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Interview

Peter Loupakis – Loupakis Karate Acrobatics

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
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Interview

Josh Ellis and Elanna White – Donner Social

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.

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Interview

Ralph and Yury Almaz – Almaz Brothers jewelers

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.

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Interview

Abdul Said

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!”

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Interview

Ching-Tse Lee (elder); Mario Yang and Christina Chang (congregation members) – Taiwan Union Christian Church

Ching-Tse Lee downstairs in the Taiwan Union Christian Church

On 31st Street just South of the 30th Ave subway stop and opposite EuroMarket is the Taiwan Union Christian Church.  I spoke with one of the church’s elders, Ching-Tse Lee: it happened to be on Sunday September 11th.   A service had recently ended and the church basement was bustling with activity, as members of the congregation mingled with each other and sought advice from the pastor.

Ching-Tse came to the USA from Taiwan in 1964.  He studied in Ohio before coming to live in New York.  He worked as a psychology professor at Brooklyn College and retired three years ago, which has enabled him to become more active in the church as an elder.

The church originated in 1968 when a group of Taiwanese students in New York formed a bible study group.  They then established a church which met at a Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  In 1982 they moved the church to the Astoria location, which was formerly the Second Reformed Church in Astoria.  Two years later they joined the Reformed Church of America.

Ching-Tse says that the congregation today includes Taiwanese students who are in the US to study for their MD, PhD, or other forms of higher education; some of them stay in dormitories in the modern building next to the church.  Others are Taiwanese immigrants to the US like himself.  They come to the church in Astoria from all over the Tri-State area: some from Staten Island, Westchester, Long Island and elsewhere.

“We come here to worship and also we try to provide a home for our children,” he says.  “Once they are in their individual community they don’t really have the kind of Taiwanese home base to grow up with.  Many of them have adapted to the local environment.  For some of them, the local environment may not be very suitable for them as Taiwanese.”

The church conducts services in Taiwanese, and in Mandarin for local Chinese residents.  They have an English mission, also in the modern building next to the old church, for Taiwanese-Americans born or raised in the US.

Beyond services and bible study the church is active in many ways.  The week after I was there they were holding a photography exhibition.  “It’s very special,” says Ching-Tse, “because all the photographers are women.  We thought that a female has her viewpoint of the world…they are much more sensitive about their environment.   So we encourage them to put up shows.  This time in the exhibition there will be images of flowers, scenery, and different places, like Disney World.”

The church members are also engaged in issues around Taiwan’s future and its efforts to maintain autonomy from China.  They were preparing for a forthcoming “Keep Taiwan Free” rally, calling for the UN to accept Taiwan as a member.

Christina Chang and Mario Yang outside the Taiwan Union Christian Church

Outside the church, I met Mario Yang and his girlfriend Christina Chang who had attended the service.  Mario is a financial analyst at American Express, and lives in Manhattan.  His parents brought him to the US from Taiwan when he was eight years old: they lived in North Carolina and then Mario came to New York for college.

“My parents are firm believers in public education, but didn’t feel like the system in Taiwan was good at the time.  It’s fantastic now, but back when I was younger they felt it was a better choice to be in the States.  I think I got a great public education here!  I would hope I did.”

Christina is currently a Masters student at Columbia University.  She is a flutist and often plays at the church services.

The couple comes to the church in Astoria as often as they can.  “We have tons of friends who come here, it’s a community,” says Mario.  “There’s a wide variety of people at the church.  There are people in arts, people in finance, people in all sorts of careers.  They’re really supportive regardless of what you do.”

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Observation

New murals on the walls at the Welling Court Mural Project

In early June, Ad Hoc Art brought a group of street artists from around the world to paint new murals, and paint over some of the old murals, for the Welling Court Mural Project.  I had interviewed Jonathan Ellis and Georgina Young Ellis, who live along Welling Court, earlier in the year.  Walk to the far Western end of 30th Ave and you can check the murals out, and also the Two Coves Community Garden which is just opposite.  Below are a few photos of the murals for tasters.  Here’s a link to Ad Hoc Art’s description of the project, and here’s one of the artists, Fumero, talking about his painting of Einstein that features on one of the walls.







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Observation

Summer memories: The ice cream parlors of 30th Ave

Ice cream on 30th Ave today: Gino's Italian Ices on sale outside Salerno Pizza, near 29 Street

As of yesterday Summer is officially over.  It already felt like it was over a few weeks ago, with the passing of labor day and the heavy rain that settled in over 30th Ave and the rest of New York City as if to say enough fun, back to work.

While summertime is still fresh-ish in our minds, here’s a post in its honor, looking back in time to the ice cream parlors that featured along 30th Avenue until sometime in the 1970s and 80s.  I was recently contacted by Alfred Holzman, now in Miami, who lived on 30th Avenue from 1944.  His parents owned a paint and wallpaper store at number 34-03 called “Grand Paint Supply Company.”  Among the vivid memories that he and his contemporaries have of 30th Avenue are the ice cream parlors.

“During the summer months, in the evening, the ice cream parlors would be jammed with eat-in and take out customers,” he says.  “Without question, these places were absolutely spotless.  In addition to ice cream, they were all counter and booth luncheonettes.  The place to go for fountain drinks.  Each had a juke box.”

There were three along 30th Ave:

Goodness Gracious Thrift store, between 30th and 31st Streets on 30th Ave, where Jacoby's used to be

Jacoby’s, between 30 and 31st street, where the “Goodness Gracious Thrift Shop” now is.  Alfred says: “I was there many times for lunch when I was in the fifth and sixth grades at PS 5.  Teachers had lunch there, and I saw them smoking whilst sitting in the booths.” (PS5, which was on 29th Street just off 30th Ave, burned down in 1967 after an eight-year-old pupil set a fire in a clothes closet while playing with matches).

Gerken’s, at 34-04, where Astoria Art and Framing now is.  This was directly opposite Alfred’s parents’ shop.  “It was run by the wonderful couple, Henry and Margaret Gerken.  Like us, they lived above their store.  They started the business shortly after the war, in about 1947.  The façade was black and very stylish.  I and my family knew these hard-working folks well.  The hours were 10am to 11pm.  They sold great ice cream made in the basement.  Terrific Banana Splits, Banana Royals, and their specialty, the 30th Avenue Special. The Gerkens retired to Florida in the late 70s / early 80s.”

Rudy’s, a block up from Gerken’s at 35-16.  “This business was the oldest of the three.  Rudy owned it, and again, the family lived upstairs,” says Alfred.  “The façade was/is beige.  Rudy died long ago, but his daughter, a Bryant High grad, ran the place.  She married a guy who was an electric train collector.  Years ago, he began to sell electric trains from one side of the store.”

Marvin Cochran of Rudy's Hobby Supplies, 35-16 30th Ave

He, Marvin Cochran, still sells electric trains from the store, which is now called “Rudy’s Hobby Supplies.”  They also sell model toys and all the materials you need to make them.  I dropped by to speak with Marvin, who told me that the store first started selling ice creams in 1939 and was “Rudy’s Ice Cream Parlor” until 1987.  “We changed over because it was just too many hours, and we were getting older.  It was pleasant though – you had your friends and customers who you knew for years and years coming by for their ice cream.”

In the non-summer seasons, the ice cream parlors still did well, selling chocolates and candies – especially at Valentines, Easter (when they sold chocolate bunnies made in-house) and Christmas.

The ice cream parlors may have gone but there are still plenty of details that define 30th Ave in summertime, for which we’ll now have to wait another nine months or so.  There’s the water fountain for kids to cool off in at Athens Square.  There are the groups of chairs on the sidewalk outside the Laundromats where people chat as they wait for their clothes cycles to finish.  There are long sticky waits for trains in the sweltering heat at 30th Ave subway station (which really shouldn’t be called “subway” here at all, because it’s elevated).  And of course there’s ice cream too, just sold in different ways: like Gino’s Italian ices sold from the cart by Salerno Pizza near 29th Street, and the ice cream vans that jingle their way along 30th Ave and its surrounding roads.

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Interview

Skateboarders Philip Sparta and Wallace de Olivera

Philip Sparta (l) and Wallace de Olivera (r)

As the 30th Ave labor day street fair was winding down I met Philip Sparta and his best friend Wallace de Olivera on their way to meet some friends at the Athens Square basketball courts.

They are both skateboarders.  Serious skateboarders.  They skateboard for between four and six hours every day.  They used to skateboard in Athens Square itself but only do that rarely now.  Philip explains why:

“People thought that the skateboarders here were annoying.  Once in a while the police would come and kick us out of this park.  We didn’t really care, we loved skating so much that we just kept coming back once they’d left.  But now since the Skate Park opened up we hardly come here, just once in a while.  We have friends who play basketball on the courts here so we come to hang out.”

The Skate Park he is talking about is the one in Astoria Park that opened in 2010, beneath the towering Trioborough Bridge and next to the East River.  It’s always whirring with boarders, the sound of their wheels competing with the traffic roar overhead.  (Here’s an article about the opening of the park and a You Tube clip of boarders there).

Wallace and Philip met in primary school but now go to different high schools: Wallace is at La Guardia High and Philip at Bryant High, at 31st Ave and 48th Street.   “I like it around here in Astoria,” says Philip, who lives near 30th Ave.  “I used to live in Flushing.  Over here is a lot nicer, it’s really diverse.”

On what they enjoy about skating, Wallace says, “it’s the thrill of actually skating.”

“And it keeps us from doing bad things, you know,” adds Philip.  “We don’t do bad things like most of our friends have gotten into.  It keeps us fit too, it’s very healthy.”  Not that it’s without its risks; both of them have recently recovered from ankle injuries.

Philip, now sixteen, was born in Japan and came to New York with his family when he was six.  He has few memories about living in Japan but does remember the move and how weird it felt.  He hasn’t been back.  “I’m totally Americanized.  I’m not really interested in going back.  Except to skate there.”

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Interview

Julia Bravo and Janeth Toral

Julia Bravo (l) and Janeth Toral (r)

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!’”.

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Interview

Benny Banker – mailman

Benny Banker delivering mail along 30th Ave

Benny (Virendra) Banker has been delivering mail along 30th Avenue for over 13 years.  “My area covers most of this heart part of Astoria,” he says.  “It’s a nice residential area.  There’s Astoria General Hospital which is now Mount Sinai, so there are a lot of doctors around here.”  Benny is also a singer of Hindi devotional songs and other forms of Indian classical music.

He lives in Queens Village, in Eastern Queens.  It takes him one and a half hours by train to get to Astoria.  But he makes it no matter what.  “On the day when there was the biggest snowstorm I woke up at four in the morning, I walked to the subway station and I took a train and I made it here by eight o’ clock.  I managed to work, while 80% of people didn’t make it to their work that day.”

He adds: “When people see us in the snow and the rain they feel really sorry about us.  But if you talk about counting the full year of 365 days we hardly have those heat-waves and those mountains of the snow or the rain.  Hardly I would say ten days in the year.  This job may look like its hard but I think it is not that bad.  To be honest, the difficult and the easy thing about the job is just your mindset.”

Benny says that he loves his job “because it’s a service for the people.  I feel good seeing old people – when they wait for me and then they see me they become so happy.  If I am off a while, when I’m back everybody feels like a family member came back after a long time.  This job is also my lifesaver, because it gives me compulsory exercise everyday.”

Benny was born in Gujarat, India.  He came to New York City in his late teens, went back to Gujarat in 1977 when he got married, and returned to New York with his wife.  His three children are now grown up: one son is a pediatrician in Houston, one is a gastro-intestinal doctor in Stonybrook, and his daughter is in business management.

Benny crams a lot into his spare time.  He sings bhajan sandhyas (devotionals) and light classical Indian music in various languages including Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, performing at events in New York and also other parts of the US.  (You can listen to him singing here).

He also designs and maintains websites, making the most of his Sunday mornings when he wakes up very early.  He has created one for his music, one for the block where he lives with details of their annual block party, one for his religious community, and also a site for memories of his mother.

When Benny first started working for the US Postal Service he was working in Brooklyn and living in Woodside.  That commute was very long: he applied for a transfer, and within six months his choice of the Long Island City area came up.  One of the main changes in the area that has affected him has been the increase in large new buildings with many apartments.  “That creates a parking problem mainly.  Before we used to find parking any time – now we have to struggle for it.”

Before, he says, there was a lot more first class mail.  “Now there is more junk mail, though even that is decreasing.”  He hastens to add that mail is not dwindling entirely.  “People still have to mail things like lawyers documents.  People still need a hard copy.”

The US Postal Service is currently in financial trouble and is planning to make major cuts, including by closing post offices.  One of the four in Queens on a list for potential closure is the Grand Post Office on 30th Ave between 45 and 46th Streets – over 1000 people have reportedly signed a petition to keep it open.  Benny keeps things in perspective though.  “Like every other business the post office is in the midst of hardship but personally I don’t think there’s a serious problem.  People do need to mail a letter.  Every business has a right to save the money and they are trying, but what I see in a big city like New York, downsizing will be almost impossible.

“What I say, is think positive you’re going to get positive.  If you think negative, you’re inviting the negative.”