Love Letters to New York – Astoria

I used to share a tiny, tiny place on the Upper East side. I knew the moment I moved in that I shouldn’t let this last.

I househunted extensively. I wanted a place not more than thirty minutes from work. That eliminated most of eastern Queens and Brooklyn, all of Staten Island and The Bronx. I wanted a safe place. That eliminated ‘East Williamsburg’, Queensboro/Queensbridge, Bed-Stuy. I wanted an affordable place. That eliminated all of Manhattan.

After a month of wild hunting, I found an apartment in Astoria.

Astoria is a charming little place by the river in Queens. It was primarily a Greek neighborhood, and now you see a lot of Bangladeshis there as well, and there are quite a few mosques and ethnic grocery stores. Steinway St has a Little Morocco, with tons of Moroccan and Turkish restaurants and sheesha places. And lots of transplants, like me.

Broadway and 30th Avenue are apparently the ‘Heart of Astoria’. You understand why when you get off the N/Q trains at these stops. Right off the bat, you can see these streets bustling with activity. The bright lights are always on. They are not dotted just by bars and karaoke spots, but also many, many, varied restaurants, and by cafes. There are mom-and-pop grocery stores, with their front displays made of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables, a variety you wouldn’t find at any Whole Foods or Fairway in Manhattan. Here and there you find falafel and shawarma carts, most notable of which is the highly reviewed King of Falafel and Shawarma on 30th and Broadway. Walk a little further down Broadway, and the smell of frying meat hits you. You see the source to the left. It’s the souvlaki guy of 32nd st. If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll see a huge huge crowd around him, of people young and old. On any other day, you find the regulars. Pot-bellied, sharp-featured Mediterranean men, squat Hispanic men, speaking what sounds to me like Turklish and Spanglish.

I took a friend to Omonia Cafe, on 33rd and Broadway. I wasn’t a cake-and-pastries person until then. This friend’s affection for the rich cheesecakes there got me addicted too. Nowhere else have I found nutella cheesecake. Their strawberry shortcake is literally the best thing I’ve had. And once I’ve OD’ed on their cream puffs.

You walk all the way down Broadway, take a left on Steinway and a left again on 30th Ave, you would literally have counted restaurants of atleast a dozen ethnicities along your way. And all of them are great. Well, most. There’s actually a bunch of us who sample a new restaurant in Astoria every couple of weeks. We haven’t yet covered the entirety of 30th Ave.

If my memory serves right, there was an historic match between Croatia and Serbia earlier this year. There were two bars on Broadway alone which were filled with fans in Croatian gear, signs on their door in Croatian, and the street was full of excited people draped in Croatian flags. It looked festive as a Mumbai street while Sachin was batting.

But judging Astoria by its food alone is like judging The Met by the number of exhibits. I’ll come to that later.

Going further north along 31st St, you find the TriBoro bridge. What I really like there is the sheer number of basketball and squash courts under the bridge. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are endless playgrounds on both sides of Hoyt Ave, and many with swings, something I particularly love.

Walk further along, and you find Astoria Park, by the river. There’s a running track, grassy knolls, tennis courts, and endless intrusive Bangla uncles who really want to know why a skinny Indian girl lives in Astoria and comes to run in Astoria park.

And then there’s the East River. Which is kind of a mess, really. But you look across, see the TriBoro bridge on one side, and Hell’s Gate bridge on the other side, slightly pink. And Manhattan right across. Oh, and the top of Roosevelt Island too.

But that’s not the best view. You walk down Shore Blvd, parallel to the river, though you can’t quite see it. You see massive bungalows on both sides of the street, with their dobermanns and hounds. Large wroughtiron gates, through which you can see pretty gardens, with an endless menagerie of Hellenic sculptures and fountains. As you walk further down, the houses get smaller, but no less prettier. Beautifully colored flowers dot every garden, which have perfectly-proportioned Greek statuettes or garden gnomes. You see an Orthodox church or two.

When you hit Astoria Blvd, the look changes. Graffiti everywhere. Not quite 5pointz, but beautiful, original. Quite unlike San Francisco graffiti which feels very sold out. You keep going until you get Vernon Blvd.

Socrates Park. With its modern sculptures. A wall of blue plastic bags. An obstacle course. A bear eating a man. A treehouse. And a seeing tube. You look through it and realize you literally have the most beautiful view of Manhattan from the east side, and you stand by the river, or lounge in the deck chairs, absorbing every pixel you see.

And if you’re feeling particularly touristy, try the Noguchi museum. Or walk further down Broadway and find the Museum of Moving Images.

When I was househunting one dark October evening, I found there a host of vans parked by 31st and Ditmars. And tons of women in prison clothes. I shivered. There were police vans. I wanted to get back into the N train and return to Manhattan, but then I saw huge lighting units. What’s going on, I asked the man behind the lights. Shooting a new series, he said. For Netflix. Oh, he meant I could catch the series on Netflix.

Apparently you could catch it only on Netflix, as I found out less than a year later, when they aired Orange Is The New Black.

So, yes, Astoria has tons of cool stuff. But that doesn’t nail what I love about it. What I love is the ecosystem that allows these things to exist.

The small businesses that line the street aren’t a result of a Williamsburgish support-small-businesses initiative. They just exist, because the people love them, and have been patrons for years. I once walked in to a cafe on Ditmars, and as I started eating my flan, suddenly a bunch of old Greek men settled around me, at my table. They pulled out their newspapers and began discussing politics and sports. I was nonplussed, finished my flan quick and shot the waitress a look. All she would say was ‘You’re at their regular table, honey’. Who knows, twenty years hence, someone of my generation would be at the now-brandnew Astoria Bookshop at an event, lounging in their ‘regular spot’.

I’ve only been here a little more than a year, but Astoria feels very stubbornly middleclass and multiethnic. The profusion of dollar stores, the fresh produce on the streets and in the farmers market, the familiar business owners who make it a point to know all their customers add to the feel. It is what it is because its residents don’t just want it to be so, but need it to be so. A safe place for your kids to play in parks, your elderly to find likeminded friends, a store for every need and want, and all not twenty minutes from Manhattan.

The most dangerous thing in this neighborhood, I maintain, is only the chattering old ladies off Hoyt Ave who will find you and talk your head off.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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