Saturday, May 25, 2013

WHY ASTORIA MAY BE ONF THE BEST PLACES IN THE WORLD TO LIVE


I have been a New York resident for the past 18 years, living in the West Village and Chelsea areas of Manhattan on and off from 1995 until 2005, when after a great run at amazing apartments and neighborhoods my luck run dry.
And yet not so, as luck or providence would have it. As an ex-pat from Greece in my 20's I had very romantic ideas about what life in NY would look and feel like, mostly educated by my vast exposure and love of old and new American films. I was delighted that I got to land in Greenwich Village, one of the most historic, and culturally diverse at the time, places. Aside from the loveliness of my surroundings and vibrant social life that the Village provides, I got to meet two of the neighborhood's oldest and most active residents: Charles Corbett III and Marvin Schwartz, and the collective network of their friends and relatives, neighbors and business owners.
It was an education in all things New York, from museums and historical buildings to events and people, dating as far back as the 30's. My "guides" were funny, sophisticated, and utterly untiring in their efforts to share with this young, hungry for knowledge import from Greece, all that they loved and hated about the place.
I sucked the information like a sponge, read every book they threw my way, watched every movie I had missed and walked incessantly the streets with them at every opportunity, listening to incredible stories of people I knew to be legends, but for my two mentors they were just peers, from a time forever gone. 
That is how I got to really fall in love with this city that, despite what seemed to me insurmountable at times challenges, was to become my home for the next 18 years and counting.
I begrudgingly left the Village (as per Chuck: " there is no West and East Village, that's just a real estate scheme to shove people across town!" ) and moved in Astoria Queens twice. The first time, it proved to be all that I feared about the place. Suburban in look, full of retirees from the "old country", being Greek, Italian or Irish made no difference to me, I couldn't wait for my circumstances to change, so I can get back to what I knew and had come to love most.
The second time, and that was in 2005, once again propelled by increasing difficulties to support my life AND pay rent in Manhattan, having lived in a cage of a place on the UWS for nine months, doing some kind of penitence, for what crime I did not know, a friend called to get me to see an apartment on the 3rd floor walk up of her building in Astoria's 29th street. I obliged, driven mostly by the possibility of human contact and the increasing need of space for myself and my dog.
I walked into the flat on a sunny and cold early November day, and I was instantly aware that space was a welcome relief, especially since it afforded me a small, but fully functional kitchen in which I could finally feed myself better than I had in years, a living room that my friends could hang out in and spend the night comfortably, and a bedroom that looked out into the glorious Manhattan skyline and the brightest, fullest, yellowest in its fall glory, giant maple tree.
I could not say no. 
The commute would suck, I figured, I may have to contend with a bunch of old folks greeting me in the morning and the possibility that no one in fact would visit my living room since, who would want to leave the city and go over a bridge, right? Well....WRONG!! 
Within a year, I had a home, not a flat, to come home to. I discovered the neighborhood had substantially changed in demographic both in age and background and after the towers fell, a bunch of really cool people and businesses kept popping up every week, every month. And somehow that trend never stopped. In fact in the last seven years, Astoria, and it's up and coming sister LIC, is increasingly becoming the go to place for the following:
Great restaurants and bars, both in ambiance, quality of food/drink and service and most importantly for me, mix of patrons. ( Locale, Thymari, Cafe Bar, Sweet Afton, Aliada, Kyklades, Leng, Gleason's, Pachanga, Bare Burger, Bakeway, The Queens's Kickshaw, Sac's Pizza, Portalia, Milkflower, are some of the old and new awesome places within walking distance from where I am, to mention just a few!!!)
Shopping for food is both exciting and varied: there are food markets of pretty much every ethnic background you can think of, and some you really do not know exist, within walking or short driving distance ( Euromarket is a great example of that) where both prices and quality of produce surpass some of the best known foodie heavens of Manhattan. Organic markets and grocers are exploding all around, while good old fashioned butchers, fish mongers, bakers and cake makers, are still supplying the quality and personal experience one desires in a closed knit community.
Pet shops are now here to stay, they are fully stocked and with unparalleled customer service (Whiskers holistic pet care is one of my favorites, and they deliver promptly and efficiently, Jumping Bulldog is another, that has both the look and feel of a high end boutique minus the attitude) and a great array of parks and pet friendly spaces to the delight of pooches and their leash holding friends, without the crowding and smelliness of some of the cemented Manhattan spots.
For the fashion shoppers there is a slow but visible upward movement in the retail clothing/shoe & home arena. It's not that there are no good places to shop, in fact there are retailers that have both the vision and the stamina to open businesses of great design and merchandise value, in an area where traditionally the only places to shop where mall type structures like Old Navy and Marshall's, and an exorbitant amount of "eyesores" lining the main shopping avenues. 
Some bigger retailers are seeing and feeling the trend, like Ricky's, Victoria's Secret etc. But the best part are places like the now closed Kristie's Tee's that fundamentally changed the market, by both showcasing new and upcoming fabulous designers and bringing the community together with frequent multi-vendor events, mixing art and culture and fashion. Or one of my all time favorites, Loveday 31, which in the last thirteen years supplied my wardrobe with the following: a red Dior wool crepe dress, a DVF silk show stopper, several pairs of fine leather Italian boots and bags, a one of a kind Sahab Hawaian cotton printed dress that has done me right from the Hampton's to any brunch date in the swankiest places in the city, to all of the unique vintage dresses whose quality of fabric and construction defies time and fads, and the ridiculous amount of accessories I get constantly complimented on and gawked at for. Need I say more? All that within the measly clothing budget of an hourly waged immigrant. Don't believe me? Come take a look at my closet, that a dear friend of mine, jokingly but most acutely calls "Narnia's Closet"!
Then there are those every day conveniences any city dweller depends almost obsessively on; the dry cleaners and gyms and nail salons and waxing places, the pharmacies and Deli's and late night delivery places. Well, you got all that, AND they are manned by such a caring, charismatic and customer oriented group of people, that will always remember your name and special needs, offer help and lend an ear, hold your apartment keys for your friend who is visiting and you won't be around to open the door for, cover your taxi ride, when you run low on cash and you'll catch them later; people, who just like yourself, dear Astoria resident, Manhattan die hard , or transient city hopper, need people to stay connected, supported and happy. They are the true and indisputable force behind the loveliness of this place and this community. They are patient, compassionate and willing to sacrifice time, energy, family and money, so that you and I get to live, work, relax and enjoy the unique experience New York is, no matter what borough you happen to call a home or what background you hail from. They have names as diverse, as the DNA of the place itself like "Jun" the corner Korean florist with his contagious smile and single bloom gifts,  "Dimitris" the Greek butcher with his unstoppable humor and savory fennel and orange home made sausages, "Mohamed" the corner deli Yemeni proprietor with his dark circles under his eyes, from working nights and staying up to play with his three daughters, "Freddy" the undisputed "Falafel King" from Palestine, who wore me out with his smiles and winking, till I got off my high horse and said 'Hello' to be greeted by the biggest heart and brightest spirit and a warm fluffy falafel "for the road", "Antonio & Domenico" who keep reminding one what is best about Italy in food and hospitality, with their mother still leading the kitchen's fresh pasta production yielding an ancient sauce spoon. Oh and "Nema" the Tibetan nail guru and her staff of smiling, loving and orange eating women, who remember EVERYONE!
There are business and services I failed to mention: from accountants to florists and from travel/real estate agents to funeral homes, that equally deserve mention, for they too are most needed at those very specific, often stressful moments when life changes are knocking at your already broken door. These too are different in this small patch of the world; they share in the spirit of this place and the sense of community that somehow remains undisturbed despite the fast changing, social media steeped times, while embracing new trends and ways of being.
In closing, for the art starved/motivated individual Astoria happens to "breed" musicians or is doing a really good job of importing them. It is almost impossible to be in an N or Q train without seeing at least one musician laden with some kind of instrument heading to rehearsal, coming back or getting to a gig. Live music is becoming the norm in most establishments that can support it and the quality of both sound systems and talent is increasingly better. Any 'Museums of NY' guide will inform you of the presence of some really cool, often underrated spots in Astoria, like the Noguchi Museum, or the Moving Image Museum that have not just astonishing collections but wonderful programs and events year round. Summer outdoor cinema, blockbuster options and exclusive screenings are all available for the movie aficionado. 
Dance nights and clubbing are diverse and plentiful, and they beat waiting in god awful lines in snooty Manhattan joints. Yoga, Pilates, Capoeira, swimming pools, tennis courts, salsa/tango dance classes, children's community programs, park concerts and free exercise events are within your reach and for your life-styling pleasure.

You would think I am making this up, and I probably am in a small way a bit partial to this area's virtues. I do enjoy working in the city, in my favorite neighborhood still (west village that is) and I do so much appreciate all its other neighborhoods and communities have to offer. I feel like a movie star walking down 5th Ave., I revel when I get to visit my "hipster" friends in Brooklyn. I swoon when I get to have lunch at an authentic Southern joint in Harlem, or dim sum in Flushing and Chinatown. It's just that I always smile a sigh of relief, when I get off the train on Broadway, or 30th or Ditmars Blvd. and I meet and greet the 100+ people that are my Astoria family and know me by name and reputation.


1 comment:

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