Archive | November, 2011

Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar – Trade Fair supermarket

28 Nov

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

Trade Fair supermarket stretches along 30th Ave between 31st and 29th Streets.  It’s a swath of color with its fruit and vegetables on display and bright announcements of special offers.  Among the bustle of customers and deliveries I spoke with its manager Mustafa Eid.  Sabah Guessar, also a manager there, joined in some of the conversation too, coming back and forth from her work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank DePaola – Sorriso Italian Salumeria

20 Nov

Frank DePaola of Sorriso Salumeria on 30th Ave

Frank DePaola was born in Calabria, Italy and moved to the US when he was eight years old.  His family first lived in Long Island before coming to Astoria.  Thirty three years ago he opened Sorriso Salumeria, an Italian delicatessen at 44-16 30th Ave.  “Sorriso” means smile in Italian.

“We specialize in hard-to-get items,” Frank says.  “Cheese, fresh-baked breads, sausages, meats, whatever you need.”  His favorite product from the store is their mozzarella, which they make fresh every hour.  The store also sells pasta and pasta sauces, prepared foods like lasagna and meatballs, and it does catering for parties.  At the moment with Christmas approaching the ceiling is laden with hanging Panettone cakes.

“I give a lot to the store,” says Frank.  “One hundred and ninety percent.”  Sorriso’s is open seven days a week.  Frank takes Wednesdays off and the fact that his son, who recently finished college, now works with him means he can “relax a bit.”  But he adds: “When I’m off, I’m out getting stuff, or I’m going to the bank.  You know, it’s always something.”

Frank has not returned to Italy since moving to the US in 1966.  “I could leave for seven to ten days but I’m so attached I can’t!  My wife says I’m crazy, but it’s my passion, I love it.  This has been my dream.  I love this business so I don’t consider it coming to work every day.”

Frank jokes that the stretch of 30th Ave from Steinway to 57th Street “used to be quiet until I got here!  We support each other.  There’s the bakery (Gianpiero), the liquor store.  We all support each other.”

Frank says Astoria’s Italian community is smaller than it used to be.  Some have “gotten older, they’ve moved away, some went back to Italy, they left us…”  But at the same time, some of the original generation’s children and even grandchildren are still in the neighborhood, and still frequent Sorriso’s.

“We also have an influx of younger people moving into the neighborhood – 25-35 years old, young professionals.  They know good food, they love good food, and they know what to expect when they come in to buy something.”  They also use the internet to track down what they want, Frank adds.

Technology also means that the hard-to-get products that Sorriso’s specializes in are now less hard-to-get.  “It’s easier to get stuff from Europe than it was 10 years ago.  Everything is computerized…it doesn’t take as long to approve labels and everything.

“Sometimes people want a special item.  I ask the importers to bring it in for me and they do.  As my son says, ‘Dad, it’s the computer age’.  I mean I’m not a computer guy.  But absolutely it helps the business.  Everything’s twice as fast.”

Artie Sanchez & friends – Reelization Films, Astoria Houses

14 Nov

Participants in "REELization films" - a project of East River Development Alliance at Astoria Houses

On Friday evenings a group of young people meets at the East River Development Alliance (ERDA) center in Astoria Houses, a housing development at the far Western end of 30th Ave that is home to just over 3000 residents.  They meet to work on their project “REELization Films.”  They make short films inspired by elements of their lives and issues close to home: one of their recent films was about teacher layoffs.

I interviewed a group of REELization participants.  I spoke with Artie Sanchez who lives in Astoria Houses, his cousin John Acevedo who lives in Brooklyn, Dashawn Wilson who now lives in Ravenswood and previously lived in Astoria, Dashawn Johnson of Astoria Houses, Mathew Lisbon and Duvall Ledbetter.  Also participating were Efia Lewis, a student at Queens College who works as an intern with ERDA, and Sarah Montgomery, ERDA College Access Coordinator.

Artie is currently in his second year at La Guardia Community College.  He is studying human services and mental health and plans to go into psychology.  “Ever since I was young I’ve liked the way people behave,” he says.  “I was always observant.  It interests me to see the way that people form the way that they do.”

He says that when he moved to Astoria Houses from Brooklyn at around the age of six, within a year he had a big network of friends.  “Everyone gets to know each other,” he says.  But he adds: “the bad thing about the neighborhood is that there are always problems here or there.”  Towards the end of October, shootings at Astoria House escalated; in some incidents property was damaged and in two, people were hit by the bullets.

“There were shootings from Friday all the way to the next week,” says Artie.  “Everyone here was walking around like it was normal.  But anyone who wasn’t from here was like, you know, a little jittery.  The whole thing was two groups of people who all grew up with each other, who all know each other, who are friends.  But they just split up into two groups.”

He describes how the police appeared only after the second or third day.  He says it felt a little safer with them there “because they were everywhere,” but that they had waited too long to appear.  The police presence is minimal again now, with a van stationed outside the entrance to Astoria Houses.

Efia, who is studying urban studies and biology with a business  minor at Queens College, now lives in Long Island.  That makes her see the recent incidents at Astoria Houses through a new lens.  “Since I live in Long Island, I’m in an area that’s completely quiet.   I grew up in Brooklyn, so it [violence] wasn’t that much a surprise to me, but living in Long Island changed my perspective.  I can see it’s possible not to live in an environment where you see it as the norm.”

Not that moving to Long Island was without its challenges.  “There are a lot of very stereotypical points when it comes to ethnicity.  When we first got to Long Island we were the first African American family on my block.  Once they saw that more African Americans were coming into the environment, it was like the whole perspective on the neighborhood changed.  From ‘this is a great town in Long Island’ to ‘oh, the schools are getting bad’…It’s like the racial point of view changes the whole perspective on a town or an area that you live in.  I always opposed that.  I knew exactly why they were saying it was getting worse than before.  It’s how society works.”

Artie’s cousin John is currently in school, working for a qualification in computers and computer repair.  He says that despite the recent shootings at Astoria Houses the community is quieter than where he lives in Brooklyn.  “I don’t see a lot of violence here.  Where I live, I wouldn’t expect it so much but I see it everyday.  I don’t know why.  I guess people just don’t have self control.  There’s people just hanging around outside, trying to start a fight.  You don’t see that here.  Everybody’s cool with each other, everybody knows each other, and that’s it.”

Dashawn Wilson, who is currently finishing up high school and plans to study film in college, says that he has seen good changes in the neighborhood.  “When I was living here there wasn’t any garden” [Two Coves Community Garden is just outside Astoria Houses].  “There weren’t the murals” [the Welling Court Mural Project].  “From when I was living here to when I came back to start this program I’ve seen how everything has changed, the stores, everything.”

On whether they want to stay in New York City in the future, the members of the group all have different feelings.

“I wouldn’t like to stay in New York because I’ve lived here for so long,” says John.  “The city’s always alive.  But sometimes when I’m in the center of Manhattan I go crazy.  You don’t know what to expect.  It’s like everybody’s in a rush, everybody’s doing so many different things, you see so many lights, it’s like, ‘do I want to do this?’/ ‘do I want to do that?’, you see something happening over there, you pay attention then something’s happening over here…you get confused sometimes.

“I would like to see how it feels to be in a different neighborhood.  A different state.  When people own a house and all they see is open space and roads, they would like to see the city.  I would like to switch it up.  Go out of state, see all the open road and land and stuff like that.”

Dashawn Wilson feels differently.  His grandparents live in Raleigh, North Carolina.  “I visit them often.  And it’s so boring out there!  It’s very quiet, and there are no street lights, and when you’re driving at night you can’t see anything.  There’s nothing to do.  I ask my grandfather, ‘what can you do here?’ And he just says, ‘watch the grass grow!’  In the future I would like to live in Manhattan…probably in a penthouse.”

Efia says: “I love New York.  It’s so diversified.  I don’t think any other state can top this.  In the city there’s always something happening, the subway…”

Dashawn picks up her thread, “What I love is when you’re in the subway, and everything is kind of dirty and broke down, but as soon as you walk upstairs and see the city, especially at night, you see all the lights and everything, it’s like a big change.  It opens up your eyes.”

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Watch some of Reelization’s short films on their You Tube channel

Find out more about East River Development Alliance

Rahim and Akim by the Masjid Al Ikhlas

6 Nov

Akim (l) and Rahim (r) by the mosque Masjid Al Ikhlas

Just down from where I live on 30th Drive (a couple of blocks South of 30th Ave) is the mosque Masjid Al Ikhlas.  At intervals throughout the day there is a greater flow of people down the street as people walk to, and then back from, their prayers.  I spoke with Rahim and Akim, both from Algeria, outside the mosque just after prayers in the middle of the day.

Rahim has lived in Astoria for ten years.  He works as a network engineer.  “I have also lived a little bit in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Manhattan, you know, all over,” he says.  “A bit in England – I learned to speak some ‘cockney!’ – a bit in Africa.  I’ve been in different areas.  It’s all the same mother earth you know.  Wherever you are going there are the same people and same way or life.  You go to work, you have your family, basic things like that.  It’s how people behave in an area that makes it good.”

Akim has lived in Astoria for 22 years.   He drives a yellow cab, which he says he does not enjoy but “it’s a living you know”.  The two are friends, but had seen each other at the mosque that day for the first time in a while.

“For me the mosque is both things,” says Rahim.  “You do your prayer, and you get to meet your friends, people who you don’t see otherwise during the day.”

They both go to whichever mosque is closest at hand for prayers.  “A mosque is a mosque, it’s a house of God,” says Akim.  “It doesn’t have to be this particular mosque.  We have five or six of them around here.  If you get stuck on Steinway Street for example, we pray there, we wouldn’t come here.”

And when they are not close to a mosque, “you can pray anywhere, in a park, a house, a restaurant, wherever you are,” says Rahim.

Akim adds: “The group prayer is important though.  Praying in a group at a mosque, the rewards are bigger than doing it by yourself.”  He describes it as collecting more points, which will serve you well at the end of your life.

People praying at Masjid Al Ikhlas come from all over.  “From all the continents,” says Akim.  “And different cultures.  You come, you do what you do, and that’s it.  Sometimes they offer food here, some exotic food, and you go for it, otherwise you leave.”

On ways the neighborhood has changed since they have been living in Astoria, Rahim refers to police statistics that say that burglary and other crimes are down.  “It’s become safer.” Akim, who has lived in four different apartments since he has been here, mentions rents going up.  “Since the crisis, people can’t afford the rent in Manhattan, so they move over here.  And by moving over here, the rent here also gets higher.”

Both of them were here when the 9/11 attacks happened, and also saw the way in which the Muslim community was targeted during the period afterwards.  “There’s bad and good all over,” says Rahim.  “If you take the case of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma, he was not a Muslim.  Sometimes what you notice is if something is caused by a Muslim they go after everyone, put more pressure.  But if it’s someone from another religion, they say ok, that particular guy did it – they don’t say Christians did it, they say Timothy McVeigh did it.  But if a Muslim did it they say Muslims did it.  So they were generalizing, taking advantage of it.  That’s what we feel.

“It happened so it happened, it’s not in your control.  The people doing these things don’t ask you beforehand, ‘we’re going to do this or do that’.  You cannot say everybody’s good, everybody’s bad, there are bad and good everywhere.  You cannot generalize.”