Monday, September 15, 2014

Neighborhood Guides - Astoria, Queens

   There's a feeling to Astoria, a kind of nostalgic haze of old New York that hangs over the neighborhood. When you imagine growing up on the streets of New York the image is just like Astoria, filled with playgrounds, swimming pools, the smell of fresh pastries, and grandparents tending their front gardens. The life of the sidewalks is timeless, but the new residents of Astoria epitomize modern New York. Diverse immigrants from dozens of nations mix with long-time residents and newly arriving professionals. It's the perfect neighborhood for visitors to experience the best of everyday life in New York, and perfect for enjoying bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, parks, and the city's diversity.





HISTORY:

   Queens developed much more slowly than the better placed and lucrative cities of Brooklyn and New York. The old ports developed further south on the East River and Queens County found itself far north of the region's economic center. In fact, it was generally considered part of the rural surroundings of Long Island, especially since Queens' scattered villages were all independent towns.
   It was 1839 that Astoria's development began. Stephen A. Halsey was a wealthy businessman connected to the fur trade. He settled in a rural area called Hallet's Cove, named for the first Dutch landowner of the area. After a few years he decided to develop a village complete with schools, shops, homes, and a ferry to Manhattan. He even attempted to raise funds for the village by naming it after his old business associate John Jacob Astor, calling the village Astoria. He hoped to procure a donation from the elderly Astor, but befitting a developer of legendary stinginess Astor donated little or nothing and never visited the new settlement. Nevertheless the area became a haven for wealthy residents building fine homes along the waterfront streets. Many of the beautiful Victorian homes and mansions still survive on 12th and 14th Streets, surrounded by modern development.

1862 Currier and Ives print of Astoria from Manhattan



   The next decades would see the arrival of lots of new businesses, spurred by a new Long Island Railroad terminal in Hunter's Point, a few miles south. In particular, firms managed by German immigrants would arrive in large numbers. In 1859, the United German Cabinet Workers arrived to develop areas further inland as a German workers development. A year later, German-born William Steinway moved his successful piano business to the undeveloped northeast section on the neighborhood. He would build a factory, blocks of company housing, and move into a huge mansion for himself. All of those structures still remain and Steinway & Sons still makes some of the finest pianos on Earth right in Astoria.
   Despite the growth and development, the area remained outside the main business center of New York City. Ferries took Queens residents from Hallet's Cove and, further south from Hunter's Point over to Manhattan. But they remained the only route to Manhattan until into the 20th Century.

The ferry to 96th Street (Manhattan) in 1902

   Queens was forever changed by the construction of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and the opening of the Long Island Railroad tunnel to Manhattan in 1910. Suddenly, the rural towns and factory districts of Queens were opened to Manhattan's business centers. Commuters could easily commute from Astoria to Manhattan. In 1917, the neighborhood's current subway service enabled direct service to Grand Central Station and Astoria's real estate boom was on. Early arrivals included Italian and Central Europeans, who gave the neighborhood some its oldest current businesses. Most of the current houses and apartments in Astoria are from this early 20th century building boom.
14th Street in Old Astoria in 1911
   The last 50 years have led to Astoria becoming a hub of new immigrants. Greeks were the first to arrive in the 60s and 70s. They came in huge numbers and eventually peaked in the 80s as more than 25,000 of the neighborhood's residents. Since then, immigrants have come from all over the Mediterranean, including Albania, Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia, Egypt, Algeria, Malta, and Morocco. The mix of groups from that region have given the neighborhood the relaxed cafe culture that defines Mediterranean cities. But the different smells of hookahs, baklava, Greek coffee, schwarmas, and other goodies make Astoria more exciting than any one Mediterranean city. Other immigrants from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico have added even more cultural character the the neighborhood. And finally, an influx of young professionals, in particular those working in the Broadway theaters, have added more different cafes, bars, and shops. Astoria has gone from being a rural enclave, to one of New York's cultural centers. So let's check out some of the sights!
LANDMARKS:

RFK AND HELL GATE BRIDGES

   DUMBO in Brooklyn has become one of the most sought-after and scenic neighborhoods in the city partially because of the beautiful twin spans of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges soaring over the neighborhood. But DUMBO isn't the only East River neighborhood with twin bridges. The RFK (formerly Triboro) and Hell Gate Bridges dominate the views in the northwest part of the Astoria.
   The Hell Gate is New York's only large railroad-only bridge and was built in 1917 to connect Penn Station to New England's rail system. The bridge still carries Amtrak service to and from Boston (and affords an amazing skyline view if you're ever on that train). The name Hell Gate is curious and colorful. The Bridge shares its name with the narrow stretch of the East River that passes between Astoria and Randall's Island. Originally, the Dutch called it "Hellegat," which implies a narrow passage or channel. The term used to refer to whole East River, but the anglicized version came to refer only to the narrowest section, here at Astoria. The English meaning is an appropriate one though as Hell Gate is where the tides from Long Island Sound and New York Harbor converge and the channel will surge one direction, then rip the other forming eddies and whirlpools. The unpredictable currents, rocks, and reefs made this the hardest section of New York waterways to sail through. There's no public access to the Hell Gate bridge, but it does make a wonderful backdrop to the streets and parks at the northwest end of the neighborhood.
 
   The RFK Bridge opened for traffic in 1936, the central project of all-powerful city planner Robert Moses' career. The plan to construct three bridges, linked by the East River islands of Randall's and Ward's Islands had actually begun before the Great Depression. But the project floundered until the confluence of government money from the New Deal combined with Moses's desire to connect his newly built network of parkways, parks, and beaches scattered all over New York State created renewed interest in the project. Moses actually used the construction of the bridge to create a separate government authority (headed by him) called the Triborough Bridge Authority that directed massive city building projects for the next two decades. It was Moses' position of autonomy and authority as head of the Triborough and other agencies that allowed him to make sweeping changes to NYC's roads, housing, and parks with almost no outside input or control. But all that is long in the past and the bridge is now run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The main suspension-span rises up from the sunken highway along Astoria Blvd to eventually soar over the waterfront parks and homes of Old Astoria. And while it may not have the fame of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, there are some stellar views from the walkway of the distant Midtown skyline. The views are particularly good in the center of the bridge where the sidewalk rises above the roadway and the chain-link fencing gives way.



MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE AND KAUFMAN ASTORIA STUDIOS
Corner of 36th Street and 35th Avenue.

   This is one of my favorite street corners in the whole city. It's located at the southeastern end of the neighborhood, at the confusing confluence of Queens' street and avenue numbers. Be sure to head to the corner of 36th STREET and 35th AVENUE not some other iteration of those numbers. The corner is filled with film history and dominated by the imposing Kaufman Astoria Studios, one of the largest and the oldest film studio in the city. Feature films have been produced in the studio since 1920, when it was the home of Paramount Pictures. Silent films featuring Rudolph Valentino and W.C. Fields were filmed there, as were the first two Marx Brothers films. But as World War II dawned, Paramount moved their full production to Hollywood and the studio actually joined the war effort as the Army used it to create training and propaganda films. After a period of disrepair the studio was revived by government interest, investors, and film legends in the 70s and filming returned with the production of The Wiz. Over the past 35 years the studio has been used for great movies like Scent of a Woman, The Warriors, Moonstruck, Ransom, and the Bourne franchise. Plus it's been the home of great TV like The Cosby Show, Orange is the New Black, and most famously Sesame Street, which has been filmed on Kaufman Astoria's stages since 1993. So now if someone asks you "how to get to Sesame Street," you'll know the answer.
   The Museum of the Moving Image brings the magical process of making film and television back to reality by showing what goes on behind the screen. The main collection features all kinds of historic cameras, sets, and costumes. It also provides fantastic interactive exhibits that give visitors a chance to try their skill at editing, sound effects, and stop-motion animation. There's even a great collection of arcade and video games available to play. Best of all, in 2015 a permanent exhibit on the life and work of Jim Henson will open featuring his most beloved creations, including those for their next door neighbors on Sesame Street. And if all this movie magic makes you want to see the newest releases, there is a multiplex around the corner on 38th Street.


STEINWAY PIANO FACTORY
Steinway Street between 19th Avenue and Berrian Blvd.

   For almost 150 years, Astoria has been where one of the most famous musical instruments in the world are made: Steinway Pianos. Steinway & Sons is one of the most iconic businesses in New York's history. In 1870, William Steinway was on the the hunt for a new location for his booming piano business. His father Heinrich began making pianos in Germany in 1835, had moved the business to NYC, and now William was presiding over the most prestigious instrument manufacturer in America. Steinway & Sons had just built a brand new factory along the railroad tracks on 4th Ave (now known as Park Avenue) but was already looking for a new location. William was dreaming big,  imagining an entire company town where his family and employees would all live in close proximity to their work. He also hoped that by removing the workers from Manhattan's tenements and providing them with lots of amenities in their new home he would quash labor unrest that was growing in New York City's working class.
   There simply wasn't enough space in Manhattan for Steinway's grand vision, so he looked across the East River. At the time, Queens and Brooklyn were separate cities and towns. But the East River waterfront of both counties had become busy with industry and shipping. So William moved his production to the growing city of Long Island City, in Queens County (which included Astoria) where he purchased more than 400 acres of land. The factory remains today.
   In addition to the production facilities, William Steinway created rowhouses to house his workers. He also built parks, post offices, schools, churches, beer halls, and other German cultural centers. He even built a more family-friendly alternative to Coney Island's waterfront amusements on the East River and called the theme park North Beach. Unfortunately, nothing is left of the amusement park as it closed during prohibition and the ruins were demolished to construct LaGaurdia Airport. William Steinway also invested in streetcar lines in Western Queens to provide transport for his workers. One of his grandest schemes involved building a tunnel under the East River to provide a connection for his streetcar line into Manhattan. Construction on the tunnels actually was completed but streetcars weren't powerful enough to chug up the tunnels grade and more powerful cars weren't economical. So while his streetcar never ran through the tunnels, they were co-opted by the Interborough Rapid Transit Co. who used them for their first subway line to Queens. They are still used by the 7 subway line today.

Schuetzen Park picnic grounds, near Steinway Village

   Remarkably, parts of Old Steinway Village can still be seen. The intersection of 20th Avenue and 41st Street (as well as the stretch of 41st Street to the south) contains many of the original workers' homes in excellent condition. William Steinway's mansion is still standing on 41st Street between 19th and Berrian Avenues. The 5-bedroom mansion is difficult to see clearly from the road, but some photos from the recent sale (for $2.6 million) of the house can give you an idea of the grandeur. I particularly like the hot tub flanked by marble lions. But most importantly, the Steinway & Sons Company still makes their grand pianos in Astoria. The factory employs more than 200 people, and each piano takes about a year to build. Their factory offers one free tour a week on Tuesdays at 9:30, though reservations must be made waaaaaaaay in advance. They are often booked at least 6 months out.
Photo by Mamta Badkar, from Business Insider

NOGUCHI MUSEUM
33rd Road between Vernon Blvd and 10th Street.

   This is a really well-done small museum, though it might not appeal to everyone. The entire space is dedicated to the work of New York-based sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi is a great example of the hybrid of ideas and mediums that flourished in Greenwich Village in the mid-20th century. Noguchi was Japanese-American, born in Los Angeles, raised in Japan, grew up in Indiana, and would spend time studying in New York, Paris, China, India, Mexico and other far-flung places before setting up a permanent studio, just off of Washington Square Park in the Village. His career was incredibly varied. He is most known for his large public sculptures and for the Eastern, modernist themes of his work. But he also produced stage sets, furniture, playgrounds and plazas, and all kinds of design for the milieu of talent residing in Greenwich Village.
   He moved to Astoria in 1961, moving into a new studio and residence among the stone and metal suppliers and fabricators so crucial to his work. In 1974, he purchased the current museum building as extra studio space and warehouse across the street from his main studio. The museum was actually one of Noguchi's projects towards the end of his life in the 1980s. He designed the Japanese Garden that serves as the entrance to the museum as well as the gallery space inside. He even selected the works to be shown in the main gallery. So the museum serves as a unique space where the artist himself designed a museum for his own work.
   Noguchi's sculpture is very modern and abstract. It features bold shapes and clean lines and curves. There is very little that is objective in the work. If you prefer classical art, or just don't care for modern art in general, than the collection won't hold much appeal. But if you like modern sculpture and design, or appreciate Eastern art and philosophy, then go for a visit. The museum is a peaceful, zen-like space that provides a great meditative environment in a chaotic city. And you can appreciate Noguchi's work without visiting the museum. His 1968 piece "Red Cube" stands at Liberty Street and Broadway, right on the route between the World Trade Center and Wall Street. The precariously perched cube, standing on one pointed end, is a popular photo op for visitors who love to pose as if they are holding up the giant cube.

ASTORIA PARK AND POOL
19th Street between Hoyt Ave and Ditmars Blvd.

   Astoria's largest green space is a neighborhood gem. It's always filled with picnickers, joggers, skateboarders, dog-owners, and anyone Astoria who just needs a place to relax. It's the best vantage point for taking in Astoria's twin bridges or watching the tide rip through Hell Gate. It's also one of the best sunset spots in the city, especially in the cold months where the sun sets behind the Manhattan high-rises and the RFK Bridge. But the most famous feature of the park, is the city's largest swimming pool.

   The park was created in 1913, but major improvements were ushered in by ever-controversial Robert Moses and the Federal Government during the Great Depression. The culmination of that work was the new Astoria Pool, which opened in 1936. The 54,000 square foot pool originally accommodated 6,200 swimmers, though is limited to a mere 3,000 at a time today. The diving platforms on the south side of the pool are now derelict, but they actually hosted the the U.S. Olympic diving trials in 1936 and 1964. The pool itself is still in great condition and draws bathers from all over Queens on hot summer days. And its dramatic place between the two bridges remains one of the city's iconic summer spots.


LITTLE EGYPT
Steinway Street between 28th Ave and Astoria Blvd.

   Astoria is an incredibly diverse community, full of foods and smells from all over the world, in particular the Mediterranean world. The neighborhood's North African community comes together to shop, eat, smoke, socialize, and worship on this stretch of Steinway street. While Egyptians are the dominant group, flags and foods of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco can also be seen. Travel agents specializing in pilgrimages to Mecca pepper the block. The muezzin's call to prayer can be heard at regular intervals from the mosques. And all through the streets, the smells from the hookah bars permeate. It would be scene from a Middle Eastern travel brochure, if the buildings didn't look so much like Queens. Adventurous foodies flock to Chef Ali El Sayed's joint, Kabab Cafe, to try his inventive takes on animal parts Americans don't usually eat. Though he also makes a mean falafel for those less adventurous.

FOOD & DRINK

   Astoria is one of the great food destinations in NYC. Classic food and drink of its Central and Southern European roots mixes with the new food of hip young newcomers and immigrants alike. And no neighborhood in NYC seems to appreciate a sidewalk cafe the way Mediterranean Astoria does. Tables litter the sidewalks on Broadway and 30th Avenue where locals young and old enjoy the streets well into the evening. The options are endless, but some of my favorites are:

BOHEMIAN HALL & BEER GARDEN
24th Ave between 31st and 29th Streets

   This is the most famous drinking destination in Queens, and it's no contest. Queensites even joke about always being asked if they "live near the beer garden" by friends from Brooklyn and Manhattan. In fact, most New Yorkers don't even refer to it as Bohemian Hall, they simply call it "the beer garden."


   Beer gardens used to be a common sight in NYC. Immigrants from Germany and other Middle European nations established them in neighborhoods all over the city to serve as community gathering spaces and cultural centers. Bohemian Hall was founded as a gathering place for the Bohemian (a region of the Czech Republic) community of Astoria in 1910. Since that time, all the city's beer gardens and breweries closed due to Prohibition and the nation's breweries consolidated into the big breweries that dominate the country today. But the Bohemian Hall kept chugging along, and has found itself poised to take advantage of a renewed fervor in the country's beer history and craft brewing. All over NYC, new beer halls and gardens have been opening, but they are all just an imitation of the original. Today, the garden hums with patrons of all ages and backgrounds enjoying warm days, cool shade, fine Czech beers, and even the occasional traditional music and dancing on the central stage. The building adjacent to the garden hosts traditional cultural events and a Czech and Slovak school. And in a case of history coming full circle, Astoria-based microbrewery SingleCut brewers had been tapped to make a wheat pilsner exclusively for the beer garden. And all the talk of oompah music and excellent beer overlooks the quite good food from the grill. Not only are klobasas and other suasages delicious. But the kitchens turn out Czech classics like potato pancakes, goulash, and roast pork and dumplings.

TAVERNA KYCLADES
Ditmars Blvd between 33rd and 35th Street.

   Not only does Kyclades put out the best Greek seafood in the neighborhood, it manages to convey the feeling of being in a neighborhood place deep in the heart of Athens. Granted, that's probably due to the tens of thousands of Greeks that have emigrated to Astoria in the last 40 years, making it one of the two largest Greek ex-pat communities in the world (the other being Melbourne, Australia). There's always a big crowd waiting, but happily the staff will bring you out a glass of wine on the house to enjoy on the sidewalk while you wait. Once inside, the staff careens around yelling at each other in Greek for a dose of pure Mediterranean mayhem. The seafood is as good as if it just came off the docks. I first fell in love with grilled octopus at Kyclades. Lemon potatoes and Greek salads are classic sides. And the fresh grilled fish is absolutely fantastic. But beyond the food, it's the sense of authenticity that gives this place a special vibe. It's not the most scenic restaurant, but it has the best ambiance.

VESTA TRATTORIA & WINE BAR
21st Street and 30th Ave

   This was one of the best Italian eateries I've been to anywhere in NYC. This relatively new establishment embraces the local and sustainable food movements. Rather than getting ingredients from far-flung Italian sources, they take whatever's fresh and homemade in the kitchen and craft the seasonal menu from there. The veggies are fresh and amazing, the pastas are an incredible homemade texture, and the wine list is fantastic. It's not breaking new culinary ground, but it's doing what it does incredibly well. And by the way, get the Baby Jesus Cake for desert.

BUTCHER BAR
30th Ave between 37th Street and 38th Street.

   NYC may not be a destination for barbecue. But that doesn't mean there aren't a few smokemasters in New York that know what they're doing. Butcher Bar is a meat shop first. Locals come in and out for their groceries, picking from the organic, grass-fed, sustainable cuts of meat. But there are a number of small tables in the front and in the garden to order up some excellent slow-cooked barbecue. The brisket is award-winning and the burnt ends and ribs make a great choice too. The only drawback is no license for alcohol, but hopefully that will change in short order.

THE QUEENS KICKSHAW
Broadway between 41st Street and Steinway Street

   Lots of simple, humble foods have been gussied up lately. There's hand-crafted meatballs, sliders, and even gefilte fish. But Kickshaw leads the way in high class grilled cheese sandwiches. It's a great spot for a casual meal, but the grilled cheeses are far from casual. One favorite features black bean hummus, guava jam, and pickled jalapenos. The salads are also tasty. And there is a nice wine, beer, and cider menu.
   

2 comments:

  1. Wow... Yet another entry that I wish I had read 3 weeks ago..... We had a great time at the Astoria park.... enjoyed the views, listened to podcasts, but had NO idea about the Steinway area and would have sought it out..... We neglected to check the days the Moving Image was open and it was not...... loved the Beer Garden....

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