The West 111th Block Association hosted “Taste 111” Thursday evening, an outdoor event where Morningside Heights residents sampled food and drinks from 15 participating local restaurants, bars and shops.
Dan McSweeney, 50, was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Morningside Heights and is a current resident of the neighborhood. After witnessing the effects of COVID-19 on his community, McSweeney decided to revive the West 111th Block Association, a long-since dormant community advocacy group, to help local residents and businesses survive the pandemic.
The West 111th Block Association conceived the idea for the event after Columbia University told undergraduates not to return to campus in August to avoid potential outbreaks. Nearby eateries were hit hard, including Tom’s Delicious Pizza, a popular place for undergrads that recently closed its doors to the public for good.
“So much of their customer base came from these students,” said McSweeney. “And we want to do whatever we can to help them. Because they’re not just businesses. They’re the neighborhood’s purveyors of culture. They’re places where information is exchanged, where memories are made and shared, where people participate in community life.”
Around 5:30 p.m., a long line of masked attendees, some with walking canes and others pushing their children in strollers, gathered outside the People’s Garden— a neighborhood community garden on West 111th Street— to purchase $10 “passports” that listed the locations of the 15 participating restaurants and bars. The goal of the evening was for guests to visit each destination, where they would receive a passport stamp. Attendees who collected every stamp could return to the community garden and enter a raffle.
A jazz band played up-beat tunes and scents of mint and lemon from the garden wafted through the air while guests mingled and chatted.
Yvonne and Calvin Rogers have lived on the corner of Amsterdam and West 110th Street for 42 years. “I really care about the neighborhood, but boy, did I miss the jazz.” said Calvin Rogers, who heard the music and decided to buy tickets to the event.
Marti King, 80, had seen Taste 111 advertised in flyers. He said the event was great for seniors, many of whom had been isolated for months. “It’s honestly great for older folks. They’ve been really lonely. It’s just nice to see the neighbors again.”
Many of the participating restaurants jumped at the chance to join the event when they were first contacted by the block association, said McSweeney.
Silvia Volpi, 25, lives in Morningside Heights and works at the Hungarian Pastry Shop at 1030 Amsterdam Ave. “It’s really great to see this is bringing people together and encouraging people who otherwise wouldn’t get to know the neighborhood,” she said.
Robert Dominguez, 28, a bartender at Tartina restaurant at 1034 Amsterdam Ave, also lives nearby. “It’s really wonderful,” said Dominguez, about the event. The owners of Tartina are from Sorrento, Italy, and have missed sharing the food of their hometown with local residents, said Dominguez. “Obviously we’ve gotten more business than usual, but it’s also a great way to share not just our food but our culture,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to serve the block.”
By the end of the night, 210 tickets had been sold, raising over $2,000 dollars. All proceeds went to participating businesses. “It went beyond our wildest expectations,” said McSweeney, elated. “We expected maybe 50 people. This is amazing.”
As Taste 111 wrapped up, event organizer Gretchen Connelie said she was exhausted but thrilled with the turnout. “It really renews my faith in humanity seeing how many people showed up to support the community,” said Connelie. “I know it sounds like a big statement for a relatively small community event, but it’s just so easy to only see the darkness right now. And seeing so many different people all coming together to support their neighborhood, it’s just really heartwarming.”
McSweeney hopes that Taste 111 can be the beginning of a larger effort to establish a business association for Morningside Heights and to solidify neighborhood support for local businesses. Meanwhile, the block association is already planning its next community events, among them a Halloween-themed “Haunted Evening,” a Thanksgiving food drive, and a December “light up the block” event.
“I love this neighborhood, as do the other members of the association,” said McSweeney. “And this is the best way we can think of to honor its legacy.”