Last week Yesim Ozen was standing outside Balancero Coffee on 37th Street. Set out in front of her on a table was a spread of multi-colored soaps, so bright that at first glance they looked like a display of cakes.
Yesim works as a financial controller for a fashion company in Manhattan. During lock down last year she found the extra time to teach herself soap-making – something she had been keen to do since visiting different cities in Turkey, and buying homemade soaps there.
She researched the process, bought moulds, and now turns ingredients that include oatmeal, olive oil, honey, and even coffee from Balancero into soaps with unique patterns and shapes. “All my soap is made by hand in very small batches”, she says. “I’m interested in challenging myself to make new and interesting designs”.
As COVID restrictions gradually lift Yesim hopes to sell her “Sabun by the Bay” soaps at locations through Astoria. Her website will be up and running soon – and in the meantime, find her on Facebook here.
Most Fridays I go to Absolute Wine and Spirits at 34-13 30th Ave to pick up some wine. Invariably my kids are with me, and I worry that their backpacks will knock bottles off the shelves. Luckily that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a small place but you’re likely to find whatever you’re looking for.
Nilo Mathias, the owner, opened the store in June 2009. Originally from Brazil, he’s been in the US for 25 years. “Since I came, it’s been Astoria,” he says. “I don’t see myself going anywhere else. I feel like I was born here. Well, I was re-born here!”
He hopes the store will stay, despite the rapid changes in the neighborhood.
“We used to have a Deli across the street, now we don’t any more. We used to have a 99 cents store, a clothing store, and now we don’t. Different people have come in. We’ve had a change of around 70% of people. Fewer than 30% are the original clients from when we first opened.”
That said, there are still the regulars. “They come every day to get their bottle of wine for dinner. They go to the market and get their fish or their meat, they go to the grocery store, and they stop by here to get their bottle of wine.”
Nilo’s colleague J hails from Lebanon. He is an expert on the bottles that line the shelves. Ask him about any bottle of wine or spirit, and he’ll be able to share a specific anecdote or insight. His secret? “An elephant memory,” he says.
Nilo owned a bar when he was in Brazil. “I just love drinks, the whole thing with the wine, and the history of spirits.” His own favorite is scotch. “And red wine…big bold Riojas.”
Four adjacent stores along 30th Avenue between 35th and 36th streets have closed down, and a new development will rise up in their place. I interviewed several of the store-owners back in 2011. One of the stores, Astoria Music, had been at that location since 1922.
When small places like this close down, it’s not only the stores we loose from the Avenue but also the people who own, frequent, and love them.
The block included a party store, billiards hall, the music store, a local real estate brokers, and, still open for now, a jewelers. Their owners or the owners’ parents hail originally from Mexico, Colombia, Greece and Uzbekistan. Whatever the “mixed-use” development that appears in their place it’s unlikely it will represent quite that diversity of people and purpose.
Here are some words and images that reflect what the block was like until relatively recently, when Astoria Music and La Bomboniera Marylu relocated to the quieter 28th Avenue. I wish I had got a photograph showing all the stores together!
“I average anywhere between six to seven bouzoukis a month. This is the only music store in America that sells bouzoukis like this – well, the real thing. There are lots of imitations. This is the real thing.”
“We stay open until whenever the last players leave. If there are five tables playing at two in the morning, you can’t go round and tell them to wrap up and go. Some of the regulars come here every day to play.”
Two recent events hosted by Queens Memory at the Queens Library Broadway branch brought together Astoria old-timers and newcomers to talk about their memories and perspectives on the neighborhood.
Dr. Robyn Spencer of Lehman College kicked off the first event on Saturday 12 November by setting the scene with a quick history of Astoria, which has been defined by waves of immigration.
These began with settlement of the neighborhood by Dutch and Germans in the 17th Century, followed by Irish in the 19th and 20th Century, then Italians, Greeks (from mainland Greece during the 1960s, and from Cyprus after 1974), and from the 1970s onwards, immigrants from the Middle East (including Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Yemen), as well as from Bangladesh, South and Central America, and from Europe.
I then shared some thoughts from my 2011 project on this website (five years ago!) interviewing one person a week for a year who lived or worked along Astoria’s 30th Avenue. The interviews represent a wide cross-section of the street, but a few common threads appeared in many of them.
These included interviewees’ passion for their work, from Peter Loupakis who runs a karate acrobatics center, to school crossing guard Julia Bravo who is considered the ‘abuelita’, or grandmother, of her local community.
Another was the importance of the physical environment of the neighborhood which fosters interactions between people: with characteristics such as wide sidewalks, and the dense mixture of building uses so that you can find a hospital, a school, small stores, houses and apartment buildings interspersed along the same street.
And a third, of course, is that the neighborhood is always changing. Three of the stores whose owners I interviewed in 2011 are now no longer on 30th Avenue but have moved to the parallel, quieter, 28th Avenue due to rising rent prices (Astoria Music, Bomboniera Marylu and TaxIntel). The process of gentrification and rising rents came up in the conversation at the Queens Memory event, with participants highlighting the dynamism this represents but also the challenges for many residents.
Interviewee Khaled Shallah, originally from Syria, who runs Jerusalem Pita, had captured the continuous movement in the neighborhood when I asked him if he saw himself staying for a long time. “This is New York. Does anybody know how long they will be here?”
That said, a group of the participants at the event, now in their sixties and seventies, were born in Astoria and have never left. They shared with participants the passion they had felt for the neighborhood as children in the 1950s and still feel today. One recalled the fact that the local doctor used to pay house visits carrying a black bag. Another mentioned the reunions of students from Public School 6 that still bring together classmates from all over the country, so many years on.
Other participants who were teenagers in the 1970s and ’80s remembered nights drinking underneath the Hell Gate Bridge, clashes between cliques divided by neighborhood “block” lines, and friends and relatives who were lost to drugs.
Neighborhoods can only begin to be understood through the multiple, conflicting ways in which people see them. A participant recalled how she previously lived in Manhattan and couldn’t imagine herself, at that time, living in Queens. She thought that nothing happens here, just row upon row of dull low-rise houses (several years of living in Astoria later, and she’s been convinced otherwise!).
My husband Carlos, who was brought up in Washington Heights, responded that he had an opposite feeling whenever he would come to Queens as a child: a positive rather than negative reaction. In his view, Queens was “the real New York”, where people were fully settled and established, unlike Manhattan which to him felt in permanent flux.
The second event on 19 November had a “Music and memories” theme. It began with beautiful performances by Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz on her musical saw, and Richard Khuzami on Middle Eastern drums. Both interspersed their playing with reflections on the role of music in Astoria.
They also both described how accidents had lead them to find their respective instruments. Natalia was a dancer when she experienced a traffic accident and was told she could not dance again. It was only when she saw someone playing a musical saw in Europe some time later that she became inspired again, and her devotion to the instrument took off from there. She told the audience that on returning from that trip to Astoria, she surprised the owner of a hardware store on Broadway (no longer there) by trying out the saws on sale to see how many notes she could get from them.
One of the songs that Natalia performed was written by an Israeli composer friend who visited her house in Astoria: he was inspired by the character of the old house, and wrote the song on the spot.
Richard was also in an accident, which meant he no longer had movement in his ankles and had to give up his passion for playing the drum kit. However he had grown up surrounded by Middle Eastern music and instruments – his family was originally from Lebanon – and decided to pick up playing the drums from the region which are hand-held and do not require pedals. He got rid of all his Western music and decided to listen only to Middle Eastern music to immerse himself in its rhythms and tones. This process worked – not only has he performed in multiple venues in Queens, but also at Carnegie Hall.
Following the two performances, a participant at the event demonstrated an antique accordion that his grandfather had brought to Astoria from Italy. He recalled how anytime his grandmother annoyed his grandfather, the grandfather would retreat to his room to play: his wife did not appreciate his accordion-playing! The participant also remembered spinning around the living room as a child while his grandfather played Tarantellas, an Italian folk dance.
Richard Khuzami described the buzzing live music scene in Astoria and in the 1980s and ’90s when he would perform at places across the neighborhood through the night. Now, the live music scene is more limited, with the ascendance of electronic music. Yet towards the end of the event the discussion shifted from looking back, to looking towards the future: participants talked about ways that Astoria’s music life can be fostered by supporting young musicians and potential new venues.
These two consecutive events celebrated the diverse communities that form Astoria, which has always been defined by close interaction between the old and the new.
The event was organized by Queens Memory. It was part of the Queens Memory: 50 Years of Integration program, made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
To find out more about Queens Memory or if you are interested in contributing photographs or participating in an oral history interview visit: http://www.queensmemory.org
Anthoula Lelekidis was one of the participants at the event: she runs the popular “Ancient Astoria” Instagram channel (featured in Queens Gazette) that preserves photographs of Astoria as it used to be.
From the archives– the interview with Janeth and Julia on 14th street
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!’”.
A new arrival on 30th Avenue is “Vapor Generation” at 36-20B. I quit smoking about five years ago when I became pregnant with my first child: while I’ve noticed vape stores popping up around the neighborhood and people standing outside bars with their vape pens, vaping has been a bit of a mystery to me. I spoke with Vapor Generation’s Brian King to find out more.
Brian moved to Astoria from California two and a half months ago. He started working with Vapor Generation when it opened in late February.
‘We’re trying to get people to quit in a nice healthier way, giving people many options,” he says. “We’re talking ingest or otherwise, with varying rates of nicotine from zero all the way up to eighteen milligrams for the heavy smokers. That way they don’t go through withdrawals if they are trying to kick.”
The store has a long counter where customers can test the products, and glass cabinets where they are on display: the battery-powered vaping devices, and the liquids in various flavors which go inside them. Along one wall is a black and white image of a lamp-lit street in Paris.
“There’s a heating element inside that atomizes the liquid,” says Brian. “Instead of turning it into a smoke it’s actually a vapor. You are exhaling, and it looks like smoke, but it’s not.”
He adds: “It tastes good, and it smells good too. People’s boyfriends and girlfriends are happy when they are not smoking because they don’t have to kiss an ashtray anymore.”
Brian, who formerly worked in construction, started using vapors in California. “I had to do something with my mouth,” he says. “I was chewing on pens and pencils, toothpicks, and eating lollipops…and then I found vaping.”
Until he got into the business, however, he did not realize how many options were available. Vapor Generation sources its liquids from the US and Europe – avoiding other overseas sources given the risks of them containing harmful ingredients such as pesticides. The liquids they sell contain pharmaceutical-grade or food-grade propylene glycol and glycerin.
Vaping is picking up quicker in New York than in California, Brian says, “because of Prop 215, which has made other things legal to smoke in California.” (Prop 215 is the legislation on medical marijuana).
While many of Vapor Generation’s customers are young, older long-time smokers are also venturing in. Brian sees it as his role to educate them. “A lot of the older folks that come in are trying to quit smoking – they have a lot of questions. It’s good to be able to answer their questions for them and let them know what’s going on.”
On Astoria, Brian says that it “has friendly people. It’s a little bit busier than I am used to. But when you get somebody to stop and talk to you they are actually willing to give you a bit more time than they would in San Francisco. If you’re lost looking for somewhere, people will actually get on their phone and ask other people. They will try and help you get what you need.”
When my husband Carlos and I have people round or throw a party, we serve empanadas: beef, chicken and cheese. But when guests ask if we made them we have to confess we ordered them – from Tu Casa at 30-10 Steinway Street, just round the corner from 30th Ave. They’ve become an expected feature at our place and are way better than any we could make.
Recently I spoke with Rodolfo, Tu Casa’s manager. He has been in the restaurant business in New York for 20 years.
“We’re unique,” Rodolfo says. “I believe we are the only Latino restaurant around here. And not only Latino – but quality, good class Latino. The majority of people here in the neighborhood are European – and the majority of the restaurants are like French, and Greek.
“So I’d like to invite people who haven’t been here – to show them what good Latino food is all about.”
While Tu Casa’s owner has Dominican and Honduran parents, the chef is Peruvian – and about 75% of the menu is Peruvian. But there are also dishes from other parts of Latin America.
When asked which is the most popular dish, Rodolfo says “Lomo saltado, and pollo saltado – saltado is a style of cooking with onions, tomatoes and cilantro.” But then continues as if spoiled for choice: “Our ceviches are very popular too, Peruvian style. Also the Peruvian fried rice – Chaufa, with chicken.”
And we have non-Peruvian dishes that are very popular: chicarrones de pollo served with tostones or with rice and beans – our steaks, our fish…”
Their busiest times are Friday and Saturday nights, though they also serve food at lunchtime and have some regulars who come every day. During the week, Tu Casa has a happy hour in the early evening.
The first Tu Casa opened in Kew Gardens. Then came the Astoria restaurant in 2010, and just a few weeks ago the third one, in Forest Hills, opened its doors.
Rodolfo says that as manager of the restaurant he enjoys dealing with people – whether it’s staff, or customers – and resolving situations that come up. His aim is to make sure that people who come through the door feel like they are welcome and at home. The restaurant is called “Tu Casa” after all.
Louie “KR.ONE” Gasparro is an artist and former NYC subway train graffiti writer. He was one of twelve children born in Manhattan to Italian immigrants, and was raised in Astoria: he lived in Astoria from 1966 to 1996.
“I started writing graffiti very young in 1977, I was 11 years old,” says Louie. “Ever since I can remember I was always drawing, sketching, finger painting and reading comic books. So when I started to notice the cartoons and bubble lettering on trains I was immediately attracted to it.”
He adds: “Sketching the outline to executing it and seeing the result fly by while you are sitting in your homeroom class is really unforgettable.” There were challenges too, of course. “Going into a tunnel or train yard and doing a piece on a train that you liked and then walking out unscathed and not arrested were the biggest. Painting in the dark was a challenge for sure – that’s why I painted mostly in yards. In the daylight.”
Some of the cliques (subway writing groups) that Louie was a part of would meet up at the 30th Avenue subway station. He met with writers from IRT (Invading Rapid Transit) and TSS (The Super Squad). “There were guys with names like RCA (Reckless Car Artist), SN (Sick Nick), and KB (Krazy Boy) aka Savage 1. RCA and KB were the founders and presidents of these two Astoria based cliques.”
Subway graffiti was known as writing because, Louie says, “it was letter and name based. So we were writing. Writing for ourselves and each other.
“Subway era graffiti was totally competitive. Every writer would try and ‘burn’ the other with style or with quantity.” But there was also camaraderie. “Being a (graffiti) writer really transcended any and all social, economic, ethnic and racial boundaries. The art was the common denominator.”
Louie grew up always feeling safe in Astoria. “Everywhere I’d go I always knew someone. If I didn’t, they’d usually know someone in my family. It was a true neighborhood. Astoria Park and all the school yards were the social network. I still visit Astoria frequently because of the many great restaurants, and the Museum of the Moving Image, which I used to play in when it was an abandoned wreckage.”
In the mid 1980s, Louie was the first Astoria-based artist to be commissioned by the community and private businesses to do murals. “I’m really proud of those murals,” he says. And despite being a graffiti-writer on the trains he was a member of a community group called Graffiti Busters, helping identify what could be done for kids who were defacing property.
“I’d be sitting there with really long hair and a leather jacket explaining the psychological reasons why kids were writing their names on walls. I got used to being stared at really quickly.”
Louie is still an artist, and a musician: his band is called Servants Of The Crown -Keepers Of The Sign. And he recently published a book, “Don 1, The King From Queens– The Life and Photos Of a NYC Transit Graffiti Master” about the influential graffiti writer from the 70s Joe “Don 1” Palattella (also from Astoria). Louie says: “The book includes 200 never-seen-before photos of the old Astoria RR trains and the DON 1 tags and pieces (short for master-pieces) that adorned those trains.”
On why New York City saw the birth of the global street graffiti movement, Louie says: “When ‘Cornbread’ – a graffiti writer from Philadelphia – was noticed and TAKI 183 and Julio 204 took it to the next level in NYC and the whole metamorphosis from the more simplistic ‘single hits’ of graffiti signatures went to ‘bubble lettering’ and more elaborate ‘burners’ and ‘wild style’ the entire vocabulary of graffiti art was laid out on the NYC subways and streets – it was the invention of a modern art form.
“The evolution and style metamorphosis that happened in NYC from 1970 – 1980 is responsible for the global phenomena of graffiti writing and graffiti art. I always say that we needed to write and apparently so did the world.”
“Astoria is my second Alexandria” says Mohamed Khalil, the manager of Leli’s Bakery & Pastry Shop at 35-14 30th Avenue. Originally from Egypt, Mohamed has lived in Astoria for the past eleven years.
Leli’s opened in November 2012. It was founded by Emanuel Darmanin, known as “Leli”. Darmanin owns Melita Bakery based in the Bronx which sells bread and deserts wholesale to restaurants and hotels throughout the city. He decided to branch out with his first storefront café, and settled on Astoria.
“In the past five, six years there has been, let’s say, a revolution in business here,” says Mohamed. “I remember when 30th Avenue was too dark in the night. Barely after 9 o’clock, you didn’t hear no-body. If you had a pizza stop or something, it wasn’t a fancy one.” But then “the first big café opened, that was Avenue Café. They did a great business, and then came Grand Café, Flo Café, Mexi-BBQ…”
Leli’s Bakery followed suit. At first, they would open at eight in the morning, and close at nine pm. Now they open at seven, and at weekends stay open until eleven. All of the food is made on site – the metal bread machines can be glimpsed through the back of the café.
The owner Darmanin is from Malta, and Maltese products feature prominently in the bakery. There are mounds of savory Qassatat, that “TastoriaQueens” has reviewed in glowing terms, and pastizzi; small flaked-pastry snacks stuffed with ricotta cheese, beef, or spinach and feta cheese. “In Malta, those are like the equivalent of falafel,” says Mohamed. “Two of those will keep you going until you have your lunch or dinner.”
Then there are the sweets of course, of all shapes and sizes, from rainbow cookies to carrot cake. Birthday cakes form colorful lines behind the glass counter and baskets brimming with croissants and muffins surround the till. “To have a good product you have to do it from real ingredients”, says Mohamed. “You know, nothing fat free. That’s not what the boss is doing here. Even if he has some sort of recipe that’s for people who want low-fat foods…that will never happen because he mixes it his Maltese way.” Despite, that is, Darmanin being diabetic so unable to eat the delicacies his business creates.
Mohamed got to know Darmanin because a friend of his, also Egyptian, is married to one of Darmanin’s daughters. “What I found out about any Maltese who I met here,” says Mohamed, “is that they have a background in baking.” Mohamed finds the Maltese language easy to understand because “it’s about sixty percent Arabic. They got the language from Libya…and the baking from Italy,” he says. Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean, is in-between the two.
“Some people might like the feeling you get in a formal, expensive hotel,” says Mohamed. “That’s not what we are aiming for here.” No two chairs in Leli’s are the same, purposefully. While we spoke on a Sunday afternoon all the chairs were occupied, and customers were queuing up at the counter for goods. At the table next to us was Mohamed’s mother, over for a trip from Alexandria, knitting a child’s cardigan that she was hoping to complete by the end of the day. On the other side of us, a young couple focused on their i-pads.
There is no shortage of other bakeries along 30th Avenue. You “have to do a bit extra”, says Mohamed, to keep customers coming.
From last Wednesday, Trade Fair employees have been standing outside the supermarket on 30th Ave with placards and leaflets. They are among 100 employees of the meat departments at the nine Trade Fair locations throughout Queens who are holding an “unfair labor practices” strike.
Among them is Eunice Izquierdo. She has worked in the store’s meat department for 23 years. “When I started working here it was a relatively small business,” she says (translated from Spanish). “I saw him [the company’s owner Farid Jaber] buy the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, all of those stores I saw him buy. And also I’ve seen how the stores have grown in size, thanks to cheap labor.”
In November the workers’ contract came up for renewal. Their union says that in the proposed new contract the management wanted to freeze wages for meat department employees, make everyone part time instead of full-time, reduce healthcare benefits and stop paying extra rates for Sunday work.
“He wants to reduce our hours to 24 hours a week. How are we going to support our families on that?” says Eunice, who has three children – two in college and one in high school. “There have been three cuts. First we worked 48 hours a week, then 37. At the moment we have been working 34. Now he wants to cut it to 24 and change Sunday working to regular pay.”
She adds: “I like the work here. We have done our work with a lot of love. That is what hurts. Because we have worked here with our hearts. We have worked harder than we have been paid for. It’s not to say it’s a bad business. It’s a good business, well managed. But the owner – that’s to say the owner-owner of all the stores – says that he wants everyone to be part time. Who lives off part time?”
The workers are accompanied by representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 342. According to the union, when rounds of negotiations over the new contract were not making any progress, the workers began to leaflet the customers on their off-the-clock-time. The management reacted to this by harassing them and putting up signs in the department that part-time meat workers were wanted, the union says.
Union representative David Rodriquez said: “The employees are just speaking out for their rights. They went to the community, spoke to the community, and he [Jaber] didn’t appreciate that, he would have preferred that they stay quiet. So he put up these signs saying that they needed help, in the meat department, when they don’t.”
When the strike began on Wednesday, workers offered to go back to work in the afternoon to continue bargaining. But management did not let them back, saying that they had been replaced with new staff, according to the union.
Beatriz Gomez is another of the workers on strike. She has worked in the meat department for 13 years. “What we are asking is to stay with what we had before,” she says. “I have a lot of faith that we are going to be able to go back, that we will get our jobs back. I am prepared to be here as long as it takes.”
Trade Fair headquarters declined to comment for this post. They referred to the banner posted on the outside walls of their supermarkets. It reads: “…We are in negotiation with the union and told them that we need to keep our costs competitive with other non-union stores in the neighborhood so we can provide you with top quality meat at fair, competitive prices. The disruptions to our business is their answer to us. Trade Fair will continue to do what is necessary to keep our costs competitive so that our prices remain competitive.” (full wording on the image below).
An interview on this website in November 2011 with two managers at the 30th Ave location, Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar. When asked if he would like to comment on the meat workers’ action, Mustafa said that for now only the management at Trade Fair headquarters is able to do that.