Archive | October, 2011

Isabel Jennings – registered nurse at Mount Sinai Queens Hospital

30 Oct

Isabel Jennings in 30th Ave's Bakeway Cafe, before her shift at Mount Sinai Hospital Queens

The stretch of 30th Ave between 28th and Crescent Streets is dominated by Mount Sinai Queens hospital.  Throughout the day there are uniformed doctors and nurses crossing the Avenue to get coffee and sandwiches at Father & Son’s Delhi, ambulances and stretchers coming and going, relatives arriving to visit family members.   On a Sunday morning I spoke with Isabel Jennings before her shift began.  She is a registered nurse who works in the hospital’s emergency department.

Isabel was born in Puerto Rico and brought up in Astoria.  This Summer, after a twenty year absence from the neighborhood, she returned from Atlanta, Georgia, to work here.  Her daughter (who studies at Columbia) and son-in-law were expecting their first child – Isabel’s first grandchild.  Isabel moved back to New York City to help them.   She lives in Upper Manhattan and commutes three times a week to Mount Sinai for her 11am to 11.30pm shift.

“I have mixed feelings about coming back,” she says.  “Even though I grew up here, went to school here, it’s still been a big adjustment.”  Another adjustment has been her shift hours.  “I’m used to working seven in the morning until seven in the evening.  This is a rough shift.”

In the emergency department, Isabel treats “anything from keeping someone alive to assuring someone that their cough will go away if they follow the doctor’s instructions.  It’s quite intense.  It’s extremely busy in the emergency department.  I was not prepared for the immensity of it.  The hospital is very small, and it is the only hospital here for a good distance around.”

Isabel uses the commute at the end of her day to distance herself from the life-and-death situations she has dealt with at work.  “I try to defuse all the emotions by the time I get home.”

Mount Sinai was founded in 1910 as “Daly’s Astoria Sanatorium.”  It then became “Astoria General Hospital”.   In 1999, faced with financial difficulties and struggling to survive as a stand-alone hospital, it was sold to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai.  As its website states, “it is the only community hospital to bear the Mount Sinai name.”

Isabel enjoys helping other people through her work.  But she adds: “I do not enjoy the health care system in this country.  It just presents problems, so you can’t really help everyone.  I think we need an effective national healthcare program.  And around here, we need a few more hospitals.”

Peter Loupakis – Loupakis Karate Acrobatics

23 Oct

Peter Loupakis (fourth from r) with some of his students at Loupakis Karate Acrobatics

Peter Loupakis works at Loupakis Karate Acrobatics school on 31st Street just North of the 30th Ave subway station.   I spoke with him between two classes.  The first was with a group of young kids.  When I arrived they were learning to walk up a steeply slanting beam. “Let’s learn to climb the Matterhorn!” Peter called to them as they cautiously stepped up towards the highest end then jumped off with the help of guiding adult hands.  Then as we finished speaking, the next class, a group of teenagers, was warming up in leaps and bounds around the room.

Peter was born in Greece.  His father, Tony Loupakis, is a champion wrestler-turned acrobat, who began teaching Peter and his older brother Harry when they were one-and-a-half and three years old respectively.  “We continued ever since.  We moved here to the US when I was five.  By then we had already started tours as a group,” says Peter.  “We were called the Trio Loupakis.”

The trio was successful.  The outside and inside walls of their gym, which they set up in 1973 in a former dance studio, are covered in a collage of newspaper clips and photos from their winning competitions.  There are headlines like, “Man who rolls around on broken glass,” accompanied by a photo of Tony lying on glass shards with a weight on top of him.

Tony is now 77 but is still involved.  “He’s inside the gym every day. He’s teaching classes. He’s not just the one in the office signing people up.  He’s active and in there,” Peter says.

Tragically, Harry died in an accident in Greece in 2009.  “He will always be a part of us,” says Peter.  Tony and Peter have continued to perform.  It seems that it is so integral to their lives it would be impossible to imagine them doing anything else.  When I asked Peter at one point if he had a preference for teaching or performing he said, “it’s not really a question of preference any more.  It’s what I do.  I perform, I compete, I teach.  This is it.”

In July, Tony and Peter won two first places at a competition in Las Vegas, one for a karate-based routine and one for acrobatic gymnastics.  They are taking part in a regional competition in November.  And they often take part in shows at weekends.  Peter’s daughters, now 15 and 17, sometimes join in those too.

Peter says that it is unusual to provide martial arts and acrobatic gymnastics in one space, as they do at their gym.  “Normally those don’t go together.  But I think they should.  They complement each other. You need similar skills.  I like to say we take the best of different kinds of martial arts and acrobatics.  Over the course of the years, teachers come to our gym: teachers of Kung Fu, Shotokan, Goju, different styles of martial arts.  We’ve gleaned a little bit of the pie from everyone.”

The school is only open after school hours.  “That’s one of the beauties of the job – I’m not here all day,” says Peter.  Not that he is relaxing when he’s not at the gym: during the daytime he works as a physical education teacher in a school.

“Teaching is hard,” he says, “especially teaching children…it can be a little bit…taxing is the word!  But it’s fun.  And it’s never the same day at the office, ever.  That keeps it exciting.”

When the school first started, around 80% of the students were Greek.  Now it’s more like 10% or fewer Greek students, with the others reflecting Astoria’s diversity – sometimes with an upswing in one group or another.  “For example, a Polish couple came in and brought their child.  They go to a Polish school in the area so they tell all their friends and suddenly we have an influx of Polish people because of that.”

Peter now has eight or nine what he calls “grandkids” at the gym: kids whose parents he had taught when they were children.  The gym takes students of all ages.  “I’d like to say it’s fun for anyone.  Anyone can learn. The ability is there.  It’s a question of taking the time to learn to do it.  Some people learn fast and you know they are naturals, but some people take longer.  As long as you keep trying, you will get it.”

The outside of Loupakis Karate Acrobatics

Josh Ellis and Elanna White – Donner Social

16 Oct

Elanna White and Josh Ellis of Donner Social

Josh Ellis and Elanna White were thirteen when they started making music together.   Now both nineteen, they have formed the band Donner Social.  Talking with them it is clear that they know each other well.   Often they finish each other’s sentences.  Or one picks up what the other has just said, by repeating a phrase then taking it forwards.

Both were brought up in Astoria.  Josh came here with his parents when he was six from New Mexico.  He lives on Welling Court, at the far Western end of 30th Ave.  “When I first moved to that block it was just craziness.  I was a little kid and there were other little kids everywhere.  Mostly from immigrant families.  It was tons of fun,” he says.  Then there was a period when families that he knew had moved out, others came in and people on the block didn’t know one-another.  Welling Court’s annual block parties and mural-painting have changed that.  “Now I know all my neighbors.  It brings us together in a pretty interesting way that I’ve never experienced anywhere else,” he says.

Elanna was born in Astoria.  She lives above Broadway Silk Store, which has been in her family for ninety years and is now run by her mother.  Her great grandparents established the store when they came to New York from Austria.  “That means I have this really rich sense of history in Astoria,” she says.  “We have a basement area – like a lot of the buildings here – where there are old pictures of how Astoria used to be, with the trolley cars and things like that.”

For the final three years of high school, both Elanna and Josh were at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.  After a band that they belonged to split up, Josh began experimenting with digital music-making programs.  He realized that he didn’t need all the musicians for a band – he could ‘be’ all the musicians himself.  “But after I’d written the songs there was a missing component.  Honestly that was Elanna,” he says.

Elanna says: “He called me and said I don’t want to hear my voice on my songs any more, will you sing them all for me?   I said, ok…but I’m going to write with you and I’m going to tell you what sounds good and sounds bad, in exchange for my soul!”

“I really do trust her when it comes to the sound,” says Josh.  “When I’m writing music, I can lose the sense of what the music is meant to be.  She just has that in her head at all times, I really trust her in that.”

They write their music whenever each of them has time.  For Josh, that’s between managing a record label and a recording studio from his home and working a day job to fund his music.  For Elanna, it’s between studying drama at NYU and working as an actress (she specializes in musical theater, and has been performing in Manhattan since she was a child).

“If I write something I send it to him, if he writes something he sends it to me and then we sew together the pieces,” says Elanna.  “It is really like patchwork.  But it works.”   They both thrive off the adrenalin of having lots of creative projects on the go.

Josh adds: “When you just have a minute to record and have no other time to do it, the way that you are feeling at that moment and the things that are going on around you, you can feel all of that in the vocals.”

The importance of the vocals is what Donner Social say differentiates their music from a lot of other electronic music.  “In other electronic music when you hear the vocals it’s like they are sampled in,” says Josh.

“Given my musical theater background,” adds Elanna, “everything that I write vocal-wise is very melodic.  And the way that I write word-wise always tells a story.  I firmly believe in art that tells stories.”  Even their purely instrumental pieces aim to strike a sense of story.  “A song has to bring me to a certain place that I really feel.”

That “certain place” has a lot to do with their experience roaming Astoria’s streets as teenagers.  They don’t have romantic ideas of the big city, having grown up in it.  “Being born and raised in New York, you kind of forget where you’re living,” Elanna says.  “You have to remind yourself wow this is New York City, people dream of coming here.  We spent our late childhood and entire adolescence wandering around these streets.”

“Getting lost on purpose,” says Josh.

“Getting lost on purpose, wandering around these streets, walking down the same street every day because we had nothing else to do, you know,” continues Elanna.  “These endless summers and sleepless nights of just being here.  And almost stagnantly.  Because when you’re a teenager you can’t do all the things that we can do now.  There was one summer where we literally went to the Museum of Moving Image at least three times a week.  And MOMA all of the days when we weren’t at Museum of the Moving Image because we had just enough money for two subway fares and maybe a slice of pizza.”

“That’s really reflected in the music,” Josh says.  “Because that kind of almost nostalgic, I’m not even sure what to call it, this feeling of having a towering city around you but almost feeling trapped in it.”

“ Exactly.  That’s what I meant by stagnant.”

They know Astoria inside out but neither of them has any intention of leaving.  “Ok, I would go and visit Paris for few months or something, or Tuscany, places like that,” says Josh.  “And I go to Tucson in Arizona a bit because my grandparents  live out there.   But I don’t think I could ever really live anywhere else.”

That’s despite declaring that the “music scene is dead” in New York compared to what’s going on in places like Portland and Seattle, and compared to earlier years in New York when there were strong scenes like the punk scene.  “Now those scenes have really been muddied by the random post-hardcore bands that are coming through,” Josh says.

Even so, they feel they have an advantage having grown up here.  “People come here and have all these dreams they don’t even know where to start.  Even if they have a connection here they don’t have that sense that New Yorkers have.  We know where to go, we know the places we want to market to even, we know the scene.  We’re not really competing with the other people who come here, we’re competing with other New Yorkers.”

“And you grow up a lot faster in New York,” says Elanna.  “I mean I’m 19 years old but sometimes I feel so old!”

Growing up in a big city that feels small provided much of the inspiration for their first album, which is due out in the New Year.  It’s called “In Suspended Animation.”

“That almost-trapped feeling is what the whole album is really about…” says Josh.

“Trying to find imagination in something that you know so well.”

“ Trying to find adventure.  Trying to go down a path that you’ve gone down a trillion times and trying to find some sort of adventure in it.  But there is none …”

“Unless you have the right companion,” says Elanna.


You can listen to some of Donner Social’s music here, and find them on Facebook here.

Ralph and Yury Almaz – Almaz Brothers jewelers

9 Oct

Ralph (l) and Yury (r) Almaz in their store on 30th Ave

Brothers Ralph and Yury Almaz opened their jewelers store at 35-13 30th Ave 26 years ago.  It is aptly named Almaz Brothers.  They had come to New York a few years previously from Uzbekistan.  There were jewelers in their family going back generations and their grandfather was one; they decided to continue the tradition.

The brothers chose Astoria to live because it was livelier than parts of Brooklyn that they had seen, and for the European feeling on its streets.  “It was always a dynamic neighborhood, very colorful and multi-ethnic,” says Ralph.  “It has kept the same way all these years, though now we see a lot more young professionals moving in too.”

When the brothers came to New York during the cold war, communication with relatives and friends back in Uzbekistan was extremely difficult.  Ralph says that now communication is open.  “People can come here, we talk on email, Skype and so on,” he says, although they do not return often because most of their close family have left.

Almaz Brothers specializes in engagement rings and bridal jewellery like wedding bands.  They also sell other jewelry items and watches.  Twice a year, Ralph and Yury attend an international jewelery show at Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, where jewelers from all over the world are represented: from Italy, Hong Kong, Israel, Turkey, Brazil…They buy most of their jewelry there and then tailor it for their customers in their store.  Yury adds that they also import diamonds from Israel, where his son is in the diamond-cutting business.

In the business of selling engagement rings, of course sometimes the proposal is rejected or the engagement breaks off.  “In that case, we offer to restyle the ring so that it does not look like an engagement ring,” says Ralph.  “Or if not, we offer to buy it back, though the customer takes a loss of course.”

Their business changes with the economy.  “Right now there’s a new trend of people bringing back a lot of their gold,” Ralph says.  “They want to take advantage of high gold prices and now everyone wants to sell their old jewelry, coins, and diamonds.  If it’s an interesting item we try to sell it.  But in most cases we melt down everything and then sell it to refiners.”

The brothers have clear-cut roles.  Ralph works on the shop floor where he deals with the customers and Yury focuses on customizing the jewelry in the back of the shop – when I took the photo for this interview he made sure that he had the small magnifying glass that he uses in his work around his neck so it would feature in the picture.  The most satisfying aspect of his work, he says, is creating something special.

Abdul Said

3 Oct

Abdul Said on his doorstep just off 30th Ave

Abdul Said has lived in Astoria for almost 15 years, and in his current place on 23rd Street, just off 30th Avenue, for four and half years.  I met him on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on his doorstep, drinking a coffee bought from the Dunkin’ Donuts by the 30th Ave subway station.

He lives in one of the neighborhood’s old detached houses.  But like many of the older homes it is scheduled to be knocked down and turned into a bigger apartment building.  He’ll be moving, when a friend joins him from Boston, into one of the new buildings round the corner on 21st Street.

“Everywhere there are houses going down and new buildings going up,” he says.  “I don’t mind.  It’s good business for the owners.  They see people moving into the area and smell the money.  When I first moved here from Brooklyn everything said ‘for rent’, ‘for rent’.  Now it’s hard to find a place.”  The new buildings, he adds, can have 14-16 apartments.  The old houses on the same site housed just two or three families.

Abdul is originally from Morocco and came to the US 26 years ago.  “I’m from a small town in East Morocco, a very French part of the country.  The North is much more Spanish.”  He returns to Morocco to see family and friends.  “I like to travel once a year.  I just came back recently from a trip, I was away about six weeks – four weeks in Morocco and two weeks in Spain.”

Recently there was a news story about a New York Police Department surveillance program focused on Moroccans – not because of any specific allegations against individuals but in order to build up a detailed picture of the city’s Moroccan community, in support of the government’s anti-terrorism efforts.  “I read about the police stuff, yes,” says Abdul.  “It’s part of what’s going on in the world, the past decade.  A lot of people are getting confused.  It’s part of what’s going on.”

On the current democracy movements underway in the Middle East, Abdul is optimistic.  “It’s like the sky, one minute it’s all cloudy and the next minute it’s clear.  They needed to get rid of those guys who had been in power for thirty, forty years.  That makes no sense.  You need a system like here.  Every four years if you don’t like who’s in charge you vote him out.  These people were there for a lifetime.  Now there’s a new generation who don’t buy those things.  They want change.”

Before coming to New York, Abdul lived in Florida for ten years where he worked in real estate.  His two children are still there, with their mother who is originally from Brooklyn (she and Abdul are divorced).  Since moving to New York Abdul has worked in the restaurant industry: currently he is a bar tender in the Marriott hotel near La Guardia airport.

When Abdul first came to New York he lived in Brooklyn.  He was working in an Irish restaurant in Manhattan and the commute took a long time.  Then he came to visit a friend in Astoria, saw Manhattan just across the river and learned that it only takes 20 minutes to travel between the two.

He also likes Astoria for the fact it is quiet.  “Though it’s got a lot less quiet now, especially with lots of people moving here from Manhattan,” he says.  “The area up near Steinway has changed a lot.”  Abdul still finds quiet in Astoria Park.  Often he takes car there to have breakfast overlooking the river.  “Oh man, I love that place!”