I’m from Queens, New York. I was born, raised, and went to public school there until I started college. In all of that time, I think I only went uptown a handful of times and I definitely don’t remember any of it. The whole city has changed since I went to college, I can only imagine how different uptown is. These were the thoughts going through my head as I sat on the 1 train heading to Smoke Signals, a first-of-its-kind cannabis event recently hosted by the media company Uptown Collective, community group Uptown Cannabis Coalition, and the brand Bud-A-Fly Treats. The concept behind the event? Celebrating community, Latinx culture, and cannabis through an evening of storytelling, food, and vibes at the posh Peruvian restaurant Chelas.
Smoke Signals: Uptown Collective And The Cannabis Community At Chelas
When I finally got off the train (still the slowest local line ever to exist), I found myself near Broadway and 157th Street, a place that had the diversity of Queens but the density of Brooklyn. Music blaring everywhere, crowds of people hanging out in the green space on Broadway, vans parked up with people in beach chairs on the street corners. I felt like another world and in fact I was - this was Washington Heights, the Home of the Haze.
I was a little early, so I rolled up a little joint and walked to the night’s venue, Chelas. Chelas is a new upscale Peruvian restaurant located at 3820 Broadway. The restaurant features striking and unique decor, headlined by a beautiful large stained-glass window. There were two bars, one small one by the entrance, and a large one further in the space. Near the hostess station, there was a DJ booth. The rest of the space was for seated dining. This space looked like it was made for a good time. I would say make a reservation, but unfortunately, Chelas has not officially opened to the public yet!
By 7:15 I started seeing some guests and by 7:30 the place was starting to fill up. By 8 the place was filled and cocktail waiters started passing around two dishes: a Peruvian chicken with potato dish, and ceviche with tostones. Both were delicious and left me craving more. I really can’t wait for this restaurant to open so I can have a full meal!
I was not drinking that night, but our buddy Mason (@_space_mase) confirmed the drinks were also very good. We couldn’t combust cannabis in the restaurant, but we were able to smoke outside. To offset this, the cannabis content creator and artisan roller Wolf Stoner Queen (@wolf_stoner_queen) was there offering her rolling services for your convenience.
The vibe of the cocktail reception was great; the crowd skewed a little older, which is always nice to see (not all events should just be for us young people). It’s always more convenient to be able to smoke inside, but the limitation did facilitate motion within the crowd. This ensured that inside the restaurant was never uncomfortably full.
Smoke Signals Storytelling: Latinx Culture And Cannabis Community Leaders
At around 9, Smoke Signals’ organizers came outside and told everyone to finish their smoke and head inside for the show (their version of flashing the lights). We got back to our seats and the night’s main event started. Led Black, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Uptown Collective, a community leader and the night’s show-runner, acted as our host and emcee. He introduced all of the speakers and gave us a bit of background on each of them.
I had only seen these storytelling events online, never in person. I really did not know what to expect, but I was in for quite the experience!
All five speakers - comedienne Rachel La Loca, photographer DotShotIt, poet Frankie Reese, Evelyn Indyka (CEO of the New York Cannabis Times), and Ramon Reyes (co-founder and Chief Strategies Officer of Happy Munkey) - had incredible stories, but it wasn’t just the content that made them great. It was how they spoke, how they captured your attention, their body language, and more. The experience would not be the same if it was distilled to a podcast or radio show, so there was no way a summary was going to cut it. Highlights of the night included DotShotIt’s story about thanking yourself (which ended with him handing out thank you cards to everyone), the story of the conception of the Happy Munkey lounge, and Rachel La Loca’s story about the trials of motherhood.
As each person told their story, you realized how personal this experience was to each storyteller and in turn the audience. The stories that were told harked back to a time where Washington Heights (and the whole city) were a different place. From the small things like almost every speaker sound-checking with “Yerrrrrr!” and hearing specific street corners to big things like deeply personal stories of failure and success, these were stories that hit home with audience members.
Uptown Collective Founder Led Black On Smoke Signals
Last week we covered a lively, bumping DJ set at a packed iconic New York nightclub which was amazing, but if you are looking for a more intimate, personal experience, then Smoke Signals is for you. Take a set of friends who just moved to NYC, let them hear stories of New York past. Take a set of friends from NYC, let them hear stories of a different side of the city. I even challenge you to bring someone who is against legal cannabis to broaden their perspective. The point is, it doesn’t matter who you bring, you all will have so much to discuss after the last speaker puts down the mic.
Before Smoke Signals started, I spoke with Led Black about the event. He said he was inspired by his Moth experience - a legendary live storytelling organization - to start Smoke Signals. His goal is to create upscale, unique cannabis events.
“Getting high, but highbrow,” he said, adding, “We want to elevate the cannabis conversation one story at a time."
I wholeheartedly agree. At this crucial time between the days of the legacy market and the burgeoning “legal” market, it is extremely important we do not forget the stories of those who did the work that led to the legalization of the plant. Events like Smoke Signals will help to ensure these stories are not just remembered, but also passed down to generations to come.
Vladimir Bautista, CEO and co-founder of Happy Munkey, said “It’s great to see [cannabis] events Uptown. We have to start bringing cannabis events to our communities, not just from Wall Street to 96th Street.”
How Is Smoke Signals Different From Other Cannabis Events?
I also agree with that. It takes us forever to get to events in and around the city and they usually are in the same areas. It would be amazing to see a cannabis event in Queens or in a non hipster-colonized area of Brooklyn. Cannabis events will draw people into these parts of town where they probably would not have gone before, and the businesses in the community will benefit from the money those visitors spend.
The producers of Smoke Signals worked very hard to keep this event for the community, by the community, and in the community. Event producers and organizers should look at this event as a golden example of what great things can happen with this community mindset.
In summation, if you are looking for a relaxed, intimate event, full of great performances that challenge your perspective, I would highly recommend the Smoke Signals series. Be sure to follow them on Instagram, as well as the Uptown Collective, and the Uptown Cannabis Coalition for more information on future events!
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Featuered image: Outside Chelas for Smoke Signals (C) Adam Ali / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.