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Aleta LaFargue, Hell’s Kitchen native and one of Manhattan Plaza’s first babies, has served as their Tenant President for the past 5 years. She has been an artist, activist and advocate in the community for the better part of her life. Her biggest joy is raising her son Elijah in the community where she grew up amongst their friends and family.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born in the hospital formerly known as Roosevelt on 59th and 10th.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
My family moved from the upper west side to Hell’s Kitchen in 1977 when I was just 6 months old.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
It’s hard to pick one thing but if I had to it would be the diversity of people here.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
The constant overturning of businesses and the lack of support for mom and pop shops.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I’ve been an actor since I was little.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
A half a teaspoon of vinegar is the secret to flaky pie crust.
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Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
This pandemic has exposed so much and has given us an opportunity to reimagine how we want to go forward in our lives and communities. So much creativity has been brought to the surface.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
I was walking home through Times Square and I saw David Blain, the magician, filming magic tricks on the street. We caught each other’s eye for several seconds until I smiled and kept walking. The whole walk home I felt like someone was following me but I didn’t turn back till I got to my building. When I did, there he was. Take me out for a drink sometime and I tell you the rest of that story.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I was invited to the Academy Awards and The Governors Ball in 2002 by my dearly departed friend Robert Riamonti. It was fabulous. At the Oscars, I chatted with everyone from Colin Farrell to Denzel Washington, Kathy Bates and Meryl Streep. I wasn’t going to be famous that night, but I certainly brushed with a whole lot of world fame!
What’s your superpower?
Making people feel welcome, and my cooking.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
Don’t Stop Me Now — Queen
Which people inspire you the most?
My neighbors. They are endlessly generous and creative and are always ready to help each other at a moment’s notice.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
I can’t say I ever “loved’ Times Square, when I was a kid it was full of sex shops and peep shows and I would be solicited by pimps on my way to the C train to get to school in the morning. My friends loved to fill-in our pockets with quarters and sneak over to play video games at Playland or buy stink bombs and ninja stars in the neighboring shops. For a while there was an awesome spot called Bar-Code it was like a bar/club/video game arcade all in one.
My dad actually owned a restaurant called the Barking Fish that was on 42nd and 8th. They sold fried shrimp or oyster po-boys and other New Orleans style seafood. I used to sit on the counter and peel buckets of shrimp. I didn’t know it then but their best customers were men coming home from prison on the Greyhound buses. I was in high school when the Times Square transformation began. It was surreal. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah one day and then an abandoned post-apocalyptic wasteland the next. At first, they put up haiku on all the old movie marquees, then there were life-sized photographic portraits of regular people from the community. There were other installations before it was all replaced by flagship stores and giant Elmos. I walked through Times Square during the quarantine. It was eerie and peaceful.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
There were two bakeries that are gone now. Pozo, which sold the best pastries and the absolute best sweet potato pie I’ve ever eaten and there was another Italian bakery, I don’t remember the name, It was on 9th Ave around 39th Street, past the fish shop and the International Market. My dad and I would make the rounds grocery shopping and always stop in there for a freshly baked baguette. It was operated by an old Italian grandma who would give me a sprinkle cookie from behind the glass case, she knew they were my favorite. If I was lucky, my dad would let her fill a small paper bag full of them for me. As we walked home, he would rip off the heel of the bread for us to eat.
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Anything we missed?
Hell’s Kitchen has made me the person I am today. I have lived in other places during my lifetime but I’ve always come back, because there is just nowhere else like it in the world! You can take the girl out of Hell’s Kitchen but you’ll never take Hell’s Kitchen out of the girl!
Aleta’s Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
Gotham West Market. It’s a great place when you have a little one, they are always family-friendly which is great for a new mom like I was. There are board games available on the tables, lots of space for your toddler to roam around when they don’t want to be stuck in the highchair. I spent many days there when my son was still in the stroller. Unfortunately, they have lost most of the really good spots that occupied their food court pre-pandemic. I’m hoping they are able to recover.
Poseidon Bakery. It’s so special to walk in and see my old friend Paulie, whose family has been making the best Greek pastries, cookies, and savory pies since the 1920s. I love the history and I love the spanakopita!
Chez Josephine. I love its classic charm and the legacy Jean Claude left behind. I have so many special memories in that restaurant.
Tulcingo Del Valle Mexican Restaurant. The owners, Irman and Jesus, are so sweet and they have lots of Mexican grocery items that I love to cook with. Their food is amazing and their cocktail game is on point! They use all fresh juices. They also make a fantastic cafe con leche.
Scent Elate. It’s a tiny hole in the wall shop right across from my son’s school on W48th Street between 8th and 9th. You can buy all kinds of crystals, incense, candles, oils, sage sticks, and other spiritual items. The sweet shop owner will ask if it’s your first time in and if it is, he will have you close your eyes, choose a stone with a charm written on it and he will wrap it up and tell you not to look till you get home. It’s my go-to for special gifts.
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This article was originally published on October 18, 2020. It’s been updated to present Aleta as a candidate for Council District 3.