Vasilios Ioannou: “This was the first fruit shop along 30th Ave.”
Bobby Kartsagoulis helped to set up Eliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable (otherwise known as the 30th Avenue Fruit Market) in 1972. He had moved to the USA from Greece in 1963, living first in Canada before he moved to New York.
The store sells fruit, vegetables and nuts, primarily from the US: from California, Georgia and Florida. Bobby’s own favorite fruit is oranges. “They were everywhere in Sparta,” he says. “They are the king of fruit.”
He says the Greek community in Astoria may be getting a bit smaller but it is still strong. Many of the people he knew when he first moved to Astoria still live here.
The neighborhood has “changed too much,” he says. “When I arrived most people were Greek and Italian. Now there are people from all over.” He says he continues to enjoy Astoria for its cafés, and the fact that you can easily find Greek food products.
Frank Arcabascio owns Redken Saloon Salon, on 30th Ave between 36th and 37th Streets. “Saloon” is in the name because the color bottles at the back of the salon are stacked like drinks behind a bar.
“I knew very young that I wanted to be a hairdresser,” says Frank. “I used to work at my cousins’ barbershop over near Our Lady of Mount Carmel church. It’s called Joseph’s Hair Place. It’s actually still there. I used to sweep the floor and clean up to make tips, I used to shine shoes. I knew early on the power of a good haircut.
That salon was a very blue collar barbershop. You would see men walk in filthy dirty. Many of them construction workers. I’d wash their hair. Then from the neck up my cousins would transform those guys. Between trimming their moustache, their beards, their haircut. And they’d walk out looking amazing. The idea of transforming a person is so powerful. They’d come in looking oh, terrible and they’d walk out looking like Clark Gable sometimes.
My cousins were very early in the field with the unisex thing, and always going to seminars. And they kept progressing. As a young kid I was like ‘yeah, let’s go to a different hair show in the city today, or visit other salons.’
I like working on long hair. Now I can give people long hair. In the past you could only cut hair. That kind of transformed my career. About 10 years ago I took courses in Great Lengths Hair Extensions. We were one of the few businesses doing it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we started getting outsourced by the salons that didn’t want to loose their clients, so we developed accounts for doing hair extensions. We have over 18 accounts now.
You don’t just work on hair you work on a person. So it’s fun to ask a person what are the highlights of their hair, what they like, their best haircuts, their worst haircuts, what’s going to make them happy now. And achieving those things. I can see someone’s head of hair and you immediately see what you can do on it. But that’s what I want to do. Sometimes the person wants a fantasy idea that they don’t have the hair for. That’s where you learn diplomacy and tact.
I’m in Manhattan now two days a week – four in Astoria and two in Manhattan. If I were in Manhattan only I’d go nuts, and likewise if I were in Astoria alone. I’d go nuts in Manhattan because they have a lot of money, they are very high-powered career people and are very demanding. That’s not the problem itself exactly, because I like clear parameters. But on 30th Ave in Astoria you’re considered an authority. It’s more of an even playing field. When you’re in the city you’re more of a service person, unless you’re in one of the top places. I think we’re all equal and we just choose to do different things.
My own kids aren’t that interested in my business but my nieces do work here. I was brought up in Jackson Heights but now live in Long Island, and that’s where my kids grew up. So even though I grew up near here, started a business here and now work here 4 days a week, they didn’t grow up here.
Two of them are going to college. They’re probably going to go into the corporate world and jump into Manhattan. But they want to live in Astoria. I own this building and they’re going to take the apartment upstairs. So they don’t want to work in Astoria, but they do want to live here.
The thing that comes first into my mind when I think of 30th Ave is the salon, of course. But also the business community more broadly. The people. And the cafés. That’s the new thing. It’s a fun place to be. In ’93 when I opened the business here there were no cafés. There were a lot of delicatessens and dry cleaners. You know, just that’s the way New York was then.
Recently I was in Central Park, on the West Side by Strawberry Fields. And we came out of the park and wanted to find a café to sit down and eat outside. We didn’t find any. I started to realize. I thought since when does 30th Avenue beat Columbus Avenue, or Amsterdam Avenue? I want people to be proud of how many nice things we have and how down to earth it still is.
If you cannot afford to live in Manhattan you eventually find your way to Astoria. That’s the life of the neighborhood, it’s the young people. It’s always been this way. People think oh, all of a sudden people from Manhattan are starting to live in Astoria. I’ve been working round here since 1971. There were always people living here who couldn’t afford Manhattan. Actors, actresses, artists. Now it’s just become a little more commercial with the cafés. A place where someone from Manhattan might come and visit and hang out. Years ago it was only people living here, who went to work in the city.
There have been previous incarnations of the 30th Avenue Business Association but the current one started in 1999. The way it started was we wanted to have holiday lighting in the streets. Everybody was asked to chip in, but not everybody would contribute. So we organized a street festival. Everyone who sponsors the festival pays around $6-7000, and we use that money for the holiday lights.
I am currently president of the association, and was also its president from 2002-4. At that time I called up Barnes & Nobel and asked them about putting one up here on 30th Avenue. They said they can’t. The stores are too small. They need 10,000 square feet. Two thousand, which is the largest size along here – many of them are 400 or 500 square feet – most mom and pop stores and family businesses operate in that space range. The franchises want a much larger space range. So in many ways it’s the size of the stores that will ‘save’ the street, if you will.
That’s not to say you don’t have to do the newest and latest. Like we use Facebook and Twitter. You have to embrace the new technology but it’s still a family business embracing it. I use a brand – Redken – to get the attention, but I’m still a family business. Redken themselves would only be on Fifth Avenue, I brought Redken to 30th Ave. A franchise has a corporate bureaucracy. A family will bring in new ideas, trendy ideas and can change on a dime.”
I spoke with Martha Heredia and her nephew Elvis Raymundo in Grand Avenue Laundromat. Martha works there. Elvis had dropped in to see his aunt on his way to play football nearby.
I came here from Mexico in 1990. For 15 years I worked in clothing factories – six years in Manhattan and nine near Queensboro Plaza. The factory owners were Korean but they spoke Spanish perfectly. That’s why I’ve never learned English. [We had this conversation in Spanish].
Then the one for whom I had been working for nine years got tired of living and working here. He sold the factory and went back to his country. The work changed and I didn’t like what they did so I left.
I had a baby girl and took a bit of time out. Then I got work in a laundromat, where I was trained on the job. It was a big laundromat, and good work, but I didn’t like the way the managers were. That was when I thought of asking in here for work, in Grand Avenue Laundromat. I had moved to the neighborhood when I got married, after spending three years living in Manhattan. I lived for a bit on Crescent Street but the apartment there was very small. Then I found my current apartment on 35th Street that I love. I’ve been there 18 years now. So I had always come here to wash my clothes but till then it hadn’t occurred to me to ask. I got the job, and now I work five minutes from my home.
I have a sister who lives in Mexico but my other four siblings and my parents all live here. I’ve only been back to Mexico twice in 21 years. There’s no need because practically all my family is here.
I live on 36th Street. I’ve got two more years to go in high school and then plan to go to culinary college. I’d like to be a chef. Not necessarily have my own restaurant, it’s hard to manage a restaurant. To be a chef. My favorite food to cook is Mexican and Italian.
This is a peaceful neighborhood. There are no problems except sometimes when people from other parts come through, that’s all. Generally it’s peaceful.
There weren’t so many businesses here 18 years ago. The cafés and things are recent. It’s nice during the summer when the street is full of people. And in the night time you don’t have to worry about things. We close at midnight and there are still businesses open, people in the street. When my girl was small we would walk out here late at night (we slept late in the mornings, so she’d be up late), and she loved it.
Everyone knows her round here. We know the business owners and the workers alike. Some of the young people come here to live while they study and then they leave. But most of the people in the neighborhood I have known for years and years.
Heather Petruzelli is a singer and voice teacher who has lived in Astoria since 1998. Singers have gravitated towards Astoria, she says, because it is relatively close to mid-town and the Upper West Side where a lot of concerts and shows take place. And it is affordable. Or was – rents now are going up and up. For the same reasons, many others live in Inwood and Washington Heights. “In 1998,” she says, “It was just starting to be the place where people would move instead of Brooklyn.”
Heather was brought up in New Jersey. Her step-grandparents lived in the West Village – she was mesmerized coming into the city in the 70s and 80s and always wanted to live in New York, even though “of course it’s not the same city as it was then.”
She resolved to be a singer from early on, but despite her trips into the city was not exposed to a lot of live music. “You would think that being this close to New York I would have been, but sometimes being the suburbs people just kind of get stuck. When I went to college to study voice all I knew was some musical theater and some things I had sung in chorus. When I did move to the city though, I went all the time. I was like a sponge.”
Heather teaches singing at Cap 21 and AMDA, as well as private lessons in her apartment. Before she started teaching at the two institutions it was hard to find students. “There are a lot of voice teachers. And sometimes people just don’t realize how easy Astoria is to get to. Especially if they live in Manhattan they don’t want to go to the outer boroughs. They think it’s like going to Connecticut or something, when in fact it’s just four stops.”
She teaches students from all over, drawn to New York as a musical center-of-the universe – though the tough reality of how few get anywhere near to realizing their dreams is drummed into them from day one at college, she says. Last year her students included people from Colombia, Ireland, Israel, Norway and Peru.
Sometimes she teaches up to 34-35 hours a week. She enjoys seeing her students’ potential, problem-solving with them, and helping them achieve what they want to achieve. The more she got into teaching, “the less I was driven to be in the rat-race” of performing professionally. “There are not a lot of opportunities for opera and I’m about ten years older than most people who are auditioning. Plus you have to have so much money and determination to be singing full time.”
When Heather does perform she loves Puccini. “That’s where my voice likes to go. There’s that kind of heart-on-your-sleeve thing going on. We don’t get to behave that way in real life. Story lines aside, there’s the music itself. It takes you on a ride that I don’t experience with other things when I’m singing. I love singing Strauss as well.”
Her top 30th Ave haunts are the Indian restaurant Seva, SAI Organics, Grand Café and the fruit and vegetable stores on the corner of 33rd Street. Like so many who live here she says the neighborhood is changing fast. “In the last five years you’ve seen the change, even more so just in the past year. The storefronts have changed dramatically. There used to be a lot more Greek-dominated businesses. Now there are more 20-30 somethings’ hip places. Like Sweet Afton, Mexi-Q and others. The area will become more homogenized and super-white. Unless the fish-markets and places like that can really hold their ground I think it could become like another Williamsburg. God I hope not.”
“We have one participant of 92, another of 93,” says Olga Oukacine, Director of the Astoria branch of the Spanish Speaking Elderly Council-RAICES, on 30th Drive. Up to eighty participants attend the center each day, though some have found it harder to make it recently because of the cold weather.
“We have people from Dominican Republic , Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador,” says Olga, who herself is from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The council is funded by the NYC Department for the Aging. It provides advice on immigration, English classes, health check-ups, and activities like bingo and zumba exercise. The council throws monthly parties for everyone who has had a birthday that month. But the most popular activity of all, says Olga: “Es bailar. Merengue, salsa…”.
Olga moved to New York in 1974. She first lived in Corona, Queens and moved to Astoria seven years ago. She started working for RAICES as a volunteer at their Corona center. “I really enjoyed it, and learned so much. The first position that came up –I got the job. From there I’ve carried on learning, learning. I feel good when I’m helping people.” She worked a year at one of RAICES four centers in Brooklyn and started working at the Astoria center in 1999. She loves Astoria for its “tranquilidad”.
Many of the new participants find out about the council through word of mouth from existing ones. They are also referred after making 311 calls. Once they have found it, a lot of them attend every day.
Olga says that the challenging part of her job is that, “hay algunos de los participantes que son un poco difíciles,” – some of the participants can be a bit difficult. “They think that things should be just as they want them to be. Carácteres fuertes.”
The most satisfying aspect: “When most of the participants first come here they are depressed in some way. Some of them may be alone, others are living with family and may have problems with their son, or the husband of their daughter…different kinds of problems. When they come here they forget those problems. Their depression goes away.”
Teofila Cambeiro is one of the participants who comes every day. Teofila is originally from Spain. As a young woman she used to come on vacation to New York. On one visit she met and fell in love with her soon-to-be-husband, who was also Spanish but lived here. She moved to New York 50 years ago and for 49 has lived in Astoria. “Me encanta vivir en Astoria,” she says. “Es como que fuera mi casa, mi barrio, mi gente.”
When her husband died two and a half years ago Teofila started coming to the council, which happens to be on the same block as her apartment. “Yo me quedé sola. Realmente es lo mejor que me ha podido pasar.” “I found myself alone. This is really is the best thing that could have happened.
“I come all the five days that it opens. If it opened seven days a week, I would come seven. I may be the only Spanish person here, but I feel like I’m all nationalities.”
On a hot day last summer a group of mothers and babies clustered around one of the picnic tables in Astoria’s Studio Square beer garden. Chile was playing Spain in the World Cup. The mothers were penned in by pint-clutching Chile fans riveted to the game on a big screen at one end of the garden.
I was there with two-month old Jack snoozing in his stroller. I was enjoying watching the older babies playing on the table, amazed that one day he’d be like that. They were smiling and sitting. Holding things! One of the other mothers was novelist Marcy Dermansky, with her then eleven-month old daughter Nina.
A New York Times journalist was present too, profiling Dermansky’s latest novelBad Marie. The novel is about a nanny, the eponymous Marie, who runs off both with the father of the baby she’s looking after and the baby herself, two-year-old Caitlin.
This weekend I interviewed Marcy for this website, accompanied by our babies. Jack is now sitting, holding things and smiling a lot. Nina is almost counting to six. I asked Marcy whether she feels she would have written the Caitlin character any differently now that she has a daughter of her own (the book went to print just before Nina was born).
“So far I feel like I haven’t got anything all that wrong,” she says. “But I think if I were writing it now I might not feel as much sympathy towards the Marie character. She does something so bad. People make jokes about my babysitters running off with Nina – and well…”
“You don’t find them so funny?”
“No. So I think maybe it would have been harder to write her if I had had a child of my own at that time. My friends with little babies read that book and it makes them uncomfortable.”
Marcy was raised in Englewood New Jersey. She has also lived in San Francisco, New Orleans, and spent a year in the Dominican Republic (“My husband had a job for a start-up translating company there, and I had a year of working on a book and swimming.”). She moved to Astoria ten years ago.
“I certainly didn’t know I’d be here for this long. I came to New York and people said ‘move to Queens, it’s happening, and its cheap’. We like it so we’ve stayed and have moved a couple of times around here. Astoria is very community-oriented. I’ve almost liked it better since having Nina than beforehand, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Suddenly I know my neighbors a lot more. I keep meeting mothers with strollers. People are warm and helpful.”
Her short story “Waiting for Big Bird” is set in Astoria (specifically in Café Bar on 34th Avenue) and is coming out in a forthcoming anthology called “Forgotten Borough – Writers come to terms with Queens.” But she says: “That’s the first time I’ve written about Queens. I think with fiction a lot of times you write about a place after you’ve left it. I’ll probably write more about Queens when I live somewhere else”.
Dermansky does some of her writing in 30th Avenue cafés. Like Harissa (“the food is always delicious”), Gian & Piero bakery by 45th Street (“it’s near an excellent playground”) and Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee (“Nina loves their chairs”). As well as writing her own fiction she edits other people’s novels and stories and writes film reviews. She used to have a daily writing schedule. Now it’s Nina who determines when she does and doesn’t write.
The hardest part of writing a novel, she says, is coming up with the initial idea. “Once you have the idea, you can just write for a couple of hundred pages. That’s what I like about writing novels, they’re long. Every day when you start working you have this book and you keep writing it. The hardest time for me as a writer is when you finish a novel. Starting a new one is very daunting.
I don’t have a gazillion ideas and don’t believe in inspiration. I have to just sit in front of my computer and force myself to work. Then an idea will come. So I don’t normally start with an idea raring to go. I just have to force it.”
For Dermansky, one of the measures of success of a novel is the ending. “I think that it’s when you get to the end of a novel – anybody’s book, not just mine – that you know if it works. If you get to the end and think ‘that’s right’. Sometimes I like to make people cry with my work. That’s always the best thing you can do.”
Dermansky’s characters can take on lives of their own. “I love it when my characters just do something. In Bad Marie, Marie goes to Paris. I didn’t know she was going to do that until she went there. My characters start making decisions without my planning it, because I don’t plan my books. They become these creatures in my head that just do things. Sometimes I get upset if bad things happen to them but I just go through it. It’s a fun process. I like what they say.”
This week’s interview, on 22 January, was with someone who does not live or work on 30th Avenue but who knows a lot about it. Bob Singleton is the Executive Director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.
When historians walk down a street, he said, they see things not only in three dimensions but with a fourth dimension too – time. His interview provides a fourth-dimension perspective of 30th Avenue:
“We’re speaking in the offices of the Greater Astoria Historical Society on the 4th Floor of the Quinn building, in the heart of Long Island City.
The society represents the neighborhoods that comprised Long Island City, one of the three cities that formed greater New York in 1898 – New York, Brooklyn and Long Island City. The goals are to use our past not to weep for what’s lost, but to help build the future. We aim to help people understand and appreciate the heritage of this wonderful neighborhood.
We have some information on the actual birth of 30th Avenue. The original landowner went to Astoria Village and said he wanted to donate some land to start as a street. That was back in the 1850s. It ran from the East River all the way to 51st Street, which at that time was the border of Long Island City. At the beginning, 30th Avenue was simply some empty lots that weren’t filled.
Then the trolley cars started to run along it in the 1870s and 1880s. Small buildings started to line the trolley route. They were mostly houses. In those days the area was well spread out, and most of the shops were along the major streets such as Steinway, Astoria Boulevard or Vernon Boulevard. The shops on 30th Ave came later.
1917 was really the big boost of Grand Avenue, as it was called then, when the elevated train was put in and a station was put up on Grand Avenue. Literally overnight the area became developed into what we see today. It was lined with mostly three-story buildings, some higher. You had the shops and stores on the ground floor, and then in many cases those days the actual owners of the shops would live upstairs.
In the early days there were a lot of German stores. Also many of the shop-owners were Jewish. The shop-owners living upstairs were really part of the neighborhood. They supported the softball teams and local charities. There was a wonderful relationship among 30th Avenue people that started at that time and still exists to this day.
The name changed from Grand Ave to 30th Ave at some point in the 1920s. Queens adopted what is called the Philadelphia system, in which avenues run East and West, streets run North and South. It was a grid that was imposed on the whole borough of Queens. The reason being, Queens was actually an amalgam, with different townships and villages, so there were a number of different Washington Streets, Main Avenues and so on. They decided it would be better to have just one system for the whole area.
Of course populations change, and retailing changes over the time. So what used to be mainly retail stores, small five and ten cent stores as they called them in those days, small grocery and clothing stores, began to evolve. Today if you walk down 30th Avenue you still see some of the original buildings. For example the original police precinct and the original Long Island City Firemen’s Association. The police precinct building is now the HANAC [Community Services Center] building. The Firemen’s Association is now a medical clinic. But as you go between the area between 31st and Steinway Street, which is considered by many people the heart of 30th Avenue, you’ll now see many outdoor cafés, and many food specialty shops. The Greek and Italian communities are well known for their fabulous food and a café society. 30th Avenue today is in as much demand today as it was when it was first laid out many years ago.
It’s hard to say precisely how it will change in the next 10 years. We are seeing much more housing, and taller buildings being put up on 30th Avenue. So it will become much more densely populated, in terms of structures. You’re getting a lot of other ethnic groups too – Bangladeshi, Arabic, Albanian, Mexican, Brazilian etc. – so the area will become still more diverse than it is today.
You are also seeing another interesting demographic, and that’s young urban professionals who are moving to New York City. Unlike in the mid-20th Century, there is a big movement for the best and brightest of our society from all around the world to move into urban areas. That’s even in the United States, where the suburbs were the thing in the mid 20th Century. I think people are rediscovering the benefits of living in a community like ours.
If you walk down 30th Avenue you see all the things that make a neighborhood great. You see vitality, you see interesting people, you see excitement, a buzz in the community. 30th Avenue is one of the finest parts of what is a fabulous neighborhood. One thing we say about Long Island City and Astoria is that is has all the benefits of a great city with all the wonderful aspects of a small town.
I think the future of 30th Avenue in particular, and its surrounding Astoria and Long Island City, is very bright.”
The 30th Avenue sidewalks are quiet on early Sunday mornings, especially when there is snow on the ground. People who are out and about are taking life at a slower place than on the busy weekdays. This Sunday morning I found father and son Abdel and Ahmed Farghaly in the Bakeway café near 29th Street.
Most Sundays they come out and have coffee and breakfast together, sometimes in Bakeway, sometimes to the bakery at 32nd Street, sometimes at 7-Eleven. “There are lots of good places now,” says Abdel. “Before it wasn’t like this.”
Abdel came to New York from Egypt 20 years ago, choosing Astoria because he had friends already here. He works in a packing warehouse, “40 hours a week now, because you know, I’m getting older!” Ahmed, now 12, was born here and goes to school nearby.
“The area has changed a lot, particularly in the last five or six years,” Abdel says. “Especially the area from 21st Street and down to the river. It’s beautiful there now. Before you couldn’t walk over there in the night time. But before you could park anywhere. Now you have to have a tiny little tiny car just to get a spot to park.”
Ahmed hopes to be a heart doctor when he leaves school. When asked if he can see himself staying in Astoria, he replies, “I really would like to go and live in London. There are a lot of doctors there – I want to be a good doctor.”
Sometimes I buy a newspaper by the 30th Ave subway station to read on my way into work. It can feel a bit old-fashioned, unraveling the large paper and turning its pages while trying not to elbow my fellow-passengers, whose attention is focused on their blackberries and i-books (or sometimes on their paper books – I wonder how long that will be the case?).
When I buy the paper, I’m always struck by the choice of languages available. Ali, who works at the newspaper shop on the corner of 30th Ave and 31st Street, says “We have newspapers in all kinds of languages. Italian, Greek, French and Korean. Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, English.”
Ali himself is from Yemen. His father moved to the US in 1969, spending ten years in California before moving to New York. He set up a newspaper stand that became the shop. His father has now died, and Ali runs the business. He starts work at 5am, seven days a week. His mother and sisters still live in Yemen, and he often goes to visit. Regarding the Yemeni community in Astoria, he says that it is small – perhaps 20-30 people – the Yemeni population is much bigger in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“We used to sell mainly English, Greek and Italian papers,” he says. Now Astoria is changing. There are a lot more people buying papers in Albanian, Arabic and Chinese.” But the internet means that times are tough. “People can get their information on the internet for free,” Ali says. “We used to sell 300-400 papers a week. Now it’s more like 100-200.”
“Maybe in the future I’ll start working in a restaurant,” says Ali. He’s not sure he’ll be selling newspapers for ever.