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She’s from Ohio, but Marni Halasa has taken New York City, and Hell’s Kitchen, to her heart. This former journalist came to the neighborhood to pursue excellence in figure skating and stayed put. Now she instructs a top figure skating team and has become a community activist. Oh, and she once won the Coney Island mermaid parade!
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born in Akron, Ohio. My New York story is a tale of re-invention. I came to the city to go to Journalism School at Columbia University‘s graduate school of journalism, and then was a reporter for a number of years. But when the print journalism market died, I became a skating instructor, now with a seven-time nationally ranked figure skating team. And in the past several years, I have become a community activist running for public office. New York City affords us the ability to reinvent ourselves. That is my New York story.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
After law school I came to New York City to study at Columbia University graduate school of journalism. After graduating, I moved to 34th Street to be close to Sky Rink, an iconic skating rink on 33rd Street between 9th and 10th Ave — so it was actually my love of figure skating that brought me to Hell’s Kitchen! I was working on my 8th figure test, which is akin to getting a PhD in figure skating, so I had to be near an ice rink because passing the test took a tremendous amount of daily cumulative practice. Even today, I am still here as a skating coach with a nationally ranked figure skating team, The Sky Rink All Stars — now located at Chelsea Piers.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
The diversity of Hell’s Kitchen and its small business establishments. You can go to Rudy’s which is one of the oldest dive bars in the city, or go across the street to Marseilles and have a wonderful cocktail, take a dance class at Broadway Dance or go to the theater. And all those locations are essentially within 5 to 10 minutes of each other. Where else can you find such diversity? When you’re in Hell’s Kitchen, you also feel like you are in the center of the universe. You have access to Central Park, Chelsea, the Village, and it has everything you would ever want.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
I did stay put when COVID hit. I did not leave. My husband and I said to ourselves that we were staying. If New York goes down, we go down with it.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
The most interesting thing I’ve learned is how important community is, how important it is to see friends and family face-to-face, have shared experiences with one another while we are physically present. There is no substitute for that kind of connection.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
How everyone came together to show support for our essential workers, healthcare workers, teachers etc. People found innovative ways to help, our teachers found innovative ways to teach, neighbors helped seniors and disabled neighbors who were afraid to go out of their apartments. Everyone was helping each other, which was the silver lining in all this. It is the way I believe the world should be.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
I met my husband at Rudy’s Bar. Mutual friends introduced us and I instantly felt comfortable with this funny, down to earth gentleman. Then I invited him to a party I was having for a friend, and he brought $70 worth of expensive cheese. And the rest is history.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
My closest brush with fame is that I won the Coney Island mermaid parade in 2011, as a skating mermaid gliding on a motorized float of synthetic ice. It was the first time in history that the mermaid parade had an ice rink float.
What’s your superpower?
I am an empath, with the power to empathize with everyone I meet, whoever they are. It is the one characteristic that all public servants must have to represent their constituents.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
The Captain and Tennille‘s Love Will Keep Us Together.
Which people inspire you the most?
My friends who are disabled and still do the craft they love, which is dancing and teaching dance. A friend of mine who was an accomplished dancer had an accident in a luxury elevator that malfunctioned. He was permanently maimed, but every day he still keeps going. He teaches dance to other disabled young people, and I am so inspired by his fortitude. We need to help our disabled neighbors, especially low income physically challenged people, with expanded amounts for the EBT cards as well as free admission for these families at city museums and other city entertainment.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
My favorite quote is by Margaret Mead. To paraphrase, it is “never underestimate the power of a concerned group of citizens.”
I have first-hand experience with this, collectively organizing the Fulton Houses and Elliott Chelsea Houses tenants against the demolition of two NYCHA buildings, Where developers wanted to build luxury development. The tenants came together to fight demolition and save the homes of 76 families. We protested at Corey Johnson’s apartment, the Mayor’s Gracie Mansions, Community Board 4 and got the media to cover this important story. It puts so much pressure on real estate interests that they scrapped the deal. This is citizen power in action and what regular people can do when they come together to do what’s morally right, and what is on the right side of history.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I would bring back the original Cupcake Cafe. I loved it because of the cozy atmosphere, amazing cupcakes — but also they had quiches, and so many other good things to eat. It was one of the main shops that changed the atmosphere of 9th Avenue and I still miss it today.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
Learn more about my campaign at www.marniforcitycouncil.com
Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
Rudy’s Bar (9th Avenue between W44/45th St)
The place where I met my husband Peter. Rudy’s will always hold a special place in my heart, but aside from the romantics, Rudy’s was also the place where a younger, more adventurous self could get cheap beer and a hotdog, meet aspiring writers that actually could edit the novel you were working on, as well as get your Tarot cards read. I will always recall the red duct-taped booths and its 80s rock music selection, but Rudy’s truly was a special place because it cared about people. Rudy’s collected people’s mail for them when they did not have an address, they paid for funerals and offered Thanksgiving Dinner to those that had nowhere to go. That, to me, is the definition of what a neighborhood bar can be to its community.
Kashmir 9 (9th Avenue between W36/37th St)
Some of the best Pakistani fast food in the city. The service is fast, the people are friendly and they already know what you want to order when you walk in the door. The naan bread is as big as a spaceship and curries are sublime. It’s been there for decades and its ambiance and neon signage reminds me of a place I wish was still around — old New York.
Mama Mia 44SW (9th Ave and W44th St)
A perfect place for an outdoor party, especially since the restaurant’s hostess-with-the-mostest, Connie, is so warm and engaging. Also delightful is when the fantastic entertainment duo of Nancy Slusser and Louie Tucci — Broadway musicians and actors who live in Manhattan Plaza — is performing. The neighborhood swoons listening to these songbirds sing the groovy standards of Karen Carpenter, Maureen McGovern and Cher, while sipping on Mama Mia’s infamous cocktails. One of the most inspiring nights you can experience this summer!
Broadway Dance Center (W45th St between 8/9th Ave)
Where I spent a good portion of my years. The day I walked in and took Amira Mor’s Bellydance Extravaganza Dance Class, I was hooked. Amira told us that “bellydance is not a hobby but a lifestyle” and true enlightenment meant that we dancers needed to “get in touch with our inner goddess.” That’s all I needed to hear before I was taking dance classes 4 times a week, as well as performing for the Princess of Lebanon, at parties and parades and even a cameo in the movie, Sex in the City 2. Although my life has now taken an entirely different direction, I do miss those days.
Smiler’s Deli (9th Ave and W45th St)
Love the avocado smoothie that I think cures all ills! But most importantly, Smilers is an institution — has been there for years, is centrally located and almost always open if you have a craving for organic cheese puffs, salted almonds, sliced mango or a healthy drink with wheatgrass. The people are always super nice, and always let me put my palm cards in their window. Thanks, Smiler’s!