Jonathan Ellis and Georgina Young-Ellis

Jonathan Ellis and Georgina Young-Ellis by M-City's mural on 30th Ave

Just beyond George’s Auto Repair at the far western end of 30th Avenue are some walls covered in graffiti.  But this isn’t usual graffiti tagging.  The walls form the Welling Court Mural Project, and the murals on them were painted by graffiti artists from all around the world.

Welling Court resident Jonathan Ellis came up with the initial idea for the project.  I met with Jonathan and his wife Georgina Young-Ellis to hear about graffiti, the neighborhood, and block parties.

Both Jon and Georgina are originally from Los Angeles, but they met in New Mexico where they lived for a while and had their son.  Georgina had always wanted to move back to New York, where she had studied drama in the 1980s.  Thirteen years ago they did.  They lived for three years on Astoria’s 12th Street, then after many months of house-hunting bought their house on Welling Court.

Welling Court

Welling Court is a small street that loops in a half-moon from 30th Ave to 12th Street, close to East River.

Georgina says,“When we bought the house ten years ago, Welling Court was a bad street.  There were a lot of good people on it, who are still there now.  But there were also crack houses.  One was right next door to us. We just kept being persistent about calling the police when that was going on.”

She says that together with their neighbors they have turned it into a family neighborhood, “without gentrifying, without throwing anyone out.  Except for crack-heads and prostitutes.”  A lot of kids live along the street.  Given that it doesn’t have much traffic they play soccer along it when the weather is warm.

The community at Welling Court is mainly Mexican – the neighborhood is referred to locally as Little Mexico.  “We really value that,” says Georgina.  “Being from the south west and having come here from New Mexico, we felt at home.”

Each December 11th local residents hold a fiesta for the Virgin of Guadalupe.  They build a shrine on the street, bring out piñatas and lots of food, and have music that goes on well into the night.

Jon and Georgina spend a lot of time in the neighborhood: other than Georgina’s teaching of English as a second language, their work, as artists, is based at home.  They are currently working to get their feature-length screenplay produced.  Jon recently published a book on weight control, and Georgina, an e–novel.  Georgina also acts, and Jon designs websites.

The mural project

Jon says: “I’d been seeing gang-tagging getting worse and worse and worse, in the neighborhood and all around it.”

“It was just a graffiti magnet,” Georgina adds. “It was ugly.  And kind of sad.  We never knew when they were doing it.  It would just appear.”

Yet Jon says that he had also “always kind of admired graffiti.  When it was nice!  I saw a piece of programming on CBS Sunday Morning that was about an event in Paris each year, when graffiti artists from all over the world converge and do their works.

So I got it in my head that there was no reason why we couldn’t somehow manage to pull that off on Welling Court.”

He spent two years trying to get people to work with him on the project but found it hard to get them involved.  Then a friend suggested he contact a Brooklyn-based group called Ad Hoc Art.  Ad Hoc invited thirty graffiti artists to come and paint the walls around Welling Court.

“We had to get permission from every business whose walls are used,” says Jon.  “That took a while.  There was a little resistance.  Especially from the school bus company.  They didn’t know what to expect.  And there’s a hierarchy there that was hard to get through.  But once I was able to talk to the main person there, she was interested and said go for it.”

One artist, M-City from Poland, came a few months before the others, in December 2009.  A neighbor had an empty apartment that M-City stayed in for a few days while he worked.  Jon and Georgina were away at the time on vacation.

“When we came back home from vacation it was very late at night,” says Jon.  “We were in a cab.  We drove up along Welling Court and I was so disappointed, thinking, ‘oh it didn’t happen.’  There was nothing on Welling Court.  Then the next morning I walked out and on 30th Ave of course there was this magnificent piece of work.  He’d painted a different wall to the one we were expecting.”

The other artists came from Brazil, Chile, Denmark, and elsewhere – and some were local New York City artists.  They arrived on May 19 and by the end of Saturday 22, eight walls had been covered with murals.

At one point while they were painting some people who worked for the bus company but didn’t know that the artists had permission, tried to intervene.

Jon says, “Apparently people who were in the neighborhood watching the artists literally stepped in and stood up for them, and said this is great, we want it.   To me, this project is all community building.  And as it turns out the bus company are now really forthcoming about allowing us to control the outside of their walls.

“People are coming in from outside the neighborhood to photograph it, to video.  Music videos are being made on the street.  It’s bringing a different sense of what a block is.”

“And that’s without any sort of Williamsburgian gentrification,” says Georgina.  “It’s not like we’re a community of all artists, where everybody’s thinking ‘let’s make this into art mecca.’  This a community of mostly working people, largely immigrants.  They all are just excited that their street is not going to have ugly graffiti but instead will have something pretty interesting, unusual, and eye-catching.”

Many of the artists said that the murals would probably get tagged soon after they were painted.  But almost a year has gone by, and many of them remain un-tagged.

This June the project will happen again.  There’s more wall-space to be covered.  Also many of the artists are going to come back and re-paint over the areas where they have already painted.

The block party

Jon and Georgina had organized a block party – the Welling Court block party – three times before the mural project.  Everyone along the block contributes food: hamburgers, Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian, Greek food.

Then when the artists came in 2010, they combined the painting with the block party.  People from all over New York showed up.  Some, though, came just with their own drink.

“It wasn’t that they were taking things from anybody else,” says Jon.  “But you know, they just brought drink for themselves.  I really would like to instill this year that feeling that we’re a broader community and that we’re all sharing.

“And if they can’t share food or drink, I’d ask that they make some contribution to the artists.  The artists are there doing an incredible thing not just for Welling Court and the blocks around it, but for all of Astoria.  And indirectly for all of New York.”

Development in Astoria

For many years Georgina has belonged to a group called Long Island City Alliance, which brings people together around issues like graffiti and over-development.  She says that the alliance played a big role in helping to get a new down-zoning introduced in Astoria.

The zoning restrictions make it harder to build tall buildings on blocks that are dominated by two-family homes.  They allow larger buildings on streets where some already exist, like 21st Street.

Jon says, “Developers in some areas realized that the down-zoning was going to be inevitable.  Builders came in and tore down some 150-year old homes.   They knew that the community wouldn’t like it so they literally would go in and knock a house down in a day.”

He says that some development is good as long as it’s done right.  Examples of what works, in his view, include the Astor Bake Shop, where we had this conversation, and Vesta restaurant on 30th Ave and 21st Street.

He says of Astor Bake Shop: “It was daring for him [chef-owner George McKirdy] to open this place up.  To have that forward-thinking idea that this could work here, without changing the neighborhood.  And it does work.  It fits into the neighborhood.  People who live here come here and support it and love it.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that.”

Another example Jon gives is the Piano Factory building on Vernon Boulevard by the river.  The inside of the building was gutted and turned into condominiums but the outside was completely maintained.

Georgina agrees that a balance is needed. “The tradition of New York City is development.  You can’t really say no, we are not going to build buildings and develop.  But I’m optimistic because of the progress we’ve already made in really keeping a handle on it.  Keeping it under control, guiding it.  I’m optimistic that this area and other small areas in New York City can grow and develop in a good way.

“And that we can do it without driving people out of their homes and rentals.  That’s a big thing for me.   Jackson Heights is going through something like that.  There are cool local communities, where the more people who want to live here, and the more wonderful  little restaurants get built, the more rents go up and the more that people who were living there a long time get driven out.  Then big box stores come in and suddenly it’s not so desirable any more.  It’s this whole wave of things that happen.

“I feel like right now in Astoria there’s an awareness of that wave, and an awareness of how to try to counteract it.  So far I see it going in the right direction.”

10 min video by Kings of New York: “Welling Court Mural Project” (interviews with some of the artists in May 2010)

Jonathan and Georgina’s blog “Searching for Sincerity” where they rank places on a “sincerity scale.”  Their 10 factors of sincerity include: locally owned (as far as they can tell); not connected to a large corporation; friendly service; value; quality; they love what they’re doing.

Mural by Katie Yamasaki











Bill, Danielle, Denis, Jeanne and Mary at Corner Delights

From right to left: Denis Curtin, Bill Nevins, Danielle Pagliaro, Mary Devitt

Last Tuesday afternoon a group of long-time 30th Avers was gathered in Corner Delights Coffee Shop, on the corner of 30th Ave and 44th Street.   They were:

Denis Curtin: He came to America from Ireland in 1958, and moved to Astoria in 1960.

Mary Devitt: Her parents came from Ireland, and she has lived in Astoria for 44 years.

Jeanne O’Melia: Her mother and father both came from Ireland in the early 1900s, and met in New York (about which, more below).  Jeanne was brought up in Corona, lived in Jackson Heights a while, and came to Astoria in 1978.

Bill Nevins: He was born on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, and moved to Astoria in 1960 with his grandmother.  For the past 31 years he has lived on 30th Ave itself.

Danielle Pagliaro: She was born and brought up near 30th Ave.  Danielle works at Corner Delights.

Below are details from an animated conversation in which one memory triggered another, and another.


Denis:  We meet here every day.  If one of us doesn’t show up, the other one will call to see what they’re doing.

Jeanne: We talk and we eat, we talk and we eat.

Mary: And we tell jokes and we laugh.

Jeanne: Mary tells the greatest jokes.

Denis: You can find us here four, sometimes five hours a day.

Street games

Danielle: When I was a kid here we used to have awesome block parties.  You would come outside in the summer and every block had people on the streets, kids.  Whether you lived on this block or that block, people knew who you were.  If you got seen doing something wrong, you’d be caught by the ear and dragged back to your mother.

Mary:  Each block had its own baseball team and own football team, and they played each other.

At six o’clock you’d hear the mothers calling out the windows, “Johnny, Billy, get up,” telling their kids to come for dinner.

You never had a kid being bored.  People used boxes and old wheels to make go-carts.  And then there was the bottle caps game.  We melted colored crayons into the caps to weigh them down.

Bill: And Johnny Ride the Pony.

Mary: There was a lady on our block called the witch, because she didn’t want kids playing there.  She would throw water out of her window onto them.

Danielle. I think every block had a witch. And a cat lady.

Bill: The schoolyards used to be so much bigger than they are now.  Public School 70 – that had the greatest yard anywhere.


Denis: Astoria has always been good.  When I came in 1960, I was a boy.  I went to high school over in Sunnyside.  It was all working people.  The prices were good.  And it was centrally located.  You were in the city in 10 minutes.

I married, and divorced, and have three boys – now they’re all grown up and married.  My ex-wife lives in the same apartment she was born in, at 30th Ave and 42nd Street.  And her father had moved there when he was 12 years old.

Mary: When we came here in the 1960s, the neighborhood was German.  German, Italian, and Irish, but more German than anything else.

St Joseph’s Church here was founded by the Germans.  Then of course you’ve got Kaufman Studios on 34th Avenue, the Steinway Piano Factory and Steinway Street.

A lot of people have moved out to the suburbs now.  Like the Germans moved out to Middle Village.  The Italians went out to Whitestone.

You get quite a lot of religions here too.  You had quite a lot of Jewish people in Astoria.  There were also Lutheran churches and schools.  And then down towards Ditmars there were mostly Greeks.

Bill: Steinway Street used to be a very expensive street.  People would come from Manhattan to shop there.  And this was like a vacation spot, like being in the country.  There used to be a Woolworths.  That was the best store in Steinway.   It had old wooden creaking floors.  You could get anything in there.  You could buy goldfish.  Anything.

Danielle: I used to go with my grandmother to get yarn, just so I could have the meatloaf and apple pie at the counter.

Mary: There were a lot of ice-cream parlors in Astoria too.  They sold egg creams [a drink made with chocolate syrup, milk and soda water].

Denis: One of the wonderful things was the Triboro Movie Theater.  The one that had the stars in the ceiling.  It was like the universe when you looked up.  It was heart-breaking to see it pulled down.  They knew it was a landmark but they ripped it down, overnight.  Now it’s apartments.

Bill: Along 30th Avenue there were a lot more bars.  From Steinway up to here I can think of seven bars that used to be here. Now they’re gone, and there are more cafés instead.  There used to be German delis too.

Mary: Phil’s Kosher restaurant on Steinway was great.  And the Steinway Bakeshop.  And Schaller and Weber, “All German Meats”.    Oh and the bakery down near the train, Norgards Bakery.

Bill: Mount Sinai Hospital on 30th Ave was Astoria General Hospital before.  Actually, Mr Drago built that. [The father of Rosario Drago, of RP Drago Funeral Homes on 30th Ave].  They’d joke that the father killed them and his son used to bury them.  Rosario Drago has died now, and the funeral home is in different hands.

There was a lot more green space.  I remember a farm just here.  And there was also a farm between 21st and 22nd Streets, and Broadway and 34th Avenue.  There was an English-style castle opposite it, with turrets and everything.  When I did my newspaper round when I was about ten, they gave me that castle to drop the paper off at.  I was afraid of it.  But when we heard that the guy there died, we became braver.  They’ve torn it down now.

I have a barn in the backyard of my house where they used to keep horses.  When I moved in there 31 years ago they still had the four stalls inside the barn.

Denis: Up where La Guardia airport is, that was called North Beach.  I don’t remember it, but the old timers talk about it.  They would go swimming up there.  That was like going to the countryside too.


Bill: 30th Avenue used to be much lower than it is now.   When you walk out the back of my house, you have to go a long way down.  That’s the original level of the street.  They used to have the sewers on that level too – they didn’t dig holes to put the pipes in, they just put them right there.

The houses along the streets off 30th Avenue, they’re Matthews Houses, built by the Matthews family.  They went up around the 1920s, after the elevated trains came.  They’re all made with yellow bricks from Pennsylvania.

You used to have to heat them with coal.  There was the front fireplace and the back fireplace.  You had a space in the basement where you could keep your coal.  My father used to say that if you saw no coal in a space, the people in that apartment were very cold.

Danielle: There were windows between each room for ventilation.

Denis: Down near the river you have all the old mansions.  The mansions from the sailing days.  Some have the captains’ walkways on the top, where the wives would watch their husbands arrive on the sailing ships.


I used to live in Corona, which was a very good place at one time.  I was born there.  I could tell you every store, everything about Corona.  Then I moved to Jackson Heights, and then I came down here.

I moved here because my mother was getting old.  She couldn’t climb the stairs any more.  We had been in a walk-up apartment for 20 years but we couldn’t stay.  My sister was here and she invited us down.  My mother lived to be a hundred.

She came from Ireland, and my father too.

She came in about 1914.  She was going to school to be a nurse.  She would go at night.  My dear father, he worked at nights too.  There was the token booth man at the station.  My mother would come through there to get on the train.  And my father too.  And the man behind the booth, he said to my father, “you know there’s a nice young Irish girl who comes through here every night, she goes to school.  Maybe you’d like to meet her”.

And that’s how my mother met my father!  They got married.  My mother never became the nurse.  She was a nurse to all of us.  She had six children.

Finally – two more things about Astoria

Mary:  One of the best things about 30th Avenue, is you’re near to all the conveniences, to shopping, to churches, to the subway and so on.

And you have a wonderful mix of people here.  That keeps us all grounded.

Jeanne O’Melia



Carlos Sanclementi – Astoria Billiards Club

Carlos Sanclementi could not talk long for our interview because work was calling; he had to go and play billiards with one of his customers.

Carlos has owned Astoria Billiards Club since 2004.  It’s a cavernous basement space on 30th Ave between 35th and 36th Street, which many years ago used to be a bowling alley.  Customers can play billiards, pool, snooker, table hockey, backgammon and chess.

Carlos bought it from one of his wife’s relatives.  The relative had grown tired of managing the billiards hall.  And Carlos, who had been working for 25 years with an import-export company, was ready for a change.

“What I really enjoy about my work here,” he says, “is that no-one’s my boss.  I make the decisions.  And of course my wife as well, because we run the business together.  It’s much better than how it was for 25 years – even though I’d become a department supervisor – hearing ‘Carlos do this, Carlos do that’ all the time.”

Carlos is from Cali in Colombia and moved to the US in 1966.  He rarely goes to Colombia now because he has few relatives still there.  “The last time I went was eight years ago.  But I do want to go before too long.  I have various houses and properties there.  I want to check that the agency that looks after them is doing everything it says it’s doing.”

Carlos and his wife Marta commute to the billiards hall from their home in Flushing.  They do the first shift, from 1pm till around 10.30pm.  She works at the counter where people pay for their games and buy food and drinks.  He does the paperwork in the office, as well as playing a game of billiards with anyone who needs a playing partner.  “If they turned up and didn’t have anyone to play a game with, they wouldn’t come back!”

Usually one of Marta’s sisters and a friend of theirs do the night shift – Carlos says they always have a man and a women on duty at one time.  “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.”

The customers are mainly American, and many Mexicans.  “Some of the regulars,” says Carlos, “come here every day to play.”  And on that note off he went to play the game with his waiting customer.


George Haridimou – George’s Auto Repair

This morning I found Yiorgos (George) Haridimou in his auto repair shop barbecuing two huge skewers of pork with friends and customers.

George is from Cyprus.  But even though it was Greece’s independence day yesterday, 25 March, he said the barbeque wasn’t in honor of that.  “We just have a barbeque once in a while.  Maybe we’ll have another one tomorrow, to mark independence day!”

George is an avid supporter of the Athens-based AEK soccer team.  He’s a president of the AEK Fan Club of USA and was proudly wearing one of its sweatshirts when I spoke with him (he’s third from the right in the photo).

He moved with his family from Cyprus to New York in 1982, growing up first for a few years in Yonkers before moving to Astoria.  He wanted to be a mechanic since he was a boy.  He started the business 25 years ago, and bought his building on 30th Ave near 12th Street in 1998.

“I set up the business here because the zoning laws allowed you to start up an auto-repair shop,” George says.  “It was more industrial.  Now it’s starting to become more residential.

“That’s a good thing.  The neighborhood is much better than it was before, even than 10 years ago. There used to be a lot of crime.  It wasn’t the nicest part of town.  21st Street was like the boundary, with the bad area on this side of it.

“Some of the old industries have gone.  There used to be a lot of marble places that you don’t see around any more.  And next door, there used to be an electrician’s.  Now it’s an apartment building.  But I’m going to stay here, this is my own building.  I’m not going away.”

LISTEN to the full interview


Khaled Shallah – Pita Hot

Khaled Shallah is from Arwad, Syria’s only inhabited island.  He trained and worked for many years as a boat mechanic.  His work on container ships took him to “all the places you can imagine,” he says, from South America, to Europe, to Asia, to Africa.

The boats he worked on carried all kinds of things.  One had a shipment of live lambs from Romania.

Khaled says that he enjoyed life at sea, being far away, and close to nature, and beginning to feel like wherever he was, was home.  But eighteen years ago he came to settle in the US.  He started a new life from scratch.  He worked at a cousin’s restaurant in Manhattan and for a while in another restaurant  in Texas.   Back in New York, eight years ago he set up Pita Hot on 30th Ave.

His inspiration for Pita Hot came from a combination of seeing the cooks preparing food on the boats he worked on and his cousin’s Manhattan restaurant.  The menu includes falafel, hummus, lamb- and chicken-filled pita pockets.  All the food is things that Khaled likes himself.  “If there’s something I don’t like, I don’t sell it, seriously,” he says.  “If I don’t accept it for myself or my kids I won’t sell it.”

Pita Hot’s small space is filled with the sound of sizzling on the grill.  The walls are densely decorated with postcards, calendars and ornaments from the Middle East.  Customers take their food out or eat it at one of the small café tables.  For each waiting customer, Khaled or one of his co-workers dunks a small piece of pita into a jar of hummus on the front counter – a Pita Hot signature gesture.

Khaled doesn’t work fixed hours.  “I usually come in to open the shop, to make sure that everything’s in place.  Then I come back and forth during the day, and we stay open late.”

He says that if you stand in the shop for just a couple of hours you could see people of 40 different nationalities pass by.  “From Syria, I just know a couple of kids.  The Arab community here is mainly Moroccan, Algerian and Egyptian.  There are some Tunisians, Yemenis, Palestinians and a few Lebanese.  That’s in addition of course to others – Greeks, Italians, Russians, Yugoslavians…”

He has never had any trouble in his shop.  “People are so friendly here.  For some reason Astoria people are nicer, better than in Manhattan.  If you have ever worked in Manhattan, it’s very different.  When you approach someone there, they think you want something from them.  Here the culture’s much more relaxed.  Much more European.”

Despite feeling completely at home in Astoria, Khaled says that in an ideal world he would have brought his kids up for the first years of their lives in Syria, moving with them to the US when they were a bit older.  In the US they go to school too young, he says.  They go young, but while there they learn much less than if they spent that time with family and friends during their early years.

Khaled does not know how long he will be in Astoria.  Maybe one day he will move to the Midwest – the space and nature there appeal.  “This is New York,” he says.  “Does anybody know how long they will be here?”


The Saw Lady – Natalia Paruz

Natalia Paruz has lived just off 30th Ave since 1998, and in Astoria for longer than that.

The saw

“My name is Natalia Paruz, but everybody calls me the Saw Lady because I play the musical saw.

The saw has a very angelic sound.  A lot of people say that it reminds them of the sound of an opera singer.  I like it because the sound is so ethereal and spiritual.  I also like the visual.  Not only the fact it is a saw, which is kind of jarring because people don’t think that a saw would make such a beautiful sound.  But also because when you play a saw the entire instrument moves in the air and makes a sort of wave shape.

I got into saw playing by chance.  About 17 years ago my parents and I were in Austria.  We went to see a show for tourists and in it there was a guy playing a saw.  That was the first time I had encountered this instrument and I was mesmerized.”

Natalia had found what that she wanted to do.  Previously she was a professional dancer, but her dancing career was cut short when she was hit by a taxi in New York.  She had been at a loss as to what to do, until she saw the saw player.

“I went backstage to ask if he would give me a lesson.  He said no.  So I was forced to be self-taught.  That turned out to be a very good thing because I can say that I did it all on my own.

I came back here to Astoria and I borrowed a saw from somebody who had been using it for woodwork.  I discovered how to make a sound with it.  But it could only make six notes because it was an old and rusty saw.  So I went to the hardware store that used to be on Broadway and 44th Street, and bought a new saw.  Sure enough, the new saw had no rust on it so I was able to get a whole octave of notes.

Throughout the years I have collected more and more saws in my quest for the ultimate-sounding saw.  Finally I got the one I use now, which was made in France.  It’s quite long, 32 inches, which means it has about three and a half octaves altogether.


I moved to Astoria because my boyfriend Scott – now my husband – lived here.  When I first moved in with him I didn’t know anybody beside Scott.  At first I felt kind of lonesome because most of my friends were in Manhattan.

Then I picked up a local newspaper that was given out for free in banks.  I opened it and realized there were all these events taking place in Astoria.  I went to an event organized by the Greater Astoria Historical Society.  All of a sudden I started meeting people and had friends.

I fell in love with Astoria because it feels so much like a small village where everybody knows everybody.  Now I have so many friends here that I hardly ever bother going into Manhattan any more, except for my busking.

Subway busking

I once tried busking in a subway station in Queens.  But I was approached by the police almost immediately and was told that I can’t do that.  So the police are not as nice to buskers here as they are in Manhattan.

I know another busker who tried busking at the Steinway Street subway station.  It just so happened that at the same time there was a murder right there.  That sort of put people off wanting to play at that station.  It was just a coincidence.  It’s not like people get killed here all the time.

Busking on the New York subway is so much fun that it’s addictive.   The people, the proximity of the people is intoxicating.  I get so much energy from all the people who come to talk to me.  If I play on a stage, I’m up there in the lights and the audience is down there in the dark and I don’t really get to see their faces and their reactions.   So it kind of feels isolated for me as a musician.

On the subway I see the transformation on people’s faces as they are watching me, listening to me.  And they come to talk to me, to ask me questions, or tell me about themselves.  There’s this exchange of energy.  It’s as if the music is the impetus for communication.

Subway encounters

Sometimes I might be playing in the subway and someone who’s a little scary-looking might be approaching me.  I will think oh no, he might be trouble, perhaps he’s going to steal from me.  And 99.9% of the time the scariest looking people end up being the nicest, kindest people.  Playing in the subway really taught me not to judge people by first appearances.

There are so many encounters every day on the subway.  I put them on my subway music blog.  If I was to describe just one really striking encounter it’s this one.  I was playing at Times Squares subway station, and there were a bunch of people around me.  On one side of me was a blind man.  He had a cane and you knew from his face that he couldn’t see anything.

He was listening to the music.  His face transformed into a big smile and you could really see that he was enjoying himself.  On the other side there was a lady, who had nothing to do with the blind man.  She noticed how he was enjoying the music.  She came to me.  She bought my CD.  She went over to the blind man and she put the CD in his hand and she said to him, ‘this is the music that you’re listening to right now.’  That was so incredible.   The lady didn’t know him or owe him anything.  She did this act of kindness to a total stranger.

A musical mother

I was born in Israel, though as a child we traveled a lot.  My mother was a concert pianist who gave a lot of concerts in Europe.  And my father was a research scientist, so he had to do research in different universities around the world.  We lived in different countries for a year here, two years there.

As a concert pianist, at first my mother kind of frowned upon my playing a saw.  She especially frowned upon the fact I was teaching myself.  She thought that you can’t just learn music by yourself.  You have to go to a proper school.

One day her agent was coming over to our house to work with her.   I asked my mother if she would mind if I played for the agent.  She reluctantly agreed, because she was so sure that he wasn’t going to like it.  I played for him and he LOVED it!  Right away he said ‘oh, we must incorporate you into your mother’s concert.’  He was so enthusiastic about my playing and that changed her approach.  I was a part of one of her concerts and the audience just went wild.

Musical saw festival

Nine years ago I started the Musical Saw Festival in Astoria.  When I started it there were four other saw players beside myself, and three people in the audience.  The festival has grown over the years to include 55 saw players and more than 400 people in the audience.

A huge part of the growing factor is the local community.  All the neighbors come.  When the time comes in July you’ll see my flyers everywhere – all the store owners around 30th Avenue agree to put the flyer in their front window.  Round the time of the festival last year I went to the Key Foods supermarket and the cashier was asking me, “so how many saw players do you have this year?”   Everybody is enthusiastic about it in the neighborhood, which means a lot to me.


The saw is my main instrument but I also play the bells.  They’re a lot more difficult to carry!  I play a set of 65 pitched cow bells.  I lay them on an eight-foot long table and there’s a special foam that goes on top of the table.  I play mostly ragtime music on those bells.  They have a very happy sound that lends itself very nicely to ragtime.  And I play a set of English handbells, which belong to Trinity Lutheran Church here in Astoria.  I play those as a soloist and also with their group.

I can totally see myself staying in Astoria.  We’re not going anywhere.  We love it here.”

LISTEN to the full interview

And LISTEN to Natalia playing Amazing Grace on her saw (with the sound of me taking this photo and my little son Jack chiming a bell in the background).


Bobby Kartsagoulis and Vasilios Ioannou – Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable

Bobby Kartsagoulis and Vasilios Ioannou

Vasilios Ioannou: “This was the first fruit shop along 30th Ave.”


Bobby Kartsagoulis helped to set up Eliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable (otherwise known as the 30th Avenue Fruit Market) in 1972.  He had moved to the USA from Greece in 1963, living first in Canada before he moved to New York.

The store sells fruit, vegetables and nuts, primarily from the US: from California, Georgia and Florida.  Bobby’s own favorite fruit is oranges. “They were everywhere in Sparta,” he says.  “They are the king of fruit.”

He says the Greek community in Astoria may be getting a bit smaller but it is still strong.  Many of the people he knew when he first moved to Astoria still live here.

The neighborhood has “changed too much,” he says.  “When I arrived most people were Greek and Italian.  Now there are people from all over.”  He says he continues to enjoy Astoria for its cafés, and the fact that you can easily find Greek food products.

Bobby Kartsagoulis


Frank Arcabascio – Redken Saloon Salon

Frank Arcabascio owns Redken Saloon Salon, on 30th Ave between 36th and 37th Streets.  “Saloon” is in the name because the color bottles at the back of the salon are stacked like drinks behind a bar.

“I knew very young that I wanted to be a hairdresser,” says Frank.  “I used to work at my cousins’ barbershop over near Our Lady of Mount Carmel church.  It’s called Joseph’s Hair Place.  It’s actually still there.  I used to sweep the floor and clean up to make tips, I used to shine shoes.  I knew early on the power of a good haircut.

That salon was a very blue collar barbershop.  You would see men walk in filthy dirty.  Many of them construction workers.  I’d wash their hair.  Then from the neck up my cousins would transform those guys.  Between trimming their moustache, their beards, their haircut.  And they’d walk out looking amazing.  The idea of transforming a person is so powerful.  They’d come in looking oh, terrible and they’d walk out looking like Clark Gable sometimes.

My cousins were very early in the field with the unisex thing, and always going to seminars.  And they kept progressing.  As a young kid I was like ‘yeah, let’s go to a different hair show in the city today, or visit other salons.’

I like working on long hair.  Now I can give people long hair.  In the past you could only cut hair.  That kind of transformed my career.  About 10 years ago I took courses in Great Lengths Hair Extensions.  We were one of the few businesses doing it.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but we started getting outsourced by the salons that didn’t want to loose their clients, so we developed accounts for doing hair extensions. We have over 18 accounts now.

You don’t just work on hair you work on a person.  So it’s fun to ask a person what are the highlights of their hair, what they like, their best haircuts, their worst haircuts, what’s going to make them happy now.  And achieving those things.  I can see someone’s head of hair and you immediately see what you can do on it.  But that’s what I want to do.  Sometimes the person wants a fantasy idea that they don’t have the hair for.  That’s where you learn diplomacy and tact.

I’m in Manhattan now two days a week – four in Astoria and two in Manhattan.  If I were in Manhattan only I’d go nuts, and likewise if I were in Astoria alone.  I’d go nuts in Manhattan because they have a lot of money, they are very high-powered career people and are very demanding.  That’s not the problem itself exactly, because I like clear parameters.  But on 30th Ave in Astoria you’re considered an authority.  It’s more of an even playing field.  When you’re in the city you’re more of a service person, unless you’re in one of the top places.  I think we’re all equal and we just choose to do different things.

My own kids aren’t that interested in my business but my nieces do work here.   I was brought up in Jackson Heights but now live in Long Island, and that’s where my kids grew up.  So even though I grew up near here, started a business here and now work here 4 days a week, they didn’t grow up here.

Two of them are going to college.  They’re probably going to go into the corporate world and jump into Manhattan.  But they want to live in Astoria.  I own this building and they’re going to take the apartment upstairs.  So they don’t want to work in Astoria, but they do want to live here.

The thing that comes first into my mind when I think of 30th Ave is the salon, of course.  But also the business community more broadly.  The people.  And the cafés. That’s the new thing.  It’s a fun place to be.  In ’93 when I opened the business here there were no cafés.  There were a lot of delicatessens and dry cleaners.  You know, just that’s the way New York was then.

Recently I was in Central Park, on the West Side by Strawberry Fields.  And we came out of the park and wanted to find a café to sit down and eat outside.  We didn’t find any.  I started to realize.  I thought since when does 30th Avenue beat Columbus Avenue, or Amsterdam Avenue?  I want people to be proud of how many nice things we have and how down to earth it still is.

If you cannot afford to live in Manhattan you eventually find your way to Astoria.  That’s the life of the neighborhood, it’s the young people.  It’s always been this way.   People think oh, all of a sudden people from Manhattan are starting to live in Astoria.  I’ve been working round here since 1971.  There were always people living here who couldn’t afford Manhattan.  Actors, actresses, artists.  Now it’s just become a little more commercial with the cafés.  A place where someone from Manhattan might come and visit and hang out.  Years ago it was only people living here, who went to work in the city.

There have been previous incarnations of the 30th Avenue Business Association but the current one started in 1999.  The way it started was we wanted to have holiday lighting in the streets.  Everybody was asked to chip in, but not everybody would contribute.  So we organized a street festival.  Everyone who sponsors the festival pays around $6-7000, and we use that money for the holiday lights.

I am currently president of the association, and was also its president from 2002-4.  At that time I called up Barnes & Nobel and asked them about putting one up here on 30th Avenue.  They said they can’t.  The stores are too small.  They need 10,000 square feet.  Two thousand, which is the largest size along here – many of them are 400 or 500 square feet – most mom and pop stores and family businesses operate in that space range.  The franchises want a much larger space range.  So in many ways it’s the size of the stores that will ‘save’ the street, if you will.

That’s not to say you don’t have to do the newest and latest.   Like we use Facebook and Twitter.  You have to embrace the new technology but it’s still a family business embracing it.  I use a brand – Redken – to get the attention, but I’m still a family business.  Redken themselves would only be on Fifth Avenue, I brought Redken to 30th Ave.  A franchise has a corporate bureaucracy.  A family will bring in new ideas, trendy ideas and can change on a dime.”


Martha Heredia and Elvis Raymundo

I spoke with Martha Heredia and her nephew Elvis Raymundo in Grand Avenue Laundromat.  Martha works there.  Elvis had dropped in to see his aunt on his way to play football nearby.


I came here from Mexico in 1990. For 15 years I worked in clothing factories – six years in Manhattan and nine near Queensboro Plaza.  The factory owners were Korean but they spoke Spanish perfectly.  That’s why I’ve never learned English.  [We had this conversation in Spanish].

Then the one for whom I had been working for nine years got tired of living and working here.  He sold the factory and went back to his country.  The work changed and I didn’t like what they did so I left.

I had a baby girl and took a bit of time out.  Then I got work in a laundromat, where I was trained on the job.  It was a big laundromat, and good work, but I didn’t like the way the managers were.  That was when I thought of asking in here for work, in Grand Avenue Laundromat.   I had moved to the neighborhood when I got married, after spending three years living in Manhattan.  I lived for a bit on Crescent Street but the apartment there was very small.  Then I found my current apartment on 35th Street that I love.  I’ve been there 18 years now.  So I had always come here to wash my clothes but till then it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.  I got the job, and now I work five minutes from my home.

I have a sister who lives in Mexico but my other four siblings and my parents all live here.  I’ve only been back to Mexico twice in 21 years.  There’s no need because practically all my family is here.


I live on 36th Street.  I’ve got two more years to go in high school and then plan to go to culinary college.  I’d like to be a chef.  Not necessarily have my own restaurant, it’s hard to manage a restaurant.  To be a chef.  My favorite food to cook is Mexican and Italian.

This is a peaceful neighborhood.  There are no problems except sometimes when people from other parts come through, that’s all.  Generally it’s peaceful.


There weren’t so many businesses here 18 years ago.  The cafés and things are recent.  It’s nice during the summer when the street is full of people.  And in the night time you don’t have to worry about things.  We close at midnight and there are still businesses open, people in the street.  When my girl was small we would walk out here late at night (we slept late in the mornings, so she’d be up late), and she loved it.

Everyone knows her round here.  We know the business owners and the workers alike.  Some of the young people come here to live while they study and then they leave.  But most of the people in the neighborhood I have known for years and years.


Heather Petruzelli – singer

Heather Petruzelli is a singer and voice teacher who has lived in Astoria since 1998.  Singers have gravitated towards Astoria, she says, because it is relatively close to mid-town and the Upper West Side where a lot of concerts and shows take place.  And it is affordable.  Or was – rents now are going up and up.  For the same reasons, many others live in Inwood and Washington Heights.  “In 1998,” she says, “It was just starting to be the place where people would move instead of Brooklyn.”

Heather was brought up in New Jersey.  Her step-grandparents lived in the West Village – she was mesmerized coming into the city in the 70s and 80s and always wanted to live in New York, even though “of course it’s not the same city as it was then.”

She resolved to be a singer from early on, but despite her trips into the city was not exposed to a lot of live music.  “You would think that being this close to New York I would have been, but sometimes being the suburbs people just kind of get stuck.  When I went to college to study voice all I knew was some musical theater and some things I had sung in chorus.  When I did move to the city though, I went all the time.  I was like a sponge.”

Heather teaches singing at Cap 21 and AMDA, as well as private lessons in her apartment.  Before she started teaching at the two institutions it was hard to find students.  “There are a lot of voice teachers.  And sometimes people just don’t realize how easy Astoria is to get to.  Especially if they live in Manhattan they don’t want to go to the outer boroughs.  They think it’s like going to Connecticut or something, when in fact it’s just four stops.”

She teaches students from all over, drawn to New York as a musical center-of-the universe – though the tough reality of how few get anywhere near to realizing their dreams is drummed into them from day one at college, she says.  Last year her students included people from Colombia, Ireland, Israel, Norway and Peru.

Sometimes she teaches up to 34-35 hours a week.  She enjoys seeing her students’ potential, problem-solving with them, and helping them achieve what they want to achieve.   The more she got into teaching, “the less I was driven to be in the rat-race” of performing professionally.  “There are not a lot of opportunities for opera and I’m about ten years older than most people who are auditioning.  Plus you have to have so much money and determination to be singing full time.”

When Heather does perform she loves Puccini.  “That’s where my voice likes to go.  There’s that kind of heart-on-your-sleeve thing going on.  We don’t get to behave that way in real life.   Story lines aside, there’s the music itself.  It takes you on a ride that I don’t experience with other things when I’m singing.  I love singing Strauss as well.”

Her top 30th Ave haunts are the Indian restaurant Seva, SAI Organics, Grand Café and the fruit and vegetable stores on the corner of 33rd Street.   Like so many who live here she says the neighborhood is changing fast.  “In the last five years you’ve seen the change, even more so just in the past year.  The storefronts have changed dramatically.  There used to be a lot more Greek-dominated businesses.  Now there are more 20-30 somethings’ hip places.  Like Sweet Afton, Mexi-Q and others.  The area will become more homogenized and super-white.  Unless the fish-markets and places like that can really hold their ground I think it could become like another Williamsburg.  God I hope not.”


Listen to Heather singing Tess’s Lament by Matthew Harris, with Astoria Symphony.  The performance was at St Joseph’s Church on 30th Ave, Dec 18, 2011.  The conductor was Adam Eggleston.

Heather’s website