Walking down 30th Avenue at the moment is heart-breaking and uplifting with each step.
The majority of stores are closed due to the Corona virus shut-down. Social distancing manifests itself in practical and in emotional ways: everyone in masks, buried in their phones even more than before, bringing a heaviness to the street. At the same time there are signs of kindness, dogged determination and creative openness everywhere.
March and early April was the worst period, with incessant sirens and the streets deserted. It hit me particularly when I saw the shuttered flower stand beside the corner deli on my block: usually the flower stand is open 24 hours, just in case people need 3am roses.
Yesterday though, the day before Mother’s day, the flowers were back, and business was doing well. Now that it’s May, the weather’s warmer, the sirens less frequent, more people are out and about.
Local businesses are improvising and adapting as best they can. Astoria Fashion Fabrics by 33rd Street is selling material to passers-by, to make their own masks.
Stores like Key Food, Ocean Fish Market and International Meat Market have kept going, their staff working tirelessly with stressed out and appreciative customers, and controlled conditions. They deserve medals when this is over.
Places that would usually be buzzing with activity in Spring are still shuttered off, like Athens Park.
And schools are still out.
Meanwhile at Mount Sinai Queens, health care workers have been working round the clock. This is where one of my neighbors passed away, where our local Council Member Costa Constantinides and his wife were both treated, where many lives have been saved, and where new patients continue to come in each day.
Under the subway tracks, there is still the rumble of trains overhead, but less frequent than usual. And there are no green taxis: an industry that was already reeling will have been devastated by the pandemic. Tastee Corner Delhi had already closed down for good, following the station’s months-long closure for renovations last year. Small businesses along 30th Ave – and throughout the city – will need support from policymakers and from customers like never before.
Delivery workers for GrubHub and other restaurant apps have continued their rounds, risking their health and lives. Many, laid off from other industries, have turned to delivering food to keep some income.
Meanwhile, cocktails of all kinds are still to be found…as the street’s restaurants find ways to keep going.
This photo is of the Bel Aire Diner window – on Broadway rather than 30th Ave. But it captures the fragility and strength of this time.
And on Mother’s Day 2020 – here’s to all mothers throughout the neighborhood.
I’m thrilled that on Saturday November 12 at 2.30 pm Queens Library will be hosting a celebration of 30th Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood. The event marks five years on from my project interviewing people who live and work along 30th Avenue.
Come and join us! And please bring photos and memorabilia of Astoria to share. Queens Memory Project will be there to digitize and record your memories of the neighborhood.
Today as on every labor day, 30th Ave was closed to traffic. It was filled with stalls selling food and clothes, musicians performing, and children playing on inflatable fairground rides.
It was at a 30th Ave street fair back in 2008 that National Geographic’s “Genographic Project” collected DNA cheek-samples from passers by, and found traces of almost all the ethnic lineages on earth. An article about the findings quotes George Delis, a Greek immigrant and retired community manager: “Everybody talks about Astoria like it’s Greek. Well, it’s not Greek. It’s everything.”
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.
In 2011 I interviewed Jon Ellis and Georgina Young Ellis about the Welling Court Mural project. Last weekend artists painted new murals, coinciding with Welling Court’s annual block party. Walk to the far Western end of 30th Ave to check them out. And get a glimpse of some of them here:
Athens Square on 30th Ave is currently closed off to the sidewalk by a tall fence while some construction work is done. It can still be accessed, via two gates round the side on 30th Street. But it is amazing how the fence changes the whole feeling of the square. One of its most effective features is the fact that it is so open to the sidewalk, so that the wide sidewalk and the square merge into one another. Let’s hope that it is not closed off for long.
Athens Square epitomizes what I call an “open geography of the street”: an environment that facilitates interaction between people. There are its benches and tables with chess boards marked on them where elderly people can while away hours right next to passers by. There are two playgrounds for older and for younger kids, the open area where community events are held (and when free from events, kids kick footballs), and the basketball courts at the back. Urban observers and writers like Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte (of the “Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, the film of which is here) have emphasized how important this easy-mixing of people who use a space in different ways is to the smooth functioning of a neighborhood.
When kids skateboarding throughout the open area in Athens Square began to annoy other users, they weren’t just banned from the park with no place else to go. The Community Board manager at the time George Delis asked them what they would think of having a big skatepark built in Astoria Park. The park went ahead and now it is used by hundreds of skateboarders each day. Boarders Philip Sparta and Wallace de Olivera who I interviewed for this blog said they use the new Skatepark all the time. Yet significantly, they still come by Athens Square to see their friends on the basketball courts.
As of yesterday Summer is officially over. It already felt like it was over a few weeks ago, with the passing of labor day and the heavy rain that settled in over 30th Ave and the rest of New York City as if to say enough fun, back to work.
While summertime is still fresh-ish in our minds, here’s a post in its honor, looking back in time to the ice cream parlors that featured along 30th Avenue until sometime in the 1970s and 80s. I was recently contacted by Alfred Holzman, now in Miami, who lived on 30th Avenue from 1944. His parents owned a paint and wallpaper store at number 34-03 called “Grand Paint Supply Company.” Among the vivid memories that he and his contemporaries have of 30th Avenue are the ice cream parlors.
“During the summer months, in the evening, the ice cream parlors would be jammed with eat-in and take out customers,” he says. “Without question, these places were absolutely spotless. In addition to ice cream, they were all counter and booth luncheonettes. The place to go for fountain drinks. Each had a juke box.”
There were three along 30th Ave:
Jacoby’s, between 30 and 31st street, where the “Goodness Gracious Thrift Shop” now is. Alfred says: “I was there many times for lunch when I was in the fifth and sixth grades at PS 5. Teachers had lunch there, and I saw them smoking whilst sitting in the booths.” (PS5, which was on 29th Street just off 30th Ave, burned down in 1967 after an eight-year-old pupil set a fire in a clothes closet while playing with matches).
Gerken’s, at 34-04, where Astoria Art and Framing now is. This was directly opposite Alfred’s parents’ shop. “It was run by the wonderful couple, Henry and Margaret Gerken. Like us, they lived above their store. They started the business shortly after the war, in about 1947. The façade was black and very stylish. I and my family knew these hard-working folks well. The hours were 10am to 11pm. They sold great ice cream made in the basement. Terrific Banana Splits, Banana Royals, and their specialty, the 30th Avenue Special. The Gerkens retired to Florida in the late 70s / early 80s.”
Rudy’s, a block up from Gerken’s at 35-16. “This business was the oldest of the three. Rudy owned it, and again, the family lived upstairs,” says Alfred. “The façade was/is beige. Rudy died long ago, but his daughter, a Bryant High grad, ran the place. She married a guy who was an electric train collector. Years ago, he began to sell electric trains from one side of the store.”
He, Marvin Cochran, still sells electric trains from the store, which is now called “Rudy’s Hobby Supplies.” They also sell model toys and all the materials you need to make them. I dropped by to speak with Marvin, who told me that the store first started selling ice creams in 1939 and was “Rudy’s Ice Cream Parlor” until 1987. “We changed over because it was just too many hours, and we were getting older. It was pleasant though – you had your friends and customers who you knew for years and years coming by for their ice cream.”
In the non-summer seasons, the ice cream parlors still did well, selling chocolates and candies – especially at Valentines, Easter (when they sold chocolate bunnies made in-house) and Christmas.
The ice cream parlors may have gone but there are still plenty of details that define 30th Ave in summertime, for which we’ll now have to wait another nine months or so. There’s the water fountain for kids to cool off in at Athens Square. There are the groups of chairs on the sidewalk outside the Laundromats where people chat as they wait for their clothes cycles to finish. There are long sticky waits for trains in the sweltering heat at 30th Ave subway station (which really shouldn’t be called “subway” here at all, because it’s elevated). And of course there’s ice cream too, just sold in different ways: like Gino’s Italian ices sold from the cart by Salerno Pizza near 29th Street, and the ice cream vans that jingle their way along 30th Ave and its surrounding roads.
On 20 July 2011 the Greater Astoria Historical Society hosted the launch of an exhibit of photos from this site, “30th Ave – A Year in the Life of a Street.” The event was a great way to mark the mid-point of the project (which had 29 interviews at that time, 23 more to come by the end of the year!). Five of us spoke about 30th Ave from different perspectives.
Bob Singleton of GAHS began by bringing the audience back to when 30th Ave was originally proposed as a street. He read from the minutes of a meeting of the trustees of Astoria Village on November 4, 1850. The trustees resolved that a new street, 60 feet wide, would be created and named Grand Street.
The proposal met a lot of opposition. One property owner objected because the new street would run through his grove of trees. Others complained that they would be taxed for construction and maintenance that would largely benefit others. The proposal was never formally adopted, but the street appeared and developed rapidly all the same.
I introduced my project and described two of the sources of inspiration for it. One was National Geographic’s “Genographic” project, which had collected cheek cells from people along 30th Ave at the street fair in 2008. They found that the street and its surroundings form one of the most diverse places in the planet. As a local resident, I knew of course that 30th Ave was diverse: but here was some unusual evidence in the form of genetic markers.
The other source of inspiration was a woman called Helen, who once did my nails (on one of the rare occasions that I’ve had my nails done), at Athena’s Nails on 30th Ave. I was 33 at the time and pregnant with my son. Helen, who is from Tibet, told me that she had had her two children when she was 13 and 14 years old. She said she is always surprised how long women in New York stay single, and how late they have their kids. She also told me that she had left her children in Tibet, and missed them a lot, and often couldn’t get through to them on the phone.
It wasn’t until after my son Jack was born that the idea for the website and of doing one interview a week came together, but those two things definitely planted seeds for it. A short while after starting the project I went back to Athena’s Nails to see if I could find Helen. The managers told me she doesn’t work there anymore and didn’t know how to track her down. It is a reminder that for every story that is told about someone along 30th Avenue there are stories – hundreds of them – that are not told. I’m aiming for this site to tell a story of 30th Ave during 2011 that reflects as many aspects as possible, but it is by no means the story.
Frank Arcabasio spoke next. He set up Redken Saloon Salon on 30th Ave – and is currently President of the 30th Ave Business Association. He was inspired to become a hair stylist when he worked as a kid in his cousins’ barbershop in Astoria (his interview for this site included the fabulous line, “I knew early on the power of a good hair cut”). Frank spoke about the entrepreneurial spirit of 30th Ave: how the small size of the buildings and therefore the small area for shop floors had prevented some of the big chains from moving in, and had therefore helped family-run businesses to flourish. He also said that the internet had provided all kinds of new opportunities for people in local communities to interact and learn from each other.
Melissa Rivera began her talk describing growing up around 30th Avenue. She mentioned her first jobs in the area as a teenager, like working at the old cinema on the corner of 30th Ave and Steinway (now a pharmacy and sports club), and at a bridal store. She said that despite a brief stint living in Manhattan she was drawn back to the neighborhood.
Alongside her work in child welfare and raising her young son Melissa has set up a soap-making business in her apartment (in one of the railroad apartment buildings just off 30th Ave, beyond Steinway). “Naturally Good Soaps” is a a truly local business if ever there was one, and all of the products are proudly stamped “Made in Astoria”.
Her dream would be to employ a few people in the neighborhood and train them in her business. But alongside her praise for the community Melissa injected a note of caution. She said that with fewer and fewer mom and pop shops and the rents increasing, her community is starting to feel like someone else’s community. She is beginning to feel the pinch and she – and her son, who goes to school nearby – both really hope that they will be able to stay.
Debbie Van Cura, the next speaker, is a trustee of the Greater Astoria Historical Society. She teaches urban sociology at La Guardia Community College. In her talk (which you can watch on You Tube here) she quoted the wonderful urban historian Jane Jacobs, who said: “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” She said that spirit is at the heart of what makes 30th Avenue a successful street – the fact that people from all backgrounds are able to interact, and to participate in and influence what the street has to offer.
She added that the geography of the street itself enables those interactions, with its wide sidewalks and many benches, and spaces to linger like Athens Square. Unlike many parts of the city, when you walk down 30th Avenue you see people standing still and talking to one another in the middle of the sidewalk. She reminded us that while the internet has provided a new forum for interaction it is those sidewalk conversations that are the lifeblood of a neighborhood.
Debbie’s talk also echoed some of the characteristics of a “successful” street that have emerged time and again in the interviews I have done so far with people along 30th Ave. Among the characteristics that many people have said they like about the street, are:
– everything they need is easily accessible;
– they feel safe;
– there are people from all over the world;
– the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly (more than in Manhattan!);
– newcomers and old-timers generally mix well together;
– and there is life on the streets at all times of day and night.
Sometimes I consider the dynamic of 30th Ave as a “respectful proximity of strangers.” But once you have been into someone’s store a few times and spoken with the owner each time, he or she is more than a stranger. Better to say that there is a “respectful proximity of strangers and friends.”
To wrap up the event, Bob Singleton of GAHS proposed a resolution: that those in attendance formally designate the street of 30th Avenue as a “dynamic city neighborhood with easy access to everything,” and “a place for creative people in search of a better life.” The resolution was approved by with a unanimous “aye!”
I want to say a big thank you to the GAHS for hosting this exhibition. When I first went to their sprawling and fascinating space in the Quinn building on Broadway to see a documentary about the Steinway Piano Factory, little would I have known that I would be back a year later for the launch of my own little exhibit.
The photos were up through the end of August. You can still check them out here though. Those featured in the exhibit were: