MELISA / 547 Clifton Ave
I grew up in Houston and moved to Newark in 2018. Newark reminds me a lot of my hometown, also a
port city powered by immigrants and filled with culture. I feel attached to Newark as an urban place in a
state largely defined by suburbs. Newark preserves and offers the joys of a city: chance encounters,
street life, culture organically arising from lifestyle, and the ability to mobilize quickly by public transit.
For me, a happy place has food, music, and people gathered together. I remember picking tomatoes,
bell pepper, and eggplant in our Houston backyard. My mother made fresh vegetable dishes while my
father grilled kebabs. My father's mother lived with us. I remember my dad, an immigrant, relaxing in
I also feel comfortable in motion, moving among homes. Growing up, I lived a quarter of each year in
Istanbul. I’m from Texas by way of Turkey, I suppose. I also loved our drives from Houston to San
Antonio, to visit my mother's mother. There were lots of cousins at Nani's house and she made green
play-doh on her kitchen stove and played Yahtzee with us. The sounds of people around comforts me.
In the 1990s, my parents began importing tops knit from scrap leather. Some had geometric designs or
fringe. At first, our family sold these handmade clothes handmade in Turkey at roadshows and then
eventually rented a shop in the Fort Worth stockyards. Leather’s smell transports me. I remember our
garage being filled with these upcycled garments. We had a brown Ford econoline van for the leather
sweater business. Using and reusing leather bits leftover from jackets, purses, or other objects—this
kind of deep resourcefulness and creative interpretation is how people who move regularly survive. My
grandmother used to swing me in a contraption made from a large wooden spoon, some rope, and a
towel. I still have that spoon. I’m proud I can make something to soothe a child from whatever’s around.
Scents and sounds shape my memories. The smell of garlic and peppers cooking and the sound of silver
teaspoons clinking against glass bring me home. Mint plants and fig trees grow happily everywhere I’ve
lived, thankfully! I love the repetitive, irregular sound of bells and chimes. My husband and I visited a
bell foundry in Arizona once, and we've kept bells around homes we share together. I remember an
oxidized dinner bell at my grandmother's San Antonio home. The sound of street vendors calling out and
ringing bells in Turkey or Mexico are one of my favorite things.
I was named Elif when I was born. At some point, my parents swapped my middle and first names. My
father's mother, Saliha Faruhnissa Yalinpala, had Greek-Yugoslavian roots. His father, Haydar Gereççi
was from Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, where pistachios grow.
My mother grew up in a military family from San Antonio, Texas. The Molteni part of her family was
from around Lake Como and the de los Santos Coy part came to Texas through Mexico. I find it
meaningful having been born the day the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Saint Juan Diego in
Tepeyepec. Texas in general, and Houston specifically, draws much of its cultural vitality from Mexico. I
typically wear a little gold jewelry for my Southwest Asia/North Africa roots and a sliver
of silver for Mexico.
My husband was born in Beirut. We celebrate our culture through hospitality. There are some specific
traditions and cultural practices that are important in our family, for example: shoes off in the house,
always, and welcoming the stranger, especially a traveler. The stranger is a guest. When someone has
journeyed to come and spend time with us, we pick them up at the airport and there will be food ready
for them at home. Our home is colorful! Blue couches, bright yellow stools, persimmon frames, kilim
carpets, and goat-hair rugs. We take the idea of a guest in our home seriously.
I think my life has made me open-minded and sensitive. I understand how a particular arrangement of
customs, habits, and attitudes is just one of many ways of being. I feel that the world is large, and within
its expansive realm, there are beautiful differences and a lot of common ground. This view has
something to do with growing up in a Middle Eastern home in the Sunbelt before spending most of my
adult life in the greater NYC region. I enjoy populous places with people coming and going, borders
I'm hopeful our son, Kerem, can grow up feeling part of many places. (Karam's was a beloved Tex-Mex
cafe in San Antonio run by a Lebanese family. It shares roots with Kareem or Karem: Arabic names
meaning kindness and generosity.) We spent the entire pandemic and first year of our son's life in
Newark. We will always have a home here, I believe.
Newark is rich in local landmarks. Even the sycamore tree in our backyard – it’s public! It’s protected by
the New Jersey State Registry of Trees and accessible to anyone who wishes to spend time with it. And
of course, 547 Washington Street, the old Gambert Shirt factory, where I had my studio
at Index Art Center.
One vision for the future I’d like to see is the idea of less ownership and more temporary possession.
Stewardship. The more we share, the less we undertake alone. Sharing time, sharing space, sharing
ideas. This mindset could be an antidote against loneliness and consumerism.