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.
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:
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.”
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 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.
Astoria is home to lots of funny people. I spoke with three of them about their work as comedians and living in Astoria at the Astoria Brewhouse (itself a comedy venue on Wednesday nights): Jesse Joyce, Andy Hendrickson and Keith Alberstadt. They all live close to 30th Ave.
They said that one of the reasons why a lot of comedians live in Astoria is because it is easy to get away. Comedians have to hit the road a lot: from Astoria there is not only quick access to Manhattan but it is easy to get onto the highway via the Triborough Bridge, and La Guardia airport is nearby. As Jesse put it, “they tell you to get to the airport an hour before your flight. I leave my apartment an hour before my flight.”
The three comedians have known each other for about eight years. They even spent thanksgiving together once, at Andy’s parents house, where they came across his first stand up video. “It was terrible,” said Jesse. Then he added, “everybody’s awful the first year or two, or three. You only get good at it after years and years of practice.”
On becoming comedians
Keith: It sounds cliché, but I was theyoungest in the family and kind of starved for attention. I always enjoyed making people laugh…I bombed miserably for about five years through college and then things started to get better.
Andy: I was the baby of the family too. I also think it was because we moved around a lot. I was a navy brat.
Jesse: We moved around a lot as well. That really hones your sense of humor. You have to break the ice with 30 new kids in the class, and the best way to do it is probably to make them laugh.
On what it takes to make it in comedy
Jesse: What makes a comedian a good comedian is just doing it for ever. Nobody gets really good at comedy until they’ve been doing it for around 20 to 25 years. Every dude that we respect is in their 40s.
Keith: You need persistence. The reason why it’s so fun and motivating for us and rewarding is because we remember how bad it used to be.
Jesse: It’s the combination of being good at it and keeping pushing through the bullshit of the lifestyle. We’re gone all the time. Some people are really good at it but the lifestyle wears them down after years, so they go on to other things.
Keith: It’s actually a blessing that it’s difficult. If it weren’t, we’d have a thousand more comics.
On why more comedians are male than female
I’d noticed that during our conversation, other comedians were all “dudes”.
Jesse: Yes, about 10 per cent of comedians are women. It’s a kind of an alpha thing to want to do with your life. To feel the need to be on the stage with amplified sound and lighting and all the other people sitting on tiny chairs in the dark. I read a GQ article about this: it also made the point that women have never had to develop a sense of humor, it’s not a thing that they needed to do socially. Because women can get in the door any number of other ways. As a guy humor is kind of important if you want to impress a girl.
Andy: That used to be the only way I met girls. I used to be an awkward guy, from elementary school up through beginnings of high school till I started to figure it out. But I was kind of funny – comedy was definitely important.
On stage weariness and living comedy
Jesse: There are many times when I don’t feel like getting up on the stage. But once I get the first laugh I’m right in there.
Andy: It also works the other way. If you haven’t been performing for say four or five days, you feel you just have to get back onstage. And once you’ve been doing it for a certain amount of years your brain starts thinking in comedy terms. With everything you think, “can I turn that into a joke?”
Keith: Everybody you meet assumes that what you say or do will be used against them on stage. You say “no of course not.” And then you do. You can’t go to a wedding or a class reunion or whatever and be a normal person having a conversation. People are always like “you’re going to use this aren’t you?”
On performing for the troops
All three have performed for troops overseas – Jesse and Andy spent a month together performing for the troops in Iraq.
Andy: Well, I like to make jokes about how great it is back at home, with the TV, hanging out in bars…
Jesse: They’re a great audience because they’re bored and they want someone to distract them from it, so those are the easiest shows ever.
On future directions
Andy: The internet has changed everything. A guy was trying to predict the future of comedy ten years from now and said how a lot of the old school guys will die out because they’re not going to be able to adapt to the new media. Everything’s getting segmented and broken down to little pieces and there’s no mainstream way to make it any more. People develop a following online.
Keith: All it takes is one video, one bit from your stand up act, to go viral. Anjelah Johnson is a comedian based in LA who sells out everywhere. She just posted a You Tube video joke about a nail salon and it went global.
Andy: Not funny!
Keith: I think she’s adorable.
On the Tracy Morgan debacle
Soon before we met, comedian Tracy Morgan had apologized for homophobic jokes in a recent stand-up show (reported on the Facebook page of someone attending the show) – including that he would stab his son if he was gay.
Jesse: What nobody seems to talk about is that it’s not funny. That’s the point. There would be nothing wrong if the comedy outweighed the shitty thing he said. But it didn’t because he’s not a funny dude.
The Comedy Central Roasts [Jesse sometimes writes for them] can be as racist and homophobic and anti-Semitic and sexist as you could possibly get. And yet no-one ever calls out an individual and says that was inappropriate. Because the humor outweighs the sentiment.
Keith: Plus people understand it’s a roast and it’s meant to be offensive, and they accept it as such. People at Tracy’s show should know that it’s not to be taken seriously. I could go on forever about how this country is on eggshells and how you can’t say things. You can have ten thousand people who don’t have a problem with something then all it takes is one person to have a problem with it all of a sudden there’s a controversy.
Andy: Social media means things can get taken out of context too.
Jesse: Yes in fairness there’s no recording of Tracy Morgan saying that. So what I will say in favor of him is that it could very easily have been taken out of context. It’s a dude who was at the show who wrote it on his Facebook page and everybody just ran with it. I think he has done a good job of squelching it though as best as he could, apologizing etc.
Keith: Because he had to.
On who you target
Jesse: I decided a long time ago that I don’t want to cater to as big an audience as possible. Dane Cook and guys like that, they cater to as many people as possible. There’s nobody who doesn’t get it but it’s not very sophisticated, its’ just on one level.
The number one demographic that doesn’t seem to appreciate me are women in their late fifties. The people who do come out and see me, they really like what I do. But I mean, Louis C.K. has a great following and so does Dave Attell and so do guys who have put a cap on what they’re going to do because they’re edgier, darker or whatever.
Andy: On the other hand Keith, he works clean. As in, more digestible for a larger audience. Clean can open up a lot of opportunities.
Keith: Yes, I don’t turn many people off.
On comedians they admire
Jesse: Louis C.K. is the best guy doing it these days. Just because he’s so brutally honest. He really has mastered the ability to take any topic regardless of whether or not you agree with it and you can’t deny that you see his point. You can’t argue with the logic of the joke and it’s flawless. So even if you disagree with it you can still laugh because he’s walked you through the logic in his head.
Keith: Which is what Doug Stanhope does but Louis is much more likable than Stanhope, which helps a lot. You don’t have to be likable but you can appeal to a much bigger percentage of the crowd if you are –people are more likely to go along with your joke.
What’s troubling in NYC to me is a lot of people who take pride in not being likable. They take pride in “walking the crowd”, you know so that somebody walked out because they were offended.
Jesse: Chappelle and Jon Stewart, have always been favorites of mine. I think Jon Stewart is a good example of sticking with it. You never know when something’s going to happen. I saw Jon Stewart when I had been doing stand up for 6 months, about 13 years ago, at a comedy club. He had nothing going on career-wise. It was 7-8 years after he’d had his show on MTV and everyone else had forgotten it. So he was just right in the middle of doing what we do, which is just being a guy on the road in a club and he was great. There were still another five years before he got the Daily Show.
He crushed. He had a leather jacket and smoked cigarettes and had a six pack of Heineken on stage with him. The point is you never know when the Daily Show is going to come around the corner. He just auditioned for that, and now he’s influencing politics and hosting the Oscars and doing the white house correspondents’ dinner.
On comedy in Astoria
Jesse: Astoria is where comedians live but it’s not where we want to perform. One reason why Astoria shows may not be where it’s at, is actually its ethnic diversity. Are the Bangladeshi or Sudanese people down my street going to come to my show? Brooklyn is so hip and homogeneous that shows there kind of make more sense. Shows in Astoria are not altogether that logical.
Keith: I will say this. Every time I go to a show in Astoria, whether it’s here at Astoria Brewhouse or in the beer garden or in Rèst âü Ránt, the shows are not stellar or off the charts but it’s such a good time. The camaraderie, the hang-out time with the other comedians talking shop or whatever, are really fun. You go to a comedy club in Manhattan and you might see friends you want to hang out with, but often you can’t really talk because it’s such a confined space.”
On the wall alongside 30th Ave’s Vesta restaurant there is a mural of a farm scene. A cow and a pig look with trepidation through a window in the middle of the wall, as if to say “that’s where our friends ended up?” To one side of the mural is the signature “Davi 09”.
Davi is Davi Leventhal, who lives just off 30th Ave, a few blocks away from Vesta. He was born in Brazil and came to New York with his parents at the age of one and a half. His father had a two-year contract to set up the New York office of the insurance firm he worked for. The contract was extended, and extended again, and the family stayed in New York.
Until his early teens Davi lived on Roosevelt Island. “Often when I tell New Yorkers that I grew up there they say ‘who, what, why?!’”, says Davi. “It’s its own little world that you would never imagine being next to Manhattan.” Davi says that when he was growing up there, the island was tranquil, with a lot of parks and an everyone-knows-everyone atmosphere.
Davi found he had a knack for drawing while he was at school. One of his specialties was drawing caricatures of teachers, some of whom found them amusing, others less so. But it wasn’t until he was in his final year that he decided to embark on a career as an artist. He quickly built up a portfolio and got into Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “That was eye-opening,” he says, “because everyone around me either came from art-oriented high school or grew up with art tutors.”
Davi works in all kinds of media, “anything 2D”, though his favorites are oils and pen. When he works in pen he usually uses a bic biro, having never lost that affinity for it he had at school. Examples of his work are on his website and blog. [continued below]
He enjoys murals too; currently he’s painting one in his backyard for his landlord (a scene of Tuscany), and Mundo restaurant on Broadway has invited him to do one there as well.
The best part of painting murals, he says, is the feedback from pedestrians. “It’s fun to see people appreciating your work as you do it.” And he had got over the “stage fright” of working in public when he took part in a project copying master paintings in the Metropolitan Museum. “For example I was concentrating on a painting, tweaking the face and everything, and heard someone say ‘what’s wrong with the eyes?’ I looked down and there was a 3-foot high kid looking at my work. Kids are always dead on. The eyes were off.”
Davi freelances on art projects – currently he is working at MOMA Museum doing window changeovers – though he would like to one day earn a living from his art. There are certain themes that run through a lot of his work. He uses fluid forms to show life’s interconnectedness, and tries to keep all the elements (earth, air, water etc.) in mind.
Many of his drawings and paintings have a lot of detail. He hopes to counteract our environment of multiple distractions and short attention spans. “I want to create works that force people to pay attention. Works that have so much going on that the person looking can travel within it, and see something else each time they look back. It’s a lesson in focusing.”
Davi moved to Astoria four years ago. He likes its calm: “You don’t get that hecticness like in the city. You can almost feel you’re in a village.” Yet at the same time he thinks that the village-ethos can be too insular. “Some people here seem never to have left the neighborhood.”
When he got together a group of people to create an artists’ collective last year, he found it frustrating that others wanted to keep it within Astoria while he wanted to involve artists from all boroughs. Another challenge he faced was people’s limited time: “In New York everybody is so busy, and hardly has time for themselves let alone for anything else.”
On the Brazilian community in Astoria (which is centered around 36th Ave), Davi says that since the recent recession there are probably now more Brazilians moving back to Brazil than moving to New York. Davi goes to Brazil from time to time to see relatives, and some of his artwork is owned by people there.
One thing Davi would like to see less of in Astoria are “those places that blast techno music that’s totally different from the culture here.” He would like to see more boutique clothing and arts and crafts shops, and venues for musicians to play. “It’s hard to find live music here. So many musicians live in Astoria but they always have to leave Astoria to play their gigs.” (Others agree – see this rallying cry).
And of course there is always room for more art. Don’t be surprised if before long a freshly-painted mural appears on an Astoria wall with the signature “Davi ‘11” in the corner.
You can get a sense of how busy Dr Demetrios Markouizos’ practice will be by the number of strollers out in the hallway.
Dr Markouizos has practiced as a pediatrician in Astoria for almost 25 years. He was inspired to become one by the pediatricians who took care of him as a child, first in Greece and then growing up in Brooklyn. His practice is now on Astoria’s 37th Street, just off 30th Ave.
Taking care of children is different to adults in various ways, he says. “Children get sick easily, but they get better fast. Sometimes, when older people get sick you see them deteriorate and that’s very heartbreaking. Kids know how to bounce back. They are very resilient and have a lot of resolve.”
That resolve seems to have rubbed off on Dr Markouizos. Last year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “It was a little tough,” he says, “but I had a lot of good people around me – family, friends, and importantly my patients as well, who gave me the inspiration to continue and fight. I did, and now I’m cancer free.”
He says that the experience was a reminder that life can take a turn for the worst at any time. It gave him all the more reason to appreciate his passions: his family (he has a 12 year-old-daughter), his work, and when he is not working, travel.
“I love to see different cultures and types of people – how they live and adapt to their environment. That’s what I would like to do more of in the future,” he says. The fact that he now has an able assistant Dr Nick Papaevagelou (called “Dr Nick” by his patients) has already freed up a little bit of his time.
He says that one of the most important things for a pediatrician is good communication with patients’ parents. “An infant or young child cannot tell us what the problem is. So if we have poor communication between the parent and physician the wellbeing of the child is going to suffer.”
Thank yous are important as well. “Unappreciative people I don’t appreciate! There are some people, no matter what you do for them you can’t please them. A thank you is worth a million dollars to me.”
When Dr Markouizos first started his practice in Astoria it was on 30th Drive, near St Demetrios Cathedral. Then they moved to Crescent Street and finally built the new building on 37th Street, where he hopes to be for some time. He has brought different functions under the same roof; the main pediatrics practice on the ground floor and a laboratory for samples and tests on the second floor. He hopes to also introduce special facilities such as pulmonology and gastroenterology.
There is no shortage of patients – currently the practice has between 7000-8000 on its list. Though (full disclosure) my one-year-old being one of those patients, I can testify to the fact that Dr Markouizos and Dr Nick somehow give their complete attention to each one who comes through the practice.
The neighborhood has got more “chic” over time, Dr Markouizos says. “There is a lot of effervescence and movement along 30th Avenue which is good for children. It’s a delight to be around here. It’s full of life.”
Under the elevated tracks by the 30th Ave subway station there are always a few cab drivers waiting for passengers. It was one of those drivers who took me to hospital when I went into labour with my son: walking under the tracks often reminds me of that moment.
Recently I spoke there with Md Kamruzzaman. He lives in Queens – his son goes to school in Jamaica. He says that he makes enough money from driving a cab: “not enough to save, but enough to survive.”
Md Kamruzzaman says he finds the toughest parts of the job are driving through heavy traffic, especially in the morning rush hour, and New York’s complicated road-sign system. Before coming to New York in November last year, he lived in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific. (Md Kamruzzaman is originally from Bangladesh, which he left 20 years ago). The islands use the US road system but of course the traffic is nothing like New York.
“So when I came here at first I really got a lot of tickets. Parking tickets, and tickets for not following signs or making a turn when you shouldn’t. You have to be really careful. When you have to pay the ticket it’s a lot of money.”
The aspect that Md Kamruzzaman enjoys most about driving a taxi is the interesting and unexpected people he meets. Once, a passenger got into the cab and asked him to take him to the moon. “I told him, I don’t know how to get to the moon. And he said, oh yeah I know how to get there.” Md Kamruzzaman laughed, “I ended up dropping him off on a normal street.”
On June 18, Jerusalem Nights restaurant on Steinway a couple of blocks up from 30th Ave was packed with people listening to readings in Arabic and English, for the event “Cairo Connections: One city, many voices.” It was hosted by QUILL (“Queens in Love with Literature”). The Middle Eastern décor was densely layered with stars and stripes banners, flags and shiny tinsel in preparation for the approaching Fourth of July holiday.
Towards the end of the event Rami Nuseir, Director of the American Mideast Leadership Network, thanked everyone for coming to this corner of Astoria that is often referred to as “little Egypt”. His organization had found the venue for the event, one illustration of the many ways that it strengthens connections between people, languages and cultures. A week later I met Rami for this interview at Grand Cafe on 30th Ave.
Rami, now 38, was born in Nazareth. At seventeen he moved overseas, living in Belgium, London and San Diego before settling in New York. “I hope that New York is my final destination,” he says. “This is home for me. When the plane lands at JFK I feel that I’m home.”
He still goes to Nazareth twice a year though, where his mother and other family members still live. “I love my hometown. It’s important to keep connected, not to disconnect.”
Before founding the American Mideast Leadership Network Rami, who is a lawyer, worked as Legal Counsel to non-profits. The idea for his own organization took root soon after 9/11. He was in Jordan, and a friend who worked at the US embassy invited him to give a lecture to a group of high school students about Arabs in America post 9/11.
“I realized how misinformed they were about us,” he says. “The same way that general Mid-Western American society is misinformed about the Middle East. A lot of people in the Middle East thought that Middle Easterners here in the USA were living in cages. They thought that after 9/11 we were all being followed around at rifle-point by people who wanted to jail us. I started thinking about how that could change.”
Rami had also seen that Middle Eastern youth in the US were feeling lost after 9/11 and needed support. So he set up his non-profit to address those needs: to empower Middle Eastern youth living in the USA, and to promote understanding between people in the US and the Middle East.
One of American Mideast Leadership Network’s programs is called “Grassroots Diplomacy.” In 2007, Rami took a group of US students to Syria, where they stayed with Syrian students. “The idea is for people to learn first-hand, away from the influence of the media or politicians, or people who are partial, and let them see the reality for themselves,” he says.
He recently spent a year developing contacts in Libya to do a similar project there. The group was all set to fly at the end of May but given the current conflict they have had to put the plan on hold. Rami hopes that Libya emerges peaceful and able to rebuild, and that the project will still happen in the future.
In the meantime, he is taking a group of students to Nazareth in Galilee, in August. “In the group there’s a white guy, a Colombian, an East Asian, a Pakistani, a white girl…I’m trying to show that America is not a homogeneous society,” Rami says.
“I’m proud to be taking students to my hometown. That gives it a different feeling. They’re going to have a blast but they’re also going to learn a lot. The programs I build are educational so they’re not going to be wasting time, they do their homework.”
One of the purposes of the trip is to educate Americans about the Arab Muslim and Christian population in Israel. Rami says: “The main misconception is that we don’t exist. Many people do not know that there are Arabs living in Israel. There are 1.4 million Arabs, of which 1.5% are Christian.” (Rami is Christian).
He adds that educating Arab-Americans about the Palestinian population of Israel is important too. “The moment they hear Israeli, they kind of shut down and want to hear nothing about it.”
Soon after he established the American Mideast Leadership Network the organization evolved to address other pressing needs in Astoria, beyond problems specific to youth. The economic downturn meant that more than ever, recently-arrived immigrants needed help with finding jobs. The organization helps people to do job searches, write resumes and manage finances, and it provides English lessons. As Rami puts it, “things that can really put food on the table.”
He says that recent immigrants can have real trouble understanding the US job market. “In the Middle East, you often get a job by calling up and saying ‘my uncle told me to call you, do you have a job for me?’ That’s changing now, but still most of the people who use our services have zero knowledge about how to job-hunt here in the US.
“We have to educate them on every step of the process: you look for a job, you send a letter and your resume, you go for an interview.” He says that one of the most satisfying aspects of his work is when he finds someone a job.
Disappointment-management also comes into it. Some of the people he helps have arrived with green cards that they obtained through the Green Card Lottery system. “There’s a guy here who came from Morocco, where he was working for Mercedes and making good money,” says Rami. “He was married and with a kid and very financially stable. Then he won the green card lottery. Suddenly ‘America’ controlled his way of thinking. And so he and his family moved to the US. He regrets it because now he’s working as a waiter somewhere. We are trying to help him with work but there are the major challenges of language and navigating the system.”
Rami has to work hard to communicate the services that his non-profit provides, and convince people of why he wants to help. “When I advise people on options for free health insurance, or offer a seminar that I don’t charge for, they say ‘why, why?’ and run away. Look what’s happening in Egypt and elsewhere. People lived under repression for much too long.”
Since November 2010, Rami had visited Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Some friends joked with him that he had something to do with triggering the revolutions in those countries. “I replied that I was privileged and lucky to visit those places just before the revolution.” He says that there was an amazing spirit on Astoria’s Steinway Street when Mubarak was overthrown, along with some wishing among Egyptians that they could be in Egypt to experience it.
When Rami first came to New York he lived in Manhattan, but he was drawn to Astoria. “I love the Greeks, the Latins, the Russians, the Brazilians. In Manhattan, especially when you work there, it’s very robotic. Here you can sit and chill and enjoy things, and walk from one place to another.” Astoria, he says, it like a bottle of wine, getting better as it ages.
As well as activities in their offices – from the English classes and financial training, to a new program of Arabic classes, to hosting a group of Egyptian intellectuals who met on Twitter and gather there for discussions – American Mideast Leadership Network organizes events out and about in Astoria. On the same day as the QUILL readings at Jerusalem Nights, they were holding an Egyptian dancing event at the Queens public library on Broadway, and an education event at the library’s western Astoria branch.
In July last year, they organized an Arab Heritage Week Festival in 30th Ave’s Athens Square with music, dancing and food vendors. Rami is planning to hold a similar festival this fall. “We face a bit of resistance over the event, even from our community,” he says. “There are people who have a conservative view of things, so putting together music and dance on the street isn’t very appropriate.
“My answer to them is ‘welcome to America. The dancing is cultural, respectful. Thank you for your opinion but Queens is the most diverse place in the United States – we need to celebrate our culture and heritage.’”
Rami says the network aims to be very clearly secular – welcoming everyone and not being influenced by one particular religion – and also to have no tolerance for racism. Sometimes, he says, “our community can be divisive and territorial within itself. You know, there’s a myth about the fact that we are all Arabs. We are not. We are 22 different nations, 22 different cultures. We speak the same language but we are very different.”