Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro on subway graffiti – and Astoria

28 Apr

 

"Boutique 92" - one of Louie's Astoria murals from 1988: 38th Street and Broadway.

“Boutique 92″ – one of Louie’s Astoria murals from 1988: 38th Street and Broadway.

 

Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro is an artist and former NYC subway train graffiti writer.  He was one of twelve children born in Manhattan to Italian immigrants, and was raised in Astoria: he lived in Astoria from 1966 to 1996.  He started writing graffiti when he was just eleven years old.  Over email I heard from Louie about his memories of writing the trains and of growing up in Astoria at that time.  And of how the 30th Ave subway station was a meeting place for two of the “cliques” (writing groups) that he was a part of: IRT (Invading Rapid Transit), and TSS (The Super Squad).

Towards the end of the interview you’ll find details of Louie’s new book about graffiti writer Joe “DON 1” Palattella who is also from Astoria – as well as upcoming events here in New York City.

-  How did you first start writing on the trains?

I started writing graffiti very young in 1977, I was 11 years old.  Ever since I can remember I was always drawing, sketching, finger painting and reading comic books etc.  So when I started to notice the cartoons and bubble lettering on trains I was immediately attracted to it. Seeing art that big going by so fast and stopping right in front of you was truly an amazing thing to witness.

-  What did you most enjoy about writing the trains, and what were the biggest challenges?

There were many enjoyable things for me within this art form.  Specifically in the subway era.  Sketching the outline to executing it and seeing the result fly by while you are 15 years old sitting in your homeroom class is really unforgettable.  The challenges were actually getting away with it.  Going into a tunnel or train yard and doing a piece on a train that you liked and then walking out unscathed and not arrested were the biggest heaps.  Painting in the dark was a challenge for sure – that’s why I painted mostly in yards.  In the daylight.

- What was the dynamic like between the writers? Competition, camaraderie, both?

Subway era graffiti was totally competitive.  Every writer would try and “burn” the other with style or with quantity.  There was also a lot of camaraderie.  Being a (graffiti) writer really transcended any and all social, economic, ethnic and racial boundaries.  The art was the common denominator.

- Where were the best places to go, to write on the trains?

When I took part in the subway era (1977-1983) the places to go were the train storage yards, the elevated layups of out of service cars and the tunnels.  I liked tunnels and yards.  I felt more secure knowing no one could see us doing our thing.

- What, for you, characterized Astoria in the 1970s and 1980s, and how would you describe the ways in which it has changed since that time?

I grew up always feeling very safe in Astoria.  Everywhere I’d go I always knew someone.  If I didn’t, they’d usually know someone in my family.  It was a true neighborhood.  Astoria Park and all the school yards were the social network.  I still visit Astoria frequently because of the many great restaurants, the Museum of the Moving Image, which I used to play in when it was an abandoned wreckage.

It is also a cultural mecca of sorts, where I’ve had several solo art and musical events in the past few years.  I have one coming up in Long Island City at 10Ten Studios on June 6th and 7th.

The change that I notice is the obvious gentrification that is taking place.  Many “hipster” bars and cafes have sprung up everywhere.  All the girls wear glasses and the guys have beards (lol).

- Any particular memories about Astoria’s 30th Ave?

The 30th Ave subway station was a meeting place for some of the cliques (writing groups) I was a part of.  I would meet up with writers from IRT (Invading Rapid Transit) and TSS (The Super Squad). Guys with names like RCA (Reckless Car Artist), SN (Sick Nick), and KB (Krazy Boy) aka Savage 1.  RCA and KB were the founders and presidents of these two Astoria based cliques.

- Any walls you painted in Astoria that you are particularly proud of?

In the mid 80′s I was the first graffiti artist (in Astoria) to be commissioned by the community and private businesses to do murals.  I was also a part of (believe it or not) a community group called “Graffiti Busters”.  I sat on panels with community leaders and parents discussing what could be done for kids who were defacing property.  I’d be sitting there with really long hair and a leather jacket explaining the psychological reasons why kids were writing their names on walls.  I got used to being stared at really quickly (lol).  I’m very proud of those murals.

- You’ve traveled to many countries – have you seen any examples of public graffiti with the impact and scale of the NYC subway car paintings?

It really hit me when I was performing in Italy.  I was on tour with a band called Murphy’s Law (from Astoria!)  We had a little time off in Milan and while I was walking around I had a double take happen. A train was rolling by with an awesome graffiti piece on it.  It was a top-to-bottom whole car.  In other words the complete side of the train was painted from one end to the other and from the top to the bottom.

I was blown away because at the time I didn’t have the internet and was reading about and seeing magazine articles of the European graffiti scene.  It was amazing.  It truly was happening like the days of the mid 70′s and early 80′s.  I truly believe that Europe completely took to graffiti art because of its artistic history.  Centuries of art and culture left no mistake as to what they saw in what we started here.

- And why do you think that what’s known as graffiti art emerged from NYC – i.e. why NYC, at that time?

When “Cornbread” ( a graffiti writer from Philadelphia) was noticed and TAKI 183 and Julio 204 took it to the next level in NYC and the whole metamorphosis from the more simplistic “single hits” of graffiti signatures went to “bubble lettering” and more elaborate “burners” and “wild style” the entire vocabulary of graffiti art was laid out on the NYC subways and streets it was the invention of a modern art form.

That art form was known to its practitioners as “writing”.  Writing, because it was letter and name based.  So we were writing.  Writing for ourselves and each other.  In the mid-eighties, books like Subway Art and Spray Can art came out.  The whole world found out about this new art.  From New York City.  I say NYC, although its early origins lay in Philly because of the evolution.  The evolution and style metamorphosis that happened in NYC from let’s say 1970 – 1980 is responsible for the global phenomena of graffiti writing and graffiti art.  I always say that we needed to write and apparently so did the world.

- What have you been up to since that time – and what’s ahead?

I am still an artist a musician and now an author.  I’ve been doing art and music for the better part of my life and I have recently written a book called “Don 1, The King From Queens – The Life and Photos Of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master”.  It is a book about a very influential graffiti writer from the 70′s – Joe “DON 1” Palattella.   From Astoria!  It has over 200 never-seen-before photos of the old Astoria RR trains and the DON 1 tags and pieces (short for master-pieces) that adorned those trains, all taken when Don 1 was a photography major at Art and Design High School in Manhattan.  Astoria Bookshop held a signing where over 200 fans and lovers of this art came out to support.

My band “Servants Of The Crown -Keepers Of The Sign” is a music project that is purely for the love and fun of performing and enjoyment of music.  It is comprised of great friends with great talent.  We’ll be performing in Astoria this summer.

Tuesday May 27

A book launch and panel discussion will take place at an amazing museum in Manhattan called The Museum Of the City Of New York. This will be an historical event featuring many stars within the graffiti art culture. And it is in an actual real museum.  On 5th avenue!

Friday and Saturday June 6 and 7

As I mentioned earlier I have a solo art show coming up called “The Bright Stuff Of Dreams”.  It’s a two day only event in a two floor gallery (10TEN Studios) in Long Island City.

I am a proud New Yorker and an even prouder Astorian.  Astoria , Queens, New York City is where I learned everything I know and love and I want to share that love and knowledge with everybody! Peace, Paint, Love and Led Zep!

Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro

Find out more:

KR.ONE’s website

New York Daily News on Louie KR.ONE Gasparro’s book on DON1: “Influential graffiti artist DON1 unveiled in new book by one of his longtime admirers”, Lisa L. Colangelo, New York Daily News, 5 Feb, 2014

And the archive of all the interviews on this website, “30th Ave – A Year in the Life of a Street”

More of Louie’s work:

KR.1 FOME 1 top to bottom whole car on the IRT # 2 train. Winter 82.  Louie says: "Last piece I ever did on a NYC subway!"

KR.1 FOME 1 top to bottom whole car on the IRT # 2 train. Winter 82. Louie says: “Last piece I ever did on a NYC subway!”

 

SAMSUNG

PS 166 School Yard – Louie grew up and played in this school yard for many years. This is a commissioned piece of art for another PS 166 school yard alumni.

 

Mahavishnu Orchestrated 72 dpi copy

“Mahavishnu Orchestrated” – a pen and ink illustration “that basically sums up who I am”, says Louie. You have a massive drum set sitting atop a NYC subway with a “KAY-AR” burner on it.

 

KR.ONE Style copy

“Style” – a pen and ink illustration

 

KR.ONE RAINBOW BUS copy

“KR.1 – Bus Buster” A top to bottom whole bus. “Giant letters on moving steel is a great memory enhancer!”

 

"Boutique 92" - one of Louie's Astoria murals from 1988: 38th Street and Broadway.

“Boutique 92″ – one of Louie’s Astoria murals from 1988: 38th Street and Broadway.

 

KR1 SeinwaySt Tee

KR. 1 Steinway Street T-Shirt

 

KR.ONE Sheepshead 1980

KR.1 Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Winter 1980.

 

The cover of Louie's book, "DON1, the King from Queens"

Cover for “Don 1, The King From Queens” – Don 1 is on the cover, after an “insides” tagging mission. Bowery NYC 1976.

Speaking with Mohamed Khalil of Leli’s Bakery & Pastry Shop

21 Mar

Cakes on display at Leli's

Cakes on display at Leli’s

 

“Astoria is my second Alexandria” says Mohamed Khalil, the manager of Leli’s Bakery & Pastry Shop at 35-14 30th Avenue.  Originally from Egypt, Mohamed has lived in Astoria for the past eleven years.

Leli’s opened in November 2012.  It was founded by Emanuel Darmanin, known as “Leli”. Darmanin owns Melita Bakery based in the Bronx which sells bread and deserts wholesale to restaurants and hotels throughout the city.  He decided to branch out with his first storefront café, and settled on Astoria.

“In the past five, six years there has been, let’s say, a revolution in business here,” says Mohamed.  “I remember when 30th Avenue was too dark in the night.  Barely after 9 o’clock, you didn’t hear no-body.  If you had a pizza stop or something, it wasn’t a fancy one.”  But then “the first big café opened, that was Avenue Café.  They did a great business, and then came Grand Café, Flo Café, Mexi-BBQ…”

Leli’s Bakery followed suit.  At first, they would open at eight in the morning, and close at nine pm.  Now they open at seven, and at weekends stay open until eleven.  All of the food is made on site – the metal bread machines can be glimpsed through the back of the café.

The owner Darmanin is from Malta, and Maltese products feature prominently in the bakery.  There are mounds of savory Qassatat, that “TastoriaQueens” has reviewed in glowing terms, and pastizzi; small flaked-pastry snacks stuffed with ricotta cheese, beef, or spinach and feta cheese.  “In Malta, those are like the equivalent of falafel,” says Mohamed.  “Two of those will keep you going until you have your lunch or dinner.”

Then there are the sweets of course, of all shapes and sizes, from rainbow cookies to carrot cake.  Birthday cakes form colorful lines behind the glass counter and baskets brimming with croissants and muffins surround the till.  “To have a good product you have to do it from real ingredients”, says Mohamed.  “You know, nothing fat free.  That’s not what the boss is doing here.  Even if he has some sort of recipe that’s for people who want low-fat foods…that will never happen because he mixes it his Maltese way.”  Despite, that is, Darmanin being diabetic so unable to eat the delicacies his business creates.

Mohamed got to know Darmanin because a friend of his, also Egyptian, is married to one of Darmanin’s daughters.  “What I found out about any Maltese who I met here,” says Mohamed, “is that they have a background in baking.”  Mohamed finds the Maltese language easy to understand because “it’s about sixty percent Arabic.  They got the language from Libya…and the baking from Italy,” he says.  Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean, is in-between the two.

“Some people might like the feeling you get in a formal, expensive hotel,” says Mohamed.  “That’s not what we are aiming for here.”  No two chairs in Leli’s are the same, purposefully.  While we spoke on a Sunday afternoon all the chairs were occupied, and customers were queuing up at the counter for goods.  At the table next to us was Mohamed’s mother, over for a trip from Alexandria, knitting a child’s cardigan that she was hoping to complete by the end of the day.  On the other side of us, a young couple focused on their i-pads.

There is no shortage of other bakeries along 30th Avenue.  You “have to do a bit extra”, says Mohamed, to keep customers coming.  The recipe seems to be working.

**************************************

Read more:

A New York Daily News profile of Emanuel Darmanin and Melita Bakery: “Third generation of bakers runs sweet family business in the Bronx after relocated to huge factory in Mott Haven,” New York Daily News, Feb 12, 2012

The full archive of 30th Ave interviews is here.

Speaking with striking Trade Fair meat workers

16 Mar

Tara Pappas of UFCW Local 342 (far left), with workers from Trade Fair meat department including Eunice Izquierdo (second from right) and Beatriz Gomez (far right)

Tara Pappas of UFCW Local 342 (far left), with workers from Trade Fair meat department including Eunice Izquierdo (second from right) and Beatriz Gomez (far right)

 

From last Wednesday, Trade Fair employees have been standing outside the supermarket on 30th Ave with placards and leaflets.  They are among 100 employees of the meat departments at the nine Trade Fair locations throughout Queens who are holding an “unfair labor practices” strike.

Among them is Eunice Izquierdo.  She has worked in the store’s meat department for 23 years.  “When I started working here it was a relatively small business,” she says (translated from Spanish).  “I saw him [the company's owner Farid Jaber] buy the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, all of those stores I saw him buy.  And also I’ve seen how the stores have grown in size, thanks to cheap labor.”

In November the workers’ contract came up for renewal.  Their union says that in the proposed new contract the management wanted to freeze wages for meat department employees, make everyone part time instead of full-time, reduce healthcare benefits and stop paying extra rates for  Sunday work.

“He wants to reduce our hours to 24 hours a week.  How are we going to support our families on that?”  says Eunice, who has three children – two in college and one in high school.  “There have been three cuts.  First we worked 48 hours a week, then 37.  At the moment we have been working 34.  Now he wants to cut it to 24 and change Sunday working to regular pay.”

She adds: “I like the work here.  We have done our work with a lot of love.  That is what hurts.  Because we have worked here with our hearts.  We have worked harder than we have been paid for.  It’s not to say it’s a bad business.  It’s a good business, well managed.  But the owner – that’s to say the owner-owner of all the stores – says that he wants everyone to be part time.  Who lives off part time?”

The workers are accompanied by representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 342.  According to the union, when rounds of negotiations over the new contract were not making any progress, the workers began to leaflet the customers on their off-the-clock-time.  The management reacted to this by harassing them and putting up signs in the department that part-time meat workers were wanted, the union says.

Union representative David Rodriquez said: “The employees are just speaking out for their rights.  They went to the community, spoke to the community, and he [Jaber] didn’t appreciate that, he would have preferred that they stay quiet.  So he put up these signs saying that they needed help, in the meat department, when they don’t.”

When the strike began on Wednesday, workers offered to go back to work in the afternoon to continue bargaining.  But management did not let them back, saying that they had been replaced with new staff, according to the union.

Beatriz Gomez is another of the workers on strike.  She has worked in the meat department for 13 years.  “What we are asking is to stay with what we had before,” she says.  “I have a lot of faith that we are going to be able to go back, that we will get our jobs back.  I am prepared to be here as long as it takes.”

Trade Fair headquarters declined to comment for this post.  They referred to the banner posted on the outside walls of their supermarkets.  It reads: “…We are in negotiation with the union and told them that we need to keep our costs competitive with other non-union stores in the neighborhood so we can provide you with top quality meat at fair, competitive prices.  The disruptions to our business is their answer to us.  Trade Fair will continue to do what is necessary to keep our costs competitive so that our prices remain competitive.” (full wording on the image below).

*******************************

See also: “Trade Fair Employees Strike,” Maria Fitzsimons, Queens Chronicle, 14 Mar 2013

An interview on this website in November 2011 with two managers at the 30th Ave location, Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar.  When asked if he would like to comment on the meat workers’ action, Mustafa said that for now only the management at Trade Fair headquarters is able to do that.

Sign outside Trade Fair on 30th Avenue, Astoria

Sign outside Trade Fair on 30th Avenue, Astoria

 

 

Astoria kids of the 1940s reunite

7 Oct

PS 5 kids when they were in 3rd grade – some of them are in the reunion photo below

The kids – at their reunion on September 20, 2012

In September a group of people in their early seventies met for lunch at an Astoria restaurant.  Most had either attended Public School 5 or Junior High School 126 in the neighborhood together, back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.  There were 24 “kids” from those schools at the gathering, along with 16 spouses or friends.  There were hugs and shouts of delight.  Some had not seen each other for over fifty years.  Since June 23, 1954 to be exact.

Alfred Holzman organized the reunion.  His Slovakia-born parents had moved into 34-03 30th Avenue in 1944.  They ran a store called Grand Paint Supply Company downstairs from their apartment, which is now Prime Design and Printing.  In 1945 Alfred entered Public School 5.

The school was at 30-11 29th Street, just off 30th Avenue.  The site is still a school – PS 234 – but the PS 5 building is no longer there: in 1967 an eight year-old boy playing with a match in a student clothing closet triggered a fire that burned the building to the ground.

Alfred and his classmates were devoted to one of their teachers, Mrs. Evelyn R. Benton.  She had recently started teaching at the school after serving with the US navy during World War II as a “WAVE” (an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).  Many years later, in 2005, Alfred decided to get a small group of “Mrs. Benton’s kids” back together again for a reunion.

Since that initial gathering in South Florida the group has mushroomed as Alfred has been able to track down more and more of their classmates.  Many live within New York State or New Jersey.  Some though had flown in for the Astoria reunion from Florida and were making the occasion into a vacation.  One woman arrived a little late having driven for seven hours straight from Vermont.

The reunion bubbled with reminiscences and summaries of lifetimes.  How to update someone on the last fifty years of your life?  It tended to boil down to love, work and health.  There may be big differences between the specific paths Mrs. Benton’s pupils took but those basic ingredients, in various formulations, are there.

Among the group is an actress, an artist who taught at Fashion Institute of Technology, and a wall-street investor-turned marine-turned firefighter who also played the bugle in a band during the half-times of New York Giants games.  One of the guests had married his childhood sweetheart.  Another was there with his second wife.  Alfred married his wife Lucy when he was in his fifties.

Clyde Locke, one of the guests, remembers the mix of origins of the kids along his block and still has the accents to prove it.  He can switch effortlessly from Irish- to Scottish- to English- to German- to Italian-accented English.  He says arriving at college where most kids had grown up in rural American towns was a culture shock – their experience having been so different from his city life.  Frank went on to be an ophthalmologist in Astoria and the Director of eye surgery at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.  He fixed two detached retinas for one of his PS 5 kindergarten classmates, Rosemarri Roth, who stood up at the reunion to thank him.

While Astoria was mixed when Mrs Benton’s kids were young, most of its residents were of European origins.  As Alfred described it, “we all came from working class immigrant families, whether Hungarian, German, Slovak, Greek, or Italian-American.”

The guests brought photos and mementos.  Among them was a faded PS 5 banking book.  Each student contributed to his or her student bank account every Monday morning.  It could be a dime, a quarter, even a dollar, whatever their parents could afford at the time.  At the end of sixth grade when they graduated from PS 5, the children received a regular bank book.  In that way they learned to save.

The best memories though didn’t need a prop.  Evelyn Strang (raised on 30th Street between Newtown Avenue and Astoria Boulevard) and Frank Jankech (31st Avenue and 32nd Street) reminisced about a date they had gone on when they were young.  It was Evelyn’s first time going to a Broadway show.  She recalls her mother telling her to dress up nice and wear gloves.  “I remember you were always smiling, always happy,” she said of Frank.

Miss Anna E. Burns, the PS 5 long-time principal, cropped up in the conversations.  The girls at the school liked her, the boys loathed her.  One recalled his delight at discovering how to open a high window in the corridor followed by the dread of sensing her approaching behind him.

There were also insights into how 30th Avenue has changed.  Near where Key Foods supermarket is now located there was a grand mansion: Evelyn’s father tended the gardens there.  Most of the Avenue consisted of small shops, like now, but very few of the shops from the time have survived.  On practically every corner there was a pharmacy: from 29th Street to Steinway there were seven.

Off the Avenue, kids would take over whole blocks with street games, like stick ball for which they used manhole covers and auto fenders as bases.  And many remembered the jubilant street parties on V-J day in Spring 1945, when they were impressionable five year-olds.

Guests were given a questionnaire that they browsed during the meal, with questions about PS 5 and the neighborhood.  Some had specific answers.  “An important invention was made in Astoria in a garage on 37th Street, what was it?” (Answer: xerography, i.e. a dry photocopy, which soon became the essence of the Xerox corporation).

Other questions began with “Do you remember…?”.  For example, “Do you remember ‘inspection’ each week?” (when the class had to stand in a row and have their hands and fingernails inspected for cleanliness and display their handkerchiefs).  And: “Do you remember the basement lunch room (can you smell the tomato soup) ?”

The atmosphere at the reunion ranged from lighthearted to emotional.  As Alfred said when he addressed the group: “It’s just a kick, a great feeling, to see someone again.”

*************************************

I am very grateful to Alfred Holzman for inviting me to join this reunion.

For more on how 30th Avenue was in the past, see: the interview with Bob Singleton of the Greater Astoria Historical Society; a conversation with a group of Astoria old-timers at Corner Delights café; and the post about 30th Avenue’s former ice cream parlors.

Alfred Holzman’s parents outside their store Grand Paint Supply Company at 34-03 30th Avenue, just before they retired

And 34-03 30th Avenue today: Prime Design and Printing

 

Frank and Jennifer Greco – Astoria Coins and Collectibles

18 Sep

Frank and Jennifer Greco and their son Robert in Astoria Coins and Collectibles, 21-06 30th Ave

First up, a note from Jennifer Greco about the shop:

Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place where collectors meet each other whether during working hours or on Saturdays, to discuss coins of interest, the market trends, or just stop by to say “Hello”.  The highlight of the store has always been the display cases, and whatever wall hangings we have on display at the moment, and the comradely conversations.  Frank Greco believes that these displays are not only of interest to our devoted customers, but even travelers find interest in the museum-like experience of seeing a small bit of history hanging on our walls and in our cases. Our unique coin shop is an interesting visit for people of all ages.

Interview

Frank and Jennifer Greco have run Astoria Coins and Collectibles on 30th Avenue since 1975.  It was a coin shop before then too.  Jennifer’s family owned the building, and the store first opened when she was around eight years old.  “I used to come in all the time with my Dad,” she says.  “I grew to love the shop and the idea of collecting coins…I guess it is in my blood now.”

She was fifteen when she met Frank.  They were both working at Key Food supermarket, at the time located not on 30th Ave as it is now but on 31st Street, between 21st Avenue and Ditmars.  Frank left Key Food after the couple had their children, as he was working really long hours.  He got a job with Air Canada at JFK airport and began working in the coin shop as well on Saturdays.  Then when he was laid off, he made the coin shop his full time vocation.  Their two sons and daughter are now grown up: the middle son, Robert, works in the coin store too.

“It’s the whole thing,” Frank says, on why he is passionate about working with coins.  “It’s a history lesson, really.  For example you start thinking about the movies, and John Wayne when he used to go into a bar with a silver dollar and get a whole bottle and a meal, and maybe even a woman and still get change!”

The store focuses on US coins, but also sells coins from many other countries.  Frank says that there used to be more coin shops, particularly in Manhattan.  But given the increasing rents and rise of the internet there are far fewer now.   He himself does a lot of business on the internet, while also sourcing coins from customers who bring them in, dealers who go from store to store, and shows.

The display cases that run the length of the store are crammed with clearly-labeled coins, each of which conveys a story.  Recently among them were a coin commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 address at Cooper Union before he became President, and a more recent coin marking the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK.

The store also used to sell baseball cards and comic books, a hit with kids from the local boys club.  They still provide a bright patchwork on the walls, along with cabinets of coins, hanging bills, and a superhero mural.  But, Frank says, “It just got out of hand, got crazy.  I’d be selling baseball cards for a dollar a piece and then all of a sudden they came out with the high-end cards for $10 a piece.  Same thing with the comics.  But kids don’t have ten dollars.  So I just stopped it.”

The store provides an income tax service too.  It predates the coin business, in that Jennifer’s father had a real estate office next door which also did income tax.  Frank says: “At that time we would get the paper with the carbon copy in the middle and if you made a mistake you would rip it up and have to do another one.  When I got started, all I remember is ‘Do it over!  Do it over!”.

Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place to hang out as much as a store.  “My eldest son always says that we should turn on a video here, because of the people who come in and just talk,” Jennifer says.  “Usually it starts about coins, about the economy, but then it becomes anything.”

A significant change they are seeing the neighborhood is the construction of new, expensive apartment buildings.  “I see a yuppie generation coming in,” says Jennifer.  “For the older generation – I can speak from my mom’s point of view because she was also born and raised in Astoria – she hates it.  She says they’re killing Astoria, I guess killing the country feeling of it, that she had growing up around 18th Street.”

Frank adds: “I grew up in Long Island City, down by Vernon Boulevard and 40th, where the Pepsi plant was.  When I grew up there it was just factories.  Now it’s Manhattan just coming right over the river.  And they’re going to do that along the waterfront here, too.  It’s just a matter of time.”

He says that properties are being overpaid for.  He cites the example of an apartment block on 21st Street where “they purchased five or six houses for $1.2 million.  Most people who live there paid like $8-10,000 for their houses.  If you get an offer for $1.2 million, you’re like ‘ok I’m out of here!’”

The coin store will no doubt though remain a community fixture for many years to come.  Jennifer recently returned to work there after retiring from her work in education.  “It’s invigorating,” she says.  “Especially having been in a classroom, a school, where you know there’s a lot of action, I never realized what I was missing all those years!”

Jennifer, Frank, and their dog Trudy

Baseball cards and comic books on the store wall

Gus Prentzas – Pavilion Florals

15 Sep

Gus Prentzas in his store Pavilion Florals at 30th Ave and 32nd Street

Gus Prentzas worked in a flower store while he was a politics and international relations student at college.  Then at the age of 22 he bought his own flower store in Astoria, on 29th and Ditmars.  Other than a short period out, he has stayed in the flower business, while keeping politically active through his involvement with local organizations.  He was NYC’s youngest ever school board member, and is currently Co-Chair of Community Board 1 (which covers Astoria), for example.

Pavilion Florals on 30th Ave was founded in 1974, and Gus bought it 15 years ago.  Its previous owner’s partner ran a radio station which was popular with the Greek entertainment industry.  Greek singers and entertainers would stop by the shop when they were in New York.

The store is still a community mainstay.  “Half my day is spent helping people out in the community,” Gus says, on issues ranging from traffic problems, to overcrowding in schools or in the nearby Mount Sinai Queens hospital.  “It’s not the hospital’s fault,” he says, “just its limited resources”.

His philosophy is that he does not have customers, but friends.  He adds, “As a florist, you deal with people on a very personal level.  It could be a baby’s birth, a wedding, or a time of sadness and sympathy like a funeral.  You’re there in the happy and the sad times in their life.”

One of the challenges in his industry is the fluctuations in the prices of the products he buys, among them flowers of course.  The largest exporters of flowers are Holland, Colombia and Ecuador.  “If you’re buying from Holland,” says Prentzas, “you’re dealing with the Euro, so as the Euro goes up the prices of flowers goes up.  Or, for example, if there are a lot of floods in Ecuador or Colombia around Valentines Day, farms get flooded out, there’s a shortage of roses, and that forces us to sell for higher.”

It’s not just the flowers.  The plastic for wrapping them has gone up 500 percent over the last five years.  And recently flower stores have confronted a shortage in helium for the first time.  “You’ll probably be shocked to find people having to charge $4 to blow up a balloon soon,” he says.

If someone from outside the neighborhood was visiting 30th Avenue, Gus would tell them, “just take a stroll about 10 blocks and you’ll see the diversity.  There will be an element of something that you are going to find attractive, or something that connects with you that will draw you to this community.”

Full archive of 30th Ave interviews

From the archives – Benny Banker, mailman

7 Sep

Here is the interview from this time last year, with mailman Benny Banker.  Watch this space for new interviews.  Initially this was intended to be a year-long project.  But there are plenty more stories to tell and people to read them, so I’ll be starting interviewing again in September 2012.  Annabel.  (p.s. the archive of all interviews so far is here).

Benny Banker delivering mail along 30th Ave

Benny (Virendra) Banker has been delivering mail along 30th Avenue for over 13 years.  “My area covers most of this heart part of Astoria,” he says.  “It’s a nice residential area.  There’s Astoria General Hospital which is now Mount Sinai, so there are a lot of doctors around here.”  Benny is also a singer of Hindi devotional songs and other forms of Indian classical music.

He lives in Queens Village, in Eastern Queens.  It takes him one and a half hours by train to get to Astoria.  But he makes it no matter what.  “On the day when there was the biggest snowstorm I woke up at four in the morning, I walked to the subway station and I took a train and I made it here by eight o’ clock.  I managed to work, while 80% of people didn’t make it to their work that day.”

He adds: “When people see us in the snow and the rain they feel really sorry about us.  But if you talk about counting the full year of 365 days we hardly have those heat waves and those mountains of the snow or the rain.  Hardly I would say ten days in the year.  This job may look like its hard but I think it is not that bad.  To be honest, the difficult and the easy thing about the job is just your mindset.”

Benny says that he loves his job “because it’s a service for the people.  I feel good seeing old people – when they wait for me and then they see me they become so happy.  If I am off a while, when I’m back everybody feels like a family member came back after a long time.  This job is also my lifesaver, because it gives me compulsory exercise everyday.”

Benny was born in Gujarat, India.  He came to New York City in his late teens, went back to Gujarat in 1977 when he got married, and returned to New York with his wife.  His three children are now grown up: one son is a pediatrician in Houston, one is a gastro-intestinal doctor in Stonybrook, and his daughter is in business management.

Benny crams a lot into his spare time.  He sings bhajan sandhyas (devotionals) and light classical Indian music in various languages including Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, performing at events in New York and also other parts of the US.  (You can listen to him singing here).

He also designs and maintains websites, making the most of his Sunday mornings when he wakes up very early.  He has created one for his music, one for the block where he lives with details of their annual block party, one for hisreligious community, and also a site for memories of his mother.

When Benny first started working for the US Postal Service he was working in Brooklyn and living in Woodside.  That commute was very long: he applied for a transfer, and within six months his choice of the Long Island City area came up.  One of the main changes in the area that has affected him has been the increase in large new buildings with many apartments.  “That creates a parking problem mainly.  Before we used to find parking any time – now we have to struggle for it.”

Before, he says, there was a lot more first class mail.  “Now there is more junk mail, though even that is decreasing.”  He hastens to add that mail is not dwindling entirely.  “People still have to mail things like lawyers documents.  People still need a hard copy.”

The US Postal Service is currently in financial trouble and is planning to make major cuts, including by closing post offices.  One of the four in Queens on a list for potential closure is the Grand Post Office on 30th Ave between 45 and 46th Streets – over 1000 people have reportedly signed a petition to keep it open  [see update in comments below]. Benny keeps things in perspective though.  “Like every other business the post office is in the midst of hardship but personally I don’t think there’s a serious problem.  People do need to mail a letter.  Every business has a right to save the money and they are trying, but what I see in a big city like New York, downsizing will be almost impossible.

“What I say, is think positive you’re going to get positive.  If you think negative, you’re inviting the negative.”

Welling Court Mural Project – new murals 2012

19 Jun

In 2011 I interviewed Jon Ellis and Georgina Young Ellis about the Welling Court Mural project.  Last weekend artists painted new murals, coinciding with Welling Court’s annual block party.  Walk to the far Western end of 30th Ave to check them out.  And get a glimpse of some of them here:

Athens Square – hopefully not fenced off for long

11 Jun

Athens Square on 30th Ave is currently closed off to the sidewalk by a tall fence while some construction work is done.  It can still be accessed, via two gates round the side on 30th Street.  But it is amazing how the fence changes the whole feeling of the square.  One of its most effective features is the fact that it is so open to the sidewalk, so that the wide sidewalk and the square merge into one another.  Let’s hope that it is not closed off for long.

Athens Square epitomizes what I call an “open geography of the street”: an environment that facilitates interaction between people.  There are its benches and tables with chess boards marked on them where elderly people can while away hours right next to passers by.  There are two playgrounds for older and for younger kids, the open area where community events are held (and when free from events, kids kick footballs), and the basketball courts at the back.  Urban observers and writers like Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte (of the “Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, the film of which is here) have emphasized how important this easy-mixing of people who use a space in different ways is to the smooth functioning of a neighborhood.

When kids skateboarding throughout the open area in Athens Square began to annoy other users, they weren’t just banned from the park with no place else to go.  The Community Board manager at the time George Delis asked them what they would think of having a big skatepark built in Astoria Park.  The park went ahead and now it is used by hundreds of skateboarders each day.  Boarders Philip Sparta and Wallace de Olivera who I interviewed for this blog said they use the new Skatepark all the time.  Yet significantly, they still come by Athens Square to see their friends on the basketball courts.

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“Athena brushed with snow” – a previous post about Athens Square

Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar – Trade Fair supermarket

4 Jun

This year I’m profiling interviews from the 2011 project in this spot at the top of the homepage.  At the moment, the interview with Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar of TradeFair Supermarket.  The original is here.  For an archive of  all 52 interviews click here.

Sabah Guessar and Mustafa Eid outside Trade Fair supermarket on 30th Ave

Trade Fair supermarket stretches along 30th Ave between 31st and 32ndStreets.  It’s a swath of color with its fruit and vegetables on display and bright announcements of special offers.  Among the bustle of customers and deliveries I spoke with its manager Mustafa Eid.  Sabah Guessar, also a manager there, joined in some of the conversation too, coming back and forth from her work.

“You can cross borders when you cross our aisles,” says Mustafa.  “No matter where you’re from you can always find what you want.  We probably have food from six or seven Middle Eastern countries.  From India, Pakistan, a good 12 countries from Latin America, from Europe, all around actually.  And I know where every single item is.”

Trade Fair began in 1974 when the owner walked into a small grocery store at the current 30th Ave location, as a customer.  He learned it was for sale and decided to buy it.  Now there are 11 locations throughout Queens.    Trade Fair’s website states, “Remember, we carry the foods of home. Wherever home may be.”

The most challenging part of Mustafa’s job is “making sure that every product that a customer asks for is on the shelf.  If someone requests something I look it up my book and try to find it and get it for them.”  The 110-120  staff at the store speak many languages between them.  Trade Fair advertises positions in the local Spanish, Arabic and other newspapers as well as online to make sure the team reflects the diversity of the customers.

Mustafa was born in Syracuse but moved at six months old with his family to the house in Upper Ditmars where he still lives now, at 25.  His father worked at Trade Fair from when it first opened.  “After I left school he talked to the boss and said, ‘listen, my son needs a job’.  I grew from the smallest position you can get, on the minimum wage.  Then I learned everything, and we’re doing a fine job here.  Oh I had to work hard for it…I built myself all the way up until I got this position.”

Prior to coming to the 30th Ave location he worked at the Trade Fair store in Ditmars.  “It’s very similar to 30th Avenue but not as exciting actually.  Over here is more diverse, much more diverse.”  He describes Ditmars as Astoria’s “quieter version”.

Mustafa’s hours are open.  “I don’t even have a schedule.  Whenever I get the chance to stay here I stay here, no matter how long it takes.  I can be here between nine to 16 hours.”  The store is open 24 hours and remains busy through to 2am.

Sabah adds.  “It’s busy at night, and safe.  Three o’clock in the morning I am here sometimes and it’s like I’m feeling home, I’m not feeling afraid.”

Mustafa says that he puts the safety of the area down to its diversity.  “Everybody knows the other person’s culture now.  You respect everybody.  Everybody respects you, you go on with your life and that’s it.”

Sabah: “The only one thing we all feel is that we’re all immigrants.  We try to be together.  Culture, religions, it doesn’t make no difference.  Colors, countries, languages…”

Sabah’s family is Moroccan and Mustafa’s is Palestinian, but as Mustafa says, “in this area, you don’t even ask where people are from any more.”

Sabah and Mustafa say that they get to know all their customers.  “If a customer disappears for 2-3 days it’s like ‘what happened, we didn’t see you for a while?” says Sabah.

Mustafa says he can only see himself staying Astoria.   As for his work: “hopefully I can get to be Vice-president of the company.  I can’t be the President [because the President’s the owner ].  But maybe I’d get Vice.  Hopefully!”