Archive | April, 2011

Dr Yokaira Espiritu-Santo – podiatrist

24 Apr


Dr Yokaira Espiritu-Santo is a podiatrist at Astoria Advanced Footcare on 30th Ave.  (Her patients call her Dr Santo for short).  While I interviewed her, she was skillfully treating my feet.

She came to the US with her family when she was two, from the Dominican Republic, and was brought up in New Jersey.  She studied medicine at Rutgers University.  Then she did her four years podiatry training in Manhattan and her residency in New York Hospital Queens, in Flushing.

Dr Santo says that she does not know the origin of the name “Yokaira.”  “A lot of the patients ask me,” she says. “I suppose I should look it up, but really I don’t want to know.  It’s my name, it’s me.”

She decided to become a podiatrist because when she was young she had chronic in-growing toenails.  After many fruitless trips to her eighty-year-old pediatrician she finally saw a podiatrist, who solved the problem.

“Cured would be the wrong word,” she says, “because there’s never an actual cure for anything, you bring things under control.  But he stopped the in-growing toenails recurring.

“I was so grateful and happy that I could wear my sandals and my open toe shoes, and paint my nails.  I had wanted to be a pediatrician.  But that changed my mind and I became a podiatrist.”

Working on 30th Ave

Dr Hans, who heads up the practice, trained Dr Santo during her residency and invited her to join him when she finished training.  They split their week between offices in Manhattan, Sunnyside, and Astoria.

“In the Manhattan office,” says Dr Santo, “everyone wants the quick fix.  They have the mentality of ‘fix me as soon as possible, I’m on my lunch-break, or I just got out of work and want to get home.’”  She says people are in less of a hurry in the Astoria office. On 30th Avenue, they treat more elderly people, and patients make their appointments for days that they have off work.

“Everyone that comes through this office seems to be happy,” she says.  “Everybody has a different story.  Everybody comes from different walks of life.   I see one patient, who then brings their mom or their father or their girlfriend.  It turns into a family event here at times.  I might treat a whole family in one day.

“I appreciate the fact that they trust me and that they refer other people to come here.  That’s pretty cool.”

Talking to the patients is one aspect of her work that Dr Santo really enjoys.  She also likes the fact that they leave the office feeling better than when they came in.

She and Dr Hans treat a whole range of foot problems: heel pain, occasional surgeries on bunions or hammer toes, and preventative care for diabetic patients, so that they won’t have to lose their feet in the future due to poor circulation or infections.

They treat ankle sprains and fractures, often caused by running.   And if a patient is wearing shoes that aggravate their problem, they let them know.  “For runners we usually recommend New Balance sneakers because they come a little bit wider and they have better arch support.”

Tough schedule

Dr Santo lives with her partner in New Jersey, having moved there after nine years living in Manhattan and then Queens.  She spends two to three hours a day commuting through traffic.  “That’s killing me!” she says.  But despite that she still would not want to move back into the city.

Once at the office she spends 12 hours there and treats between 20-30 patients.  The hardest part is the paperwork.  For each patient she sees, there are 10-15 minutes of paperwork, up to 30 minutes if the patient is new.   She takes a lot of the paperwork to finish at home.

Dr Santo takes a short lunch break but usually spends it in the office and has food delivered from one of the 30th Ave. restaurants.

Once a month, she and a girlfriend who works in the hospital meet on a Monday night for supper at the Indian restaurant, Ghandi.   “I love that place.  Even if it means eating late – and sometimes waiting around on my own for her if she finishes after me – I make it happen, at least once a month.”

What’s next

“I definitely want three kids, and I have to start soon!” says Dr Santo.  “I want two girls and a boy.  I already have their names and everything.”

Career-wise, Dr Santo says that in the future she would like to have her own practice: “It would have state-of-the-art everything.  And lots of rooms.  I would work there three times a week, and do surgery one day a week.  I might join a residency program where I could train other people to become podiatrists, do teaching lectures here and there.

“Perhaps some trauma work too.  But the problem with trauma is that you always have to be on call with your pager next to your hip.  So I’d probably just do trauma call once or twice a month.  That’s my ideal.  Oh and I’d dictate all of my charts instead of handwriting them. (laughs).”

How does Dr Santo plan to make this happen? “It will take some time, and a lot of energy.”

Jonathan Ellis and Georgina Young-Ellis

18 Apr

Jonathan Ellis and Georgina Young-Ellis by M-City's mural on 30th Ave

Just beyond George’s Auto Repair at the far western end of 30th Avenue are some walls covered in graffiti.  But this isn’t usual graffiti tagging.  The walls form the Welling Court Mural Project, and the murals on them were painted by graffiti artists from all around the world.

Welling Court resident Jonathan Ellis came up with the initial idea for the project.  I met with Jonathan and his wife Georgina Young-Ellis to hear about graffiti, the neighborhood, and block parties.

Both Jon and Georgina are originally from Los Angeles, but they met in New Mexico where they lived for a while and had their son.  Georgina had always wanted to move back to New York, where she had studied drama in the 1980s.  Thirteen years ago they did.  They lived for three years on Astoria’s 12th Street, then after many months of house-hunting bought their house on Welling Court.

Welling Court

Welling Court is a small street that loops in a half-moon from 30th Ave to 12th Street, close to East River.

Georgina says,“When we bought the house ten years ago, Welling Court was a bad street.  There were a lot of good people on it, who are still there now.  But there were also crack houses.  One was right next door to us. We just kept being persistent about calling the police when that was going on.”

She says that together with their neighbors they have turned it into a family neighborhood, “without gentrifying, without throwing anyone out.  Except for crack-heads and prostitutes.”  A lot of kids live along the street.  Given that it doesn’t have much traffic they play soccer along it when the weather is warm.

The community at Welling Court is mainly Mexican – the neighborhood is referred to locally as Little Mexico.  “We really value that,” says Georgina.  “Being from the south west and having come here from New Mexico, we felt at home.”

Each December 11th local residents hold a fiesta for the Virgin of Guadalupe.  They build a shrine on the street, bring out piñatas and lots of food, and have music that goes on well into the night.

Jon and Georgina spend a lot of time in the neighborhood: other than Georgina’s teaching of English as a second language, their work, as artists, is based at home.  They are currently working to get their feature-length screenplay produced.  Jon recently published a book on weight control, and Georgina, an e–novel.  Georgina also acts, and Jon designs websites.

The mural project

Jon says: “I’d been seeing gang-tagging getting worse and worse and worse, in the neighborhood and all around it.”

“It was just a graffiti magnet,” Georgina adds. “It was ugly.  And kind of sad.  We never knew when they were doing it.  It would just appear.”

Yet Jon says that he had also “always kind of admired graffiti.  When it was nice!  I saw a piece of programming on CBS Sunday Morning that was about an event in Paris each year, when graffiti artists from all over the world converge and do their works.

So I got it in my head that there was no reason why we couldn’t somehow manage to pull that off on Welling Court.”

He spent two years trying to get people to work with him on the project but found it hard to get them involved.  Then a friend suggested he contact a Brooklyn-based group called Ad Hoc Art.  Ad Hoc invited thirty graffiti artists to come and paint the walls around Welling Court.

“We had to get permission from every business whose walls are used,” says Jon.  “That took a while.  There was a little resistance.  Especially from the school bus company.  They didn’t know what to expect.  And there’s a hierarchy there that was hard to get through.  But once I was able to talk to the main person there, she was interested and said go for it.”

One artist, M-City from Poland, came a few months before the others, in December 2009.  A neighbor had an empty apartment that M-City stayed in for a few days while he worked.  Jon and Georgina were away at the time on vacation.

“When we came back home from vacation it was very late at night,” says Jon.  “We were in a cab.  We drove up along Welling Court and I was so disappointed, thinking, ‘oh it didn’t happen.’  There was nothing on Welling Court.  Then the next morning I walked out and on 30th Ave of course there was this magnificent piece of work.  He’d painted a different wall to the one we were expecting.”

The other artists came from Brazil, Chile, Denmark, and elsewhere – and some were local New York City artists.  They arrived on May 19 and by the end of Saturday 22, eight walls had been covered with murals.

At one point while they were painting some people who worked for the bus company but didn’t know that the artists had permission, tried to intervene.

Jon says, “Apparently people who were in the neighborhood watching the artists literally stepped in and stood up for them, and said this is great, we want it.   To me, this project is all community building.  And as it turns out the bus company are now really forthcoming about allowing us to control the outside of their walls.

“People are coming in from outside the neighborhood to photograph it, to video.  Music videos are being made on the street.  It’s bringing a different sense of what a block is.”

“And that’s without any sort of Williamsburgian gentrification,” says Georgina.  “It’s not like we’re a community of all artists, where everybody’s thinking ‘let’s make this into art mecca.’  This a community of mostly working people, largely immigrants.  They all are just excited that their street is not going to have ugly graffiti but instead will have something pretty interesting, unusual, and eye-catching.”

Many of the artists said that the murals would probably get tagged soon after they were painted.  But almost a year has gone by, and many of them remain un-tagged.

This June the project will happen again.  There’s more wall-space to be covered.  Also many of the artists are going to come back and re-paint over the areas where they have already painted.

The block party

Jon and Georgina had organized a block party – the Welling Court block party – three times before the mural project.  Everyone along the block contributes food: hamburgers, Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian, Greek food.

Then when the artists came in 2010, they combined the painting with the block party.  People from all over New York showed up.  Some, though, came just with their own drink.

“It wasn’t that they were taking things from anybody else,” says Jon.  “But you know, they just brought drink for themselves.  I really would like to instill this year that feeling that we’re a broader community and that we’re all sharing.

“And if they can’t share food or drink, I’d ask that they make some contribution to the artists.  The artists are there doing an incredible thing not just for Welling Court and the blocks around it, but for all of Astoria.  And indirectly for all of New York.”

Development in Astoria

For many years Georgina has belonged to a group called Long Island City Alliance, which brings people together around issues like graffiti and over-development.  She says that the alliance played a big role in helping to get a new down-zoning introduced in Astoria.

The zoning restrictions make it harder to build tall buildings on blocks that are dominated by two-family homes.  They allow larger buildings on streets where some already exist, like 21st Street.

Jon says, “Developers in some areas realized that the down-zoning was going to be inevitable.  Builders came in and tore down some 150-year old homes.   They knew that the community wouldn’t like it so they literally would go in and knock a house down in a day.”

He says that some development is good as long as it’s done right.  Examples of what works, in his view, include the Astor Bake Shop, where we had this conversation, and Vesta restaurant on 30th Ave and 21st Street.

He says of Astor Bake Shop: “It was daring for him [chef-owner George McKirdy] to open this place up.  To have that forward-thinking idea that this could work here, without changing the neighborhood.  And it does work.  It fits into the neighborhood.  People who live here come here and support it and love it.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that.”

Another example Jon gives is the Piano Factory building on Vernon Boulevard by the river.  The inside of the building was gutted and turned into condominiums but the outside was completely maintained.

Georgina agrees that a balance is needed. “The tradition of New York City is development.  You can’t really say no, we are not going to build buildings and develop.  But I’m optimistic because of the progress we’ve already made in really keeping a handle on it.  Keeping it under control, guiding it.  I’m optimistic that this area and other small areas in New York City can grow and develop in a good way.

“And that we can do it without driving people out of their homes and rentals.  That’s a big thing for me.   Jackson Heights is going through something like that.  There are cool local communities, where the more people who want to live here, and the more wonderful  little restaurants get built, the more rents go up and the more that people who were living there a long time get driven out.  Then big box stores come in and suddenly it’s not so desirable any more.  It’s this whole wave of things that happen.

“I feel like right now in Astoria there’s an awareness of that wave, and an awareness of how to try to counteract it.  So far I see it going in the right direction.”

10 min video by Kings of New York: “Welling Court Mural Project” (interviews with some of the artists in May 2010)

Jonathan and Georgina’s blog “Searching for Sincerity” where they rank places on a “sincerity scale.”  Their 10 factors of sincerity include: locally owned (as far as they can tell); not connected to a large corporation; friendly service; value; quality; they love what they’re doing.

Mural by Katie Yamasaki

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill, Danielle, Denis, Jeanne and Mary at Corner Delights

11 Apr

From right to left: Denis Curtin, Bill Nevins, Danielle Pagliaro, Mary Devitt

Last Tuesday afternoon a group of long-time 30th Avers was gathered in Corner Delights Coffee Shop, on the corner of 30th Ave and 44th Street.   They were:

Denis Curtin: He came to America from Ireland in 1958, and moved to Astoria in 1960.

Mary Devitt: Her parents came from Ireland, and she has lived in Astoria for 44 years.

Jeanne O’Melia: Her mother and father both came from Ireland in the early 1900s, and met in New York (about which, more below).  Jeanne was brought up in Corona, lived in Jackson Heights a while, and came to Astoria in 1978.

Bill Nevins: He was born on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, and moved to Astoria in 1960 with his grandmother.  For the past 31 years he has lived on 30th Ave itself.

Danielle Pagliaro: She was born and brought up near 30th Ave.  Danielle works at Corner Delights.

Below are details from an animated conversation in which one memory triggered another, and another.

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

Denis:  We meet here every day.  If one of us doesn’t show up, the other one will call to see what they’re doing.

Jeanne: We talk and we eat, we talk and we eat.

Mary: And we tell jokes and we laugh.

Jeanne: Mary tells the greatest jokes.

Denis: You can find us here four, sometimes five hours a day.

Street games

Danielle: When I was a kid here we used to have awesome block parties.  You would come outside in the summer and every block had people on the streets, kids.  Whether you lived on this block or that block, people knew who you were.  If you got seen doing something wrong, you’d be caught by the ear and dragged back to your mother.

Mary:  Each block had its own baseball team and own football team, and they played each other.

At six o’clock you’d hear the mothers calling out the windows, “Johnny, Billy, get up,” telling their kids to come for dinner.

You never had a kid being bored.  People used boxes and old wheels to make go-carts.  And then there was the bottle caps game.  We melted colored crayons into the caps to weigh them down.

Bill: And Johnny Ride the Pony.

Mary: There was a lady on our block called the witch, because she didn’t want kids playing there.  She would throw water out of her window onto them.

Danielle. I think every block had a witch. And a cat lady.

Bill: The schoolyards used to be so much bigger than they are now.  Public School 70 – that had the greatest yard anywhere.

Changes

Denis: Astoria has always been good.  When I came in 1960, I was a boy.  I went to high school over in Sunnyside.  It was all working people.  The prices were good.  And it was centrally located.  You were in the city in 10 minutes.

I married, and divorced, and have three boys – now they’re all grown up and married.  My ex-wife lives in the same apartment she was born in, at 30th Ave and 42nd Street.  And her father had moved there when he was 12 years old.

Mary: When we came here in the 1960s, the neighborhood was German.  German, Italian, and Irish, but more German than anything else.

St Joseph’s Church here was founded by the Germans.  Then of course you’ve got Kaufman Studios on 34th Avenue, the Steinway Piano Factory and Steinway Street.

A lot of people have moved out to the suburbs now.  Like the Germans moved out to Middle Village.  The Italians went out to Whitestone.

You get quite a lot of religions here too.  You had quite a lot of Jewish people in Astoria.  There were also Lutheran churches and schools.  And then down towards Ditmars there were mostly Greeks.

Bill: Steinway Street used to be a very expensive street.  People would come from Manhattan to shop there.  And this was like a vacation spot, like being in the country.  There used to be a Woolworths.  That was the best store in Steinway.   It had old wooden creaking floors.  You could get anything in there.  You could buy goldfish.  Anything.

Danielle: I used to go with my grandmother to get yarn, just so I could have the meatloaf and apple pie at the counter.

Mary: There were a lot of ice-cream parlors in Astoria too.  They sold egg creams [a drink made with chocolate syrup, milk and soda water].

Denis: One of the wonderful things was the Triboro Movie Theater.  The one that had the stars in the ceiling.  It was like the universe when you looked up.  It was heart-breaking to see it pulled down.  They knew it was a landmark but they ripped it down, overnight.  Now it’s apartments.

Bill: Along 30th Avenue there were a lot more bars.  From Steinway up to here I can think of seven bars that used to be here. Now they’re gone, and there are more cafés instead.  There used to be German delis too.

Mary: Phil’s Kosher restaurant on Steinway was great.  And the Steinway Bakeshop.  And Schaller and Weber, “All German Meats”.    Oh and the bakery down near the train, Norgards Bakery.

Bill: Mount Sinai Hospital on 30th Ave was Astoria General Hospital before.  Actually, Mr Drago built that. [The father of Rosario Drago, of RP Drago Funeral Homes on 30th Ave].  They’d joke that the father killed them and his son used to bury them.  Rosario Drago has died now, and the funeral home is in different hands.

There was a lot more green space.  I remember a farm just here.  And there was also a farm between 21st and 22nd Streets, and Broadway and 34th Avenue.  There was an English-style castle opposite it, with turrets and everything.  When I did my newspaper round when I was about ten, they gave me that castle to drop the paper off at.  I was afraid of it.  But when we heard that the guy there died, we became braver.  They’ve torn it down now.

I have a barn in the backyard of my house where they used to keep horses.  When I moved in there 31 years ago they still had the four stalls inside the barn.

Denis: Up where La Guardia airport is, that was called North Beach.  I don’t remember it, but the old timers talk about it.  They would go swimming up there.  That was like going to the countryside too.

Buildings

Bill: 30th Avenue used to be much lower than it is now.   When you walk out the back of my house, you have to go a long way down.  That’s the original level of the street.  They used to have the sewers on that level too – they didn’t dig holes to put the pipes in, they just put them right there.

The houses along the streets off 30th Avenue, they’re Matthews Houses, built by the Matthews family.  They went up around the 1920s, after the elevated trains came.  They’re all made with yellow bricks from Pennsylvania.

You used to have to heat them with coal.  There was the front fireplace and the back fireplace.  You had a space in the basement where you could keep your coal.  My father used to say that if you saw no coal in a space, the people in that apartment were very cold.

Danielle: There were windows between each room for ventilation.

Denis: Down near the river you have all the old mansions.  The mansions from the sailing days.  Some have the captains’ walkways on the top, where the wives would watch their husbands arrive on the sailing ships.

Jeanne

I used to live in Corona, which was a very good place at one time.  I was born there.  I could tell you every store, everything about Corona.  Then I moved to Jackson Heights, and then I came down here.

I moved here because my mother was getting old.  She couldn’t climb the stairs any more.  We had been in a walk-up apartment for 20 years but we couldn’t stay.  My sister was here and she invited us down.  My mother lived to be a hundred.

She came from Ireland, and my father too.

She came in about 1914.  She was going to school to be a nurse.  She would go at night.  My dear father, he worked at nights too.  There was the token booth man at the station.  My mother would come through there to get on the train.  And my father too.  And the man behind the booth, he said to my father, “you know there’s a nice young Irish girl who comes through here every night, she goes to school.  Maybe you’d like to meet her”.

And that’s how my mother met my father!  They got married.  My mother never became the nurse.  She was a nurse to all of us.  She had six children.

Finally – two more things about Astoria

Mary:  One of the best things about 30th Avenue, is you’re near to all the conveniences, to shopping, to churches, to the subway and so on.

And you have a wonderful mix of people here.  That keeps us all grounded.

Jeanne O’Melia

 

Carlos Sanclementi – Astoria Billiards Club

4 Apr


Carlos Sanclementi could not talk long for our interview because work was calling; he had to go and play billiards with one of his customers.

Carlos has owned Astoria Billiards Club since 2004.  It’s a cavernous basement space on 30th Ave between 35th and 36th Street, which many years ago used to be a bowling alley.  Customers can play billiards, pool, snooker, table hockey, backgammon and chess.

Carlos bought it from one of his wife’s relatives.  The relative had grown tired of managing the billiards hall.  And Carlos, who had been working for 25 years with an import-export company, was ready for a change.

“What I really enjoy about my work here,” he says, “is that no-one’s my boss.  I make the decisions.  And of course my wife as well, because we run the business together.  It’s much better than how it was for 25 years – even though I’d become a department supervisor – hearing ‘Carlos do this, Carlos do that’ all the time.”

Carlos is from Cali in Colombia and moved to the US in 1966.  He rarely goes to Colombia now because he has few relatives still there.  “The last time I went was eight years ago.  But I do want to go before too long.  I have various houses and properties there.  I want to check that the agency that looks after them is doing everything it says it’s doing.”

Carlos and his wife Marta commute to the billiards hall from their home in Flushing.  They do the first shift, from 1pm till around 10.30pm.  She works at the counter where people pay for their games and buy food and drinks.  He does the paperwork in the office, as well as playing a game of billiards with anyone who needs a playing partner.  “If they turned up and didn’t have anyone to play a game with, they wouldn’t come back!”

Usually one of Marta’s sisters and a friend of theirs do the night shift – Carlos says they always have a man and a women on duty at one time.  “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.”

The customers are mainly American, and many Mexicans.  “Some of the regulars,” says Carlos, “come here every day to play.”  And on that note off he went to play the game with his waiting customer.