Frank DePaola was born in Calabria, Italy and moved to the US when he was eight years old. His family first lived in Long Island before coming to Astoria. Thirty three years ago he opened Sorriso Salumeria, an Italian delicatessen at 44-16 30th Ave. “Sorriso” means smile in Italian.
“We specialize in hard-to-get items,” Frank says. “Cheese, fresh-baked breads, sausages, meats, whatever you need.” His favorite product from the store is their mozzarella, which they make fresh every hour. The store also sells pasta and pasta sauces, prepared foods like lasagna and meatballs, and it does catering for parties. At the moment with Christmas approaching the ceiling is laden with hanging Panettone cakes.
“I give a lot to the store,” says Frank. “One hundred and ninety percent.” Sorriso’s is open seven days a week. Frank takes Wednesdays off and the fact that his son, who recently finished college, now works with him means he can “relax a bit.” But he adds: “When I’m off, I’m out getting stuff, or I’m going to the bank. You know, it’s always something.”
Frank has not returned to Italy since moving to the US in 1966. “I could leave for seven to ten days but I’m so attached I can’t! My wife says I’m crazy, but it’s my passion, I love it. This has been my dream. I love this business so I don’t consider it coming to work every day.”
Frank jokes that the stretch of 30th Ave from Steinway to 57th Street “used to be quiet until I got here! We support each other. There’s the bakery (Gianpiero), the liquor store. We all support each other.”
Frank says Astoria’s Italian community is smaller than it used to be. Some have “gotten older, they’ve moved away, some went back to Italy, they left us…” But at the same time, some of the original generation’s children and even grandchildren are still in the neighborhood, and still frequent Sorriso’s.
“We also have an influx of younger people moving into the neighborhood – 25-35 years old, young professionals. They know good food, they love good food, and they know what to expect when they come in to buy something.” They also use the internet to track down what they want, Frank adds.
Technology also means that the hard-to-get products that Sorriso’s specializes in are now less hard-to-get. “It’s easier to get stuff from Europe than it was 10 years ago. Everything is computerized…it doesn’t take as long to approve labels and everything.
“Sometimes people want a special item. I ask the importers to bring it in for me and they do. As my son says, ‘Dad, it’s the computer age’. I mean I’m not a computer guy. But absolutely it helps the business. Everything’s twice as fast.”
On Friday evenings a group of young people meets at the East River Development Alliance (ERDA) center in Astoria Houses, a housing development at the far Western end of 30th Ave that is home to just over 3000 residents. They meet to work on their project “REELization Films.” They make short films inspired by elements of their lives and issues close to home: one of their recent films was about teacher layoffs.
I interviewed a group of REELization participants. I spoke with Artie Sanchez who lives in Astoria Houses, his cousin John Acevedo who lives in Brooklyn, Dashawn Wilson who now lives in Ravenswood and previously lived in Astoria, Dashawn Johnson of Astoria Houses, Mathew Lisbon and Duvall Ledbetter. Also participating were Efia Lewis, a student at Queens College who works as an intern with ERDA, and Sarah Montgomery, ERDA College Access Coordinator.
Artie is currently in his second year at La Guardia Community College. He is studying human services and mental health and plans to go into psychology. “Ever since I was young I’ve liked the way people behave,” he says. “I was always observant. It interests me to see the way that people form the way that they do.”
He says that when he moved to Astoria Houses from Brooklyn at around the age of six, within a year he had a big network of friends. “Everyone gets to know each other,” he says. But he adds: “the bad thing about the neighborhood is that there are always problems here or there.” Towards the end of October, shootings at Astoria House escalated; in some incidents property was damaged and in two, people were hit by the bullets.
“There were shootings from Friday all the way to the next week,” says Artie. “Everyone here was walking around like it was normal. But anyone who wasn’t from here was like, you know, a little jittery. The whole thing was two groups of people who all grew up with each other, who all know each other, who are friends. But they just split up into two groups.”
He describes how the police appeared only after the second or third day. He says it felt a little safer with them there “because they were everywhere,” but that they had waited too long to appear. The police presence is minimal again now, with a van stationed outside the entrance to Astoria Houses.
Efia, who is studying urban studies and biology with a business minor at Queens College, now lives in Long Island. That makes her see the recent incidents at Astoria Houses through a new lens. “Since I live in Long Island, I’m in an area that’s completely quiet. I grew up in Brooklyn, so it [violence] wasn’t that much a surprise to me, but living in Long Island changed my perspective. I can see it’s possible not to live in an environment where you see it as the norm.”
Not that moving to Long Island was without its challenges. “There are a lot of very stereotypical points when it comes to ethnicity. When we first got to Long Island we were the first African American family on my block. Once they saw that more African Americans were coming into the environment, it was like the whole perspective on the neighborhood changed. From ‘this is a great town in Long Island’ to ‘oh, the schools are getting bad’…It’s like the racial point of view changes the whole perspective on a town or an area that you live in. I always opposed that. I knew exactly why they were saying it was getting worse than before. It’s how society works.”
Artie’s cousin John is currently in school, working for a qualification in computers and computer repair. He says that despite the recent shootings at Astoria Houses the community is quieter than where he lives in Brooklyn. “I don’t see a lot of violence here. Where I live, I wouldn’t expect it so much but I see it everyday. I don’t know why. I guess people just don’t have self control. There’s people just hanging around outside, trying to start a fight. You don’t see that here. Everybody’s cool with each other, everybody knows each other, and that’s it.”
Dashawn Wilson, who is currently finishing up high school and plans to study film in college, says that he has seen good changes in the neighborhood. “When I was living here there wasn’t any garden” [Two Coves Community Garden is just outside Astoria Houses]. “There weren’t the murals” [the Welling Court Mural Project]. “From when I was living here to when I came back to start this program I’ve seen how everything has changed, the stores, everything.”
On whether they want to stay in New York City in the future, the members of the group all have different feelings.
“I wouldn’t like to stay in New York because I’ve lived here for so long,” says John. “The city’s always alive. But sometimes when I’m in the center of Manhattan I go crazy. You don’t know what to expect. It’s like everybody’s in a rush, everybody’s doing so many different things, you see so many lights, it’s like, ‘do I want to do this?’/ ‘do I want to do that?’, you see something happening over there, you pay attention then something’s happening over here…you get confused sometimes.
“I would like to see how it feels to be in a different neighborhood. A different state. When people own a house and all they see is open space and roads, they would like to see the city. I would like to switch it up. Go out of state, see all the open road and land and stuff like that.”
Dashawn Wilson feels differently. His grandparents live in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I visit them often. And it’s so boring out there! It’s very quiet, and there are no street lights, and when you’re driving at night you can’t see anything. There’s nothing to do. I ask my grandfather, ‘what can you do here?’ And he just says, ‘watch the grass grow!’ In the future I would like to live in Manhattan…probably in a penthouse.”
Efia says: “I love New York. It’s so diversified. I don’t think any other state can top this. In the city there’s always something happening, the subway…”
Dashawn picks up her thread, “What I love is when you’re in the subway, and everything is kind of dirty and broke down, but as soon as you walk upstairs and see the city, especially at night, you see all the lights and everything, it’s like a big change. It opens up your eyes.”
Just down from where I live on 30th Drive (a couple of blocks South of 30th Ave) is the mosque Masjid Al Ikhlas. At intervals throughout the day there is a greater flow of people down the street as people walk to, and then back from, their prayers. I spoke with Rahim and Akim, both from Algeria, outside the mosque just after prayers in the middle of the day.
Rahim has lived in Astoria for ten years. He works as a network engineer. “I have also lived a little bit in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Manhattan, you know, all over,” he says. “A bit in England – I learned to speak some ‘cockney!’ – a bit in Africa. I’ve been in different areas. It’s all the same mother earth you know. Wherever you are going there are the same people and same way or life. You go to work, you have your family, basic things like that. It’s how people behave in an area that makes it good.”
Akim has lived in Astoria for 22 years. He drives a yellow cab, which he says he does not enjoy but “it’s a living you know”. The two are friends, but had seen each other at the mosque that day for the first time in a while.
“For me the mosque is both things,” says Rahim. “You do your prayer, and you get to meet your friends, people who you don’t see otherwise during the day.”
They both go to whichever mosque is closest at hand for prayers. “A mosque is a mosque, it’s a house of God,” says Akim. “It doesn’t have to be this particular mosque. We have five or six of them around here. If you get stuck on Steinway Street for example, we pray there, we wouldn’t come here.”
And when they are not close to a mosque, “you can pray anywhere, in a park, a house, a restaurant, wherever you are,” says Rahim.
Akim adds: “The group prayer is important though. Praying in a group at a mosque, the rewards are bigger than doing it by yourself.” He describes it as collecting more points, which will serve you well at the end of your life.
People praying at Masjid Al Ikhlas come from all over. “From all the continents,” says Akim. “And different cultures. You come, you do what you do, and that’s it. Sometimes they offer food here, some exotic food, and you go for it, otherwise you leave.”
On ways the neighborhood has changed since they have been living in Astoria, Rahim refers to police statistics that say that burglary and other crimes are down. “It’s become safer.” Akim, who has lived in four different apartments since he has been here, mentions rents going up. “Since the crisis, people can’t afford the rent in Manhattan, so they move over here. And by moving over here, the rent here also gets higher.”
Both of them were here when the 9/11 attacks happened, and also saw the way in which the Muslim community was targeted during the period afterwards. “There’s bad and good all over,” says Rahim. “If you take the case of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma, he was not a Muslim. Sometimes what you notice is if something is caused by a Muslim they go after everyone, put more pressure. But if it’s someone from another religion, they say ok, that particular guy did it – they don’t say Christians did it, they say Timothy McVeigh did it. But if a Muslim did it they say Muslims did it. So they were generalizing, taking advantage of it. That’s what we feel.
“It happened so it happened, it’s not in your control. The people doing these things don’t ask you beforehand, ‘we’re going to do this or do that’. You cannot say everybody’s good, everybody’s bad, there are bad and good everywhere. You cannot generalize.”
The stretch of 30th Ave between 28th and Crescent Streets is dominated by Mount Sinai Queens hospital. Throughout the day there are uniformed doctors and nurses crossing the Avenue to get coffee and sandwiches at Father & Son’s Delhi, ambulances and stretchers coming and going, relatives arriving to visit family members. On a Sunday morning I spoke with Isabel Jennings before her shift began. She is a registered nurse who works in the hospital’s emergency department.
Isabel was born in Puerto Rico and brought up in Astoria. This Summer, after a twenty year absence from the neighborhood, she returned from Atlanta, Georgia, to work here. Her daughter (who studies at Columbia) and son-in-law were expecting their first child – Isabel’s first grandchild. Isabel moved back to New York City to help them. She lives in Upper Manhattan and commutes three times a week to Mount Sinai for her 11am to 11.30pm shift.
“I have mixed feelings about coming back,” she says. “Even though I grew up here, went to school here, it’s still been a big adjustment.” Another adjustment has been her shift hours. “I’m used to working seven in the morning until seven in the evening. This is a rough shift.”
In the emergency department, Isabel treats “anything from keeping someone alive to assuring someone that their cough will go away if they follow the doctor’s instructions. It’s quite intense. It’s extremely busy in the emergency department. I was not prepared for the immensity of it. The hospital is very small, and it is the only hospital here for a good distance around.”
Isabel uses the commute at the end of her day to distance herself from the life-and-death situations she has dealt with at work. “I try to defuse all the emotions by the time I get home.”
Mount Sinai was founded in 1910 as “Daly’s Astoria Sanatorium.” It then became “Astoria General Hospital”. In 1999, faced with financial difficulties and struggling to survive as a stand-alone hospital, it was sold to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai. As its website states, “it is the only community hospital to bear the Mount Sinai name.”
Isabel enjoys helping other people through her work. But she adds: “I do not enjoy the health care system in this country. It just presents problems, so you can’t really help everyone. I think we need an effective national healthcare program. And around here, we need a few more hospitals.”
Peter Loupakis works at Loupakis Karate Acrobatics school on 31st Street just North of the 30th Ave subway station. I spoke with him between two classes. The first was with a group of young kids. When I arrived they were learning to walk up a steeply slanting beam. “Let’s learn to climb the Matterhorn!” Peter called to them as they cautiously stepped up towards the highest end then jumped off with the help of guiding adult hands. Then as we finished speaking, the next class, a group of teenagers, was warming up in leaps and bounds around the room.
Peter was born in Greece. His father, Tony Loupakis, is a champion wrestler-turned acrobat, who began teaching Peter and his older brother Harry when they were one-and-a-half and three years old respectively. “We continued ever since. We moved here to the US when I was five. By then we had already started tours as a group,” says Peter. “We were called the Trio Loupakis.”
The trio was successful. The outside and inside walls of their gym, which they set up in 1973 in a former dance studio, are covered in a collage of newspaper clips and photos from their winning competitions. There are headlines like, “Man who rolls around on broken glass,” accompanied by a photo of Tony lying on glass shards with a weight on top of him.
Tony is now 77 but is still involved. “He’s inside the gym every day. He’s teaching classes. He’s not just the one in the office signing people up. He’s active and in there,” Peter says.
Tragically, Harry died in an accident in Greece in 2009. “He will always be a part of us,” says Peter. Tony and Peter have continued to perform. It seems that it is so integral to their lives it would be impossible to imagine them doing anything else. When I asked Peter at one point if he had a preference for teaching or performing he said, “it’s not really a question of preference any more. It’s what I do. I perform, I compete, I teach. This is it.”
In July, Tony and Peter won two first places at a competition in Las Vegas, one for a karate-based routine and one for acrobatic gymnastics. They are taking part in a regional competition in November. And they often take part in shows at weekends. Peter’s daughters, now 15 and 17, sometimes join in those too.
Peter says that it is unusual to provide martial arts and acrobatic gymnastics in one space, as they do at their gym. “Normally those don’t go together. But I think they should. They complement each other. You need similar skills. I like to say we take the best of different kinds of martial arts and acrobatics. Over the course of the years, teachers come to our gym: teachers of Kung Fu, Shotokan, Goju, different styles of martial arts. We’ve gleaned a little bit of the pie from everyone.”
The school is only open after school hours. “That’s one of the beauties of the job – I’m not here all day,” says Peter. Not that he is relaxing when he’s not at the gym: during the daytime he works as a physical education teacher in a school.
“Teaching is hard,” he says, “especially teaching children…it can be a little bit…taxing is the word! But it’s fun. And it’s never the same day at the office, ever. That keeps it exciting.”
When the school first started, around 80% of the students were Greek. Now it’s more like 10% or fewer Greek students, with the others reflecting Astoria’s diversity – sometimes with an upswing in one group or another. “For example, a Polish couple came in and brought their child. They go to a Polish school in the area so they tell all their friends and suddenly we have an influx of Polish people because of that.”
Peter now has eight or nine what he calls “grandkids” at the gym: kids whose parents he had taught when they were children. The gym takes students of all ages. “I’d like to say it’s fun for anyone. Anyone can learn. The ability is there. It’s a question of taking the time to learn to do it. Some people learn fast and you know they are naturals, but some people take longer. As long as you keep trying, you will get it.”
Josh Ellis and Elanna White were thirteen when they started making music together. Now both nineteen, they have formed the band Donner Social. Talking with them it is clear that they know each other well. Often they finish each other’s sentences. Or one picks up what the other has just said, by repeating a phrase then taking it forwards.
Both were brought up in Astoria. Josh came here with his parents when he was six from New Mexico. He lives on Welling Court, at the far Western end of 30th Ave. “When I first moved to that block it was just craziness. I was a little kid and there were other little kids everywhere. Mostly from immigrant families. It was tons of fun,” he says. Then there was a period when families that he knew had moved out, others came in and people on the block didn’t know one-another. Welling Court’s annual block parties and mural-painting have changed that. “Now I know all my neighbors. It brings us together in a pretty interesting way that I’ve never experienced anywhere else,” he says.
Elanna was born in Astoria. She lives above Broadway Silk Store, which has been in her family for ninety years and is now run by her mother. Her great grandparents established the store when they came to New York from Austria. “That means I have this really rich sense of history in Astoria,” she says. “We have a basement area – like a lot of the buildings here – where there are old pictures of how Astoria used to be, with the trolley cars and things like that.”
For the final three years of high school, both Elanna and Josh were at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. After a band that they belonged to split up, Josh began experimenting with digital music-making programs. He realized that he didn’t need all the musicians for a band – he could ‘be’ all the musicians himself. “But after I’d written the songs there was a missing component. Honestly that was Elanna,” he says.
Elanna says: “He called me and said I don’t want to hear my voice on my songs any more, will you sing them all for me? I said, ok…but I’m going to write with you and I’m going to tell you what sounds good and sounds bad, in exchange for my soul!”
“I really do trust her when it comes to the sound,” says Josh. “When I’m writing music, I can lose the sense of what the music is meant to be. She just has that in her head at all times, I really trust her in that.”
They write their music whenever each of them has time. For Josh, that’s between managing a record label and a recording studio from his home and working a day job to fund his music. For Elanna, it’s between studying drama at NYU and working as an actress (she specializes in musical theater, and has been performing in Manhattan since she was a child).
“If I write something I send it to him, if he writes something he sends it to me and then we sew together the pieces,” says Elanna. “It is really like patchwork. But it works.” They both thrive off the adrenalin of having lots of creative projects on the go.
Josh adds: “When you just have a minute to record and have no other time to do it, the way that you are feeling at that moment and the things that are going on around you, you can feel all of that in the vocals.”
The importance of the vocals is what Donner Social say differentiates their music from a lot of other electronic music. “In other electronic music when you hear the vocals it’s like they are sampled in,” says Josh.
“Given my musical theater background,” adds Elanna, “everything that I write vocal-wise is very melodic. And the way that I write word-wise always tells a story. I firmly believe in art that tells stories.” Even their purely instrumental pieces aim to strike a sense of story. “A song has to bring me to a certain place that I really feel.”
That “certain place” has a lot to do with their experience roaming Astoria’s streets as teenagers. They don’t have romantic ideas of the big city, having grown up in it. “Being born and raised in New York, you kind of forget where you’re living,” Elanna says. “You have to remind yourself wow this is New York City, people dream of coming here. We spent our late childhood and entire adolescence wandering around these streets.”
“Getting lost on purpose,” says Josh.
“Getting lost on purpose, wandering around these streets, walking down the same street every day because we had nothing else to do, you know,” continues Elanna. “These endless summers and sleepless nights of just being here. And almost stagnantly. Because when you’re a teenager you can’t do all the things that we can do now. There was one summer where we literally went to the Museum of Moving Image at least three times a week. And MOMA all of the days when we weren’t at Museum of the Moving Image because we had just enough money for two subway fares and maybe a slice of pizza.”
“That’s really reflected in the music,” Josh says. “Because that kind of almost nostalgic, I’m not even sure what to call it, this feeling of having a towering city around you but almost feeling trapped in it.”
“ Exactly. That’s what I meant by stagnant.”
They know Astoria inside out but neither of them has any intention of leaving. “Ok, I would go and visit Paris for few months or something, or Tuscany, places like that,” says Josh. “And I go to Tucson in Arizona a bit because my grandparents live out there. But I don’t think I could ever really live anywhere else.”
That’s despite declaring that the “music scene is dead” in New York compared to what’s going on in places like Portland and Seattle, and compared to earlier years in New York when there were strong scenes like the punk scene. “Now those scenes have really been muddied by the random post-hardcore bands that are coming through,” Josh says.
Even so, they feel they have an advantage having grown up here. “People come here and have all these dreams they don’t even know where to start. Even if they have a connection here they don’t have that sense that New Yorkers have. We know where to go, we know the places we want to market to even, we know the scene. We’re not really competing with the other people who come here, we’re competing with other New Yorkers.”
“And you grow up a lot faster in New York,” says Elanna. “I mean I’m 19 years old but sometimes I feel so old!”
Growing up in a big city that feels small provided much of the inspiration for their first album, which is due out in the New Year. It’s called “In Suspended Animation.”
“That almost-trapped feeling is what the whole album is really about…” says Josh.
“Trying to find imagination in something that you know so well.”
“ Trying to find adventure. Trying to go down a path that you’ve gone down a trillion times and trying to find some sort of adventure in it. But there is none …”
“Unless you have the right companion,” says Elanna.
Brothers Ralph and Yury Almaz opened their jewelers store at 35-13 30th Ave 26 years ago. It is aptly named Almaz Brothers. They had come to New York a few years previously from Uzbekistan. There were jewelers in their family going back generations and their grandfather was one; they decided to continue the tradition.
The brothers chose Astoria to live because it was livelier than parts of Brooklyn that they had seen, and for the European feeling on its streets. “It was always a dynamic neighborhood, very colorful and multi-ethnic,” says Ralph. “It has kept the same way all these years, though now we see a lot more young professionals moving in too.”
When the brothers came to New York during the cold war, communication with relatives and friends back in Uzbekistan was extremely difficult. Ralph says that now communication is open. “People can come here, we talk on email, Skype and so on,” he says, although they do not return often because most of their close family have left.
Almaz Brothers specializes in engagement rings and bridal jewellery like wedding bands. They also sell other jewelry items and watches. Twice a year, Ralph and Yury attend an international jewelery show at Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, where jewelers from all over the world are represented: from Italy, Hong Kong, Israel, Turkey, Brazil…They buy most of their jewelry there and then tailor it for their customers in their store. Yury adds that they also import diamonds from Israel, where his son is in the diamond-cutting business.
In the business of selling engagement rings, of course sometimes the proposal is rejected or the engagement breaks off. “In that case, we offer to restyle the ring so that it does not look like an engagement ring,” says Ralph. “Or if not, we offer to buy it back, though the customer takes a loss of course.”
Their business changes with the economy. “Right now there’s a new trend of people bringing back a lot of their gold,” Ralph says. “They want to take advantage of high gold prices and now everyone wants to sell their old jewelry, coins, and diamonds. If it’s an interesting item we try to sell it. But in most cases we melt down everything and then sell it to refiners.”
The brothers have clear-cut roles. Ralph works on the shop floor where he deals with the customers and Yury focuses on customizing the jewelry in the back of the shop – when I took the photo for this interview he made sure that he had the small magnifying glass that he uses in his work around his neck so it would feature in the picture. The most satisfying aspect of his work, he says, is creating something special.
Abdul Said has lived in Astoria for almost 15 years, and in his current place on 23rd Street, just off 30th Avenue, for four and half years. I met him on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on his doorstep, drinking a coffee bought from the Dunkin’ Donuts by the 30th Ave subway station.
He lives in one of the neighborhood’s old detached houses. But like many of the older homes it is scheduled to be knocked down and turned into a bigger apartment building. He’ll be moving, when a friend joins him from Boston, into one of the new buildings round the corner on 21st Street.
“Everywhere there are houses going down and new buildings going up,” he says. “I don’t mind. It’s good business for the owners. They see people moving into the area and smell the money. When I first moved here from Brooklyn everything said ‘for rent’, ‘for rent’. Now it’s hard to find a place.” The new buildings, he adds, can have 14-16 apartments. The old houses on the same site housed just two or three families.
Abdul is originally from Morocco and came to the US 26 years ago. “I’m from a small town in East Morocco, a very French part of the country. The North is much more Spanish.” He returns to Morocco to see family and friends. “I like to travel once a year. I just came back recently from a trip, I was away about six weeks – four weeks in Morocco and two weeks in Spain.”
Recently there was a news story about a New York Police Department surveillance program focused on Moroccans – not because of any specific allegations against individuals but in order to build up a detailed picture of the city’s Moroccan community, in support of the government’s anti-terrorism efforts. “I read about the police stuff, yes,” says Abdul. “It’s part of what’s going on in the world, the past decade. A lot of people are getting confused. It’s part of what’s going on.”
On the current democracy movements underway in the Middle East, Abdul is optimistic. “It’s like the sky, one minute it’s all cloudy and the next minute it’s clear. They needed to get rid of those guys who had been in power for thirty, forty years. That makes no sense. You need a system like here. Every four years if you don’t like who’s in charge you vote him out. These people were there for a lifetime. Now there’s a new generation who don’t buy those things. They want change.”
Before coming to New York, Abdul lived in Florida for ten years where he worked in real estate. His two children are still there, with their mother who is originally from Brooklyn (she and Abdul are divorced). Since moving to New York Abdul has worked in the restaurant industry: currently he is a bar tender in the Marriott hotel near La Guardia airport.
When Abdul first came to New York he lived in Brooklyn. He was working in an Irish restaurant in Manhattan and the commute took a long time. Then he came to visit a friend in Astoria, saw Manhattan just across the river and learned that it only takes 20 minutes to travel between the two.
He also likes Astoria for the fact it is quiet. “Though it’s got a lot less quiet now, especially with lots of people moving here from Manhattan,” he says. “The area up near Steinway has changed a lot.” Abdul still finds quiet in Astoria Park. Often he takes car there to have breakfast overlooking the river. “Oh man, I love that place!”
On 31st Street just South of the 30th Ave subway stop and opposite EuroMarket is the Taiwan Union Christian Church. I spoke with one of the church’s elders, Ching-Tse Lee: it happened to be on Sunday September 11th. A service had recently ended and the church basement was bustling with activity, as members of the congregation mingled with each other and sought advice from the pastor.
Ching-Tse came to the USA from Taiwan in 1964. He studied in Ohio before coming to live in New York. He worked as a psychology professor at Brooklyn College and retired three years ago, which has enabled him to become more active in the church as an elder.
The church originated in 1968 when a group of Taiwanese students in New York formed a bible study group. They then established a church which met at a Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. In 1982 they moved the church to the Astoria location, which was formerly the Second Reformed Church in Astoria. Two years later they joined the Reformed Church of America.
Ching-Tse says that the congregation today includes Taiwanese students who are in the US to study for their MD, PhD, or other forms of higher education; some of them stay in dormitories in the modern building next to the church. Others are Taiwanese immigrants to the US like himself. They come to the church in Astoria from all over the Tri-State area: some from Staten Island, Westchester, Long Island and elsewhere.
“We come here to worship and also we try to provide a home for our children,” he says. “Once they are in their individual community they don’t really have the kind of Taiwanese home base to grow up with. Many of them have adapted to the local environment. For some of them, the local environment may not be very suitable for them as Taiwanese.”
The church conducts services in Taiwanese, and in Mandarin for local Chinese residents. They have an English mission, also in the modern building next to the old church, for Taiwanese-Americans born or raised in the US.
Beyond services and bible study the church is active in many ways. The week after I was there they were holding a photography exhibition. “It’s very special,” says Ching-Tse, “because all the photographers are women. We thought that a female has her viewpoint of the world…they are much more sensitive about their environment. So we encourage them to put up shows. This time in the exhibition there will be images of flowers, scenery, and different places, like Disney World.”
The church members are also engaged in issues around Taiwan’s future and its efforts to maintain autonomy from China. They were preparing for a forthcoming “Keep Taiwan Free” rally, calling for the UN to accept Taiwan as a member.
Outside the church, I met Mario Yang and his girlfriend Christina Chang who had attended the service. Mario is a financial analyst at American Express, and lives in Manhattan. His parents brought him to the US from Taiwan when he was eight years old: they lived in North Carolina and then Mario came to New York for college.
“My parents are firm believers in public education, but didn’t feel like the system in Taiwan was good at the time. It’s fantastic now, but back when I was younger they felt it was a better choice to be in the States. I think I got a great public education here! I would hope I did.”
Christina is currently a Masters student at Columbia University. She is a flutist and often plays at the church services.
The couple comes to the church in Astoria as often as they can. “We have tons of friends who come here, it’s a community,” says Mario. “There’s a wide variety of people at the church. There are people in arts, people in finance, people in all sorts of careers. They’re really supportive regardless of what you do.”
As the 30th Ave labor day street fair was winding down I met Philip Sparta and his best friend Wallace de Olivera on their way to meet some friends at the Athens Square basketball courts.
They are both skateboarders. Serious skateboarders. They skateboard for between four and six hours every day. They used to skateboard in Athens Square itself but only do that rarely now. Philip explains why:
“People thought that the skateboarders here were annoying. Once in a while the police would come and kick us out of this park. We didn’t really care, we loved skating so much that we just kept coming back once they’d left. But now since the Skate Park opened up we hardly come here, just once in a while. We have friends who play basketball on the courts here so we come to hang out.”
The Skate Park he is talking about is the one in Astoria Park that opened in 2010, beneath the towering Trioborough Bridge and next to the East River. It’s always whirring with boarders, the sound of their wheels competing with the traffic roar overhead. (Here’s an article about the opening of the park and a You Tube clip of boarders there).
Wallace and Philip met in primary school but now go to different high schools: Wallace is at La Guardia High and Philip at Bryant High, at 31st Ave and 48th Street. “I like it around here in Astoria,” says Philip, who lives near 30th Ave. “I used to live in Flushing. Over here is a lot nicer, it’s really diverse.”
On what they enjoy about skating, Wallace says, “it’s the thrill of actually skating.”
“And it keeps us from doing bad things, you know,” adds Philip. “We don’t do bad things like most of our friends have gotten into. It keeps us fit too, it’s very healthy.” Not that it’s without its risks; both of them have recently recovered from ankle injuries.
Philip, now sixteen, was born in Japan and came to New York with his family when he was six. He has few memories about living in Japan but does remember the move and how weird it felt. He hasn’t been back. “I’m totally Americanized. I’m not really interested in going back. Except to skate there.”