Having only visited the borough of Queens twice in eighteen years of existence, I knew I needed a guide, if I was going to learn anything from my visit to Astoria. I asked my classmate, lifetime Queens resident, and Astoria expert, Maggy Checo to show me around. Having lived in Astoria for seventeen years and the following three very close by, it seemed she had noticed the changes in the neighborhood as they posed contradictions to her childhood memories. The R train brought us to Ditmars. Being the ignorant untraveled boy, I assumed Ditmars was a famous Greek deli or restaurant because I remember people mentioning having Greek food in Ditmars. When discovering that I had an entire neighborhood, or a portion of a neighborhood to explore, the trip gained more depth.
On the train ride there Maggy kept saying there are a lot of “old people” sitting outside shops, and thought she was being absurd. I wondered why Astoria of all places would have extra people of age. Surprisingly, she wasn’t lying. We saw great deal elderly women chatting outside restaurants. Some men too.
While pausing the conversation every three minutes while the train passed, Maggy told me that the tourists miss out because they mainly visit Steinway, but she passionately announced that “there’s more to Astoria than Steinway”. After visiting both Steinway and Ditmars, I was overwhelmed and understood her sentiment.
We were hungry, as any college students that are walking around would be, she pointed to a Mexican Restaurant owned and run by Chinese, Fresca Tortilla. I was skeptical of the ability of the Chinese employees’ Mexican cooking skills, but after struggling to finish a rather large grilled chicken and steak burrito I was a fan. I asked the cashier how they started to cook Mexican food? She was clueless. I didn’t look far for the answer. The back of the menu features a 1992 New York Times review of the place that explained everything. Former owners Mr and Mrs. Zheng have been opening more branches around New York City and thus the current caretakers of the Astoria were unaware of the restaurant’s history. A long tie ago, the Zhengs worked in a Mexican restaurant. After earning enough money and knowledge of Mexican cuisine they opened their own, beginning a whole line of Tex-Mex restaurants. The original Astoria restaurant isn’t grand, but locals eat there regularly anyway Maggy and her friends, Jodi Kumar and Irini Salris confirmed.
I was too full to eat anywhere else, but wanted to know what to look for on my upcoming visits. Maggy said “I think any Greek or Italian restaurant in Astoria is worth going to, because it’s all authentic Greek and Italian food. Neptune, Mike’s and the Last Stop diners are great.”
It was only 3pm and of course our legs weren’t sore from walking yet and I needed to walk off the burrito, so we ventured further. As Maggy instinctively narrated her childhood experiences, we walked into a King Penny, where a 99-cent store meets a Duane Reade; it has been around since Maggy was able to walk to Ditmars, so fairly long. It had a strange ensemble of items for a store of its kind, but I’m sure the Greek owner has jotted down what his local customers want over the years. As a thrift store enthusiast, I wanted to venture to the store next door, and we did.
During our excursion, Maggy kept pointing out stores that had disappeared. Despite being young herself, she isn’t fond of the influx of young people moving to Astoria. She credits the commercialization of Astoria to the newcomers. “The small businesses that the nice old Greek people owned are disappearing. So new businesses come in and everything beccomes expensive. I had to move out because of this, and now the new young wealthy people get to move in,” she said.
After enjoying the village mentality that Ditmars creates, I happened to agree. Perhaps, the neighboorhood can learn to balance its past and present and the old and new residents of Astoria can share a middle ground.