Last week Yesim Ozen was standing outside Balancero Coffee on 37th Street. Set out in front of her on a table was a spread of multi-colored soaps, so bright that at first glance they looked like a display of cakes.
Yesim works as a financial controller for a fashion company in Manhattan. During lock down last year she found the extra time to teach herself soap-making – something she had been keen to do since visiting different cities in Turkey, and buying homemade soaps there.
She researched the process, bought moulds, and now turns ingredients that include oatmeal, olive oil, honey, and even coffee from Balancero into soaps with unique patterns and shapes. “All my soap is made by hand in very small batches”, she says. “I’m interested in challenging myself to make new and interesting designs”.
As COVID restrictions gradually lift Yesim hopes to sell her “Sabun by the Bay” soaps at locations through Astoria. Her website will be up and running soon – and in the meantime, find her on Facebook here.
And read a 2011 interview with another Astoria soap-maker, Melissa Rivera, here.
Walking down 30th Avenue at the moment is heart-breaking and uplifting with each step.
The majority of stores are closed due to the Corona virus shut-down. Social distancing manifests itself in practical and in emotional ways: everyone in masks, buried in their phones even more than before, bringing a heaviness to the street. At the same time there are signs of kindness, dogged determination and creative openness everywhere.
March and early April was the worst period, with incessant sirens and the streets deserted. It hit me particularly when I saw the shuttered flower stand beside the corner deli on my block: usually the flower stand is open 24 hours, just in case people need 3am roses.
Yesterday though, the day before Mother’s day, the flowers were back, and business was doing well. Now that it’s May, the weather’s warmer, the sirens less frequent, more people are out and about.
Local businesses are improvising and adapting as best they can. Astoria Fashion Fabrics by 33rd Street is selling material to passers-by, to make their own masks.
Stores like Key Food, Ocean Fish Market and International Meat Market have kept going, their staff working tirelessly with stressed out and appreciative customers, and controlled conditions. They deserve medals when this is over.
Places that would usually be buzzing with activity in Spring are still shuttered off, like Athens Park.
And schools are still out.
Meanwhile at Mount Sinai Queens, health care workers have been working round the clock. This is where one of my neighbors passed away, where our local Council Member Costa Constantinides and his wife were both treated, where many lives have been saved, and where new patients continue to come in each day.
Under the subway tracks, there is still the rumble of trains overhead, but less frequent than usual. And there are no green taxis: an industry that was already reeling will have been devastated by the pandemic. Tastee Corner Delhi had already closed down for good, following the station’s months-long closure for renovations last year. Small businesses along 30th Ave – and throughout the city – will need support from policymakers and from customers like never before.
Delivery workers for GrubHub and other restaurant apps have continued their rounds, risking their health and lives. Many, laid off from other industries, have turned to delivering food to keep some income.
Meanwhile, cocktails of all kinds are still to be found…as the street’s restaurants find ways to keep going.
This photo is of the Bel Aire Diner window – on Broadway rather than 30th Ave. But it captures the fragility and strength of this time.
And on Mother’s Day 2020 – here’s to all mothers throughout the neighborhood.
Most Fridays I go to Absolute Wine and Spirits at 34-13 30th Ave to pick up some wine. Invariably my kids are with me, and I worry that their backpacks will knock bottles off the shelves. Luckily that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a small place but you’re likely to find whatever you’re looking for.
Nilo Mathias, the owner, opened the store in June 2009. Originally from Brazil, he’s been in the US for 25 years. “Since I came, it’s been Astoria,” he says. “I don’t see myself going anywhere else. I feel like I was born here. Well, I was re-born here!”
He hopes the store will stay, despite the rapid changes in the neighborhood.
“We used to have a Deli across the street, now we don’t any more. We used to have a 99 cents store, a clothing store, and now we don’t. Different people have come in. We’ve had a change of around 70% of people. Fewer than 30% are the original clients from when we first opened.”
That said, there are still the regulars. “They come every day to get their bottle of wine for dinner. They go to the market and get their fish or their meat, they go to the grocery store, and they stop by here to get their bottle of wine.”
Nilo’s colleague J hails from Lebanon. He is an expert on the bottles that line the shelves. Ask him about any bottle of wine or spirit, and he’ll be able to share a specific anecdote or insight. His secret? “An elephant memory,” he says.
Nilo owned a bar when he was in Brazil. “I just love drinks, the whole thing with the wine, and the history of spirits.” His own favorite is scotch. “And red wine…big bold Riojas.”
Four adjacent stores along 30th Avenue between 35th and 36th streets have closed down, and a new development will rise up in their place. I interviewed several of the store-owners back in 2011. One of the stores, Astoria Music, had been at that location since 1922.
When small places like this close down, it’s not only the stores we loose from the Avenue but also the people who own, frequent, and love them.
The block included a party store, billiards hall, the music store, a local real estate brokers, and, still open for now, a jewelers. Their owners or the owners’ parents hail originally from Mexico, Colombia, Greece and Uzbekistan. Whatever the “mixed-use” development that appears in their place it’s unlikely it will represent quite that diversity of people and purpose.
Here are some words and images that reflect what the block was like until relatively recently, when Astoria Music and La Bomboniera Marylu relocated to the quieter 28th Avenue. I wish I had got a photograph showing all the stores together!
“I average anywhere between six to seven bouzoukis a month. This is the only music store in America that sells bouzoukis like this – well, the real thing. There are lots of imitations. This is the real thing.”
“We stay open until whenever the last players leave. If there are five tables playing at two in the morning, you can’t go round and tell them to wrap up and go. Some of the regulars come here every day to play.”
Two recent events hosted by Queens Memory at the Queens Library Broadway branch brought together Astoria old-timers and newcomers to talk about their memories and perspectives on the neighborhood.
Dr. Robyn Spencer of Lehman College kicked off the first event on Saturday 12 November by setting the scene with a quick history of Astoria, which has been defined by waves of immigration.
These began with settlement of the neighborhood by Dutch and Germans in the 17th Century, followed by Irish in the 19th and 20th Century, then Italians, Greeks (from mainland Greece during the 1960s, and from Cyprus after 1974), and from the 1970s onwards, immigrants from the Middle East (including Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Yemen), as well as from Bangladesh, South and Central America, and from Europe.
I then shared some thoughts from my 2011 project on this website (five years ago!) interviewing one person a week for a year who lived or worked along Astoria’s 30th Avenue. The interviews represent a wide cross-section of the street, but a few common threads appeared in many of them.
These included interviewees’ passion for their work, from Peter Loupakis who runs a karate acrobatics center, to school crossing guard Julia Bravo who is considered the ‘abuelita’, or grandmother, of her local community.
Another was the importance of the physical environment of the neighborhood which fosters interactions between people: with characteristics such as wide sidewalks, and the dense mixture of building uses so that you can find a hospital, a school, small stores, houses and apartment buildings interspersed along the same street.
And a third, of course, is that the neighborhood is always changing. Three of the stores whose owners I interviewed in 2011 are now no longer on 30th Avenue but have moved to the parallel, quieter, 28th Avenue due to rising rent prices (Astoria Music, Bomboniera Marylu and TaxIntel). The process of gentrification and rising rents came up in the conversation at the Queens Memory event, with participants highlighting the dynamism this represents but also the challenges for many residents.
Interviewee Khaled Shallah, originally from Syria, who runs Jerusalem Pita, had captured the continuous movement in the neighborhood when I asked him if he saw himself staying for a long time. “This is New York. Does anybody know how long they will be here?”
That said, a group of the participants at the event, now in their sixties and seventies, were born in Astoria and have never left. They shared with participants the passion they had felt for the neighborhood as children in the 1950s and still feel today. One recalled the fact that the local doctor used to pay house visits carrying a black bag. Another mentioned the reunions of students from Public School 6 that still bring together classmates from all over the country, so many years on.
Other participants who were teenagers in the 1970s and ’80s remembered nights drinking underneath the Hell Gate Bridge, clashes between cliques divided by neighborhood “block” lines, and friends and relatives who were lost to drugs.
Neighborhoods can only begin to be understood through the multiple, conflicting ways in which people see them. A participant recalled how she previously lived in Manhattan and couldn’t imagine herself, at that time, living in Queens. She thought that nothing happens here, just row upon row of dull low-rise houses (several years of living in Astoria later, and she’s been convinced otherwise!).
My husband Carlos, who was brought up in Washington Heights, responded that he had an opposite feeling whenever he would come to Queens as a child: a positive rather than negative reaction. In his view, Queens was “the real New York”, where people were fully settled and established, unlike Manhattan which to him felt in permanent flux.
The second event on 19 November had a “Music and memories” theme. It began with beautiful performances by Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz on her musical saw, and Richard Khuzami on Middle Eastern drums. Both interspersed their playing with reflections on the role of music in Astoria.
They also both described how accidents had lead them to find their respective instruments. Natalia was a dancer when she experienced a traffic accident and was told she could not dance again. It was only when she saw someone playing a musical saw in Europe some time later that she became inspired again, and her devotion to the instrument took off from there. She told the audience that on returning from that trip to Astoria, she surprised the owner of a hardware store on Broadway (no longer there) by trying out the saws on sale to see how many notes she could get from them.
One of the songs that Natalia performed was written by an Israeli composer friend who visited her house in Astoria: he was inspired by the character of the old house, and wrote the song on the spot.
Richard was also in an accident, which meant he no longer had movement in his ankles and had to give up his passion for playing the drum kit. However he had grown up surrounded by Middle Eastern music and instruments – his family was originally from Lebanon – and decided to pick up playing the drums from the region which are hand-held and do not require pedals. He got rid of all his Western music and decided to listen only to Middle Eastern music to immerse himself in its rhythms and tones. This process worked – not only has he performed in multiple venues in Queens, but also at Carnegie Hall.
Following the two performances, a participant at the event demonstrated an antique accordion that his grandfather had brought to Astoria from Italy. He recalled how anytime his grandmother annoyed his grandfather, the grandfather would retreat to his room to play: his wife did not appreciate his accordion-playing! The participant also remembered spinning around the living room as a child while his grandfather played Tarantellas, an Italian folk dance.
Richard Khuzami described the buzzing live music scene in Astoria and in the 1980s and ’90s when he would perform at places across the neighborhood through the night. Now, the live music scene is more limited, with the ascendance of electronic music. Yet towards the end of the event the discussion shifted from looking back, to looking towards the future: participants talked about ways that Astoria’s music life can be fostered by supporting young musicians and potential new venues.
These two consecutive events celebrated the diverse communities that form Astoria, which has always been defined by close interaction between the old and the new.
The event was organized by Queens Memory. It was part of the Queens Memory: 50 Years of Integration program, made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
To find out more about Queens Memory or if you are interested in contributing photographs or participating in an oral history interview visit: http://www.queensmemory.org
Anthoula Lelekidis was one of the participants at the event: she runs the popular “Ancient Astoria” Instagram channel (featured in Queens Gazette) that preserves photographs of Astoria as it used to be.
I’m thrilled that on Saturday November 12 at 2.30 pm Queens Library will be hosting a celebration of 30th Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood. The event marks five years on from my project interviewing people who live and work along 30th Avenue.
Come and join us! And please bring photos and memorabilia of Astoria to share. Queens Memory Project will be there to digitize and record your memories of the neighborhood.
From the archives– the interview with Janeth and Julia on 14th street
I met friends Janeth Toral and Julia Bravo sitting outside a house on 14th Street just south of 30th Avenue, on a Saturday morning. Janeth works as a consultant for Mary Kay: they were selling beauty products made by Mary Kay and Avon from the porch to passersby.
Janeth and Julia are both from Ecuador. Julia has lived in Astoria for 49 years and is now considered the “abuelita” – the “grandmother” – of her community. She works as a crossing guard by public school 171, which is bordered by 29th and 30th Aves, and 14th Street. Her work is clearly needed there, as there are no traffic lights. One day four years ago, after getting a group of children across the street, a taxi hit her and hurt her leg.
Julia works 12 months a year – in the summertime there are still classes going on. She says that the children who she helps cross the road are from all ethnic backgrounds – Hispanic, black, South Asian, Chinese, Irish, Italian – but that differences are overridden by the fact “they are all children.”
She enjoys the affection she gets from the children and the fact their parents are grateful for her help. Julia’s own children are now grown up and married, and are currently serving in the army – she says that email helps her to keep in regular contact with them.
Janeth came to New York from Ecuador 19 years ago. For the first year before moving to Astoria she lived in Corona. “I didn’t like it because it was so noisy. There was so much loud music! Here it’s a bit calmer. There are problems here and there, but we manage.” She began selling beauty products to help support her family. Her husband and two of her sons are in Ecuador, and her other four children (two boys and two girls) live with her in Astoria.
Both Janeth and Julia agree that the good things about the neighborhood are the nearby parks – in particular Astoria Park with its swimming pool – and access to different things that they need: stores, schools, post-offices. The problems, they say, come mainly from people who come through from other parts of New York City. And as Julia adds, the prices are going up, making it an expensive neighborhood to live in now.
The two women first got to know each other when Janeth’s son, now 13, was in pre-kinder. “He kept asking me about Julia, saying ‘when are we going to see my grandmother?’” says Janeth. “I would say no, she’s not actually your grandmother’ and he would say, ‘yes, she is!’”.
A new arrival on 30th Avenue is “Vapor Generation” at 36-20B. I quit smoking about five years ago when I became pregnant with my first child: while I’ve noticed vape stores popping up around the neighborhood and people standing outside bars with their vape pens, vaping has been a bit of a mystery to me. I spoke with Vapor Generation’s Brian King to find out more.
Brian moved to Astoria from California two and a half months ago. He started working with Vapor Generation when it opened in late February.
‘We’re trying to get people to quit in a nice healthier way, giving people many options,” he says. “We’re talking ingest or otherwise, with varying rates of nicotine from zero all the way up to eighteen milligrams for the heavy smokers. That way they don’t go through withdrawals if they are trying to kick.”
The store has a long counter where customers can test the products, and glass cabinets where they are on display: the battery-powered vaping devices, and the liquids in various flavors which go inside them. Along one wall is a black and white image of a lamp-lit street in Paris.
“There’s a heating element inside that atomizes the liquid,” says Brian. “Instead of turning it into a smoke it’s actually a vapor. You are exhaling, and it looks like smoke, but it’s not.”
He adds: “It tastes good, and it smells good too. People’s boyfriends and girlfriends are happy when they are not smoking because they don’t have to kiss an ashtray anymore.”
Brian, who formerly worked in construction, started using vapors in California. “I had to do something with my mouth,” he says. “I was chewing on pens and pencils, toothpicks, and eating lollipops…and then I found vaping.”
Until he got into the business, however, he did not realize how many options were available. Vapor Generation sources its liquids from the US and Europe – avoiding other overseas sources given the risks of them containing harmful ingredients such as pesticides. The liquids they sell contain pharmaceutical-grade or food-grade propylene glycol and glycerin.
Vaping is picking up quicker in New York than in California, Brian says, “because of Prop 215, which has made other things legal to smoke in California.” (Prop 215 is the legislation on medical marijuana).
While many of Vapor Generation’s customers are young, older long-time smokers are also venturing in. Brian sees it as his role to educate them. “A lot of the older folks that come in are trying to quit smoking – they have a lot of questions. It’s good to be able to answer their questions for them and let them know what’s going on.”
On Astoria, Brian says that it “has friendly people. It’s a little bit busier than I am used to. But when you get somebody to stop and talk to you they are actually willing to give you a bit more time than they would in San Francisco. If you’re lost looking for somewhere, people will actually get on their phone and ask other people. They will try and help you get what you need.”
When my husband Carlos and I have people round or throw a party, we serve empanadas: beef, chicken and cheese. But when guests ask if we made them we have to confess we ordered them – from Tu Casa at 30-10 Steinway Street, just round the corner from 30th Ave. They’ve become an expected feature at our place and are way better than any we could make.
Recently I spoke with Rodolfo, Tu Casa’s manager. He has been in the restaurant business in New York for 20 years.
“We’re unique,” Rodolfo says. “I believe we are the only Latino restaurant around here. And not only Latino – but quality, good class Latino. The majority of people here in the neighborhood are European – and the majority of the restaurants are like French, and Greek.
“So I’d like to invite people who haven’t been here – to show them what good Latino food is all about.”
While Tu Casa’s owner has Dominican and Honduran parents, the chef is Peruvian – and about 75% of the menu is Peruvian. But there are also dishes from other parts of Latin America.
When asked which is the most popular dish, Rodolfo says “Lomo saltado, and pollo saltado – saltado is a style of cooking with onions, tomatoes and cilantro.” But then continues as if spoiled for choice: “Our ceviches are very popular too, Peruvian style. Also the Peruvian fried rice – Chaufa, with chicken.”
And we have non-Peruvian dishes that are very popular: chicarrones de pollo served with tostones or with rice and beans – our steaks, our fish…”
Their busiest times are Friday and Saturday nights, though they also serve food at lunchtime and have some regulars who come every day. During the week, Tu Casa has a happy hour in the early evening.
The first Tu Casa opened in Kew Gardens. Then came the Astoria restaurant in 2010, and just a few weeks ago the third one, in Forest Hills, opened its doors.
Rodolfo says that as manager of the restaurant he enjoys dealing with people – whether it’s staff, or customers – and resolving situations that come up. His aim is to make sure that people who come through the door feel like they are welcome and at home. The restaurant is called “Tu Casa” after all.