Interview Observation

Astoria kids of the 1940s reunite

PS 5 kids when they were in 3rd grade – some of them are in the reunion photo below
The kids – at their reunion on September 20, 2012

In September a group of people in their early seventies met for lunch at an Astoria restaurant.  Most had either attended Public School 5 or Junior High School 126 in the neighborhood together, back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.  There were 24 “kids” from those schools at the gathering, along with 16 spouses or friends.  There were hugs and shouts of delight.  Some had not seen each other for over fifty years.  Since June 23, 1954 to be exact.

Alfred Holzman organized the reunion.  His Slovakia-born parents had moved into 34-03 30th Avenue in 1944.  They ran a store called Grand Paint Supply Company downstairs from their apartment, which is now Prime Design and Printing.  In 1945 Alfred entered Public School 5.

The school was at 30-11 29th Street, just off 30th Avenue.  The site is still a school – PS 234 – but the PS 5 building is no longer there: in 1967 an eight year-old boy playing with a match in a student clothing closet triggered a fire that burned the building to the ground.

Alfred and his classmates were devoted to one of their teachers, Mrs. Evelyn R. Benton.  She had recently started teaching at the school after serving with the US navy during World War II as a “WAVE” (an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).  Many years later, in 2005, Alfred decided to get a small group of “Mrs. Benton’s kids” back together again for a reunion.

Since that initial gathering in South Florida the group has mushroomed as Alfred has been able to track down more and more of their classmates.  Many live within New York State or New Jersey.  Some though had flown in for the Astoria reunion from Florida and were making the occasion into a vacation.  One woman arrived a little late having driven for seven hours straight from Vermont.

The reunion bubbled with reminiscences and summaries of lifetimes.  How to update someone on the last fifty years of your life?  It tended to boil down to love, work and health.  There may be big differences between the specific paths Mrs. Benton’s pupils took but those basic ingredients, in various formulations, are there.

Among the group is an actress, an artist who taught at Fashion Institute of Technology, and a wall-street investor-turned marine-turned firefighter who also played the bugle in a band during the half-times of New York Giants games.  One of the guests had married his childhood sweetheart.  Another was there with his second wife.  Alfred married his wife Lucy when he was in his fifties.

Clyde Locke, one of the guests, remembers the mix of origins of the kids along his block and still has the accents to prove it.  He can switch effortlessly from Irish- to Scottish- to English- to German- to Italian-accented English.  He says arriving at college where most kids had grown up in rural American towns was a culture shock – their experience having been so different from his city life.  Frank went on to be an ophthalmologist in Astoria and the Director of eye surgery at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.  He fixed two detached retinas for one of his PS 5 kindergarten classmates, Rosemarri Roth, who stood up at the reunion to thank him.

While Astoria was mixed when Mrs Benton’s kids were young, most of its residents were of European origins.  As Alfred described it, “we all came from working class immigrant families, whether Hungarian, German, Slovak, Greek, or Italian-American.”

The guests brought photos and mementos.  Among them was a faded PS 5 banking book.  Each student contributed to his or her student bank account every Monday morning.  It could be a dime, a quarter, even a dollar, whatever their parents could afford at the time.  At the end of sixth grade when they graduated from PS 5, the children received a regular bank book.  In that way they learned to save.

The best memories though didn’t need a prop.  Evelyn Strang (raised on 30th Street between Newtown Avenue and Astoria Boulevard) and Frank Jankech (31st Avenue and 32nd Street) reminisced about a date they had gone on when they were young.  It was Evelyn’s first time going to a Broadway show.  She recalls her mother telling her to dress up nice and wear gloves.  “I remember you were always smiling, always happy,” she said of Frank.

Miss Anna E. Burns, the PS 5 long-time principal, cropped up in the conversations.  The girls at the school liked her, the boys loathed her.  One recalled his delight at discovering how to open a high window in the corridor followed by the dread of sensing her approaching behind him.

There were also insights into how 30th Avenue has changed.  Near where Key Foods supermarket is now located there was a grand mansion: Evelyn’s father tended the gardens there.  Most of the Avenue consisted of small shops, like now, but very few of the shops from the time have survived.  On practically every corner there was a pharmacy: from 29th Street to Steinway there were seven.

Off the Avenue, kids would take over whole blocks with street games, like stick ball for which they used manhole covers and auto fenders as bases.  And many remembered the jubilant street parties on V-J day in Spring 1945, when they were impressionable five year-olds.

Guests were given a questionnaire that they browsed during the meal, with questions about PS 5 and the neighborhood.  Some had specific answers.  “An important invention was made in Astoria in a garage on 37th Street, what was it?” (Answer: xerography, i.e. a dry photocopy, which soon became the essence of the Xerox corporation).

Other questions began with “Do you remember…?”.  For example, “Do you remember ‘inspection’ each week?” (when the class had to stand in a row and have their hands and fingernails inspected for cleanliness and display their handkerchiefs).  And: “Do you remember the basement lunch room (can you smell the tomato soup) ?”

The atmosphere at the reunion ranged from lighthearted to emotional.  As Alfred said when he addressed the group: “It’s just a kick, a great feeling, to see someone again.”


I am very grateful to Alfred Holzman for inviting me to join this reunion.

For more on how 30th Avenue was in the past, see: the interview with Bob Singleton of the Greater Astoria Historical Society; a conversation with a group of Astoria old-timers at Corner Delights café; and the post about 30th Avenue’s former ice cream parlors.

Alfred Holzman’s parents outside their store Grand Paint Supply Company at 34-03 30th Avenue, just before they retired
And 34-03 30th Avenue today: Prime Design and Printing



Frank and Jennifer Greco – Astoria Coins and Collectibles

Frank and Jennifer Greco and their son Robert in Astoria Coins and Collectibles, 21-06 30th Ave

First up, a note from Jennifer Greco about the shop:

Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place where collectors meet each other whether during working hours or on Saturdays, to discuss coins of interest, the market trends, or just stop by to say “Hello”.  The highlight of the store has always been the display cases, and whatever wall hangings we have on display at the moment, and the comradely conversations.  Frank Greco believes that these displays are not only of interest to our devoted customers, but even travelers find interest in the museum-like experience of seeing a small bit of history hanging on our walls and in our cases. Our unique coin shop is an interesting visit for people of all ages.


Frank and Jennifer Greco have run Astoria Coins and Collectibles on 30th Avenue since 1975.  It was a coin shop before then too.  Jennifer’s family owned the building, and the store first opened when she was around eight years old.  “I used to come in all the time with my Dad,” she says.  “I grew to love the shop and the idea of collecting coins…I guess it is in my blood now.”

She was fifteen when she met Frank.  They were both working at Key Food supermarket, at the time located not on 30th Ave as it is now but on 31st Street, between 21st Avenue and Ditmars.  Frank left Key Food after the couple had their children, as he was working really long hours.  He got a job with Air Canada at JFK airport and began working in the coin shop as well on Saturdays.  Then when he was laid off, he made the coin shop his full time vocation.  Their two sons and daughter are now grown up: the middle son, Robert, works in the coin store too.

“It’s the whole thing,” Frank says, on why he is passionate about working with coins.  “It’s a history lesson, really.  For example you start thinking about the movies, and John Wayne when he used to go into a bar with a silver dollar and get a whole bottle and a meal, and maybe even a woman and still get change!”

The store focuses on US coins, but also sells coins from many other countries.  Frank says that there used to be more coin shops, particularly in Manhattan.  But given the increasing rents and rise of the internet there are far fewer now.   He himself does a lot of business on the internet, while also sourcing coins from customers who bring them in, dealers who go from store to store, and shows.

The display cases that run the length of the store are crammed with clearly-labeled coins, each of which conveys a story.  Recently among them were a coin commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 address at Cooper Union before he became President, and a more recent coin marking the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK.

The store also used to sell baseball cards and comic books, a hit with kids from the local boys club.  They still provide a bright patchwork on the walls, along with cabinets of coins, hanging bills, and a superhero mural.  But, Frank says, “It just got out of hand, got crazy.  I’d be selling baseball cards for a dollar a piece and then all of a sudden they came out with the high-end cards for $10 a piece.  Same thing with the comics.  But kids don’t have ten dollars.  So I just stopped it.”

The store provides an income tax service too.  It predates the coin business, in that Jennifer’s father had a real estate office next door which also did income tax.  Frank says: “At that time we would get the paper with the carbon copy in the middle and if you made a mistake you would rip it up and have to do another one.  When I got started, all I remember is ‘Do it over!  Do it over!”.

Astoria Coins and Collectibles is a place to hang out as much as a store.  “My eldest son always says that we should turn on a video here, because of the people who come in and just talk,” Jennifer says.  “Usually it starts about coins, about the economy, but then it becomes anything.”

A significant change they are seeing the neighborhood is the construction of new, expensive apartment buildings.  “I see a yuppie generation coming in,” says Jennifer.  “For the older generation – I can speak from my mom’s point of view because she was also born and raised in Astoria – she hates it.  She says they’re killing Astoria, I guess killing the country feeling of it, that she had growing up around 18th Street.”

Frank adds: “I grew up in Long Island City, down by Vernon Boulevard and 40th, where the Pepsi plant was.  When I grew up there it was just factories.  Now it’s Manhattan just coming right over the river.  And they’re going to do that along the waterfront here, too.  It’s just a matter of time.”

He says that properties are being overpaid for.  He cites the example of an apartment block on 21st Street where “they purchased five or six houses for $1.2 million.  Most people who live there paid like $8-10,000 for their houses.  If you get an offer for $1.2 million, you’re like ‘ok I’m out of here!’”

The coin store will no doubt though remain a community fixture for many years to come.  Jennifer recently returned to work there after retiring from her work in education.  “It’s invigorating,” she says.  “Especially having been in a classroom, a school, where you know there’s a lot of action, I never realized what I was missing all those years!”

Jennifer, Frank, and their dog Trudy
Baseball cards and comic books on the store wall

Gus Prentzas – Pavilion Florals

Gus Prentzas in his store Pavilion Florals at 30th Ave and 32nd Street

Gus Prentzas worked in a flower store while he was a politics and international relations student at college.  Then at the age of 22 he bought his own flower store in Astoria, on 29th and Ditmars.  Other than a short period out, he has stayed in the flower business, while keeping politically active through his involvement with local organizations.  He was NYC’s youngest ever school board member, and is currently Co-Chair of Community Board 1 (which covers Astoria), for example.

Pavilion Florals on 30th Ave was founded in 1974, and Gus bought it 15 years ago.  Its previous owner’s partner ran a radio station which was popular with the Greek entertainment industry.  Greek singers and entertainers would stop by the shop when they were in New York.

The store is still a community mainstay.  “Half my day is spent helping people out in the community,” Gus says, on issues ranging from traffic problems, to overcrowding in schools or in the nearby Mount Sinai Queens hospital.  “It’s not the hospital’s fault,” he says, “just its limited resources”.

His philosophy is that he does not have customers, but friends.  He adds, “As a florist, you deal with people on a very personal level.  It could be a baby’s birth, a wedding, or a time of sadness and sympathy like a funeral.  You’re there in the happy and the sad times in their life.”

One of the challenges in his industry is the fluctuations in the prices of the products he buys, among them flowers of course.  The largest exporters of flowers are Holland, Colombia and Ecuador.  “If you’re buying from Holland,” says Prentzas, “you’re dealing with the Euro, so as the Euro goes up the prices of flowers goes up.  Or, for example, if there are a lot of floods in Ecuador or Colombia around Valentines Day, farms get flooded out, there’s a shortage of roses, and that forces us to sell for higher.”

It’s not just the flowers.  The plastic for wrapping them has gone up 500 percent over the last five years.  And recently flower stores have confronted a shortage in helium for the first time.  “You’ll probably be shocked to find people having to charge $4 to blow up a balloon soon,” he says.

If someone from outside the neighborhood was visiting 30th Avenue, Gus would tell them, “just take a stroll about 10 blocks and you’ll see the diversity.  There will be an element of something that you are going to find attractive, or something that connects with you that will draw you to this community.”

Full archive of 30th Ave interviews


From the archives – Benny Banker, mailman

Here is the interview from this time last year, with mailman Benny Banker.  Watch this space for new interviews.  Initially this was intended to be a year-long project.  But there are plenty more stories to tell and people to read them, so I’ll be starting interviewing again in September 2012.  Annabel.  (p.s. the archive of all interviews so far is here).

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 hisreligious 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  [see update in comments below]. 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.”


Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar – Trade Fair supermarket

This year I’m profiling interviews from the 2011 project in this spot at the top of the homepage.  At the moment, the interview with Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar of TradeFair Supermarket.  The original is here.  For an archive of  all 52 interviews click here.

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

Trade Fair supermarket stretches along 30th Ave between 31st and 32ndStreets.  It’s a swath of color with its fruit and vegetables on display and bright announcements of special offers.  Among the bustle of customers and deliveries I spoke with its manager Mustafa Eid.  Sabah Guessar, also a manager there, joined in some of the conversation too, coming back and forth from her work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Elizabet Flores – La Bomboniera Marylu

Elizabet Flores in her store La Bomboniera Marylu at 35-17 30th Ave

Elizabet Flores owns La Bomboniera Marylu party store on 30th Ave.  What more festive way to end this year of interviews than a conversation with her.  “We are like a party planner,” Elizabet says.  “We can help you with first communions, christenings, birthdays, weddings.  We help you with the invitations, favors, decoration of the hall…anything that you need for the party.”

The store is brimful with party products.  Among them are its namesake and Elizabet’s own personal favorite item, the favors called bombonieras.  They are small packets of five sugared almonds wrapped in tulle or organza and tied with a ribbon.  On the ribbon are words appropriate for the party, like “happy birthday” or the names of the couple if they are for a wedding.

“It’s a French, Italian and Greek tradition, so I didn’t know about them before,” says Elizabet, who is from Mexico.  “When you tell the customers, they say, ‘you didn’t know what that means?!’”  The bombonieras are given for good luck.

Elizabet says that she is always learning from customers about their own party traditions.  “For the Greek orthodox people, we do things that they have for Easter, the candles and things like that.”  At Christmas time, local Ecuadorians hold month-long celebrations for the holy boy, divino niño Jesús.  “They do it like a party for the holy boy.  They make invitations, they have a mass, they have a reception and traditional dances.  So we help them with that.”

La Bomboniera also helps customers hold small parties in their homes.  “We can rent the chairs and the tables, and do a touch with a small cake.  We just work with the Dominican cakes.  We have a lady who makes them for us.  People like the Dominican cakes a lot.  Around the area on 30th Avenue they just sell like Italian cake, French.  The difference is the paste.  It should be like a pound cake, and the filling doesn’t have cream, it just has like a guava paste, or pineapple or strawberry or chocolate.”

The store has been on 30th Ave since 2004, and its previous owner ran it for some time before that on Roosevelt Avenue.  Elizabet says that how she became involved “is a funny story.  I was the cleaning lady of the previous owner.  She got married and one day said ‘I want to sell my business’.  I thought, ‘ok, I’ll have to look for another job’.  But I was talking with a couple of friends and my family, then I talked to her and said ‘why don’t you give me the opportunity to buy your business?’

“She helped me a lot.  Because I didn’t speak English at that time.  She was helping for four months, showing me.  I was trying to learn the most that I can.   Because her husband bought another business in Florida and she had to go.  I was like, ‘oh my God I have to learn!’”

“What I can tell you?  I can’t believe I was just the person who helped her at her house and now I own her business.  Once a year she still calls me.  ‘Elizabet, how’s everything, you doing good?’”

Elizabet says that she tries to be involved with each customer as if she is planning her own party.  “In that way I think they are going to be happy and they are going to come back.  I try to keep all of my customers.  It was a very hard time when I started, but now I can tell you thank God, everything is ok.”  Her mother and her sister help her in the store.  She says that being able to work with them and the face-to-face interaction with her customers are what she enjoys most about running the store.  When her own two children have parties, she even invites a few of her customers along to join in.

If she doesn’t have an item a customer needs she does her best to find it.  “If I don’t understand exactly what they want, I just say ‘can you explain again?’  And I’ll do it.  Of course!”

La Bomboniera Marylu

Next door to La Bomboniera is Astoria Music (interview with George Phillips here), and two doors up is Astoria Billiards (interview with Carlos Sanclementi here).



Sid – Emergency Medical Technician with NYC Fire Department

An NYC Fire Department van parked outside Mount Sinai on 30th Ave

Sid is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with the New York City Fire Department.   He covers “pretty much anywhere on the West end of Queens.”  I spoke with him on a bitterly cold Sunday morning while his ambulance was parked outside Mount Sinai Hospital on 30th Ave.

Sid says that the work involves “anything from picking up drunks on the street, to cardiac arrests and severe trauma jobs.”  He enjoys helping people through his work – to the extent that as well as working the shifts of his job (each eight or sixteen hours), he also volunteers as an EMT around Suffolk County in Long Island, where he lives. 

But EMTs often don’t get the credit for their work, he says.  “With most of the stuff that we do here in NYC, we pretty much have the Fire Department in front of us.  The Fire Department get the credit and we don’t.  Pretty much we take care of the patients, they take care of the fire.  So whoever they bring to us, we take care of them.  Half-dead, we bring them back alive.  We bring them back here [to the hospital], and that’s the end of it.

“Sometimes, especially when there are family members around, about half of them they come to you and do say thank you, others they just don’t really care.”

Sid says that the sytems are different in Long Island and New York City.  “In Long Island we do everything at once.  We do fire, rescue, and ambulance first aid at the same time.  Here it’s separate.  Fire is fire, EMS [Emergency Medical Services] is EMS.   I think it works a lot better when everything is together.”  One reason he has continued volunteering in Long Island, which he has done for a long time, is because of the excitement of doing a bit of everything.

Training for being an EMT includes first aid, basic life support, and CPR.  Sid says that in New York the training is about three months and in Long Island it is six.  In the future, he hopes to go on to be a paramedic, and beyond that, a physician’s assistant or a nurse.

Of Astoria, Sid says, “the neighborhood around here is pretty good, depending on which way you look at it.  There’s a lot of diversity around here.  On one side you have Brazilians, on this side Italians, again on the other side you have Middle Easterners, and then back here there are people from Greece.”

Sid was born in Colombia and came to the US when he was young – he has been here for 27 years now.  “I’ve been back to Colombia seven or eight times,” he says.  “It’s a little expensive to go down there!   And other than some family and some of my elementary school friends I don’t know anybody there now, so it’s a little different.”

Sid says the Colombian community in Astoria is much smaller than in Jackson Heights, where many of the Colombians in NYC live.  Now, he says, many are moving out to Long Island.


Jeanne Marie Boes – Singer and songwriter

Jeanne Marie Boes

Jeanne Marie Boes, now 23, was born and brought up in Astoria.  She used to live on Newton Avenue and for the past 11 or 12 years has lived on 30th Avenue.  There was a Casio keyboard lying around at home when she was a child.  She liked playing about on it, and hasn’t looked back since then.

“I’ve always leaned towards music, she says.   She went to Astoria’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. “It was a wonderful atmosphere there.  Lots of music, drama and art.  I would go back if I could.  Just to make it easy again.  Getting out of the real life, you know!  If I could do it over I would,” she says.

Real life for her now is working as hard as she can on her music.  She’s a singer, songwriter and musician.   “Really what I’m aiming for is making people smile.  For them to walk away happy with what they heard.  Which is ironic perhaps – a lot of my music is blues.”

Blues and jazz are her main genres but in some recent songs like “If It’s Goodbye” she has moved more into pop.  Her inspiration is other musicians, especially those she heard while she was growing up, like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Ella FitzGerald – also the Beatles and Billy Joel.

Two words she would use to describe Astoria are “emerging” and “inspiring”.  “There are all these new businesses and restaurants.  30th Ave, Broadway, and Steinway, it seems like they are really booming.  Astoria is just gorgeous.”  She plans on staying.  Until, that is, “I move to my dream loft in the village.”

Along 30th Ave, Jeanne has played in The Quays and Shillelagh Tavern.  And she plays throughout the city.  While Queens music venues are on the increase, she says that Manhattan is still where most of the opportunities are.  “It’s more competitive.  But also there is a lot going for you and you have a lot of chances.”

Last year Jeanne was a finalist for Queens in the “Battle of the Boroughs” music contest.  She performed  “A Seasoned Heart” in WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space (known as the Greene Space).  She was excited to be playing right next to WNYC radio, home to one of her favorite stations WQXR.

Earlier this year she brought out her latest album, an EP called “Promising Girl.”  Now, she’s performing her songs wherever she can.  And she is carrying on with what she enjoys most about being a musician: “Coming up with a good tune.  Creating the music.”

Jeanne Marie Boes’ website


George Phillips – Astoria Music

George Phillips of Astoria Music, with a bouzouki

George Phillips worked as a NASA engineer for eight years, before a change of direction in 1982 when he took over Astoria Music at 35-19 30th Avenue.  The music store has been there since 1922.  George says that it is Astoria’s third oldest business, after Ronzoni  pasta company on Northern Boulevard (though that is no longer there) and the Steinway Piano factory (which is).

Astoria Music sells the whole range of instruments, does repairs, and also runs a music school.  In its early days, it was also a “straight to vinyl” recording studio.  Its website lists well-known musicians who have either recorded or bought merchandise there.

One of Astoria Music’s specialties is hand-made bouzoukis from Greece.  “I average anywhere between six to seven bouzoukis a month,” George says.   “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.”

Bouzoukis are in the same family as the guitar, but tuned one step lower than a guitar so that their open strings are D-A-F-C.  As well as running the store, George, who is Greek American, plays the bouzouki professionally – he has done so for around 45 years.   “We do corporate events, shows, festivals, weddings…traditional Greek music and also top 40 American oldies, stuff like that.”

George says that the neighborhood has changed little over the years, other than the arrival of more restaurants and some changes in the stores.  “The houses are the same.  The character is the same because of the European influence around here.    There are still a lot of Greeks.  Italians, Yugoslavians, people like that, they have kept their homes here.  That’s what keeps the neighborhood halfway decent.  People clean their front yards, they care about their homes.  They’re homeowners.”

George laments the fact that the number of live music venues is on the decline.  He says it may be less pronounced in Astoria and other parts of New York than elsewhere in the US, but all the same they are “slowly, slowly fading out.”  In his view, it is because “a lot of the music written today is un-reproducible.  There’s just a lot of junk out there.  Bands don’t play that kind of music…it’s the DJ playing it.

“Even as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, in one year you would have 200 songs, brand new songs that were written by different artists.  Out of those 200 songs, about 180 of them are still being played today as standard.   Beautiful songs.  Some Sinatra songs, Billy Joel songs, or Beatles tunes from back in the ‘60s.  Still being played.  Today, you would also have 200 new songs that are out right now.   They’re considered a big hit.  But you will never hear that song again in six months.  They are dead.”

Despite changes to the music scene, Astoria Music will likely be a feature of 30th Ave many years from now.  A wide range of musicians in the neighborhood frequent it.  And George Phillips is committed.  “I love what I do.  Music in any form, music only makes life better.”


Michael Pagano – Page Real Estate

Michael Pagano of 30th Ave's Page Real Estate

Page Real Estate has been on 30th Avenue since 1961.  It’s now at 35-20 and used to be just a couple of blocks down the road.

Anthony Louis Pagano founded the business, then handed it to his son, Anthony J Pagano, who sadly passed away last month.  I spoke with Anthony J’s son, Michael, who has been working in the business for 25 years.  His brother and sister also work there; as the company’s website says, it’s the longest-running family operated real estate business in Astoria.  Michael says that both his grandfather and father instilled in him “a solid work ethic, strong family values, and honesty in dealing with the public.”

“You meet cross sections of all humanity,” says Michael, on what he enjoys about his work.  “And you help people find new homes, make new beginnings.”  As for the challenges, Michael says there are plenty.  One in Astoria is finding enough pet-friendly homes for dog owners.

Page Real Estate mainly deals with pre-war rent-stabilized apartment buildings.  On house prices generally in Astoria, Michael says that despite the economic downtown they have remained steady.  “That’s due to a steady demand, nearby jobs, the locality, and also now the nightlife.”

The nightlife wasn’t always a feature.  Michael says that 25 years ago “everything closed at six or seven at night.  There would be just a few places open between the subway station to Steinway – like a fruit store, and one or two coffee places.”  Of course that’s no longer the case, with restaurants and cafes on every block.  “It’s brought a nice group of young professionals.”

He adds that the neighborhood is relatively inexpensive, safe, and close to everything.  “It’s the greatest secret in New York City.”