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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.

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Interview

Abdul Said

Abdul Said on his doorstep just off 30th Ave

Abdul Said has lived in Astoria for almost 15 years, and in his current place on 23rd Street, just off 30th Avenue, for four and half years.  I met him on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on his doorstep, drinking a coffee bought from the Dunkin’ Donuts by the 30th Ave subway station.

He lives in one of the neighborhood’s old detached houses.  But like many of the older homes it is scheduled to be knocked down and turned into a bigger apartment building.  He’ll be moving, when a friend joins him from Boston, into one of the new buildings round the corner on 21st Street.

“Everywhere there are houses going down and new buildings going up,” he says.  “I don’t mind.  It’s good business for the owners.  They see people moving into the area and smell the money.  When I first moved here from Brooklyn everything said ‘for rent’, ‘for rent’.  Now it’s hard to find a place.”  The new buildings, he adds, can have 14-16 apartments.  The old houses on the same site housed just two or three families.

Abdul is originally from Morocco and came to the US 26 years ago.  “I’m from a small town in East Morocco, a very French part of the country.  The North is much more Spanish.”  He returns to Morocco to see family and friends.  “I like to travel once a year.  I just came back recently from a trip, I was away about six weeks – four weeks in Morocco and two weeks in Spain.”

Recently there was a news story about a New York Police Department surveillance program focused on Moroccans – not because of any specific allegations against individuals but in order to build up a detailed picture of the city’s Moroccan community, in support of the government’s anti-terrorism efforts.  “I read about the police stuff, yes,” says Abdul.  “It’s part of what’s going on in the world, the past decade.  A lot of people are getting confused.  It’s part of what’s going on.”

On the current democracy movements underway in the Middle East, Abdul is optimistic.  “It’s like the sky, one minute it’s all cloudy and the next minute it’s clear.  They needed to get rid of those guys who had been in power for thirty, forty years.  That makes no sense.  You need a system like here.  Every four years if you don’t like who’s in charge you vote him out.  These people were there for a lifetime.  Now there’s a new generation who don’t buy those things.  They want change.”

Before coming to New York, Abdul lived in Florida for ten years where he worked in real estate.  His two children are still there, with their mother who is originally from Brooklyn (she and Abdul are divorced).  Since moving to New York Abdul has worked in the restaurant industry: currently he is a bar tender in the Marriott hotel near La Guardia airport.

When Abdul first came to New York he lived in Brooklyn.  He was working in an Irish restaurant in Manhattan and the commute took a long time.  Then he came to visit a friend in Astoria, saw Manhattan just across the river and learned that it only takes 20 minutes to travel between the two.

He also likes Astoria for the fact it is quiet.  “Though it’s got a lot less quiet now, especially with lots of people moving here from Manhattan,” he says.  “The area up near Steinway has changed a lot.”  Abdul still finds quiet in Astoria Park.  Often he takes car there to have breakfast overlooking the river.  “Oh man, I love that place!”

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Interview

Ching-Tse Lee (elder); Mario Yang and Christina Chang (congregation members) – Taiwan Union Christian Church

Ching-Tse Lee downstairs in the Taiwan Union Christian Church

On 31st Street just South of the 30th Ave subway stop and opposite EuroMarket is the Taiwan Union Christian Church.  I spoke with one of the church’s elders, Ching-Tse Lee: it happened to be on Sunday September 11th.   A service had recently ended and the church basement was bustling with activity, as members of the congregation mingled with each other and sought advice from the pastor.

Ching-Tse came to the USA from Taiwan in 1964.  He studied in Ohio before coming to live in New York.  He worked as a psychology professor at Brooklyn College and retired three years ago, which has enabled him to become more active in the church as an elder.

The church originated in 1968 when a group of Taiwanese students in New York formed a bible study group.  They then established a church which met at a Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.  In 1982 they moved the church to the Astoria location, which was formerly the Second Reformed Church in Astoria.  Two years later they joined the Reformed Church of America.

Ching-Tse says that the congregation today includes Taiwanese students who are in the US to study for their MD, PhD, or other forms of higher education; some of them stay in dormitories in the modern building next to the church.  Others are Taiwanese immigrants to the US like himself.  They come to the church in Astoria from all over the Tri-State area: some from Staten Island, Westchester, Long Island and elsewhere.

“We come here to worship and also we try to provide a home for our children,” he says.  “Once they are in their individual community they don’t really have the kind of Taiwanese home base to grow up with.  Many of them have adapted to the local environment.  For some of them, the local environment may not be very suitable for them as Taiwanese.”

The church conducts services in Taiwanese, and in Mandarin for local Chinese residents.  They have an English mission, also in the modern building next to the old church, for Taiwanese-Americans born or raised in the US.

Beyond services and bible study the church is active in many ways.  The week after I was there they were holding a photography exhibition.  “It’s very special,” says Ching-Tse, “because all the photographers are women.  We thought that a female has her viewpoint of the world…they are much more sensitive about their environment.   So we encourage them to put up shows.  This time in the exhibition there will be images of flowers, scenery, and different places, like Disney World.”

The church members are also engaged in issues around Taiwan’s future and its efforts to maintain autonomy from China.  They were preparing for a forthcoming “Keep Taiwan Free” rally, calling for the UN to accept Taiwan as a member.

Christina Chang and Mario Yang outside the Taiwan Union Christian Church

Outside the church, I met Mario Yang and his girlfriend Christina Chang who had attended the service.  Mario is a financial analyst at American Express, and lives in Manhattan.  His parents brought him to the US from Taiwan when he was eight years old: they lived in North Carolina and then Mario came to New York for college.

“My parents are firm believers in public education, but didn’t feel like the system in Taiwan was good at the time.  It’s fantastic now, but back when I was younger they felt it was a better choice to be in the States.  I think I got a great public education here!  I would hope I did.”

Christina is currently a Masters student at Columbia University.  She is a flutist and often plays at the church services.

The couple comes to the church in Astoria as often as they can.  “We have tons of friends who come here, it’s a community,” says Mario.  “There’s a wide variety of people at the church.  There are people in arts, people in finance, people in all sorts of careers.  They’re really supportive regardless of what you do.”

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Interview

Skateboarders Philip Sparta and Wallace de Olivera

Philip Sparta (l) and Wallace de Olivera (r)

As the 30th Ave labor day street fair was winding down I met Philip Sparta and his best friend Wallace de Olivera on their way to meet some friends at the Athens Square basketball courts.

They are both skateboarders.  Serious skateboarders.  They skateboard for between four and six hours every day.  They used to skateboard in Athens Square itself but only do that rarely now.  Philip explains why:

“People thought that the skateboarders here were annoying.  Once in a while the police would come and kick us out of this park.  We didn’t really care, we loved skating so much that we just kept coming back once they’d left.  But now since the Skate Park opened up we hardly come here, just once in a while.  We have friends who play basketball on the courts here so we come to hang out.”

The Skate Park he is talking about is the one in Astoria Park that opened in 2010, beneath the towering Trioborough Bridge and next to the East River.  It’s always whirring with boarders, the sound of their wheels competing with the traffic roar overhead.  (Here’s an article about the opening of the park and a You Tube clip of boarders there).

Wallace and Philip met in primary school but now go to different high schools: Wallace is at La Guardia High and Philip at Bryant High, at 31st Ave and 48th Street.   “I like it around here in Astoria,” says Philip, who lives near 30th Ave.  “I used to live in Flushing.  Over here is a lot nicer, it’s really diverse.”

On what they enjoy about skating, Wallace says, “it’s the thrill of actually skating.”

“And it keeps us from doing bad things, you know,” adds Philip.  “We don’t do bad things like most of our friends have gotten into.  It keeps us fit too, it’s very healthy.”  Not that it’s without its risks; both of them have recently recovered from ankle injuries.

Philip, now sixteen, was born in Japan and came to New York with his family when he was six.  He has few memories about living in Japan but does remember the move and how weird it felt.  He hasn’t been back.  “I’m totally Americanized.  I’m not really interested in going back.  Except to skate there.”

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Interview

Julia Bravo and Janeth Toral

Julia Bravo (l) and Janeth Toral (r)

I met friends Janeth Toral and Julia Bravo sitting outside a house on 14th Street just south of 30th Avenue, on a Saturday morning.  Janeth works as a consultant for Mary Kay: they were selling beauty products made by Mary Kay and Avon from the porch to passersby.

Janeth and Julia are both from Ecuador.  Julia has lived in Astoria for 49 years and is now considered the “abuelita” – the “grandmother” – of her community.  She works as a crossing guard by public school 171, which is bordered by 29th and 30th Aves, and 14th Street.  Her work is clearly needed there, as there are no traffic lights.  One day four years ago, after getting a group of children across the street, a taxi hit her and hurt her leg.

Julia works 12 months a year – in the summertime there are still classes going on.  She says that the children who she helps cross the road are from all ethnic backgrounds – Hispanic, black, South Asian, Chinese, Irish, Italian – but that differences are overridden by the fact “they are all children.”

She enjoys the affection she gets from the children and the fact their parents are grateful for her help.  Julia’s own children are now grown up and married, and are currently serving in the army – she says that email helps her to keep in regular contact with them.

Janeth came to New York from Ecuador 19 years ago.  For the first year before moving to Astoria she lived in Corona.  “I didn’t like it because it was so noisy.  There was so much loud music!  Here it’s a bit calmer.  There are problems here and there, but we manage.”  She began selling beauty products to help support her family.  Her husband and two of her sons are in Ecuador, and her other four children (two boys and two girls) live with her in Astoria.

Both Janeth and Julia agree that the good things about the neighborhood are the nearby parks – in particular Astoria Park with its swimming pool – and access to different things that they need: stores, schools, post-offices.  The problems, they say, come mainly from people who come through from other parts of New York City.  And as Julia adds, the prices are going up, making it an expensive neighborhood to live in now.

The two women first got to know each other when Janeth’s son, now 13, was in pre-kinder.  “He kept asking me about Julia, saying ‘when are we going to see my grandmother?’” says Janeth.  “I would say no, she’s not actually your grandmother’ and he would say, ‘yes, she is!’”.

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Interview

Benny Banker – mailman

Benny Banker delivering mail along 30th Ave

Benny (Virendra) Banker has been delivering mail along 30th Avenue for over 13 years.  “My area covers most of this heart part of Astoria,” he says.  “It’s a nice residential area.  There’s Astoria General Hospital which is now Mount Sinai, so there are a lot of doctors around here.”  Benny is also a singer of Hindi devotional songs and other forms of Indian classical music.

He lives in Queens Village, in Eastern Queens.  It takes him one and a half hours by train to get to Astoria.  But he makes it no matter what.  “On the day when there was the biggest snowstorm I woke up at four in the morning, I walked to the subway station and I took a train and I made it here by eight o’ clock.  I managed to work, while 80% of people didn’t make it to their work that day.”

He adds: “When people see us in the snow and the rain they feel really sorry about us.  But if you talk about counting the full year of 365 days we hardly have those heat-waves and those mountains of the snow or the rain.  Hardly I would say ten days in the year.  This job may look like its hard but I think it is not that bad.  To be honest, the difficult and the easy thing about the job is just your mindset.”

Benny says that he loves his job “because it’s a service for the people.  I feel good seeing old people – when they wait for me and then they see me they become so happy.  If I am off a while, when I’m back everybody feels like a family member came back after a long time.  This job is also my lifesaver, because it gives me compulsory exercise everyday.”

Benny was born in Gujarat, India.  He came to New York City in his late teens, went back to Gujarat in 1977 when he got married, and returned to New York with his wife.  His three children are now grown up: one son is a pediatrician in Houston, one is a gastro-intestinal doctor in Stonybrook, and his daughter is in business management.

Benny crams a lot into his spare time.  He sings bhajan sandhyas (devotionals) and light classical Indian music in various languages including Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, performing at events in New York and also other parts of the US.  (You can listen to him singing here).

He also designs and maintains websites, making the most of his Sunday mornings when he wakes up very early.  He has created one for his music, one for the block where he lives with details of their annual block party, one for his religious community, and also a site for memories of his mother.

When Benny first started working for the US Postal Service he was working in Brooklyn and living in Woodside.  That commute was very long: he applied for a transfer, and within six months his choice of the Long Island City area came up.  One of the main changes in the area that has affected him has been the increase in large new buildings with many apartments.  “That creates a parking problem mainly.  Before we used to find parking any time – now we have to struggle for it.”

Before, he says, there was a lot more first class mail.  “Now there is more junk mail, though even that is decreasing.”  He hastens to add that mail is not dwindling entirely.  “People still have to mail things like lawyers documents.  People still need a hard copy.”

The US Postal Service is currently in financial trouble and is planning to make major cuts, including by closing post offices.  One of the four in Queens on a list for potential closure is the Grand Post Office on 30th Ave between 45 and 46th Streets – over 1000 people have reportedly signed a petition to keep it open.  Benny keeps things in perspective though.  “Like every other business the post office is in the midst of hardship but personally I don’t think there’s a serious problem.  People do need to mail a letter.  Every business has a right to save the money and they are trying, but what I see in a big city like New York, downsizing will be almost impossible.

“What I say, is think positive you’re going to get positive.  If you think negative, you’re inviting the negative.”

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Interview

Sami Mobarak – Old Village Thrift, Gift and Antiques

Sami Mobarak in his shop Old Village Thrift, Gifts and Antiques

Sami Mobarak runs Old Village Thrift, Gift and Antiques, on 30th Ave just West of 29th Street.  The store sells all kinds of products.  When I was there to interview him, among them were silver jewelery (his specialty), watches, furniture, clothes, a saxophone, a cricket score board…

For almost eight years previously, Sami had a pizzeria.  “It was good.  But I burned myself left and right.  And when the oven is too hot and you’re sweating and tired… I’m getting older now (I’m 53), so I decided it’s time to calm down a little and do something more relaxing.”

Sami and his wife enjoyed going to flea markets at the weekend to buy antiques.  “So we turned a hobby into business.  You do something that you like to do and you make some money at the same time, that cannot be bad!  It’s not like a huge profit, just a living.”

A friend of his has a huge warehouse of goods and sends Sami a truck of things to sell each month.  He also finds things to sell in yard sales and flea markets.    He puts his customers into groups.  “Some are interested in antiques and willing to pay good money for them – but that is not so many people.  Most people are looking for cheaper stuff.  I focus on having a little bit to satisfy everybody’s taste in different products.”

Sami, who has lived in Astoria for 26 years, is originally from Alexandria in Egypt.  He says that the revolution earlier this year “was about time.  It should have happened a long time ago.  I hope that it will bring some sort of stability in the country because it was like a boiling pot, with big time poverty.

“I was visiting six months before the revolution.  I saw people eating from the garbage, and I saw people spending tons of money.  There was no in-between.   Society was split between filthy rich and dirty poor.  What happened was a wake-up call for everybody who lives there.”  As an Egyptian living outside Egypt, Sami was emotionally involved and looked for any way to give his support.  He and some friends joined with a local singer and made a song for the revolution.

Sami lives with his wife – originally from Algeria – and their two young sons.  Of Astoria, he says it is one of the safest and most beautiful parts of New York City to live in.  “The 114th precinct is one of the best police stations, they are always present, always there.  Young ladies who get off work at three or four o’clock in the morning and are walking home by themselves feel safe.”

Twice, he attempted living elsewhere, in New Jersey.  The first time he came back after a month, the second after two months.  He missed the community here, and also says that other neighborhoods feel too quiet in comparison.  Along 30th Avenue and nearby, there are places open and people on the streets all through the night.

He adds: “Being here for a long time creates something like it’s a whole big family living in the neighborhood, everybody looking after everybody.  After all these years I think also that people start to trust each other.  You’ll find Turkish people close friends with Greeks, or an Egyptian who has an Israeli as one of his best friends.  You forget about what is the foreign policy and politics, and you just go down to a person-level, to human beings who need a living.”

When Sami first lived in Astoria a one bedroom apartment would rent for $375 or $400.  “Now we’re talking about $1400 for a one bedroom studio,” he says.  I see a lot of movement from Manhattan to Astoria, because in only 10 to 15 minutes you are in the heart of the city but the rent is still cheaper here.  A lot of middle class working couples move to the neighborhood.  To accommodate this movement, they open a lot of cafés which didn’t exist before, there were just small stores here and there.

“Some of those new cafés cost maybe a million or so.  They are doing a great business, and in turn attract more crowds, and I think that is why the rents here have never gone down, even though real estate has been busted and the rent went down almost everywhere else.”

Sami has no plans to try moving again though.  He says as long as he is in the US, he will stay in Astoria.

 

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Interview

Casey Sullivan – Chef at Queens Comfort

Casey Sullivan - in the kitchen at Queens Comfort

30th Ave is becoming foodier by the week it seems.  Last weekend I spoke with chef Casey Sullivan.  He’s the Executive Chef at Queens Comfort, which opened in February this year on 30th Ave just East of Steinway.   Casey is originally from Los Angeles but has lived in many different parts of the US: Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas City, Chicago…

“I am pretty into America!” he says.  “I am a really big proponent of American culture.  And I think that especially in the food world, historically it hasn’t had the respect that it deserves.”

Casey came to New York from Chicago with his girlfriend when she got a job as the head bartender at Café Boulud in Manhattan.  The co-founders of Queens Comfort, Donnie D’Alessio and Avery Thompson, were looking for a chef specializing in comfort food.  Soon, via a Craigslist ad, Casey joined their team.  He commutes to the restaurant from Washington Heights.

Donnie and Avery were in the film business before they set up Queens Comfort.  You can tell.  Movies are projected onto the back wall (without the sound) and there are piles of film magazines next to the usual flyers about what’s going on in Astoria.   “When we don’t talk about food we talk about movies,” Casey says.

It’s clear that the food comes first though.   On the rotating menu you might find pulled pork sandwiches, grilled corn with Tabasco and mayo, fried chicken with biscuit.  “My absolute favorite food to eat and to cook is fried chicken,” says Casey.  “It’s one of the things with the most variances and different schools of thought – everyone thinks theirs is the best.”  He adds that he knows theirs is the best in Astoria…and he thinks it’s the best in New York.

“This place is very different for where it’s at,” Casey says.  “There are places like it in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side in Manhattan that do well doing this kind of thing.  Here it’s new.  The reason it’s a success is because people who like it love it.”

Casey buys a lot of the vegetables for Queens Comfort from the Greenmarket in Union Square.  “There’s nothing more fun than going to the market and grabbing the green tomatoes and a big bag of corn.”  Organically and locally-reared meat is harder to source though.  “You’re looking at adding ten bucks onto a dish.  We do what we can, and use the local butchers here along 30th Ave – we make a call to tell them what we want then walk down the street to pick it up.”

Casey says that the “career” of cooking used to mean you would follow a European route – the word “chef” is a French word after all.  “But I don’t want to eat crepes!  I just don’t want to do it!  I would be running a losing race if I tried to cook French food better than a French guy.  But the same thing holds the other way.  Bring any French guy in here and try to get him to cook our food!”  Casey did a lot of his training working alongside experienced chefs in Kansas City, where “there’s really great barbeque, and where you can find grits on a fine dining menu.”

Casey says that he sees cooking as a craft.  “Like laying bricks, but laying bricks really well.  The middle class in this country, the workers, used to be artisans and craftsmen.  They didn’t necessarily design great buildings but they built great buildings.  Someone designed the Chrysler building, but there were guys who built it, and that’s amazing.

“That’s in some way what I think that we do as chefs.  You know, you pay attention to something, you do everything right, you do it the way you were told to do it, you might find faster ways to do it but you don’t cut any corners.  That’s a craft.  It’s one of the few crafts left in the country that you can make money doing.”

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Interview

Carlos Hiraldo – English Professor

Carlos Hiraldo (outside Frank's Bakery, source of his favorite chocolate croissants)

An up-front disclosure: Carlos Hiraldo is my husband.  We spoke for this interview in our apartment, on the third floor of a house on 30th Drive.  30th Avenue is the main street we go down every day, for everything – to buy food, to take our son to daycare or the playground, to get the subway for work and elsewhere.  To get a drink, or just to stroll…

Carlos is an English Professor and a writer.  He teaches at La Guardia Community College, part of the City University of New York.  Much of what he teaches is composition, often using novels and poems to do so.  “The students are of all ages and from all over the world,” he says.  “La Guardia calls itself the ‘World’s Community College’.  Slogans are slogans but to an extent it’s true.”

Carlos says the most satisfying part of his work is seeing his students improve as writers.  The challenge is dealing with those who don’t.  “It’s hard to admit as an educator in this country that not every student is going to learn, not every student is going to pass.  The rhetoric is that everybody can learn and do well.  Obviously that’s just not the case.”

His academic writing focuses on identity.  “Whether that’s race, or class, etc.  What is your identity, how do you deal with it, and how do you make it a positive rather than a negative.  Often identity can be a negative.  If for example people believe that being Latino or being black is being uneducated, then that’s an identity that’s harming you.  So it’s teaching people to be flexible about their identity.”

Carlos also writes poems.  “I don’t have a method.  They just come from my life, from feeling something strongly.”  (Two examples are here and here).

A native New Yorker, Carlos sees similar attitudes between people born here and people who move here from abroad, as opposed to those who move to New York from elsewhere in the US.  “It depends on who you are.  But native New Yorkers and immigrants from abroad whether they are Latinos, Asians, Eastern Europeans, tend to see the city as home and are invested in it, even if at some point they move on.  Internal immigrants often see it in utilitarian terms.  Like, ‘I want to be an actor so I come to New York to be an actor’, or ‘I want to be in finance, so I come to New York to be in finance.’”

Carlos was born at New York Presbyterian Hospital in upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights.  His parents both came to New York from the Dominican Republic.  “The first four years when my parents were together we lived on a quiet block on 171st street,” he says.  “I remember green trees.  For some reason I don’t remember the winters during the first few years of my life.”

An early memory from that time is him and his older sister running quickly past the ramps of the hospital opposite, calling it “el peligro,” frightened that the security guards would shoot them.  “We had vivid imaginations.  I guess my mom had said at some point ‘no corran por allí porque es un peligro,’ and that’s what we called it.”

Carlos’ mom worked in a factory that made dolls – Madame Alexander Doll Company – on 131st Street.  “It was a luxury doll company where each doll probably cost more than she made in one day.”  His father drove a cab, and would pick him up from school each day at 3pm to get a late lunch.  “It meant I ate lunch late around 3 then I would eat dinner at 6 or 7.  Sometimes I would also eat lunch in school because I couldn’t wait.”

At his high school in the Bronx Carlos’ teachers praised his writing.  At first he wanted to be a journalist and do a communications major, then switched to work towards becoming an English professor.  After studying in Boston he moved back to New York, living in Inwood for a while.  He moved to Long Island to get his PhD at Stony Brook University, then returned to Washington Heights and eventually moved to Sunnyside in Queens, to be closer to the job at La Guardia which he happened to start on September 11, 2001.

Carlos moved to Astoria in 2009, when we were expecting our son.  He says that Astoria stands out from other parts of the city he has lived in because there is so much going on within the neighborhood, and the long-time residents and newcomers generally mix well.  “In Washington Heights there wasn’t that much to do around the area.  That was true in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even now that it’s more gentrified.  There are few options in Washington Heights itself unless you’re a native Dominican, or a criminal (which is not the same thing though some might like to think so!).

“In Sunnyside there are some bars to go to, but if you haven’t grown up in the neighborhood, even if you are from New York, you don’t necessarily feel comfortable in those places.  There are more places in Astoria that are inviting to all kinds.  You see people in them who have probably grown up in the neighborhood and you see people who have been here just a couple of years like us.”  One of Carlos’ favorite spots along 30th Avenue itself is Frank’s bakery on the corner of 36th Street.  “They make the best chocolate croissants I’ve ever tasted.”

He adds: “If possible I’d like to see that mix of old and new in the people, but only the old in the buildings!  The landscape is in flux and that kind of saddens me.  I don’t think the whole city should look like Manhattan.”

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Interview

Kristijana Jakulj – Hair stylist

Kristijana Jakulj

Kristijana Jakulj came to New York from Croatia in 2002 with her husband for their honeymoon.  They didn’t go back.  She likes to say that she’s still on her honeymoon.  She works at GiGi Salon & Styling Studio on 30th Ave.

For the first eight years that they were in New York, Kristijana and her husband lived on 30th Avenue at 44th Street.  This May they moved a few blocks up the same street.  “It was very hard to move,” she says.  “For me it was like moving from Croatia to here!”

She’s now settled in the new apartment and loves the sound of the overland train passing by in the mornings, though sometimes she misses the convenience of having everything right on their doorstep along 30th Ave.  Kristijana says that there is quite a big Croatian community in Astoria, with lots of Croatian bars and restaurants around Broadway.

Kristijana knew she wanted to be a hair stylist from around the age of six.  Every time that they went to a bookstore she would pick out something about hair instead of buying a regular kids book.  Her fashion-designer mom was upset by her choice, at that time.  “She always wanted me to go into college or something.”

When it came to sign up for school she was supposed to put down three options: her first choice and then two back-ups.  She put hair styling as number one and left the second two blank.  “What I most enjoy is that it’s like an art,” she says.  “And it’s so nice to know that you’re making someone really happy.”

Kristijana was in her teens during the war in Croatia.  Her town, Split, was not badly affected directly, though “it did affect the whole country in some way.  I remember us going to school and then sirens warning us to leave the buildings and go under the ground.  My mom always had a bag of stuff ready next to her bed.  And we had to turn the lights off after 4pm.”

The economy in Croatia was bad after the war.  When they came to New York, Kristijana’s husband, who had been in the restaurant business in Croatia, found work in construction.  Kristijana quickly found a job in a hair salon.  When the salon’s co-owner GiGi set up his own studio on 30th Ave in 2005 she relocated there.

In 2010, “City’s Best” selected the GiGi Salon as the best hair salon in New York City.  “I think what makes it good here is the team that we have,” says Kristijana.  “The second thing is that it’s really well organized.  And the third thing is the good management.”

For the first eight years in New York she worked non-stop without a vacation or leaving the country.  Finally last year she could go back to Croatia for a visit.  “It was very emotional.  I hadn’t seen my mother or father for all that time.  It was when we touched down in my city that I started crying.  It’s weird, but I felt insecure in my own country.  It was like I don’t belong here anymore.  It was so weird to hear no English, only my language.  I would catch myself saying ‘thank you’”.

Since then she has been back two more times.  “Now, when I’m here in New York I miss Croatia, and when I’m in Croatia I miss America.”  She says that in an ideal world, she would be able to spend six months of the year in each.