Sami Mobarak – Old Village Thrift, Gift and Antiques

Sami Mobarak in his shop Old Village Thrift, Gifts and Antiques

Sami Mobarak runs Old Village Thrift, Gift and Antiques, on 30th Ave just West of 29th Street.  The store sells all kinds of products.  When I was there to interview him, among them were silver jewelery (his specialty), watches, furniture, clothes, a saxophone, a cricket score board…

For almost eight years previously, Sami had a pizzeria.  “It was good.  But I burned myself left and right.  And when the oven is too hot and you’re sweating and tired… I’m getting older now (I’m 53), so I decided it’s time to calm down a little and do something more relaxing.”

Sami and his wife enjoyed going to flea markets at the weekend to buy antiques.  “So we turned a hobby into business.  You do something that you like to do and you make some money at the same time, that cannot be bad!  It’s not like a huge profit, just a living.”

A friend of his has a huge warehouse of goods and sends Sami a truck of things to sell each month.  He also finds things to sell in yard sales and flea markets.    He puts his customers into groups.  “Some are interested in antiques and willing to pay good money for them – but that is not so many people.  Most people are looking for cheaper stuff.  I focus on having a little bit to satisfy everybody’s taste in different products.”

Sami, who has lived in Astoria for 26 years, is originally from Alexandria in Egypt.  He says that the revolution earlier this year “was about time.  It should have happened a long time ago.  I hope that it will bring some sort of stability in the country because it was like a boiling pot, with big time poverty.

“I was visiting six months before the revolution.  I saw people eating from the garbage, and I saw people spending tons of money.  There was no in-between.   Society was split between filthy rich and dirty poor.  What happened was a wake-up call for everybody who lives there.”  As an Egyptian living outside Egypt, Sami was emotionally involved and looked for any way to give his support.  He and some friends joined with a local singer and made a song for the revolution.

Sami lives with his wife – originally from Algeria – and their two young sons.  Of Astoria, he says it is one of the safest and most beautiful parts of New York City to live in.  “The 114th precinct is one of the best police stations, they are always present, always there.  Young ladies who get off work at three or four o’clock in the morning and are walking home by themselves feel safe.”

Twice, he attempted living elsewhere, in New Jersey.  The first time he came back after a month, the second after two months.  He missed the community here, and also says that other neighborhoods feel too quiet in comparison.  Along 30th Avenue and nearby, there are places open and people on the streets all through the night.

He adds: “Being here for a long time creates something like it’s a whole big family living in the neighborhood, everybody looking after everybody.  After all these years I think also that people start to trust each other.  You’ll find Turkish people close friends with Greeks, or an Egyptian who has an Israeli as one of his best friends.  You forget about what is the foreign policy and politics, and you just go down to a person-level, to human beings who need a living.”

When Sami first lived in Astoria a one bedroom apartment would rent for $375 or $400.  “Now we’re talking about $1400 for a one bedroom studio,” he says.  I see a lot of movement from Manhattan to Astoria, because in only 10 to 15 minutes you are in the heart of the city but the rent is still cheaper here.  A lot of middle class working couples move to the neighborhood.  To accommodate this movement, they open a lot of cafés which didn’t exist before, there were just small stores here and there.

“Some of those new cafés cost maybe a million or so.  They are doing a great business, and in turn attract more crowds, and I think that is why the rents here have never gone down, even though real estate has been busted and the rent went down almost everywhere else.”

Sami has no plans to try moving again though.  He says as long as he is in the US, he will stay in Astoria.



Reporting back – launch of a 30th Ave photo exhibit

30th Ave the day after hurricane/tropical storm Irene

On 20 July 2011 the Greater Astoria Historical Society hosted the launch of an exhibit of photos from this site, “30th Ave – A Year in the Life of a Street.”  The event was a great way to mark the mid-point of the project (which had 29 interviews at that time, 23 more to come by the end of the year!).  Five of us spoke about 30th Ave from different perspectives.

Bob Singleton of GAHS began by bringing the audience back to when 30th Ave was originally proposed as a street.  He read from the minutes of a meeting of the trustees of Astoria Village on November 4, 1850.  The trustees resolved that a new street, 60 feet wide, would be created and named Grand Street.

The proposal met a lot of opposition.  One property owner objected because the new street would run through his grove of trees.  Others complained that they would be taxed for construction and maintenance that would largely benefit others.   The proposal was never formally adopted, but the street appeared and developed rapidly all the same.

I introduced my project and described two of the sources of inspiration for it.  One was National Geographic’s “Genographic” project, which had collected cheek cells from people along 30th Ave at the street fair in 2008.  They found that the street and its surroundings form one of the most diverse places in the planet.  As a local resident, I knew of course that 30th Ave was diverse: but here was some unusual evidence in the form of genetic markers.

The other source of inspiration was a woman called Helen, who once did my nails (on one of the rare occasions that I’ve had my nails done), at Athena’s Nails on 30th Ave.  I was 33 at the time and pregnant with my son.  Helen, who is from Tibet, told me that she had had her two children when she was 13 and 14 years old.  She said she is always surprised how long women in New York stay single, and how late they have their kids.  She also told me that she had left her children in Tibet, and missed them a lot, and often couldn’t get through to them on the phone.

It wasn’t until after my son Jack was born that the idea for the website and of doing one interview a week came together, but those two things definitely planted seeds for it.  A short while after starting the project I went back to Athena’s Nails to see if I could find Helen.  The managers told me she doesn’t work there anymore and didn’t know how to track her down.  It is a reminder that for every story that is told about someone along 30th Avenue there are stories – hundreds of them – that are not told.  I’m aiming for this site to tell a story of 30th Ave during 2011 that reflects as many aspects as possible, but it is by no means the story.

Frank Arcabasio spoke next.  He set up Redken Saloon Salon on 30th Ave – and is currently President of the 30th Ave Business Association.  He was inspired to become a hair stylist when he worked as a kid in his cousins’ barbershop in Astoria (his interview for this site included the fabulous line, “I knew early on the power of a good hair cut”).  Frank spoke about the entrepreneurial spirit of 30th Ave: how the small size of the buildings and therefore the small area for shop floors had prevented some of the big chains from moving in, and had therefore helped family-run businesses to flourish.   He also said that the internet had provided all kinds of new opportunities for people in local communities to interact and learn from each other.

Melissa Rivera began her talk describing growing up around 30th Avenue.  She mentioned her first jobs in the area as a teenager, like working at the old cinema on the corner of 30th Ave and Steinway (now a pharmacy and sports club), and at a bridal store.  She said that despite a brief stint living in Manhattan she was drawn back to the neighborhood.

Alongside her work in child welfare and raising her young son Melissa has set up a soap-making business in her apartment (in one of the railroad apartment buildings just off 30th Ave, beyond Steinway).   “Naturally Good Soaps” is a a truly local business if ever there was one, and all of the products are proudly stamped “Made in Astoria”.

Her dream would be to employ a few people in the neighborhood and train them in her business.  But alongside her praise for the community Melissa injected a note of caution.  She said that with fewer and fewer mom and pop shops and the rents increasing, her community is starting to feel like someone else’s community.  She is beginning to feel the pinch and she – and her son, who goes to school nearby – both really hope that they will be able to stay.

Debbie Van Cura, the next speaker, is a trustee of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.  She teaches urban sociology at La Guardia Community College.  In her talk (which you can watch on You Tube here) she quoted the wonderful urban historian Jane Jacobs, who said: “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  She said that spirit is at the heart of what makes 30th Avenue a successful street – the fact that people from all backgrounds are able to interact, and to participate in and influence what the street has to offer.

She added that the geography of the street itself enables those interactions, with its wide sidewalks and many benches, and spaces to linger like Athens Square.   Unlike many parts of the city, when you walk down 30th Avenue you see people standing still and talking to one another in the middle of the sidewalk.  She reminded us that while the internet has provided a new forum for interaction it is those sidewalk conversations that are the lifeblood of a neighborhood.

Debbie’s talk also echoed some of the characteristics of a “successful” street that have emerged time and again in the interviews I have done so far with people along 30th Ave.  Among the characteristics that many people have said they like about the street, are:
–    everything they need is easily accessible;
–    they feel safe;
–    there are people from all over the world;
–    the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly (more than in Manhattan!);
–    newcomers and old-timers generally mix well together;
–    and there is life on the streets at all times of day and night.

Sometimes I consider the dynamic of 30th Ave as a “respectful proximity of strangers.”  But once you have been into someone’s store a few times and spoken with the owner each time, he or she is more than a stranger.  Better to say that there is a “respectful proximity of strangers and friends.”

To wrap up the event, Bob Singleton of GAHS proposed a resolution: that those in attendance formally designate the street of 30th Avenue as a “dynamic city neighborhood with easy access to everything,” and “a place for creative people in search of a better life.”  The resolution was approved by with a unanimous “aye!”

I want to say a big thank you to the GAHS for hosting this exhibition.  When I first went to their sprawling and fascinating space in the Quinn building on Broadway to see a documentary about the Steinway Piano Factory, little would I have known that I would be back a year later for the launch of my own little exhibit.

The photos were up through the end of August.  You can still check them out here though.  Those featured in the exhibit were:

Md Kamruzzaman – taxi driver
Lynne Serpe – at Two Coves Community Garden
Halim M – Harissa Cafe
Nancy Vinson
Aravella Simotas – New York State Assemblymember
Dr Yokaira Espiritu-Santo – podiatrist
Jonathan Ellis and Georgina Young-Ellis – of Welling Court Mural Project
Bill, Danielle, Denis, Jeanne and Mary at Corner Delights
George Haridimou – George’s Auto Repair
Khaled Shallah – Pita Hot
The Saw Lady – Natalia Paruz
Bobby Kartsagoulis and Vasilios Ioannou – Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable
Frank Arcabascio – Redken Saloon Salon
Martha Heredia and Elvis Raymundo – at Grand Ave Laundromat
Abdel & Ahmed Farghaly at Bakeway Café

As always, I hope you enjoy the interviews on this site and please do not hesitate to send me suggestions of interviewees .


Casey Sullivan – Chef at Queens Comfort

Casey Sullivan - in the kitchen at Queens Comfort

30th Ave is becoming foodier by the week it seems.  Last weekend I spoke with chef Casey Sullivan.  He’s the Executive Chef at Queens Comfort, which opened in February this year on 30th Ave just East of Steinway.   Casey is originally from Los Angeles but has lived in many different parts of the US: Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas City, Chicago…

“I am pretty into America!” he says.  “I am a really big proponent of American culture.  And I think that especially in the food world, historically it hasn’t had the respect that it deserves.”

Casey came to New York from Chicago with his girlfriend when she got a job as the head bartender at Café Boulud in Manhattan.  The co-founders of Queens Comfort, Donnie D’Alessio and Avery Thompson, were looking for a chef specializing in comfort food.  Soon, via a Craigslist ad, Casey joined their team.  He commutes to the restaurant from Washington Heights.

Donnie and Avery were in the film business before they set up Queens Comfort.  You can tell.  Movies are projected onto the back wall (without the sound) and there are piles of film magazines next to the usual flyers about what’s going on in Astoria.   “When we don’t talk about food we talk about movies,” Casey says.

It’s clear that the food comes first though.   On the rotating menu you might find pulled pork sandwiches, grilled corn with Tabasco and mayo, fried chicken with biscuit.  “My absolute favorite food to eat and to cook is fried chicken,” says Casey.  “It’s one of the things with the most variances and different schools of thought – everyone thinks theirs is the best.”  He adds that he knows theirs is the best in Astoria…and he thinks it’s the best in New York.

“This place is very different for where it’s at,” Casey says.  “There are places like it in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side in Manhattan that do well doing this kind of thing.  Here it’s new.  The reason it’s a success is because people who like it love it.”

Casey buys a lot of the vegetables for Queens Comfort from the Greenmarket in Union Square.  “There’s nothing more fun than going to the market and grabbing the green tomatoes and a big bag of corn.”  Organically and locally-reared meat is harder to source though.  “You’re looking at adding ten bucks onto a dish.  We do what we can, and use the local butchers here along 30th Ave – we make a call to tell them what we want then walk down the street to pick it up.”

Casey says that the “career” of cooking used to mean you would follow a European route – the word “chef” is a French word after all.  “But I don’t want to eat crepes!  I just don’t want to do it!  I would be running a losing race if I tried to cook French food better than a French guy.  But the same thing holds the other way.  Bring any French guy in here and try to get him to cook our food!”  Casey did a lot of his training working alongside experienced chefs in Kansas City, where “there’s really great barbeque, and where you can find grits on a fine dining menu.”

Casey says that he sees cooking as a craft.  “Like laying bricks, but laying bricks really well.  The middle class in this country, the workers, used to be artisans and craftsmen.  They didn’t necessarily design great buildings but they built great buildings.  Someone designed the Chrysler building, but there were guys who built it, and that’s amazing.

“That’s in some way what I think that we do as chefs.  You know, you pay attention to something, you do everything right, you do it the way you were told to do it, you might find faster ways to do it but you don’t cut any corners.  That’s a craft.  It’s one of the few crafts left in the country that you can make money doing.”


Carlos Hiraldo – English Professor

Carlos Hiraldo (outside Frank's Bakery, source of his favorite chocolate croissants)

An up-front disclosure: Carlos Hiraldo is my husband.  We spoke for this interview in our apartment, on the third floor of a house on 30th Drive.  30th Avenue is the main street we go down every day, for everything – to buy food, to take our son to daycare or the playground, to get the subway for work and elsewhere.  To get a drink, or just to stroll…

Carlos is an English Professor and a writer.  He teaches at La Guardia Community College, part of the City University of New York.  Much of what he teaches is composition, often using novels and poems to do so.  “The students are of all ages and from all over the world,” he says.  “La Guardia calls itself the ‘World’s Community College’.  Slogans are slogans but to an extent it’s true.”

Carlos says the most satisfying part of his work is seeing his students improve as writers.  The challenge is dealing with those who don’t.  “It’s hard to admit as an educator in this country that not every student is going to learn, not every student is going to pass.  The rhetoric is that everybody can learn and do well.  Obviously that’s just not the case.”

His academic writing focuses on identity.  “Whether that’s race, or class, etc.  What is your identity, how do you deal with it, and how do you make it a positive rather than a negative.  Often identity can be a negative.  If for example people believe that being Latino or being black is being uneducated, then that’s an identity that’s harming you.  So it’s teaching people to be flexible about their identity.”

Carlos also writes poems.  “I don’t have a method.  They just come from my life, from feeling something strongly.”  (Two examples are here and here).

A native New Yorker, Carlos sees similar attitudes between people born here and people who move here from abroad, as opposed to those who move to New York from elsewhere in the US.  “It depends on who you are.  But native New Yorkers and immigrants from abroad whether they are Latinos, Asians, Eastern Europeans, tend to see the city as home and are invested in it, even if at some point they move on.  Internal immigrants often see it in utilitarian terms.  Like, ‘I want to be an actor so I come to New York to be an actor’, or ‘I want to be in finance, so I come to New York to be in finance.’”

Carlos was born at New York Presbyterian Hospital in upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights.  His parents both came to New York from the Dominican Republic.  “The first four years when my parents were together we lived on a quiet block on 171st street,” he says.  “I remember green trees.  For some reason I don’t remember the winters during the first few years of my life.”

An early memory from that time is him and his older sister running quickly past the ramps of the hospital opposite, calling it “el peligro,” frightened that the security guards would shoot them.  “We had vivid imaginations.  I guess my mom had said at some point ‘no corran por allí porque es un peligro,’ and that’s what we called it.”

Carlos’ mom worked in a factory that made dolls – Madame Alexander Doll Company – on 131st Street.  “It was a luxury doll company where each doll probably cost more than she made in one day.”  His father drove a cab, and would pick him up from school each day at 3pm to get a late lunch.  “It meant I ate lunch late around 3 then I would eat dinner at 6 or 7.  Sometimes I would also eat lunch in school because I couldn’t wait.”

At his high school in the Bronx Carlos’ teachers praised his writing.  At first he wanted to be a journalist and do a communications major, then switched to work towards becoming an English professor.  After studying in Boston he moved back to New York, living in Inwood for a while.  He moved to Long Island to get his PhD at Stony Brook University, then returned to Washington Heights and eventually moved to Sunnyside in Queens, to be closer to the job at La Guardia which he happened to start on September 11, 2001.

Carlos moved to Astoria in 2009, when we were expecting our son.  He says that Astoria stands out from other parts of the city he has lived in because there is so much going on within the neighborhood, and the long-time residents and newcomers generally mix well.  “In Washington Heights there wasn’t that much to do around the area.  That was true in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even now that it’s more gentrified.  There are few options in Washington Heights itself unless you’re a native Dominican, or a criminal (which is not the same thing though some might like to think so!).

“In Sunnyside there are some bars to go to, but if you haven’t grown up in the neighborhood, even if you are from New York, you don’t necessarily feel comfortable in those places.  There are more places in Astoria that are inviting to all kinds.  You see people in them who have probably grown up in the neighborhood and you see people who have been here just a couple of years like us.”  One of Carlos’ favorite spots along 30th Avenue itself is Frank’s bakery on the corner of 36th Street.  “They make the best chocolate croissants I’ve ever tasted.”

He adds: “If possible I’d like to see that mix of old and new in the people, but only the old in the buildings!  The landscape is in flux and that kind of saddens me.  I don’t think the whole city should look like Manhattan.”


Kristijana Jakulj – Hair stylist

Kristijana Jakulj

Kristijana Jakulj came to New York from Croatia in 2002 with her husband for their honeymoon.  They didn’t go back.  She likes to say that she’s still on her honeymoon.  She works at GiGi Salon & Styling Studio on 30th Ave.

For the first eight years that they were in New York, Kristijana and her husband lived on 30th Avenue at 44th Street.  This May they moved a few blocks up the same street.  “It was very hard to move,” she says.  “For me it was like moving from Croatia to here!”

She’s now settled in the new apartment and loves the sound of the overland train passing by in the mornings, though sometimes she misses the convenience of having everything right on their doorstep along 30th Ave.  Kristijana says that there is quite a big Croatian community in Astoria, with lots of Croatian bars and restaurants around Broadway.

Kristijana knew she wanted to be a hair stylist from around the age of six.  Every time that they went to a bookstore she would pick out something about hair instead of buying a regular kids book.  Her fashion-designer mom was upset by her choice, at that time.  “She always wanted me to go into college or something.”

When it came to sign up for school she was supposed to put down three options: her first choice and then two back-ups.  She put hair styling as number one and left the second two blank.  “What I most enjoy is that it’s like an art,” she says.  “And it’s so nice to know that you’re making someone really happy.”

Kristijana was in her teens during the war in Croatia.  Her town, Split, was not badly affected directly, though “it did affect the whole country in some way.  I remember us going to school and then sirens warning us to leave the buildings and go under the ground.  My mom always had a bag of stuff ready next to her bed.  And we had to turn the lights off after 4pm.”

The economy in Croatia was bad after the war.  When they came to New York, Kristijana’s husband, who had been in the restaurant business in Croatia, found work in construction.  Kristijana quickly found a job in a hair salon.  When the salon’s co-owner GiGi set up his own studio on 30th Ave in 2005 she relocated there.

In 2010, “City’s Best” selected the GiGi Salon as the best hair salon in New York City.  “I think what makes it good here is the team that we have,” says Kristijana.  “The second thing is that it’s really well organized.  And the third thing is the good management.”

For the first eight years in New York she worked non-stop without a vacation or leaving the country.  Finally last year she could go back to Croatia for a visit.  “It was very emotional.  I hadn’t seen my mother or father for all that time.  It was when we touched down in my city that I started crying.  It’s weird, but I felt insecure in my own country.  It was like I don’t belong here anymore.  It was so weird to hear no English, only my language.  I would catch myself saying ‘thank you’”.

Since then she has been back two more times.  “Now, when I’m here in New York I miss Croatia, and when I’m in Croatia I miss America.”  She says that in an ideal world, she would be able to spend six months of the year in each.