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Last October, when a new gastropub called The Pomeroy debuted in Astoria, a special guest showed up for opening night: Lady Gaga. Her visit generated plenty of coverage from local press, as well as less favorable reactions on social media.
“That’s it,” I saw friends declare on Facebook. “Astoria is over.”
Having lived in the northwest Queens neighborhood for only three years, I found it difficult to judge whether the celebrity sighting really was the death knell for Astoria’s slightly under-the-radar coolness. I could understand the concern, though: What distinguishes Astoria, to me, is its small town, almost old-fashioned feel. There are few high-rises here; apartment buildings tend to be squat, interspersed with one and two family homes, many of which have been owned by the same folks for decades. Though Astoria is large, it contains micro-neighborhoods, like the Little Egypt of Steinway Street, with its hookah bars and halal food carts, or the bustling area around Ditmars Boulevard, anchored by the beloved Taverna Kyclades, where it's not unusual to find hours-long lines of customers waiting to get in. Astoria Park is everyone's backyard, particularly in the summer when the public pool—the largest in the city—opens, and there are free concerts on Thursday evenings.
It’s the kind of community where residents regularly run into each other on the street—on my way home last week, I bumped into a friend who is interested in moving to an apartment on my block—and where locals know what’s going on in the lives of their butcher or shoe repairman or hobby shop owner.
But Queens, clearly, is no longer considered sleepy or suburban. Last year, the borough was Lonely Planet’s pick for top destination in the U.S., with the travel publisher noting its diversity, food, and burgeoning art scene. But the mom-and-pop quaintness of places like Sorriso's, an Italian butcher shop where I'm given free samples almost every time I visit, or Gregory's 26 Corner Taverna, a rustic Greek spot with a familial vibe, is balanced—rather precariously—with the regular openings of new upmarket restaurants and bars geared toward a young demographic, like The Pomeroy, with its seasonal New American menu.
Median rents have risen, according to an Elliman Report released last year, along with the increased attention, soaring 31 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Astoria and other nearby neighborhoods. Plus, there’s a major construction boom underway on one of Astoria’s main thoroughfares, as well as several new developments planned for the neighborhood’s East River waterfront, like Astoria Cove and Halletts Point, two complexes poised to include 7,000 new units.
Nura Anwar, 23, was born and raised in Astoria; she has never lived anywhere else, and she sees such changes as cause for concern. Growing up on 30th Avenue, Anwar recalls her surroundings as being incredibly diverse, something that was celebrated. One of her favorite childhood traditions was going to Athens Park on Friday evenings in the summer, when people of different cultural groups would put on free performances. “Everyone would go,” she remembers. “It wasn’t like if the Greek people were performing, only Greek people would attend. Everyone in the neighborhood went." But now, she says, it's a little different: neighbors don't come out anymore to learn about each other's heritage.
The mix of businesses she remembers from 30th Avenue, too, has vanished, she says, replaced by pricey salons and bistros. Anwar recalls walking down the block and seeing Chinese takeout places followed by Mexican restaurants followed by souvlaki carts, and while such places still do exist in the neighborhood, they're further flung these days. And many longtime residents, she notices, are fleeing for more affordable neighborhoods. Anwar's parents originally hail from Bangladesh, and many in their community have left, she says. “The South Asian population is moving toward the Bronx and Jamaica, where home prices are a lot cheaper,” Anwar says. “I feel like Queens is becoming Manhattan now, which is a problem. I like Queens being Queens.”
Suzanne Yacka has been in the area since 2009; a huge fan of the local food scene, she blogs at Tastoria Queens, and agrees that Astoria is trending younger these days, but suggests that the residents getting pushed out by rent hikes are not necessarily those who have lived here the longest, who might own their homes: “I think that it’s people who came to the neighborhood around the time that I did, or ten or twelve years ago. The first wave of gentrifiers, if you will,” she said. “They’re now being awakened to the fact that gentrification is a process." Many people only become aware of gentrification once it directly impacts them, Yacka says, failing to see that they, too, have played a role in their neighborhood's transformation.
Yacka empathizes with those who have to give up the places they love, after ten or fifteen years, but, she cautions, “We have to start some thinking about how neighborhoods change in a way that’s not linked to our personal experiences and our personal finances, but rather look at what this process does to communities.” She suggests a careful consideration of a place's history in order to think clearly about "strategies to keep neighborhoods more diverse and interesting."
Marvin Cochran knows how the community has changed perhaps better than anyone; he has owned Rudy’s Hobby & Art, a crafter and hobbyist paradise, for 28 years. Previously, his parents ran the space as a confectionery for nearly five decades. When they first opened the shop, Astoria was mostly farmland. “It developed slowly, over a long period, but more so in the past ten years than in 50 years previous,” he says.
His family owns the building, so he hasn’t had to contend with skyrocketing rents, Cochran says, but “it is getting ridiculous. The little guy can’t stay.” He’ll stick around, though, as long as he’s healthy and able to maintain the store. But once he retires, it will close. Thanks to e-commerce, many people now purchase their hobby supplies online, Cochran says, and the rising price of products scares off some of his older customers.
Keeping places like Rudy’s alive, Yacka says, should be more of a priority for newcomers who are worried about contributing to gentrification. "People get excited about newness," she says, but established venues have tremendous value as well. She cited the popular Greek restaurant Taverna Kyclades as an example of the latter, noting that the chef goes to the fish market in the Bronx at four every morning.
“Get to know the things that were there before you were. Go to the places that are smaller or don’t look so trendy from the outside but could really have amazing food,” Yacka advises. Equally important, she says, is considering what sort of institutions and nonprofits are in place to help the community. “What’s the infrastructure that exists there? Learn the place that you moved to."
On the other hand, she acknowledges that the situation isn’t quite as straightforward as saying that anything upscale and new is automatically anathema to a neighborhood. The negative response to Lady Gaga’s appearance at The Pomeroy, for instance--one commenter on a Gothamist article about the event wrote, "I used to love you, Astoria. But f*ck this noise. *Packs bags*"--was absurd, Yacka says: “In some ways, Lady Gaga is more New York than any of these people who are complaining. She was born and raised here and went to school here. She has an actual real New York story, and so does the chef.”
The celebrity visit, she says, doesn’t necessarily equate to Astoria being “over,” but preserving the integrity of places like Astoria does remain a challenge. When relocating to another part of the city, it’s important for people to manage their expectations. “Don’t expect the place to adapt to your subjective wants and needs,” Yacka says. “Understand that a neighborhood has a history, that it has a rich texture and fabric that existed before you.”
Losing that rich texture and fabric is what concerns many Astoria locals these days, which is understandable. There is a suspicious amount of bars and restaurant popping up that share the rustic-chic style—think Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood—that's grown increasingly ubiquitous throughout the city, and may be prioritizing aesthetics over heart. I admit to enjoying the occasional fancy coffee or cocktail, but it's places like Kelly's, a 50-year-old dive bar, where I find myself engaged in the most interesting conversations with patrons and bartenders. To my eyes, Astoria is currently balancing the old and the new in a way that makes for surprises around every corner. But I worry that the scales may tip soon too far in one direction.
**This story first ran on January 14, 2016.**