When it comes to New York boroughs, they say that Brooklyn is the new Manhattan. Does this mean the pecking order — at least in perception — has changed? Does this mean that Queens has become the new Brooklyn? With expensive waterfront properties, a growing arts scene and diverse ethnic restaurants and shops, Queens is drawing a new younger population. More than 30 years after she fled the borough, we sent Queens native Phyllis Berger back to check out the new hot neighborhoods of Astoria, Long Island City and Jackson Heights.
I grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City. In the 1950s and ’60s you were on your way up if you moved there from the Bronx or Brooklyn. Queens was the borough of middle-class dreams—good schools, modern apartment houses, and lovely private homes for the upwardly mobile. But in the 1970s it was a place for a young person to move out of—Manhattan was the only cool place to be and Queens represented all that was old and staid.
Several decades later, imagine my surprise to find that with rents unimaginably high in Manhattan, and Brooklyn real estate skyrocketing out of site, that Queens has become cool. It’s now the borough where under 30s are moving to start families and to find spaces to create art and theater and to open restaurants important enough to be reviewed by top critics. Queens—the birthplace of Ethel Merman, Donald Trump, Martin Scorsese, 50 Cent, and Nancy Reagan—is now a thriving borough with enough ethnic diversity to make a twenty minute subway ride feel like a journey to a far off land.
You want to check out Queens for its exotic bazaar of Thai, Cuban, Indian, and Bangladeshi foods and shops. Many of the cultures overlap, so within a few short miles you can feel as if you’ve traveled from Bangladesh to Mexico without a passport.
Astoria is one of the two places that I visited that is only one stop into Queens from Manhattan. The neighborhood was named after John Jacob Astor who was told that if he donated $2,000 to the burgeoning community, they would name it after him. Apparently he knew how to keep his money because he only ended up giving $500, but still got to have the area named for him. I guess my mother was right: It’s the rich that count their pennies and nickels while the rest of us fritter our money away….
The second half of the 19th century saw an influx of German immigrants, among them the Steinway family who were the founders of the famed piano makers, Steinway & Sons. A major thoroughfare, Steinway Street is named for them. It is possible to tour the Steinway Factory located at 1 Steinway Place, but you do need to make an appointment.
Three thousand miles from Hollywood is the Kaufman Astoria Studios, which is on the National Register of Historic places. It was built in 1920. The Marx Brothers made their first two films there, the films Hair and The Wiz were filmed at these studios, as well as Sesame Street, and, in 1984 it became the home of The Cosby Show. While you’re there you can tour the Museum of the Moving Image. In addition to teaching about the art and history of the motion picture through multi-media presentations, it also houses the distinction of having one of the most significant collections of video games and gaming hardware—a perfect place to visit with your kids when they recoil at the idea of another museum. And speaking of kids—up to age 90 for this one—If you get there before September 23rd, you can see the exhibit “Aliens, Gadgets and Guns: Designing the World of Men In Black 3.”
One unexpected treat for this Queens native was Astoria Park, which has the largest public swimming pool in New York City open since July 4, 1936. On the day I visited, it was overflowing with bikinied teenage girls frolicking with their boyfriends alongside elderly women in Speedo maillots and swim caps who looked as if they were used to swimming in the Baltic. Everyone was cooling off in the gigantic pool or laying on their towels on the concrete perimeter.
Overlooking the East River and the RFK Bridge, Astoria Park also has a new skate park with all the requisite ramps to terrify any parent.
Astoria has a very large Greek and Italian population for many years, so I tried to pay homage to both nationalities.
One of the most notable Greek restaurants in Astoria is Taverna Kyclades. This small Greek restaurant is known for its seafood. In case you’re unsure what to order, the taxidermy swordfish that is prominently displayed on one of the walls is a good hint. At a friend’s suggestion, I ordered the charred sardines—a first time for me, but now not the last, and a Greek salad. Everything was wonderful and fresh. The lunch menu is considerably smaller than their dinner menu but I’d say go there whatever time of day you happened to be near… but don’t go for lunch if you want dessert, which they don’t serve that until dinner.
Astoria residents would say that Trattoria L’inconrto and Ornella Trattoria are among the best Italian in all of New York without the Manhattan prices. At L’Incontro, chef Rocco Sacramone and his mother, Tina cook traditional dishes from their home in Abruzzo, Italy as well as continually finding ways to keep the dishes updated and surprising. At Ornella Trattoria, husband and wife Ornella and Giuseppe Viterale, bring the authentic tastes of the regions where they grew up, Ornella in Torino in the northern part of Italy and Giuseppe in Salerno in the south together. They leave no region of Italy untouched!
You can also travel to Czechoslovakia in the 1920’s by popping into the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden on 24th Street,“the oldest beer garden in New York City.” Sit outside on the long picnic benches and try one of the many beers on tap while eating one of the traditional Czech delicacies such as cold marinated spicy knockwurst or sausages served with pickled onion or vinegar….or just have a glass of Pilsner Urquell.