Although I had never been to Astoria before, the moment I stepped foot off the train I knew I was in the right place. Astoria’s clash of cultures was almost entirely embodied by the single intersection of Broadway and 31st street with “Ittadi Grocery & Halal Meat” an Indian grocery store, sitting directly next door to “Barril Grille” a Brazilian restaurant, which was directly across the street from “Parisi Bros. Bakery”. I was utterly amazed by the embodiment of three distinct cultures literally on each other’s doorstep. Cassandra Lee and I had the goal of visiting Astoria to experience its multitude of cultures, and our mission was complete less than two minutes from exiting the train. Feeling as though we should probably delve further however, we ventured forth.
We walked along Steinway Street to see what else the neighborhood had to offer but was unpleasantly surprised when we ended up walking several blocks of endless clothing, electronic, and 99cent stores, with not a trace of the Arab, Greek, or Brazilian cultures we were in search for. Once we reached the end of the shopping strip however, we began to see the presence of the unmistakable Middle Eastern culture with hookah bars and Halal butchers on every block. Continuing our way up Steinway Street with the ultimate goal of finding the Steinway & Sons factory, the neighborhood soon became a land of warehouses, factories, and trash yards. From car mechanics, to coffee distributers, to the home of Ronzoni pasta, this part of Astoria was much more industrial than cultural.
Finally making our way to the infamous Steinway & Sons piano factory, we attempted to interview someone to discuss the history and development of Steinway in Astoria but the welcoming receptionist kindly rejected us saying, “Anyone I could send you to talk to would be too busy to cater to interviews”. Failing at what could have been an extremely enlightening experience, we went ventured south along 31st street to see a different side of Astoria.
Walking along 31st street, we unintentionally delved into the Greek side of Astoria. With unmistakable names like “Athens Cafe”, “Neptune Diner”, “St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church”, and “Titan Foods Inc.” we made our way through Greek diners, Greek Orthodox churches, European specialty supermarkets, and variety stores that catered quite specifically to Greeks with a multitude of flags in the window and much of the advertisements in Greek.
Closer towards 36th avenue is when the Brazilian culture began to show its face with Brazilian restaurants, wax salons, bars, supermarkets, and travel agencies. The Brazilian community was not as centralized as the Greek and Arab because many of the Brazilian establishments were scattered throughout the neighborhood, but that did not diminish the distinctly Brazilian presence. On the corner of 36th avenue and 32nd street, we came upon “Rio Market”, a central hotspot of Brazilian culture containing a grocery store, a luncheonette, a newsstand, a jeweler, and a travel agency. When we walked into Rio Market, I was amazed by how much of Brazil was contained inside such a small store. Having been to Brazil twice, I was familiar with the products being sold and was delighted to smell the home made empanadas that I have only ever had in Brazil.
In search for someone to interview, we struck a dead end when the only person who worked in the store who spoke English was too busy to be interrupted. Just as we were about to call it a quits and leave however, a man, in perfect English, came up to us and asked us what we needed help with. The man’s name was Breno DeAlmeida, a local to the neighborhood and frequent shopper at Rio Market. He explained to us that Astoria’s Brazilian population has increased drastically from the 1980s because of its declining economy, but as of the last few years, many Brazilians from the neighborhood have been moving back to Brazil because of its rising economy. He himself came to America when he was 17 to study business at NYU and now works at JP Morgan as a marketing director. When asked about the immigration stories of other Brazilians he knows, Breno replied, “It’s extremely sad because it’s rare for a Brazilian to have shared the same fate as me. Many of my people come here and are forced to give up their professions to shoeshine, clean garbage, and do rat work. It hurts me.” According to Breno, Astoria has a vibrant Brazilian community in which everyone knows each other. Establishments such as Rio Market and certain Brazilian cafes are social landmarks among the community. After being amazed by Breno’s pure kindness towards us and our curiosity, we thanked him for the interview and made our way back to the train, feeling as though we were re-entering New York City from a supermarket in Brazil.