I ventured into Astoria several times to collect photographs, each time yearning for better lighting conditions, but alas, spring showers got the better of me each time. However, regardless of the dreary gray of the sky, the mix of colors and diversity of the neighborhood was unmistakable and stood out, a plethora of different awnings and skin colors dotting the street like an ethnic rainbow. When Nick and I first exited the train station, I was overwhelmed by the smells of food from several different restaurants, which, like the people, were mixing, but not quite blending together as they wafted through the rainy air.
As we made our way several blocks down Broadway, we walked past Irish bars with names like McLoughlin’s, Italian restaurants and pizzerias, several Middle Eastern groceries, a Colombian café, and even a Cuban-Chinese fusion restaurant. Astoria was a perfect mosaic of ethnicity, with stores from cultures originally thousands of miles apart sitting literally right next to each other along the street.
On Broadway between 35th and 36th Streets, we found the Greater Astoria Historical Society housed on the fourth floor of a building shared with a funeral home and a florist. Staffed by a single employee, the historical society contained surprisingly little. There were no Astoria residents to interview, nor were there specific cultural references in any of the exhibits, but one collection of photographs in particular was intriguing. Called Then and Now, by Astoria’s own Gary Vollo, the series of pictures compared images of places in Astoria a century ago to those taken in the exact same places in 2009. It was stunning how much the neighborhood had changed; roads had been paved, skyscrapers erected, and though the elevated train line had not changed, its use for public transportation was certainly a relatively recent development.
Gary Vollo’s own story was very similar to that of many immigrants who grew up in cultural hubs around New York City; he lived the majority of his life in Astoria, recalling fondly the Greek and Italian neighborhood of his childhood, but now, as a professor at CUNY Laguardia Community College, he has moved into Long Island to raise his own family. Upon his visits to Astoria, he is stunned at how rapidly it is changing. When taking the photographs for the Then and Now project, he realized that Astoria would never again be that same neighborhood of his childhood.
Nick and I then made our way down towards Steinway Street in search of the Steinway & Son’s piano factory. Along the way, we saw a plethora of clothing, electronic, and 99-cent stores, each offering different products, from shelves lined from ceiling to floor with multi-colored hookah pipes, to boutiques offering clothing from Brazil, to neighboring Greek and Italian menswear stores. In terms of food and services, we particularly noted an increase in Middle Eastern hookah lounges and butchers advertising their Halal meat.
As we continued along Steinway, the stores slowly tapered off, becoming increasingly residential, and then industrial, as we walked. By the time we reached the Steinway & Son’s factory, we were completely surrounded by large industrial buildings, the majority of which, notably, were factories of family owned businesses. Ronzoni’s, Rienzi & Son’s, White Coffee Corporation, and Steinway & Son’s were all originally small, immigrant-run companies who moved into Queens for the cheap rent, but eventually flourished. Especially interesting was the fact that the Steinway Mansion was merely a block from the Steinway & Son’s factory. Nick and I marveled at the idea of walking out of your house and to your own factory only one block away. When we had the misfortune of not being able to interview anybody in the factories, we walked back towards the heart of Astoria to walk under the elevated train tracks on 31st Street.
Again, we passed Irish bars, Italian restaurants, and a plethora of Greek buildings, including massive churches and gleaming diners. The real estate and law offices sported typical Greek and Italian names. The new establishments were mostly of Latino origin; Brazilian shops were common, as well as stores which boasted Colombian and Mexican cuisines or clothing. We finally reached Rio Market on the corner of 31st Street and 36th Avenue, exhausted from our traipsing nearly five miles in the rain. Like so many of the stores we had passed through the day, the Rio Market is a piece of culture cut from another country and placed in a New York setting. The colors and smells overwhelmed the senses as soon as we walked through the doors, reminding me of when I had first gotten off the train hours before. Like New York itself, Astoria is a hodgepodge of people of many origins thrown together in one small space. When a neighborhood flourishes as Astoria has, it is because the immigrants and their descendants have learned to live with people of other countries and have borrowed from their cultures without losing their own.