So You Thought You Knew Astoria
For half a century, Astoria in Queens has been a neighborhood of cafés where dark-haired Greek men sip strong coffee and smoke strong cigarettes while talking in Greek late into the night. It is a place of quiet sidewalks lined with tenderly fussed-over brick and shingle row houses, where a solitary widow in black can be glimpsed scurrying homeward as if she were on the island of Rhodes.
The cafés are still teeming, the houses tidy. But the Greek hold on the neighborhood has slowly been weakening. Successful Greeks have been leaving for leafier locales. As a result, there are moments when Astoria has a theme-park feel to it, a cardboard façade of a Greek Main Street with cafés named Athens, Omonia, and Zodiac and Greece’s blue and white colors splashed everywhere, but a diminishing number of actual Greeks living within.
That’s because other groups have been rising up to take their place. On a Friday on Steinway Street, one of Astoria’s commercial spines, several hundred men from North African and Middle Eastern countries were jammed into Al-Iman Mosque, a marble-faced storefront that is one of several Muslim halls of worship that have sprung up in Astoria. Some wore ordinary street clothes, some white robes and knit white skullcaps. There were so many worshipers that thirteen had to pray on the sidewalk, kneeling shoeless on prayer mats and touching their foreheads and palms to the ground. When the prayers were over, El Allel Dahli, a Moroccan immigrant, emerged with his teenage son, Omar, telling of the plate of couscous and lamb he had brought as a gift to the poor to honor the birth that morning of his daughter, Jenine. “I am very happy today,” he told me.
He could also have been happy that, as his visit confirmed, the immediate neighborhood was turning into New York City’s casbah. Not only was there his flourishing mosque, but down Steinway Street, as far as his eyes could see, there were Middle Eastern restaurants, groceries, travel agencies, a driving school, a barber shop, a pharmacy, a dried fruit and nuts store, a bookstore—twenty-five shops in all. In the cafés,
clusters of Egyptian, Moroccan, or Tunisian men were puffing on hookahs—tall, gaudily embellished water pipes stoked with charcoal to burn sheeshah, the fragrant tobacco that comes in flavors such as molasses and apple. Sometimes these men—taxi drivers, merchants, or just plain idlers—play backgammon or dominoes or watch Arabic television shows beamed in by satellite, but mostly they schmooze about the things Mediterranean men talk about when they’re together— soccer, politics, women—while waiters fill up their pipes with chunks of charcoal at $4 a smoke. In classic New York fashion, Steinway Street is a slice of Arabic Algiers on Astoria’s former Main Street, renamed after a German immigrant who a century before assembled the world’s greatest pianos a few blocks away.
And it is not just Middle Easterners and North Africans who are changing the neighborhood’s personality. Those settling in Astoria in the past decade or two include Bangladeshis, Serbians, Bosnians, Ecuadorians, and, yes, even increasingly young Manhattan professionals drawn by the neighborhood’s modest rents, cosmopolitan flavors, and short commute to midtown Manhattan. More vibrant than them all seem to be the Brazilians, who have brought samba nightclubs and bikini-waxing salons to streets that once held moussaka joints. When Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, Astoria’s streets were turned into an all-night party, and when the team lost in 2006, the streets were leaden with mourning.
New York can be viewed as an archipelago, like Indonesia a collection of distinctive islands, in its case its villagelike neighborhoods. Each island has its own way of doing things, its own flavor, fragrance, and indelible characters. But, as a result of the roiling tides of migration and the unquenchable human restlessness and hunger for something better and grander, most of these neighborhoods are in constant, ineluctable flux. Some transform with astonishing swiftness as if hit by a flood; a few suffer erosion that is scarcely detectable until one day its inhabitants realize that what was there is gone.
Astoria was an appropriate jumping-off point for my three-year-long ramble around the city because it is a classic New York neighborhood, a place that has long had a sharply defined character and a distinct place in the city’s landscape, but one that has been turned into a Babel of cultures by the waves of immigration set off by the 1965 law. When New Yorkers dropped the name Astoria, it was understood they were talking about an enclave where Greek was spoken and Greek folkways were observed. So it was striking to me as I walked the streets how much of that accent had faded. Astoria’s Greek population has been cut by a third in the past two decades, by some unofficial estimates, to 30,000 from 45,000, with official, if undercounted, census figures even gloomier, putting the number of people who claimed Greek ancestry at just 18,217, or 8.6 percent of the neighborhood’s residents.
The decline of the Greeks can be seen as an old New York story, no different from the shrinking of the Jewish population on the Lower East Side or the number of Italians along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. As immigrants of one nationality make it, they forsake the jostling streets, and newer immigrants, hoping to make their fortunes, move in. “It’s an upward mobility kind of thing,” said Robert Stephanopoulos, dean of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral on East Seventy-fourth Street and father of George (Bill Clinton’s press secretary and now an ABC broadcaster). But the fact that it is an oft- told story is scant consolation for longtime Greek residents who have tried to rekindle the old country in this new one. They find a bittersweet quality to the changeover. On the one hand, it affirms their community’s upswing; on the other, their village in New York is withering.
“In New York everything turns around,” Peter Figetakis, forty-eight, a Greek-born film director who has lived in Astoria since the 1970s, told me. “Now the Hindus and Arabs, it’s their time.”
For the newer residents, the mood is expansive. On a two-block stretch of Steinway between Twenty-eighth Avenue and Astoria Boulevard, there is a veritable souk, with shops selling halal meat, Syrian pastries, airplane tickets to Morocco, driving lessons in Arabic, Korans and other Muslim books, and robes in styles such as the caftan, the abaya, the hooded djellaba, and the chador, which covers the body from head to toe, including much of the face. Indeed, a common street sight is a woman in ankle-length robe and head scarf— hijab—surrounded by small children. Laziza of New York Pastry, a Jordanian bakery, may have baklava superior to that made by the neighborhood’s Greeks. With two dozen such Arabic shops, the Steinway strip outpaces the city’s most famous Middle Eastern thoroughfare, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, which was started by Lebanese and Syrian Christians, not Muslims. In cafés and restaurants once owned by Greeks and Italians, television shows from Cairo and news from Qatar- based Al Jazeera are beamed in on flat-screen televisions. Some cafés are open round-the-clock so taxi drivers can stop in and have their sheeshah and an espresso.
Noureddine Daouaou, a taxi driver from Casablanca who has lived in the United States for more than twenty years, said he prefers Astoria to other places in New York where Arabs cluster because the neighborhood has a cosmopolitan mix of peoples. “You don’t feel homesick,” he said. “You find peace somehow. You find people try to get along. We can understand each other in one language.”
The number of Arab speakers in the neighborhood the city designates as Queens Community Board 1 (the city is broken into fifty-nine community boards that offer advice on land-use and budget issues) rose from 2,265 in 1990 to 4,097 in 2000, an 80 percent increase, and will be far larger in the next census. For the Middle Easterners, the attraction to Astoria seems to be the congenial Mediterranean accent: foods that overlap with such Greek delicacies as kebab, okra, lentils, and honey-coated pastries, and cultural harmonies such as men idling with one another in cafés. “They feel more comfortable with Greeks,” George Mohamed Oumous, a forty-five-year-old Moroccan computer programmer, said of his fellow Arabs. “We’ve been near each other for centuries. You listen to Greek music, you think you could be listening to Egyptian music.”
Ali El Sayed, who is Steinway’s Sidney Greenstreet, the man aware of this mini-Casablanca’s secrets, was a pioneer. A broad-shouldered Alexandrian with a shaved head like a genie, Sayed moved to Steinway Street in the late 1980s to open the Kabab Café, a narrow six-table cranny filled with Egyptian bric-a-brac, stained glass, and a hookah or two. It sells a tasty hummus and falafel plate. “How’s the food, folks?” he’ll sometimes ask, displaying his American slang. “I’m just an insecure guy, so I need to ask.” He found Astoria congenial because it was easy to shop for foods, such as hummus and okra, that he uses in his cooking. Within a few years the neighborhood had enough Arabs and other Muslims to support its first mosque, which was opened in a onetime pool hall on Twenty-eighth Avenue.
Sayed told me that Egyptians in Astoria are proud to be Americans, proud to blend into American society. Indeed, Egyptians and other Arabs and Muslims are assimilating in the United States with as much enthusiasm as earlier immigrant groups. In London, Paris, and Hamburg, there is far more ambivalence. Even two and three generations after t...