Featured writer Indra Chopra of Travtrails.com tells us of her visit to Astoria
New York is synonymous with Manhattan, Central Park and its effervescent artistic actuality. But a recent visit, August 2013, exposed me to a borough on the ‘rack’ with its discount shopping, thrift stores, clothes outlets, cafes, pizza outlets, pubs catering to a diverse multi cultural crowd from bohemia to the fusty Manhattan set.
This was Astoria, across the East River, a kaleidoscopic, pulsing, trendsetting, innovative, and culturally diverse handout.
A fifteen minute ride out on the subway from Times Square the suburban essence still lingers as Astoria was once a village owing its existence to one Stephen A. Halsey, a fur merchant. In 1839 Halsey petitioned the state legislature to name the land opposite the East River to honor a prominent fur trader John Jacob Astor. The land outlined by 34th Avenue, 49th Street, the East River and Bowery Bay was named Astoria but the fur trader had the last laugh for having a borough named after him without fulfilling his financial promises.
By 1850s Astoria moved inwards from the ferry landing at the foot of Astoria Boulevard, previously Hallett’s Cove, welcoming wealthy New Yorkers into newly constructed mansions on the 12th and 14th streets. The Dutch and Germans soon followed turning the 35th and 50th streets into their strongholds. Not to be left behind a steady flow of Greeks and Italians with their delis, bakeries and pizza shops turned it into a traditional Mediterranean cauldron. They were followed by fresh immigrants from Brazil, Bangladesh, Eastern Europe, South American countries adding the exotic flavors and sounds.
In my four days stay, courtesy relatives, I explored the neighborhood starting from Broadway Station, a rumbling, congested alley/street station, a back lot entry point for the new émigrés looking for alternate abodes to flaunt their cultures, cuisine, furniture and antiques. A curiosity walk down Ditmars Boulevard with traditional Greek and Italian residences, cafes, taverns exposed me to a potpourri of smells and sounds. It is Asian in the areas closer to Long Island City and by the time I moved onto Steinway Street between 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard I was exhaling Arabic of ‘Little Egypt’ later to merge with Chinese, East European, Continental, and Sub-Continental.
Along with Ditmars, the arteries Broadway, Steinway, the 30th and 31st Avenues, cling on to the charisma of an antique façade highlighted by the expanding Kaufman Astoria Studios’ and its Museum of the Moving Image. The film and photo shoots, including ‘Orange Is the New Black”, on the streets and cafeterias are the new highlights and on one single day I came across three film-shoots in restaurants and side streets. The Kaufman Studios (by now designated as Kaufman Arts District with ancillary accessories cropping up around the Studio) had started out as a silent film studio in the 1920s. It was purchased in the1970s by George S. Kaufman, a real estate developer who revived the lots and sets. The 37th Street, between Ditmars Boulevard and 23rd Avenue is referred to as ‘Seinfeld Street’ a take on the popular sitcom ‘Seinfeld’ the street where George Costanza’s parents lived.
Culture is incomplete without cuisine complementing legacies and along with gawking at olive varieties at Greek food shops I tried Greek Yoghurt candy bar and stuffed vine leaves and spinach pie in a Hellenic tavern.
Not to be missed out was the thick Turkish coffee in “Little Egypt” (Steinway St between 28th Ave and Astoria Blvd) and the evening saw me queuing outside Taverna Kyclades, renowned for its traditional seafood specialties. We had just walked there instead of booking and an hour’s wait was too much to handle watching eaters slurp and gorge. Finally decided to come another day as the Ditmars neighborhood has an amazing array of pizza options and one is definitely spoilt by available choices. Not to be missed out is dining al fresco in the open backyard gardens or patios of most pubs and cafetarias. Finally, rounded up my culinary outing with a lazy Sunday afternoon in the sun-dappled picnic ambiance of the popular 1910 Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden ( 2919 24th Ave. Astoria).
Astoria offers open ended choices for the young and young-at-heart. But if on other end of spectrum, beyond fifties, touristy forays include discount shopping outlets and gift shops on Steinway, the Isamu Noguchi Museum and its neighbor the Socrates Sculpture Park, an outdoor Museum and Public Park for art sculptures, multi-media installations and movies. A must visit is Astoria Park along the East River, a punch line for the city silhouettes across the river. The Park, with its open spaces, jogging tracks is chaperoned by stately antebellum mansions exuding a poignant Victorian lifestyle of upstairs and downstairs along 12th and 14th avenues. But majority Astoria is six-family apartment houses or family row houses catering to young professionals, actors, artistes, graduates and migrants fresh of the plane in search of cheaper accommodation and commuting convenience. A young resident feels it is the creative energy brought by the influx of younger, creative types attracted to Astoria’s lower rent and cost of living has had a significant influence on the neighborhood in recent years. With the new arrivals have come restaurants and bars that, five years ago, would have been more likely to be found in Brooklyn. Though Brooklyn is gallops ahead in style quotient, Astoria has the benefit of ‘closeness’ to Manhattan and in New York parlance this is what matters
Green Spaces, Landmarks, and Museums:
Astoria Park (19th St between Ditmars and Hoyt) is on the East River with superb Manhattan views and a huge outdoor pool.
Museum of the Moving Image is a real treasure for film history and fun hands-on activities (e.g., voice dubbing), or for watching classic films on the big screen. Next door is Kaufman-Astoria Studios, once Paramount’s East Coast production facility, and now a stage for TV shows.
Getting there – the Subway Stations
The elevated N and W trains cut through the center of Astoria ending at Ditmars Boulevard while the R, V and G stop at Steinway Street. The M60 bus makes for an easy commute across the Triborough Bridge and to La Guardia Airport.
Want more? Read this – 7 Great reasons to live in Astoria