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women of the year
Image: Bryan Mayes

9 amazing women who changed NYC for the better this year

This Women's History Month, we're celebrating awesome women who have done some seriously impressive things over the last 12 months.

By Will Gleason, Shaye Weaver and Anna Rahmanan
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To mark Women's History Month, we are once again toasting the amazing women who have made NYC an even better place to live over the last year. (Check out last year's list here!) Faced with a year of unprecedented challenges, they've risen to the occasion, making their mark in fields ranging from bookstores and comedy clubs to civic activism. Meanwhile, here are some amazing local NYC businesses owned by women you should check out and don't miss our month-long Women's History Month partnership with SummerStage.

Women of the Year 2021

women of the year
women of the year
Image credit: Bryan Mayes

Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang, Founders of Heart of Dinner

Since the pandemic struck NYC in March 2020, Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang have provided 56,000 meals to elderly Asian Americans through their organization Heart of Dinner. What originally began in 2015 as a supper club that benefitted non-profits fighting food insecurity, Heart of Dinner has blossomed into a full-on project serving culturally appropriate meals to Asian American seniors who are facing isolation, hunger and fear all heightened by the pandemic. They've also provided meals under other initiatives to help support the Chinatown community, including #EnoughIsEnough and #LovingChinatown these past several months, with no personal income. 

Tsai, a chef and restaurateur, and Chang, an actor, have put their careers on hold to carry this out (with very little rest and downtime), but it's been a labor of love. 

"There is good and love and we're countering all the isolation, fear and frustration with encouragement, support and showing up with a smile," Chang said. "We're all in this for humanity. We're showing up for our people — our humans. I hope people can clearly see that if you raise your hand to step up, we're all better for it."

Tsai and Chang have been able to do so much, in part, because they have each other. They have been dating for almost seven years and have faced a lot together—neither of them had come out until they began dating—and they're what we consider a true "power couple."

"During the early years, and during the pandemic, it felt like a pressure cooker, but it's been seamless—we're always on the same page," Chang said. "We've always been by each other’s side."—Shaye Weaver

Rapid-fire questions:

What is the one thing that has gotten you through the pandemic?
The community that has rallied together throughout this time, my family, and Moonlynn. No matter the pandemic-related curveballs thrown our way, Moonlynn and I always see the silverlining in each and every circumstance. It’s also a huge plus that we find so much joy in each other’s love and company, not a day goes by without laughs! She’s My Person, and I couldn’t imagine going through the pandemic without her.—YC

What's your favorite spot for dinner in NYC?
The beauty of NYC is that dinner can be comprised of hopping from place to place and experiencing so many different flavors and cuisines on one route! We love taking walks around our neighborhood and venturing and visiting our friends who are local restaurant owners. One of our favorite routes is walking from Golden Diner to Partybus Bakeshop to Saigon Social and then picking up some treats at Stick With Me Sweets.—MT

What’s a new habit that’s become part of your routine during lockdown?
Oh no! I’ve always preferred a cheese plate and fried chicken over anything sweet for dessert, and this lockdown has turned me into a sweet tooth with a monstrous habit of eating treats right before bed (on our bed), no thanks to our ridiculously talented friend Susanna Yoon, founder and chocolatier at Stick With Me Sweets. She’s made me a true convert with the world’s best bon bons and sweets!—YC

Is there another women you know in the food and restaurant field who is doing something exciting and innovative right now?
Our friend Yen Ngo (Van Da, Farmer & Sons) recently acquired a complex of buildings in the historic center of Kinderhook in Upstate New York. The history of the building is incredible—it was originally a 19th-century hat factory and knitting mill and left virtually intact. When Yin and I were walking through, we saw pieces of the original fabric laying around and the original light fixtures. Yen, alongside her partner artist Darren Waterson, are turning the complex into a new restaurant, barista, lounge, gardens, and event space. while still paying tribute to the history of the town and homage of the building. So excited to watch it come to life!—MT

Get in on the action: You can help deliver, write notes and more with Heart of Dinner or just donate. Go to heartofdinner.org to learn more.

Carolina Saavedra
Carolina Saavedra
Image credit: Bryan Mayes

Carolina Saavedra, Sous Chef at La Morada

Carolina Saavedra is the sous chef at South Bronx restaurant La Morada, an eatery owned and operated by an undocumented family. Herself a born and raised New Yorker, daughter of undocumented parents that were displaced due to the North American Free Trade Agreement that came into force in 1994, Saavedra's culinary talents are intricately shaped by her heritage—which makes her positivity that much more striking.

“As more people focus on how COVID-19 has negatively impacted the restaurant industry I want to highlight a positive," she says. "It helps shine a light on the industry workers that tend to be overlooked like the dishwashers and how their role is just as integrated and as crucial as the one of a cook."

Her life as a single mother has also put her career, cuisine and life outlook into perspective—especially when discussing the unique challenges faced by women throughout this extraordinarily strange year. "On top of having the highest percentage of job losses, we've had to learn how to become even more malleable with life," she says. Balancing home life, work duties and, well, potty training isn't as easy as it sounds, she says. She believes that both the federal and local governments could step in to help, starting with vaccine accessibility.

"Many undocumented folks can't even schedule an appointment because of lack of Internet, phone or langugage," she explains. “In other cases, many can’t afford to make it to the distribution place or jeopardize calling out of work to go and receive it. The local and federal governments should combine forces to give undocumented folks a fair chance to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Undocumented workers are essential workers."

Stay tuned for the chef's next project: a grassroots food academy, which seeks to recreate mutual aid systems that are already in place while learning from them. "We will connect resources to those in need to ensure that no food goes to waste," she explains. "Currently, there is still too much excess food going to waste, too many unused kitchens in boarded-up restaurants, too many trained kitchen workers who have been laid off while 1.5 million New Yorkers can’t pay for groceries."Anna Rahmanan

Rapid-fire questions:

What is your go-to comfort meal?
Sope: a corn cake topped with beans, seasonal veggies and cheese that's said to be the perfect meal because it has more than three food groups on the plate and because it showcases indigenous cuisine, preservation and seasonality.

Where do you go to get away from it all?
Brook Park community garden is a place I call my second home and it is where I am currently growing medicinal herbs for the community to boost and support their immune system. 

What advice do you have for up-and-coming chefs trying to make it in New York?
Volunteer at soup kitchens, where you'll learn so much about the huge disparities in the food system and develop close relationships with other folks in the industry. You'll also develop your knife skills a lot faster.

What are some of your favorite local businesses in NYC?
Street vendors. Some of my favorites include the tamalera on 138th Street between 3rd and Willis Avenue and the churros lady inside the 125th Street subway station.

Get in on the action: Donate a whole range of ingredients and money to the restaurant's Mutual+Aid Kitchen project. Check out the project's GoFundMe campaign right here

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Samara Bliss
Samara Bliss
Image credit: Bryan Mayes

Samara Bliss, Founder of The Locker Room

Signs touting the city’s resiliency—“New York’s not dead. It’s just underground”—have taken over Manhattan and Brooklyn in recent months. The mind behind them? Samara Bliss, founder of the South Williamsburg-based art collective, gallery and recording studio space The Locker Room.

"While restaurants were struggling and performance spaces were closed, I saw a community of artists who had a lot of energy and a lot to say but nowhere to go," Bliss says about the inspiration behind her project, which she launched smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic.

Also responsible for the plane banners and billboards plastered around Miami and Los Angeles, reinterpreting the often cited sentiment that New York is dead (albeit with an addendum: Don't come back), the Locker Room is now in the midst of yet another creative project: a residency program for ten artists that will result in a new exhibit sometime in May. "The magic of New York, for me, has always been in the sum of her varied and juxtaposed parts whipped together with a serving of challenges," says Bliss. "The art collective, gallery and label we’re creating is meant to pay homage to this genealogy and hopefully push the narrative forward."

You can snag some merchandise—from beanies to zines—on the collective's website or join one of the various open calls to artists for curated exhibits. You can find those on the project's official Instagram account.Anna Rahmanan

Rapid-fire questions:

What's your favorite book right now?
AREA, by Eric Goode, Jennifer Good and Stephen Saban. It's about the New York nightclub where the art and nightlife scenes came out to play from 1983-1987.

What's the one place in New York City that has helped you feel inspired this year?
Crest Hardware, which has been a neighborhood staple since 1962. The hardware store and garden shop has been hosting artist events and galleries for decades and is a real family affair. I find a lot of comfort in the midst of strangers all working on their own projects, whether it’s maintaining something others would toss or creating something new.

What's one habit that you picked up during lockdown?
The first few months I was adamant about writing in my journal every day. When phase two started, I was religious about grabbing a to-go cocktail from a bar window and walking around Tompkins Square Park during the daily 7pm cheer for front line workers. This winter, I tried to watch as many sunsets as possible but usually end up catching the sunrises.

What's your favorite museum in New York City?
It’s not exactly a museum, but Green-wood Cemetery has been my go-to spot for years. It’s a museum of people! For some people, their life in totality is their masterpiece and Green-wood is the final resting place for all sorts of these cosmic artists. The landscape and sculpture design creates a choose-your-own-adventure experience. It’s a truly groundbreaking memorial to New Yorkers, where respect for the deceased is not always paid in solemn silence but sometimes in roaring live performances by a funk band and a dancer vibrating inside the catacombs. I find nothing more life-affirming than this.

Get in on the action: Visit thelockerroomnyc.com to learn more about the collective’s projects.

Pam Elam
Pam Elam
Image: NYC Parks/Daniel Avila/Bryan Mayes

Pam Elam, President of Monumental Women

The gender disparity when it comes to statues in NYC is staggering. Of all the official statues across the five boroughs, only five depicted real women before August of last year. The sixth entry on that list was a major, and very notable addition. Unveiled on August 26, “Women's Rights Pioneers Monument” in Central Park depicts three icons of women’s rights who all spent time in NYC: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth. Believe it or not, it’s the first statue depicting real women in the iconic Manhattan park. Ever.

The main organization behind turning this remarkable new public monument into a reality was the group Monumental Women, headed by President Pam Elam. “We formed Monumental Women seven years ago in order to break the bronze ceiling and now there is finally a statue of real women in Central Park,” Elam tells us. “We had to raise 1.5 million dollars in private money to make it happen.”

Even though Elam and the organization raised all the funds and were offering to donate the statue to the city, they still had to navigate byzantine levels of bureaucracy to erect the work. “We had to go through every level to get this approved,” says Elam. “It was just very frustrating that even in a progressive city like New York, you can’t find an easier path. 

Now, Elam is working to help other local municipalities to create more public statues of women in their cities and towns. “We want to be helpful to groups all across the country who are trying to reimagine their public spaces,” she says. “Our effort with Monumental Women is not only to get more information out there, we want to make sure that people understand that this is the first step to social change. You have to rethink the past in order to shape the future.”

Rapid-fire questions:

Favorite spot to go when you need some solace in NYC?
Every year since it was built, I go to the Eleanor Roosevelt Statue over in Riverside Park. I was there when it was dedicated. It's such a beautiful statue and Eleanor Roosevelt is such an extraordinary woman as we know. It never fails to inspire me 

What woman would you like to see receive a statue in NYC next?
I have a long list of suggestions. I would be delighted to talk to anyone in the city who cares about this. We have a long list of suggestions about how we can reimagine its public space.

What projects are you working on next?
We have an education campaign for Women’s History Month right now, and we now have a challenge to municipalities all over the nation to build more monuments to women.

What made you settle on these three women?
We wanted to honor three New York women who changed the world. They were contemporaries, they worked together, they shared the same stages, so it’s only fitting that they share the same pedestal.

Who’s someone in your field we should be on the lookout for?
I just have incredible respect and gratitude for feminist historians and there are a lot of them, so I hesitate to name just one. There are so many feminist historians that are opening the doors to all of us about women we’ve never heard about in the past. So I would just say thank you to feminist historians who are working every day to increase the level of knowledge about the diverse women that have brought us to this point.

Get in on the action: You can see the Women’s Rights Pioneers statue for yourself toward the north end of The Mall in Central Park.

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Samara Bliss
Samara Bliss
Image credit: Bryan Mayes

Kalima DeSuze, Founder of Cafe con Libros

The founder of feminist bookstore Cafe con Libros finds books to be "the first step in trying to understand a subject matter in a deeper and more nuanced way." Her words have added resonance when measured against the year we’ve all just had, and New Yorkers’ renewed passion for reading while stuck at home.

As life-altering as the pandemic has been, DeSuze has started thinking of it as an equalizer in the book industry. "Because everything is now on Zoom, publishers and authors can take risks," she says. "We were able to score some great people for events [in our space] and I don't think we'd have been able to do that if it weren't for COVID-19."

When looking ahead, the 41-year-old shop owner, who also holds a full-time position at the Silberman School of Social Work, hopes to continue normalizing the idea of spaces entirely dedicated to women—with the help of both the local and federal government.

"If we could create avenues of revenue to support businesses right now during a calamity, we could do that [...] through long-term programs as well," she posits. As for her advice for up-and-coming writers hoping to, one day, see their own work in her store, she suggests: “read a lot, read deeply, read diversely and then sit with it.” 

Want to help? Buy more books! During lockdown, book sales across the city have enjoyed a surge of sorts, but mom-and-pop shops like DeSuze’s can always use more support. On a cultural level, diving into Cafe con Libros’ offerings will also provide unique insights into the most pressing issues of our time. "Knowledge is power and books make it accessible to you," she says. "That's why books are often considered a political statement."—AR 

Rapid-fire questions:

What is your all-time favorite book?
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

Where do you go to get away from it all?
Prospect Park and the People's Beach at Jacob Riis Park.

What’s the one habit you picked up during lockdown? Wake up at 3am to read, get on a bike, strength train or journal.

How do you store books at home?
I have little, themed pods of books everywhere. I turned them into decorations and send a particular message through each one. They are organized by what I need closest to me. I have a spiritual connection to them.

Get in on the action: Visit cafeconlibrosbk.com to order a book (or three).

Samara Bliss
Samara Bliss
Image credit: Bryan Mayes

Joanne Kwong, President of Pearl River Mart

With NYC's Asian American community facing a difficult time, when hate crimes against them are at an all-time high, Joanne Kwong's role as president of Pearl River Mart is more important than ever. On its surface, it might not be obvious, but her position holds a lot of responsibility. Being at the helm of a 50-year-old Chinese emporium means that she is a sort of culture keeper, a bearer of history—whether it lives on or fades. When her in-laws, Ming Yi Chen and Ching Yeh Chen, decided to close up shop due to too high rent in 2015, she had a moment of clarity. "It felt like there was nothing more important than continuing this legacy," she tells us. "There were only a few people who could help continue it...and I would rather take that risk than not try." 

Since she took over as president, Kwong, who has a background in law, has launched an e-commerce website, reopened the store in Tribeca (which is now moving to Soho), another at Chelsea Market and at the Museum of Chinese in America and, in October 2020, a fourth location (and second in Chelsea Market)—Pearl River Mart Foods, a "love letter to Asian food in NYC." 

The store has always been a de facto gathering place in Chinatown, Kwong says, but keeping it alive through these different iterations and updating it to jive with a younger crowd is key to its survival.

But also on Kwong's mind is the survival of her neighborhood. Chinatown's businesses have taken a major hit over the past year with fallout from the pandemic, including xenophobia. Last year, she joined the Light Up Chinatown initiative, which installs paper lanterns to up the street in these dark times and inspire New Yorkers and tourists to stop by and visit hurting restaurants and shops. 

"Chinatown has always been so busy with hustle and bustle, so has been really painful for a lot of us to see what happened in March and April last year because of the xenophobia," she says. "Businesses are run by elders ... and they didn't want to come into work so there were not a lot of places open. Light Up Chinatown was friends and neighbors coming together and figuring out how to make the neighborhood brighter." 

This type of collaboration is nothing new for Kwong. The 45-year-old serves on the Mayor's Small Business Advisory Council and works every day to advocate for her neighborhood. 

"We're all going through this moment and it's really tough for the Asian-American community," she says. "They need people advocating on all different levels of government and in activism, media and business as well, not just from within the community but from allies and friends and other neighborhoods."—AR   

Rapid-fire questions:

What’s a new habit that’s become part of your routine during lockdown?
My husband and I get excited for “Halal Night” every Thursday from Halal Guys on the UWS. We don’t share with the kids; we wait for them to sleep. I’m not sure why it makes us so happy but it does and all the guys who work there are so nice when I come to pick it up.

What are some other great NYC businesses to keep an eye on?
I’m so inspired by the businesses that are finding interesting ways to pivot and who have chosen to double down on their communities. These are the places that will be leading us out of a miserable economy—with warmth, creativity, and innovation. Nom Wah has pivoted brilliantly with frozen dumplings, meal kits and partnerships; Kopitiam has been feeding elders culturally appropriate meals; 886 has brought together business owners to combat anti-Asian violence; 46 Mott in Chinatown is a tiny bakery that has been feeding frontline workers and the homeless since Day 1 of the pandemic. I’m also proud of Chelsea Market, where we have two stores. They have been so supportive of us small business owners, keeping in constant contact and brainstorming all these ways to keep us in business. 

Favorite food spot in NYC?
Oh this is too hard! Let me cheat a little and put it this way: If you’re not regularly eating your way through Chinatown, you’re missing out on not just incredible meals but also the most dynamic, authentic, historic neighborhood in NYC. Here are five spots in my regular rotation: Wo Hop, Big Wong, Dim Sum Go Go, Wok Wok, Deluxe Green Bo. Jing Fong when it reopens, for sure. Equally as exciting to my stomach is eating through the East Village.  Top five: Ho Foods, 886, Jeepney, Mala Project, Nowon.

Favorite spot to go when you need some solace in NYC?
The very end of Pier I in Riverside Park never fails to take my breath away. The view, the quiet, the water always makes me want to cry! And then go tackle my biggest problem. It’s a very rejuvenating spot.

Get in on the action: Check out pearlriver.com and #LightUpChinatown on Instagram.

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Tallulah Talons
Tallulah Talons
Image credit: Action Jackson / Bryan Mayes

Tallulah Talons, Producer of Pandemic Burlesque

One of the industries that has been adversely affected the most this year has been nightlife. With clubs, bars and theaters closed, it was an ongoing question over the last 12 months of how exactly this world would adapt and survive. One performer whose creativity has been on full display when it comes to responding to the. changing times has been Tallulah Talons, who’s currently producing the weekly, socially distanced burlesque showcase Pandemic Burlesque at Club Cumming

I was one of the first people that went into zoom shows, so I’ve found ways to make the pandemic work,” Talons tells us. “As far as in-person performance, I love to work with the producer Daniel Nardicio, so when indoor dining opened up again, we sat down to see if there was a way to make it work.”

The way she made it work was with a lively weekly show that uses a mixture of indoor performances and outdoor seating (“It’s like a drive-in movie but with burlesque,” Talons said.) as well as socially distanced indoor tables. As a result, she’s been able to book talented artists, provide work to others in the industry, and, most importantly, keep doing what she loves in a very different world.

In addition to changing the way she performs, the last year has also changed Talons' approach to her art. “It’s definitely made me appreciate the interactive aspect of it a lot more,” she says. “But it’s also made me think of ways that I could connect with people without being able to touch them. My voice and body language come into it a lot more now. I may be six feet away and covered from the nose down but it still translates. I think as people we’ve adapted to it.”—Will Gleason

Rapid-fire questions:

What's the one thing that has gotten you through the pandemic?
I think over this pandemic, I’ve kind of solidified my pod and it ended up being with some of the performers that I’m now collaborating with. Finding ways to see people, whether it's been through navigating zoom or a pop-up show in the park is what's kept me going. You can see there will still be life even though circumstances have changed.  

What's been the best part of the show at Club Cumming?
I’ve been able to book a lot of people, and I’m grateful I’ve been able to bring in a lot of the performers who have stayed in the city. I’m really happy I’m able to put those people back on stage. There’s incredible talent here and we’ve all been waiting for that outlet. A lot of this has been about community."

Any local NYC businesses you want to shout out?
I'd love to give a local business shout-out to Dromedary Urban Tiki Bar in Brooklyn. They are an amazing local business with great food and cocktails and they've been going through a lot, trying to keep going during this pandemic. 

Is there an up-and-coming performer you love?
The Misfit! She has been doing my tech for the weekly shows since the start and she’s just an incredible performer in her own right. She’s an up-and-coming talent and a vocalist and a producer in her own right, and she’s put on some amazing shows in parks over the summer/

Check it out: You can check out Pandemic Burlesque at Club Cumming weekly in the East Village.

Samara Bliss
Samara Bliss
Image credit: Bryan Mayes

Kambri Crews, comedian and owner of Q.E.D. Astoria

2020 was a year Kambri Crews won't soon forget. As the founder of Q.E.D. Astoria, a small comedy and storytelling venue, she was one of thousands of business owners in NYC scrambling to stay afloat while the entire city shut down. For months, she fought for independent venues like hers to open or at the very least, hold ticketed outdoor events, but New York State kept barring this kind of event but allowing non-ticketed, non-formal events of less than 50 people across the city. 

"The state was not providing rent relief, so there was not any way of survival," she tells us. "The only way to survive is to have business." So, with a fire in her belly, she helped form the New York Comedy Coalition with Senator Michael Gianaris. The group pushed for comedy venues to have the same allowances as other businesses that were being allowed to reopen at the time. Governor Cuomo ended up rejecting their proposal, despite getting support from everyone else, Crews says. 

"He was dismissive of the entire arts industry," she adds. "You're dismissing an essential part of the economic ecosystem of the state by dismissing it." It was a major blow to Crews and her comedy counterparts, but she didn't back down. If the state wasn't going to let her open up and charge for events, she was going to make sure small businesses weren't held personally liable for commercial leases during this time. The citywide law keeping this inevitability from happening was going to expire, so the new bill she helped craft with Senator Ginaris extends that and includes other venues and small businesses to be afforded the same protection. Ginaris just introduced the bill, which he jokingly calls "Kambri's Law," to the State Senate. Thankfully, Cuomo announced that arts and entertainment venues can open April 2 at a smaller capacity, and yes, charge for their own events.

Through all of this, Kambri also took part in the Save Our Storefronts initiative while also dealing with the death of her deaf father just as he was about to be released from prison. She's also been busy advocating for better prison conditions and vaccine outreach in Sullivan County, where she has another home. Needless to say, 2020 brought trouble, but Crews fought back like a champ. 

"It's been affirming and encouraging, and inspiring to my own self, to see different organizations—not just comedy clubs— reaching out to me for guidance and trusting my intuition," she says. "I'm a bulldog. When I latch on to something, I will not let go of it. It makes me feel like my next career is in politics."—SW

Rapid-fire questions: 

What are some of your other, go-to comedy and performance venues in NYC?
With six comedy venues closed and an untold number of other indy venues shuttered or on the brink, by the time this goes to print who knows what will be left. I'm always happy to have a gig at Le Poisson Rouge, Joe's Pub or City Winery. They're all slick operations with great programming and make me feel fancy.

What are some comedians to keep an eye on?
Gianmarco Soresi, Gus Constantellis, Cailtin Peluffo, Usama Siddiquee, Shalewa Sharpe, Lauren Hope Krass and Maddy Smith

How has COVID-19 permanently changed your industry?
Having online streaming content is likely to be a permanent addition. In the short-term or longer, until new clubs open to replace those that closed, stage time will be tougher to get. The more professional comedians will be vying for the same spots that used to be filled by the up-and-comers.

Who or what inspires you?
Young activists and their fearlessness have really lit a spark under me. And David Lee Roth. He's a career chameleon who embraces knowledge and adventure as fuels for keeping him inspired and motivated. I think of him often when I feel in a rut or start to wonder if I'm too old to start something new. 

Get in on the action: Check out qedastoria.com to see what events are upcoming at Q.E.D. Astoria and to donate.

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