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Shkumbin ‘Bini’ Mustafa came to New York in 1999, as an ethnic Albanian Muslim refugee from Kosovo. He had heard from a friend that the United States would allow in 20,000 immigrants seeking escape from war-torn Yugoslavia. “So I said, you know what? I always wanted to come to New York. I can’t go back home — I’ll just come in and try to see if I can make a better life,” said Bini. “I packed my small bag with a tennis racquet, a pair of jeans and 2 T-shirts. Hey, I’m going to New York.”
Bini ended up making his new life in Hell’s Kitchen. He’s connected with the community through a combination of tennis, his family, his love of the Olympic team sport Handball — which he describes as “either water polo without water, lacrosse without the sticks, or soccer with your hands” — and his branding agency, 47and10. Here’s his West Side Story…
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I came to New York City on June 11, 1999, as a refugee from Kosovo. It was always my dream to visit New York. When I was 12 years old while watching a movie with my family I told them one day I will be there. Here I am, 22 years after, in the place I always wanted to be.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
When we had our first child, we were living on W34th Street and Dyer Ave. We had a one-bedroom apartment and were looking for something bigger. At that time one of my tennis clients, Jason Karadus, who worked as a real estate agent, helped us get a pre-construction deal at Clinton West on W47th Street. It was crazy to think at that time we didn’t do much research about the neighborhood — and especially that block. I remember walking one day just to see what’s in the area and right next to my future home seeing a bunch of homeless and drunk guys having a fiesta. It was a mess. Anyhow, I thought it was just a coincidence and a one-time thing. I went again a few days later, and they were still there, but worse, now there was a bunch of prostitutes hanging out further down the street. It was quite a shock, and I felt I had made a terrible mistake. But I couldn’t admit it to my wife at the time. I stayed positive and decided things will get better. Things did get better, and Mayor Bloomberg cleaned up the streets. Since 2005, I have been a happy resident of Hell’s Kitchen.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
Everything. It’s a place in the middle of Manhattan that still feels very diverse and a bit out of place. I feel at home.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
There’s this thing about rats making noises in trash bags that still disgusts and annoys me. No matter how long I’ll be here, that noise will continue to get under my skin.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
I’ve stayed put and enjoyed this completely different perspective of the city. There was a lot of sadness, but at the same time I’ve never seen or experienced the city from this point of view, and it was beautiful as well. Waking up every morning with birds chirping in my window, and not hearing the sounds of traffic was something I don’t remember experiencing before.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I worked at a large brand consultancy, Siegelvision. We helped all kinds of organizations build credible brand identities. One of my favorite projects was for CUNY. We positioned them as the Greatest Urban University in The World, which was based on all the data and research. I didn’t know the power of CUNY until we started digging through tons of interviews and documents. What an amazing institution it is.
Now, I do exactly the same with my company — 47and10 — here in Hell’s Kitchen.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
It’s not something new that I learned, but it was just a reminder of how quickly things can change, and how we don’t have control over so many things. It’s scary.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
It’s my kids. Sofia (15) and Noah (12). Honestly, it’s been a very challenging and difficult year; from having COVID in mid-March 2020, a motorcycle accident right after that, to losing my job, seeing the country erupt and schools shut down. They were the ones that kept me going. They might not know this because I’m being a pain in the butt with them when it comes to getting their school stuff done, but it was them that kept me going and kept me in check and in some sort of a routine.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I’ve had plenty of those moments, but the one I will always remember is the time I was Nicole Kidman’s tennis coach at Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club. It lasted for about three months. She was so graceful, kind, and beautiful. I really enjoyed that experience.
I was also assigned to be Lorne Michaels’, the creator of Saturday Night Live, tennis coach every Sunday for a year, but he never showed up. I got paid for sitting and waiting for Lorne.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
Luckily for my neighbor, I don’t do that. Singing was never one of my talents. Not even in the shower.
Which people inspire you the most?
The people who can consistently sustain any form of success or achievement for a long time are a true inspiration to me. In sports terms, guys like Lebron James and Tom Brady are inspiring. Both are family men who are devoted to becoming the greatest in their fields. Good role models. The same goes for Warren Buffet. A simple yet brilliant man, who is dedicated to living his full potential.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have” — Vince Lombardi.
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
I do like Times Square because I built some great memories there. My first big memory is celebrating New Year’s Eve 2000 (Y2K). I’d been in the country for just six months and I was doing some freelance work for ABC News. I had a press pass that allowed me to move freely anywhere. I spent 18 hours non-stop from 6am until midnight, waiting for the ball to drop. It was one of my craziest experiences ever.
The second amazing memory in Times Square was shooting a video with my handball team. The Times Square Alliance security folks came to kick us out, but I was able to persuade them to let us be there for just 15 minutes. We spent 2 hours playing there, and people were cheering, clapping taking pictures. It was amazing.
And the third memory was at Blue Fin. I met two of my good friends there at 9:15am for breakfast. We were having such a good time that breakfast turned to lunch, and lunch turned to dinner until we were asked kindly to vacate the premises around midnight.
So, yes I do like Times Square. It always brings good memories.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I miss Market Diner on 43rd Street and 11th Avenue. They had the best and simplest chicken soup ever. They were also open 24/7 and the people working there were down to earth and nice.
Anything we missed?
I run a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization — the New York City Team Handball Club. Our purpose is to inspire all our members to live and breathe the Olympic values of friendship, inclusion, courage, determination, and respect. We are dedicated to the spirit of team handball, the benefits it provides, and more importantly connecting people from around the globe in the greatest city on earth.
We are the most successful handball club in the country and have members from over 60 countries. It’s truly a passion of mine, and something I intend to dedicate more time to, to make it bigger than it was before the pandemic.
Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
Mercury Bar (9th Avenue between 45/46th Street). Everything about Mercury Bar makes me happy. Too many good times with friends that I will never forget. I’ve been going to Mercury Bar since 2006, and I have to say it’s one of the most consistent restaurants in the city when it comes to the menu. I also love the fact they were one of the only places in the city to play music videos after 11 PM.
Hell’s Kitchen Park (10th Avenue between 47/48th Street). It makes me happy because I am building memories with my son, which I know he will never forget. I spend a lot of time in this park playing basketball with my son Noah. We used to spend many hours there when the kids were little. It’s a place we got to know and spend time with other parents.
The Jolly Goat Coffee Bar (W47th Street between 10/11th Avenue). Before the pandemic, it used to be the first place I visited every single day. They were the reason that I’d start the day happy. I know they are still considered newcomers to Hell’s Kitchen, but Murat from Jolly Goat has raised the level of quality when it comes to serving good coffee in the neighborhood.
Sullivan Street Bakery (W47th Street between 10/11th Avenue). It makes me happy that we can grab good bread when we need it. Every neighborhood needs to have a bakery, and we are lucky to have Sullivan Street in the area. From Pecorino to Bomboloni — I love everything they make.
Pier 96 at Hudson River Park. I enjoy coming to this place to unwind, especially during sunset. My kids and I spent many summers on the grass of Clinton Cove at Hudson River Park. We would come here before the sunset and we would have a picnic, play soccer and of course, enjoy the free kayaking from the Manhattan Community Boathouse. I love that we are so close to the Hudson River bike pathway.