Founded over 350 years ago, Astoria is one of New York City’s most historic and diverse neighborhoods
Flashing neon lights and giant billboards that assault the eyes, theater marquees that trump the latest Broadway hits and a cacophony of taxi horns, shouting hawkers and excited tourists – this is Times Square and what most people picture when they think of New York City. And it’s also where most people choose to spend a lot of their time while visiting the City That Never Sleeps. However, the ‘real’ New York City – a melting pot of different cultures, food and art – is far from the several blocks that surround 42nd Street.
My home, and my favorite little piece of the real New York, is Astoria.
Astoria (located in Queens, one of the five boroughs that make up New York City) is a quiet neighborhood 20 minutes from Times Square heading northeast on the subway. As I exit the station there are no skyscrapers in sight, instead the streets are lined with family brownstones. I spot parents walking their children to the public playground or buying them soft serve ice cream from the truck on the corner. Someone in an apartment on 38th Street practices his saxophone every day at 6pm as I walk home from work. Independently-owned shops, bodegas, and restaurants that serve some of the best food in New York City dot the area. I can satisfy any good craving without going far; on the streets vendors sell everything from empanadas and halal food to Italian ices and sliced mango.
Astoria is a true example of a melting pot. Its population mainly comprises Greeks, but also has influence from other cultures such as Asians, South Americans and Italians. Because of the Second World War, Astoria was initially made up of Italians. After 1965, Greek residents quickly started to inhabit the area. Traditional neighborhoods include Dominican, Indian, Ecuadorian, Korean, Romanian, Chinese, Filipino and Columbian immigrants. Many of them came to Astoria because this community offered a low cost of living. In the summer, I often pass by groups of Greek men congregating at outdoor cafes chatting in their own language with a smoking pipe in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and teenagers sitting on the steps of their brownstones or playing on the streets, enjoying the summer break from school.
A Historic Walk
Don’t let this quaint neighborhood fool you: there is plenty to do in Astoria. Explore the area around Kaufaman Astoria Studios, where shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Sesame Street are filmed. The studio was opened in 1920 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, and shortly after, the first two Marx Brothers’ films were made there. Next to the studios, take a journey through the history of film at the Museum of the Moving Image (www.movingimage.us). Throughout the year, the museum has many unique films and exhibitions. The exhibition currently running through January 2015 is What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones about the man who created Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Strolling towards the river, Astoria Park sits nestled in the northwest corner of the borough between the Triborough Bridge and the Hell’s Gate Bridge. The view from this part of Astoria is my favorite – across the East River the skyscrapers of Manhattan look like toys. During the warmer months, it is not uncommon to hear bands playing on the bandstand in the center of the green. Astorians bring their blankets and have picnics, or set up lawn chairs by the water to watch the barges crawl by.
Past the bandstand, up a grassy hill, is the historic Astoria public pool. Originally built for qualifying events for the Summer Olympics in 1936 and 1964 by Robert Moses (who played a large role in shaping the physical environment of New York State), it is now the oldest and largest public pool in New York City.
Astoria is also home to the oldest beer garden in the city. After a long walk through the park, stop in at Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden (www.bohemianhall.com) for an ice-cold beer. The beer garden, built in 1910, is owned by the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society – a society formed in 1892 made up of people of Czech and Slovak descent. At night, the long wooden tables are filled with the young and old, natives and newcomers mingling together.
A stone’s throw away from the beer garden is a traditional Greek restaurant that actually has locals leaving their other four boroughs (and if you know New Yorkers that is a hard feat to accomplish) to dine at. Taverna Kyclades (www.tavernacyklades.com) is a cash-only place that takes no reservations, but the food is worth the long wait to get seated. I will walk a mile from my house just for their appetizers. The thought of their stuffed grape leaves and spinach pie is enough to make me salivate.
After a hearty meal at Taverna Kyclades, I like to walk by one of Astoria’s historic buildings – the Steinway & Sons piano factory, built in the late 1800s, and still in use today. Steinway pianos are handmade and each take almost a year to build, comprising more than 12,000 parts. They are considered the best in the world. The factory sits only a few blocks away from the Steinway Mansion, which was purchased in 1870 by the Steinway family and used as their summer home for 50 years.
If you’re in need of a break and a few more beers, stop in at SingleCut Beersmiths (www.singlecutbeer.com). Take a free 15-minute tour of the brewery before enjoying a pint in their taproom. All of their beers are brewed locally and named after their favorite musicians.
Only a short subway ride away, just outside of Astoria, is Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the second largest park in New York City. Before its reincarnation as a park, the space was a garbage dumping ground. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald described the area as a “valley of ashes”. But those ashes evolved into a beautiful green space embedded with history. The 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs were held here. The Unisphere and several other structures built for the fairs still stand today.
While there, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find that you’re in the center of an excited crowd. Sports fans often have to make their way through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park because it is home to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, currently where the US Open is held, and to the Mets’ Citi Field. You can join them, or you can take a stroll along the lake and stop by the Queens Museum, the New York Hall of Science or the Queens Wildlife Center.
Perhaps after a refreshing break from downtown Manhattan, you may be ready to go back to the hustle and bustle. If not, you are welcome to stay to explore other parts of Queens. Given the choice, I would stay in the calm streets of my neighborhood, Astoria, and enjoy a delicious meal with friendly people and a fantastic view of the city.
Bio: Kendra Granniss is a travel writer currently based in Astoria, New York. She is taking a hiatus from the city of her dreams starting next year to explore the world. Visit kendratheescapologist.com to read more about her travels.
Images by SKY