The World Meets Along 116th Street

The Match: Nigeria v. Argentina

The Date: Wednesday, June 25

The Venue: La Savane in “Le Petit Senegal” a portion of W. 116th St. in Harlem

La Savane on West 116th St. during the 2014 World Cup match between Nigeria and Argentina

The world meets at 116th Street, a wonderful demonstration of New York City’s ethnically and economically blended culture.

Let’s take a trip across 116th St. so you can see what I mean.

Your start walking west from the giant Target/Best Buy/Costco complex on the East River across from Queens. You are on one of the major arteries of Spanish Harlem, though it’s somewhat desolate until you walk a few blocks to 2nd Ave. There you find several Mexican shops, restaurants and taco trucks scattered among the Puerto Rican and Dominican spots that fill Spanish Harlem. The iconic Casa Latina Music Shop is near the 6 Train subway station at Lexington Ave.

Walk up the hill to Park Ave. and you pass the office of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the New York City Council. Her office is located near the MetroNorth train tracks. La Marqueta, a historic shopping center that once united East Harlem, sits below those tracks. As you head west, 116th St. transitions from Salsa Harlem to Jazz Harlem and you pass old men and women sitting outside a nursing home near Madison Ave. There are some swanky apartments around 5th Ave., evidence of the gentrification sweeping the city.

After you cross 5th Ave., you begin walking along West 116th St. Soon you pass a large outdoor African market next to an Asian fish monger. Finally, you have reached Lenox Ave. where you immediately encounter the big blue and yellow Malcolm X Mosque, built on the site of the old Mosque No. 7 where Malcolm X became a world-famous advocate for African Americans. For the next two blocks, you are in Le Petit Senegal, a strip filled with West African general stores and eateries. You also pass Amy Ruth’s restaurant where every meal is named for a prominent African American. In addition, the Food Bank For New York City has a large pantry and kitchen on this section of 116th St. near 8th Ave. The orange awning attracts people in need from all around the area.

Proceed further west and you get to Morningside Park, a narrow greenspace beneath a cliff. Atop the cliff, Columbia University looms like a fortress overlooking Harlem valley. You have to be in shape to scale the stairway and reach the summit of Columbia. Once you get there, continue through the lovely campus of President Obama’s alma mater and exit onto Broadway. The Seinfeld restaurant is just a little further south, but if you keep walking west two more blocks, you reach Riverside Park, a fertile sliver along the Hudson River.

Congratulations! You have completed the tour of 116th St. See how it brings several cultures, ethnicities, tax brackets and education levels together? That’s why I love walking along that street and why I just watched my third World Cup match at a 116th St. establishment. I previously watched the USA beat Ghana at Harlem Tavern on the corner of West 116th St. and 8th Ave. Later, I stopped by Hot Jalapeño on East 116th St. between 2nd Ave. and 3rd Ave. when Mexico beat Croatia.

On Wednesday, I visited La Savane, a West African restaurant filled with men on their lunch break.

Inside La Savane while Nigeria plays Argentina in the 2014 World Cup group stage

On my way over to La Savane, I paused in front of a barber shop to watch part of the Nigeria/Argentina match while a guy inside got his forehead line tightened under a large Barcelona banner. I continued past the Senegalese Association of America, where I saw a few men watching the match from cushioned recliners.

There were about ten people at La Savane when I arrived so I ordered tea and sat at a table in the back next to a guy named Shaka. Shaka, an Ivorian, was speaking French to no one in particular, but he switched his match analysis to English after I started chatting with him.  He showed me the score of the Iran/Bosnia game on his phone a few times, but after a meaningless foul call against Nigeria, he suddenly announced, “There’s something fucking wrong with this referee!” and left the restaurant.

He returned a few minutes later.

Like Shaka, most of the men filtered in and out of La Savane throughout the match, though their exits were far less dramatic. I scanned the room at one point and counted three guys wearing cabbie hats and more with Blue Tooth devices (BlueTeeth?) stuck in their ears. Many West African immigrants work as cab drivers so I wonder if they purposely adopted the look of a 1940s taxi driver or if they just wear the hats because they look neat and classy.

I bet it’s the latter because West Africans often look formal and stylish. It was like 90-degrees outside but most of the men were wearing long-sleeve button down shirts, slacks and wingtips. The guys I met at New Ivoire the day before were also well-dressed. In fact, the West Africans I pass each day on 116th St. dress way better than I do.

With about twenty minutes left in the match, a familiar face walked into the restaurant and sat down next to me. He was one the guys who got into a heated argument with another fan at halftime of the Cote d’Ivoire game the day before. That day, he wore a pin stripe suit and fought with another guy while I stood between them and impassively observed the scene. Today, however, he was calm. I guess he got some stuff off his chest during that Cote d’Ivoire game. I can’t fault his passion; that match was tense.

I introduced myself and told him I was standing behind him for most of that Cote d’Ivoire match. He had no idea who I was, but he shook my hand and told me his name was Diabi. Diabi was also wearing a cabbie hat.

La Savane was a pleasant environment for a low-pressure, pan-African lunch party. Bosnia was beating Iran by two goals so Nigeria was guaranteed to advance even if they lost, which they did 3-2.

The place was ostensibly a Cote d’Ivoire restaurant (there was a large Cote d’Ivoire flag outside and a small flag on printer paper stuck to the inside of the window), but it attracts immigrants from all over West Africa.

A pyramid of African soccer balls at La Savane in Harlem during the 2014 World Cup

The walls were covered with a few flat, amateurish paintings of village scenes. I was surprised to see several items that I would classify as Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling, windows and walls. There were a couple large red bows, including one above the beverage counter, as well as a long evergreen tree garland that snaked across the top of the window and cascaded down the side into a collection of earthenware pots and pine cones.

Employees continually lugged huge sacks of rice and crates of Carnation milk through the restaurant. A few guys, including Diabi, ate big plates of white rice and meat. Just like New Ivoire, La Savane served Applebee’s-sized portions. I saw a small cardboard collection box for the South Bronx Islamic Cultural Center on top of a freezer. Maybe these guys are packing in the food now to prepare for Ramadan on June 28.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 6/10 for a clean restaurant hosting a chilled-out group of soccer fans on a Wednesday afternoon. 10/10 for 116th St., an ethnically and economically blended representation of NYC. 

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