“…And within a few minutes we were speeding through the wastes of Queens,” so wrote John Malcolm Brinnen in his 1955 biography Dylan In America as he describes picking up Dylan Thomas from Idlewild (later Laguardia) airport and driving him to Manhattan in 1953. To be sure, half a century later, there are great swathes of land- terrible, bleak housing estates- soulless and desolate that make up a large part of Queens but there are sure to be very many interesting and exciting parts there also, right? Exploring 109 square miles of Queens borough starts at the top left hand corner, in Astoria.
Astoria is New York City’s most diverse neighborhood, so they say in every real estate, food and shopping article ever written about Queens and it’s not for nothing that they do, as I was to find out. Many parts of Goodfellas were filmed around Astoria and, where I started, that’s what a lot of it looks like. Nice, civilized detached or semi-detached single or two story houses with a bit of a yard around them with nice civilized families living in them. Good hardworking middle class men called Paulie and Stewie who work as chief fire officer in your office tower or own the extractor fan concern off by the highway live there, and why not? Its quiet, fairly inexpensive, near some nice shops, the Greek restaurants, Astoria park, the East River right there with pretty Hell Gate Bridge crossing, near the train. Very civilized. All this in an area bound by the Con-Edison plant in the north, 31st St in the east, Triborough Bridge to the south and the East River to the west. The nearer you get to the Triborough Bridge the grimier it gets but not so much that you wouldn’t still call it nice.
On the other side of the bridge is a hodge podge of styles, people, zoning and roads. There’s a whole mess of shit happening over there. There are the remnants of the original Astoria settlement- nice Victorian houses with a nice dazed looking family playing with a dog in the snow in the yard looking quaint and dainty next to the projects which make up the bulk of the housing there. The projects and the people who live in the projects. An appalling Florida Soviet style apartment building and whoever the hell lives there, some light industry thrown in for good measure, messy 21st St with its Gyros and repair shops and there are a colony of pioneering hipsters who are furiously gentrifying the two or three blocks of blight they managed to find. I want to live there. I had the most fun at Build It Green, a furniture and lumber etc recycling venture at 317 26th Avenue.
I lived there for a while, it was fine. Everybody wants to talk about the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden and about how it is the only ‘destination bar’ in Astoria and it’s the only reason for Manhattanites to go to Queens. It’s just people drinking beer in a big, crowded paved yard. You’d be better off with a can of Sparks in a brown paper bag on some church steps than go all the way there for that.
I will say this, Astoria is diverse as hell but none of these people know each other. The kids running Build It Green are nowhere near the kids from the projects or the Goodfellas. The Con-Ed workers may have a meal in a Greek restaurant, maybe but then they’re off home to Nassau County and New Jersey. The Goodfellas know nothing but their own neighbors and how to get on the highway, the Indians and Bangladeshis on 21st St don’t seem to live there, the people from the projects aren’t eating in the Greek restaurants but that’s the way diversity works, I suppose. People are different and staying different makes it interesting for people who live elsewhere to go there and write about how interesting and diverse the people who live there are when it’s just a load of people doing things just to live and pass the time in the best way they know how.
Next week I cross 31st St and discover that part of the world. See you then.