Astoria is often seen first from the air or, more precisely, from the elevated tracks of the N train approaching Ditmars Boulevard, the last stop on the line. As the city’s skyline recedes to picture-postcard size, new landmarks come into view—the Greek Orthodox cathedral and school of Saint Demetrios, the green expanse of Astoria Park, the arches of the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges, and finally, as the cars rumble to a halt, the humble Council and law offices of “P. Vallone,” whose second-story windows are almost close enough to open from the platform.
Look to either side of the el, and “village” might be the word that comes to mind. Off in the distance, beyond the starkly modern dome of another Greek church and the red-tiled roof of its Catholic counterpart, sit rows of cookie-cutter brick homes, punctuated here and there by low-lying apartment houses. Walk down to the street, and you reach a combination shopping strip/open-air bazaar that stretches for several blocks in any direction.
Ralph Lauren won’t be opening a branch here anytime soon. Astoria, the neighborhood where I grew up, has always been blessed with a kind of brassy, tough-guy anti-charm. In the stores, chipped mannequins sport the latest in spandex, big hair technicians make big hair, and ice cream never gets much fancier than Carvel. On the avenues, cars thumping rap and salsa peel out on principle, tires wailing. Off to the side, the elderly take it all in from benches, their voices rising above the din of kiddie rides blaring munchkin music. And all the while, a never-ending stream of shoppers, students, office workers, cops, even a few stray hipsters, flows up and down Ditmars Boulevard, part of the vast human tide crashing into and out of the city.
Just a few blocks away, something close to quiet reigns. Neighbors who have grown gray together tend bumper crops of roses in front of two-family homes often filled with extended generations of just one family. Elaborately arranged “play dates” are both unheard-of and unnecessary; kids ring each other’s bells and run around outside until well after dark. And on any given day, Astoria remains a place where I’m likely to see half the people from my eighth grade class, as well as people from more than half a world away.
For decades, this working-class enclave has been dominated by a single ethnic group—the Greeks. Today, however, Astoria finds itself in the middle of a sea of cultural change. The familiar sight of little old ladies dressed in black despite sweltering heat is giving way to glimpses of Indian women wearing delicate saris in the snow. The Greeks, who once supplanted the Irish and Italians, are beginning to yield, not to a single wave, but to a steady trickle of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and even to the next generation of Irish, whose brogue sounds as exotic in these parts as Greek once did.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood that used to offer sanctuary from urban woes now finds trouble on its own front stoop. Old-timers like Mel Hacker, who has run the Treasure Cove card store here for more than thirty years, speak wistfully of a way of life that seems to be receding before them. “I love Astoria,” Hacker says, “but it’s starting to decline.” Others echo his words and cite everything from rising crime to the neighborhood’s own success, as real estate prices drive many young couples into suburban exile.
Though Astoria has a history of ethnic ebbs and flows, its roots lie with the landed gentry. In 1835, the “Father of Astoria,” a furrier named Stephen Halsey, had visions of a prosperous new community rising from the verdant shores opposite Manhattan. So confident was Halsey of gaining the support of fellow furrier John Jacob Astor that he arranged to rename the area in his honor. But not even a millionaire needs two Astorias: Oregon had gotten there first, years before. Astor responded to the grand gesture with a shrug and a paltry donation.
Despite Astor’s lack of enthusiasm, many of the rich did summer in Astoria, and the area evolved into an affluent suburb linked to Manhattan by a short ferry ride. Visit one of the early sections, commonly called Pot Cove, and you’ll be taken aback both by the snarling pit bulls who rush to greet you and by what they guard—incongruous white-columned Taras and grand nineteenth-century dwellings, the fading souvenirs of a fashionable past.
The ghost of another wealthy man hovers over much of the neighborhood. William Steinway came to Astoria in 1870, seeking relief from the “machinations of the anarchists and the socialists” who were fomenting labor unrest in his Manhattan piano factory.
Steinway ensured his workers’ isolation by turning what was then farmland into a New York version of a New England factory town. He paved the streets, established a post office, and erected rows of simple yet pleasant-looking red brick row houses. The Steinway family made its home in a stunning Italianate mansion nearby. By 1881, Steinway Village, as the area was called, boasted a population of 1,200.
Steinway still makes its pianos in Astoria, and more than a few of the original workers’ row houses remain, sprouting chain link fences, vinyl awnings, and weatherproof Madonnas. Rundown and abandoned, the family mansion became the haunted house of my youth, though its current owner has taken on the Herculean task of restoration. Steinway Street itself, with more than five hundred stores packed into two miles, has won renown as “the world’s longest department store.”
The piano craftsmen, imported from Germany by way of Yorkville, were part of the first wave of European immigrants to the area. They quickly put their stamp on the neighborhood by building beer gardens and workingmen’s clubs. The area’s German flavor persisted for some time; during the Thirties there were reports of Nazi marches through the streets.
Astoria shook off its aristocratic airs in the Twenties. The post-World War I period brought jobs and factories, and when the Second Avenue subway line stretched across the 59th Street Bridge, thousands of working-class New Yorkers were delivered from their cramped East Side tenements to modest homes that seemed as grand as Steinway’s mansion by comparison.
Though they probably arrived by limo, the likes of Mae West, W. C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers also came to Astoria when Famous Players, the forerunner of Paramount Pictures, built cavernous studios here in 1920. But the Depression hit, the movies went west, and the facilities fell into disrepair. In 1980, with assistance from the city, real-estate developer George Kaufman supplied a Hollywood ending: The studios were completely rehabbed and have since been home to The Cosby Show and to a host of movies. The complex even boasts a Manhattan-class collection of film and television memorabilia, the American Museum of the Moving Image.
Movie glitz was far from the minds of those who bought up homes in Astoria as fast as developers could build them. Many were street-savvy Irishmen, who were joined before long by Italians and other immigrants from southern Europe. While there were certainly times when the Irish raised an eyebrow at the Mediterranean statue next door, or the Italians shook their heads over their neighbors’ bland meals, the two groups, united by their church and their working-class ethos, downplayed their differences.
The Greeks, on the other hand, were determined to withstand the heat of the melting pot. Before the 1950s, there were only a handful in Queens; the largest Greek settlements were in Manhattan, at first along the Lower East Side and later in Hell’s Kitchen. But when those neighborhoods declined, the Greeks moved on—to Bay Ridge, where many still live, and, in greater numbers, to Astoria. By the Sixties, their time had come. The Irish and Italians departed for the suburbs, and the Greeks rushed in, both from Manhattan and from a homeland beset by economic hardships. Astoria soon had the largest concentration of Greeks outside Athens; estimates of their numbers ranged as high as 100,000, or nearly half the area’s total population.
Upon arrival, these highly social people, accustomed to a European café society, found themselves stranded. Where were they to gather? Irish bars? Italian coffeehouses? Wisely, they opted for neutral ground—McDonald’s. As a teenager, I remember opening the door and finding the place completely filled, seemingly overnight, with bearded men speaking in strange tongues and lingering for hours over endless cups of fast-food coffee.
The privation was not to last. Greek cafés, social clubs, bakeries, banks, and restaurants soon dotted Ditmars and Steinway, as well as Astoria’s other main thoroughfares, Broadway and Grand Avenue. Greek became the language of the streets and the stores, and the remaining Irish and Italians bitterly resented feeling like strangers in their own land. They spoke darkly of Greeks driving up the price of real estate and buying houses with suitcases full of money. They complained of the Greeks’ clannishness and of an ethnic pride that struck them as arrogance. Above all, they condemned the mortal sin of the Greeks—their refusal to “fit in.” What the Greeks did, of course, was to make the neighborhood fit them.
If their suitcases were full of cash, Greeks came by their money the old-fashioned way. George Delis, the local community board district manager and a proud Greek himself, credits his countrymen with being “hustlers.” In the early days, they worked the streets as food vendors, graduating to diners where they washed dishes, waited tables, and often wound up owning the business. Many also found success selling real estate.
Over time, as surrounding areas deteriorated, the Irish and Italians came to appreciate the interlopers. Antonio Meloni, a lifelong Astorian who heads the neighborhood’s Immigration Advocacy Service, puts it this way: “Twenty years ago, it was ’Those damn Greeks.’ Now it’s ’Thank God for those Greeks. They saved Astoria.’”
The consensus is that the Greeks “saved” Astoria Just by being themselves—a hardworking, family-oriented people. But their penchant for outdoor cafés and street life added to the community’s security; with men sitting outside, often until the wee hours, the sidewalks are rarely deserted. Delis, who points out that Greece has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, contends that the group is especially tough on those who get in trouble with the law. “Your family disowns you and you get the message that nobody wants you around,” he says. While Jackson Heights, Astoria’s next-door neighbor, became a “cocaine capital,” Astoria was spared. For the most part, the drug trade stopped at the border.
But what was once unthinkable is now coming to pass: Wealthier Greeks are beginning to leave Astoria for tonier areas of Queens like Bayside and Whitestone, where $500,000 homes are not uncommon. Some, like George Alexiou, president of the Greek-American Homeowners Association, see the exodus in terms of the natural upward mobility of immigrants over time. “They don’t want to stay here because they want bigger houses, schools, and all that stuff,” he says.
Others, like Delis, are less sanguine, and read the departure as an ominous sign. “The one thing the Greeks don’t tolerate is crime” he says. “And when crime increases, they move out.”
Astorians still take for granted certain basic liberties denied most of the city. They can walk the streets late at night free from fear, even sleep with unbarred windows open on warm evenings. While a few homeless have settled on busy shopping streets, their numbers remain small enough to inspire charity, not scorn. But what police call “petty stuff”—car radio thefts, robberies, even drug dealing—is on the rise.
Stores have been hit especially hard. When night falls on Ditmars, shops take on the look of fortresses, and their heavy iron security shutters become the target of choice for graffiti vandals. Ramsis Elsheikh, an Egyptian immigrant to the area, found that the gates did little good; his Tops Camera electronics store was robbed twice in one week shortly after it opened. I don’t know what to do,” he says sadly, gesturing at two locks whose bolts had been sawn off. “I thought this was a nice neighborhood. I never thought this could happen here.”
Down the street at Metropolitan Florists, the debate is on. “The change has already occurred,” insists Eugenia Rodamis, a college student who works there part-time. “They’re selling drugs up and down this intersection. My sister was in the store when it was robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Oh, but this is still a livable neighborhood,” an older woman in the store interjects. “Remember, this is New York City.”
“Would you want your kids to grow up here, the way it is now? Not me,” Rodamis declares flatly. “I grew up here, but as soon as I finish school, I’m getting out.”
A baby boom has hit Astoria nevertheless, and as kids pour out of houses and apartments, they testify to their parents’ continued faith in the neighborhood. But quality-of-life problems can still make raising a family here more difficult than it needs to be.
Astoria Park offers a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline and a case in point. With nearly sixty waterfront acres, a playground, and a huge pool built by Robert Moses, it has plenty of space for kids to play. Yet if it’s difficult for me to walk my dog there without finding shards of glass in his paw when we return, it’s even harder for me to imagine letting a child run free. To pass through the park, gingerly, is to be overwhelmed by carelessness—rotting food, beer bottles, and charcoal are everywhere, marking spots where picnics seem to have been abandoned mid-meal, and in some cases midbite, with a garbage can just yards away.
The willingness of residents to blame the city, not themselves, for the park’s deterioration signals a larger problem. Since Astorians nourish an abiding mistrust of Manhattan, it has always been easier to fight city hall than to confront subtler enemies within. Last year, for example, when people learned that Astoria was on the short list for two homeless shelters and an incinerator, they jammed a series of protest meetings and succeeded in making their voices heard. By contrast, the fate of the neighborhood’s only green space inspires little urgency and a great deal of resignation. Certainly budget cuts have hurt park maintenance. Yet no one in the community calls for volunteers to pitch in, as they do in other communities, or even suggests that those who use the park must now take greater pains not to abuse it.
Like any area, Astoria has its civic groups. Several work closely with City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a native whose increasing political clout hasn’t hurt his home turf. However, the majority of Astorians remain firmly committed to working hard and minding their own business. The breezy tolerance that results allows many different kinds of people to share tight quarters peacefully, but it also encourages them to view problems outside their homes as someone else’s concern.
Not too long ago, however, a sign of change was plastered on billboards and lampposts throughout the area. In an open letter to his neighbors, a man named Lou DeSantis painted a stark, unflattering portrait of Astoria. He wrote of rising crime and described the plight of the elderly trapped in their homes by fear. DeSantis also issued a call to action, and challenged those who cared to join a group called PACT, short for Police and Community Together, an idea that dovetailed nicely with the re-emergence of the cop on the beat. PACT members hold monthly meetings in a church basement, file written reports of residents’ complaints to ensure that they are acted upon, and plan to create civilian patrols for each block in their area.
Reports of the neighborhood’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. They may even be familiar: “In the Fifties, a lot of people moved out to Long Island,” Antonio Meloni recalls with a smile. “People were saying even then, ’Well, that’s it. That’s the end of Astoria!’”
Yet the warnings stand. For as the Greeks continue their march to greener pastures, the cohesion that was their greatest gift to Astoria will go with them —at precisely the moment it is most needed. Neighbors who remain behind and newcomers who movie in will find themselves separated by language, culture, and polite detachment. But together they will determine what comes next: the slow, painful loss of a vibrant community, or the rejuvenation of their village in the shadow of the city.