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Interview

George Phillips – Astoria Music

George Phillips of Astoria Music, with a bouzouki

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

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

One of Astoria Music’s specialties is hand-made bouzoukis from Greece.  “I average anywhere between six to seven bouzoukis a month,” George says.   “This is the only music store in America that sells bouzoukis like this – well, the real thing.  There are lots of imitations.  This is the real thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview

Michael Pagano – Page Real Estate

Michael Pagano of 30th Ave's Page Real Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview

Mustafa Eid and Sabah Guessar – Trade Fair supermarket

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

Trade Fair supermarket stretches along 30th Ave between 31st and 29th Streets.  It’s a swath of color with its fruit and vegetables on display and bright announcements of special offers.  Among the bustle of customers and deliveries I spoke with its manager Mustafa Eid.  Sabah Guessar, also a manager there, joined in some of the conversation too, coming back and forth from her work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview

Frank DePaola – Sorriso Italian Salumeria

Frank DePaola of Sorriso Salumeria on 30th Ave

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.”

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Interview

Artie Sanchez & friends – Reelization Films, Astoria Houses

Participants in "REELization films" - a project of East River Development Alliance at Astoria Houses

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.”

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Watch some of Reelization’s short films on their You Tube channel

Find out more about East River Development Alliance

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Interview

Rahim and Akim by the Masjid Al Ikhlas

Akim (l) and Rahim (r) by the mosque Masjid Al Ikhlas

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.”

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Interview

Isabel Jennings – registered nurse at Mount Sinai Queens Hospital

Isabel Jennings in 30th Ave's Bakeway Cafe, before her shift at Mount Sinai Hospital Queens

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.”

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Interview

Peter Loupakis – Loupakis Karate Acrobatics

Peter Loupakis (fourth from r) with some of his students at Loupakis Karate Acrobatics

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.”

The outside of Loupakis Karate Acrobatics
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Josh Ellis and Elanna White – Donner Social

Elanna White and Josh Ellis of Donner Social

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.

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You can listen to some of Donner Social’s music here, and find them on Facebook here.

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Interview

Ralph and Yury Almaz – Almaz Brothers jewelers

Ralph (l) and Yury (r) Almaz in their store on 30th Ave

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.