Christian John Wikane is a writer and contributing editor for online magazine PopMatters and presenter of interview series Unscripted. He moved to Hell’s Kitchen in 2005 and loves the neighborhood’s serendipity. Here, Christian John shares his West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born and raised in East Hampton on Long Island. In the early 1980s, New York City always seemed like this distant wonderland. I remember how the commercials for the Milford Plaza stirred a sense of wonder in me whenever they’d air on television. The ads for Dreamgirls and Cats, specifically, got me starry eyed about Broadway. Decades later, I was so excited to learn that a close friend of mine, Jamie Patterson, performed in the original casts of both those musicals.
I visited NYC just a few times during high school, more during the years I attended Northeastern University in Boston. I moved here in September 2004 and soaked up all the neighborhoods … Harlem, DUMBO, the West Village and of course Hell’s Kitchen. I lived with a roommate in Hell’s Kitchen for a few months before finding my own apartment in August 2005.
What was your first job? What do you do now?
My first job was working on a farm in East Hampton for six years, and I also interned at a performing and fine arts space called Guild Hall. While pursuing my undergraduate studies, I worked in international education, co-chaired an annual cultural festival, and later volunteered for LIFEbeat’s “Hearts & Voices” program in NYC. Additionally, I worked in the music licensing and distribution division of a marketing company.
I eventually found my niche as a writer and Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where I conducted interviews with artists like Paul McCartney and Janelle Monáe. This led me to a career writing and editing liner notes for CD re-issues, primarily for UK-based record companies, and working with Crimson Productions and the Estate of Donna Summer. In 2018, I began collaborating with photographer/filmmaker Sekou Luke, who captured my interviews with future Oscar winners Jon Batiste and Ariana DeBose, as well as legendary vocalist Dionne Warwick.
Together, Sekou and I launched Unscripted: Conversations with Christian John Wikane, a series spotlighting music icons and innovators like Valerie Simpson and André De Shields. After completing two seasons and producing live events at the Apollo Theater and City Winery, we recently launched Season 3 of Unscripted with Ray Parker, Jr. We’re excited to partner with City Winery for another live event in 2023, which will likely serve as our Season 3 finale. For more information, visit www.unscriptedcjw.com.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
It has to be the first event I moderated at the Apollo Theater back in 2015 for Apollo Education’s Live Wire series. I interviewed Ruth Pointer, Nona Hendryx, Kathy Sledge and Rochelle Fleming in the main theater. Sitting on such an historic stage, I was overcome with emotion. I introduced each of the artists, reciting lyrics to one of their songs. When I got to Nona’s Hollywood, my voice cracked and I felt this river of tears begin to collect behind my eyes. I stopped myself from losing it, but I was feeling such gratitude for the trust each of those extraordinary women had in me to help tell their story. The event felt like the culmination of a lifetime of listening to music, reading about artists and exploring my fascination with the stories behind the songs. There have been several other moments that hold the same level of importance for me, but that first event at the Apollo marked the “top of one mountain,” to borrow a phrase from André De Shields.
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
The first thing that comes to mind is the proximity to the river. Three blocks from my door, I can stand on Pier 84 and just exhale. I’m mesmerized by the juxtaposition of the skyline at night and the way the moonlight seems to dance on the water. On hot summer days, it always feels at least 10 degrees cooler by the water, so it offers a welcome respite from the heat.
Hell’s Kitchen thrives on serendipity, like running into people you haven’t seen in years, all because you decided to turn a corner or take another route. As a writer, inspiration comes from a variety of sources. Just walking around the neighborhood or people-watching from inside a restaurant can help me find the words I want to say. Though it’s easy to take for granted, I love the variety of performance spaces in the neighborhood, especially since they’re more oriented towards intimate live experiences.
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
Listening to music. Allow me to explain: it’s because of listening to music at the age of two, specifically Ashford & Simpson’s production of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough for Diana Ross, that I discovered my passion for writing. Harnessing that passion into a multi-faceted professional life stems, directly, from sitting in front of a record player as a young boy. 40+ years later, music continues to open up a world of possibilities for me.
What else should we know about you?
As my interviews have expanded into film, it’s also been a gift to work on a few music documentaries. A lot of the interviews and research I’ve done over the years have now found a home onscreen. Recently, I had the honor of being a consultant on Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over (CNN) plus HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary about Tina Turner, TINA — there’s a 45-second clip where you can hear me interview the executive who signed Tina to Capitol Records — and Love to Love You, Donna Summer, which will premiere on HBO in May.
At the moment, I’m also working with a major international publisher on a book that threads together several of my interests. The book is slated for release later in 2023, so I will share the news on social media as soon as the publisher makes the announcement.
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Christian John’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
Five Napkin Burger — 630 9th Avenue (bw W44/45th St)
It was one of the few neighborhood restaurants that was open for takeout in the early days of lockdown back in March 2020. I would order from there a couple of times a week. That’s how I got to know Eddie, one of the managers, because it was basically him, one other colleague and the kitchen staff. Over the past three years, it’s become another room in my apartment! The managers, waitstaff, and bartenders include some of the coolest (and kindest) folks you’ll find in Hell’s Kitchen, or anywhere in the city. A special shout out to Aaron and the people who put the “mix” in mixologist: Ivan, Matt, Warren, Angie, Juan and Rachel. My favorite menu item is the greens and grains salad with grilled chicken.
Pier 84 — 555 12th Avenue
I mentioned Pier 84 earlier, but I’d love to mention it again since it’s so restorative, whether I’m mentally unwinding or catching a cool breeze by the water on a hot day. It usually motivates me to walk further down towards Battery Park (I love to walk!) or up towards Pier i Café along the west side.
Little Pie Company — 424 W43rd Street (bw 9th/10th Ave)
What a gem in the neighborhood! Whenever I’m editing one of my longer essays, I will bring my first or second draft to Little Pie Company. Having a cup of coffee and slice of pie makes the prospect of wading through 10,000 words more palatable.
Calo Studio Hair Salon — 324 W47th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
Finding a hair stylist, and striking a good rapport with them, is its own kind of challenge but I’m so lucky that I’ve known Carlos Lopez for nearly 15 years, from when he styled at Blondie’s (now West Vibe). I’m so thrilled that he opened his own salon on W47th Street. I always walk out of there happier than when I walked in!
Westerly Market — 911 8th Avenue (bw W54/55th St)
Simply put, I challenge anyone to find a place that offers a more delicious lentil soup!
Hold Fast — 364 W46th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
It just has a cool, unpretentious vibe. Delicious food, good drinks, easy going staff. It’s a comfort to know they serve food until at least 1am.
Flowers on the Park — 444 W43rd Street (bw 9th/10th Ave)
If you need fresh, healthy, long stem roses, look no further!
Kiehl’s — 678 9th Avenue (bw W47/48th St)
My skin feels healthier just walking through the door! Their products are probably my biggest indulgence.
Delphinium Home — 353 W47th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
I always find exactly what I need for gifts or things that bring a little sparkle to my apartment. They have the best card selection!
Birdland — 315 W44th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
I love living on the same block as such a sophisticated, historic music venue. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a wide range of acts there, including Lisa Fischer, Darius de Haas, Linda Lavin, Christian Holder, and of course Jim Caruso’s Cast Party.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Yes, and it’s related to the neighborhood. My friend, Chef Randy Witherspoon, owned a restaurant on W51st Street called SpoonfedNYC. For a few years, it was my go-to place and represented everything I loved about Hell’s Kitchen: enticing cuisine, fabulous music, a cadre of regular customers and the “anything can happen” promise of a night out in New York. Randy continues to cater and I know he will re-open the restaurant in another location soon, so stay tuned for Spoonfed 2.0. You’ll definitely find me there … Thank you W42ST for keeping us informed! West Side Stories is such a fun series of interviews. Reading past Q&A’s is like having a huge virtual roundtable with neighbors.
You can follow Christian John on Instagram @christianjohn.wikane and on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself) please fill in this form — w42st.info/WSSnominations
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.