republicans and Democrats get to make your laws in Washington.”

With a Back to the Future analogy, Church said, “I want to put you in my little DeLorean here, and we are going to go to 2031. We are going to knock on your 3-year-old’s door, and we are going to hold a gun to his head, and demand $544,000, because that’s what he owes.”

Annemarie McAvoy, a Fordham Law graduate who worked for Citigroup and other high-profile financial institutions, was up next and offered several suggestions: spend less so your kids won’t have to pay for it, and go out and vote.

I was shocked. Amid all the complaints, I had forgotten about such things as rational solutions.

At this point, I was dazed, catatonic from the cold and excessive partisanship.

I did not hear much of Andrew Wilkow, another Serius XM host, nor the journalist Janks Morton’s Washington rant.

Though I did hear Janks say something about “the Department of Agriculture, who has never grown one stick of corn … the Department of Transportation, that has never driven anyone anywhere … the Department of Energy, that has never produced one kilowatt.”

My senses shot, I walked away, as people in the crowd raved and yelled.

I was expecting a small gathering of extremists. What I got was far more frightening. The Tea Party movement is gaining momentum – it is organized, stylish and increasing in popularity. This is no ordinary grassroots campaign.

From Silver Screen to Preservationist Scene

By David He

A skeletal marquee juts out from the face of the shuttered building. Underneath, the entrance is covered by an expanse of the blue-colored boards that typically designate a new construction project. Except these boards have been in place for over two decades now and are dirty and graffiti-strewn. The RKO Keith’s Theatre, once a glamorous venue for cinema, has been languishing in limbo since it closed its door to the public and the community in 1986.

The theater, which sits squarely at the intersection between Main Street and Northern Boulevard in Flushing, has weathered time and conflict in the intervening years. The site has drawn both controversy and interest because of the economic opportunity of its land and the personal connections that Flushing residents have to the theater. In 2009 the strength of these connections and memories coalesced into a Facebook group called “Save the RKO Keith’s Flushing,” dedicated to the preservation of the theater.

“My earliest memory was watching The Empire Strikes Back with my father in 1980,” says Rick Gallo, an admin of the Facebook group. “We sat in the main theater, which was the largest of the three theaters. The screen was enormous and would rival the new theaters of today.”

Founded by Flushing native Ed Tracey, the group quickly took off and, within a month, had more than 1,000 members. Many had grown up watching movies at the RKO, or had had their graduation ceremonies there. The Facebook page allows members to share their memories of the theater and brings together people who have otherwise moved away from the area.

RKO Lobby

RKO Keith’s Atmospheric Style lobby, courtesy of Michael R. Miller Collection.

“When I walked into that theater it was like entering another world, as my sisters and I would say, it was like heaven,” says Annette Guarino, who grew up in Flushing and now lives in Long Island. She went on to describe the gold-embossed statues, the sky-painted ceiling and the sweeping stairs with mahogany handrails, calling the beauty of the theater “endless.”

In addition to those who saw movies during the theater’s prime, the group also has members who were too young to remember the theater or who were born after it closed. These younger supporters want to preserve a piece of history they were never a part of, but that nevertheless moves and fascinates them.

Susan Carroll, who was 6 years old when the theater closed, grew up listening to stories about the wonders of the RKO and how her parents saw Star Wars there in 1977.

“I always felt sad I’d missed out on knowing that theater, not to mention that I had to take buses and trains to the movies, while the RKO, in walking distance, stood there vacant and neglected,” says Carroll.

For many subsequent generations, the RKO would remain an abandoned, lifeless, and dilapidated husk of a building. Yet its history stretches back to 1928, when it was first opened as a vaudeville theater. Designed by Thomas Lamb, a preeminent industrial designer of the era, the RKO was built with grandeur in mind.

The façade was lined with lively storefronts, and topped by an ornate, arch-like marquee; a preview of the marvels that awaited inside. The interior was designed in the Spanish Baroque and Atmospheric style, heavily characterized by elegance and opulence. The lobby was a two-story high room with columns and gilded plasterwork on its upper story. The foyer featured a fountain in the center and two broad marble staircases that led up to the gallery. Throughout the rest of the theater, elaborate and intricately worked elements made of wrought iron, terra cotta and plaster contributed to the overall look and feel of a “movie palace”. The auditorium, which seated 2,900, was known for its ceiling, which was painted a deep blue and had projections of stars and clouds moving across its surface to create the illusion of an evening sky.

RKO Exterior

Courtesy of Michael R. Miller Collection.

“I always remember walking in and being awed by the spectacular moon-ish ceiling: it felt as if I was in outer space,” recalls Gallo.

By the 1930s the vaudeville shows were discontinued and only movies were shown. In the 1970s the RKO was renovated and converted into a triplex to house three theaters. The entire interior was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and in 1984 was granted landmark status by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Not long after, Queens Borough President Donald Manes used his position on the city’s Board of Estimate to reduce the landmark designation to include only the lobby and the foyer.

The RKO’s troubles began when Tommy Huang, a businessman and developer purchased it for $3.4 million in 1986. Huang planned to build a mega mall around the landmarked areas. During the years he owned the theater he had half of the auditorium torn down, the lobby stripped and the sweeping staircase bulldozed. Although he was opposed at every turn by preservationists and activists, by the time Huang was arrested in 1996 for letting hundreds of gallons of heating oil spill into the basement, the theater was in ruins. In 1999, Huang pleaded guilty to environmental violations and was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $5,000.

Michael Perlman, the Queens VP of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance and a member of multiple preservation organizations, says that locales like the RKO are culturally important and their value is greater than anything a profit-driven development could achieve.

“A theater owner should preserve and creatively reuse one of our city’s greatest landmarks at heart, and consider its intricate history,” Perlman says. “Developers should not enter and attempt to demolish this gem awaiting TLC.”

Current Exterior

Courtesy of Michael Perlman.

After the Huang debacle, the RKO was once more without an owner and direction until Boymelgreen Developers bought the theater for $15 million in 2002. Boymelgreen had plans to build a 17-story condo tower with a senior center and received approval from Queens Community Board 7 to begin construction. However the developer backed out, citing issues with debt and financial viability, and the RKO was put on sale yet again in 2007.

Save the RKO Keith’s Flushing entered the picture after Gallo discovered the Facebook group online. He and Tracey worked closely together through phone calls and emails before finally meeting in person a year later. They worked to raise awareness for the group and in a short amount of time received press coverage from the Queens Tribune and The Daily News. The group managed to incorporate and attempted to attain a 501(c)(3) status for fundraising purposes when they learned in May 2010 that the RKO had been bought by Manhattan condo developer Patrick Thompson for $20 million.

Gallo and Carroll met with Thompson in June to discuss the developer’s plans for the RKO. Thompson’s plans mostly follow Boymelgreen’s original plan of building a 17-story condo and a senior center. He has also agreed to restore and preserve the landmarked lobby.

“The community board and landmarks committee simply would not landmark the whole building. This is not acceptable but it is better than tearing down the whole building,” says Gallo. “If the lobby can be preserved, at least we can say that a small portion of Flushing history has been saved.”

This of course comes after a large part of that Flushing history has already been destroyed. A video posted on YouTube by preservationist Thomas Stathes in 2009 offers a look at the neglected and ruined interior. The walls that are still standing are cracked and peeling, the ceiling has extensive water damage and a gaping chasm is all that remains of half the auditorium. In some instances a few design elements and ornaments are still intact but for the most part the theater is littered with debris and left in darkness, a gutted remnant of its former glory.

Although construction has yet to begin, The Daily News has reported that Thompson may revise his initial plan to increase the number of apartments and parking spaces that are to be built. It seems that for now the RKO will continue to be surrounded by uncertainty but the resolve of Gallo, Tracey and others in the group to preserve as much of the theater as possible remains unchanged.

“I believe the current residents of Flushing deserve to learn about and to know a restored RKO, at least the landmarked lobby portion, if nothing else,” says Carroll. “As long as the building is still standing, I have hope that the RKO will come alive once more.”

The saga of the RKO is an ongoing one, as preservationists and residents await an ending that will honor the memory of the once storied theater.

Vegetarian Food Festival a Treat for Those Willing to Wait

Story and photos by Elsa Säätelä

With more than 3,500 visitors wedged inside (and many more unable to get in), the displays and main floor were jammed.

With more than 3,500 visitors wedged inside (and many more unable to get in), the displays and main floor were jammed.

With mock meatballs, ice cream made from unprocessed nuts and donuts and cupcakes made without eggs or dairy products, New York’s first Vegetarian Food Festival lured thousands of people to Chelsea on the first Sunday in April.

On a bright and chilly morning, long lines formed outside the Altman Building on West 18th Street, and about 3,500 people eventually made it inside, the organizers said.

“I tried to go to the vegetarian festival, but the line wrapped around two blocks and I couldn’t get in; it was insane,” said Silissa Kenney, a recent Baruch graduate. “You would’ve thought the Beatles were in there!”

Sixty-two vendors, including vegetarian and vegan restaurants, offered their wares. Many promoted local products, such as homemade tofu and fruit snacks made in Brooklyn.

Dessert was the festival’s main attraction.

“I always thought vegan food was super healthy and bad tasting,” said Pat Andrews, who describes himself as a “real meat eater” and says he came just to keep his wife company. After sampling a green tea cupcake, he said it was “one of the best I have ever had – and it’s vegan!”

One highlight of the festival was a donut-eating contest. Cheered on by the crowd, Karen Hoffman, at right end of table, won by eating six donuts.

One highlight of the festival was a donut-eating contest. Cheered on by the crowd, Karen Hoffman, at right end of table, won by eating six donuts.

The festival offered cupcake- and doughnut-eating competitions. Karen Hoffman won the latter, besting three competitors by polishing off six doughnuts, cheered on by a crowd of onlookers.

The doughnuts were supplied by Dun-Well, a new vegan bakery based in Manhattan, that supplied five dozen doughnuts, with flavors including strawberry-coconut and chocolate peanut.

”We wish we could have had our own stand and let everyone try our doughnuts,” said Dan Dunbar, a co-founder of Dun-Well. “But with the limited capacity for doughnut making that we have for the moment, baking enough donuts for an eight-hour-long event did not seem manageable or economically smart.”

Visitors could also sample heartier fare.

Foodswings, a Brooklyn-based vegan fast-food restaurant, offered variations on traditional American comfort food, with mock meatball sandwiches and vegan mac’n’cheese, with no dairy products. “The creamiest mac’n’cheese I ever had!” a woman in the crowd said, as her friend nodded, forking up another mouthful of gooey macaroni.

Not all the food was familiar. One young man grimaced after sampling raw kombucha, an ancient fermented tea drink that some people believe promotes health. “I have no idea what I just drank, but it sure tasted healthy,” he said.

Dan Dunbar, left, and Christopher Hollowell, the founders of Dun-Well Doughnuts, brought five dozen doughnuts from their bakery for to the doughnut-eating derby, and handed out the leftovers to the crowd.

Dan Dunbar, left, and Christopher Hollowell, the founders of Dun-Well Doughnuts, brought five dozen doughnuts from their bakery for to the doughnut-eating derby, and handed out the leftovers to the crowd.

The Vegetarian Food Festival was the brainchild of Sarah Gross, for whom this was not the first act in promoting animal rights and a vegan lifestyle. In 2010, Gross founded Rescue Chocolate, which produces vegan chocolate and donates its profits to animal rescue organizations around the country.

After a trip to Boston’s Vegetarian Food Festival last fall, Gross decided to launch a food fest in New York. She contacted her friend Nira Paliwoda, an event planner, and the two vegetarians began promoting the event on Facebook and Twitter.

The social media sites helped Gross and Paliwoda attract volunteers and sponsors, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Aninalsand Yelp, the Internet search and review engine.

Admission was free, and vendors paid have stands. In addition to the free food samples given out, the vendors had the chance to sell products and bigger food portions.

“Most vendors are happy to pay a small fee to make the festival possible, and also see it as a great opportunity to promote their products,” Gross explains. “So in the end, it is a win-win situation for both us and them.”

At the Chicago Soybairy booth, a worker grated soy-based, dairy-free mock mozzarella for a pizza topping.

At the Chicago Soybairy booth, a worker grated soy-based, dairy-free mock mozzarella for a pizza topping.

The festival also featured dance, yoga, live music and lectures, with speakers talking about topics including vegan cooking and sustainable lifestyles. Alexandra Jamieson discussed her books Vegan Cooking for Dummies and The Great American Detox Diet, while Chloe Jo Davis, creator of GirlieGirlArmy, a Web-based guide to green living, discussed eco-friendly fashion.

A range of advocacy groups set up tables at the festival. For example, Amie Hamlin, executive director for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, handed out flyers promoting vegetarian, organic and local food in schools.

An hour before the festival closed, the line still stretched for two blocks, and those outside were turned away. But those who made it in seemed pleased.

“Me and my friend waited in line for over one hour to get in here, but it was definitely worth it,” said 22-year-old Maria McKinley, who came to the festival with her friend Luca Gonzales.” “The doughnut-eating competition was the best. It was gross but fun in its weird way. And who would have thought ‘vegan hippies’ do something like that?”

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