The Changing Faces of Astoria

By Sarah Skirmont

It was a Sunday afternoon, the sky overcast. The sun seemed to barely let any heat through the atmosphere. People are walking, rushing to get to a warmer, more welcoming place. But one woman stops. Dressed in a full-length fur coat, the kind that smells of mothballs and a different decade, the woman pauses, unsure of whether she should continue on her path home. She stares down at the mess on the sidewalk, as others mill about around her, avoiding the glass shards.

“What happened?” she peers into the dark window next to the sign that reads, “Sorry, we’re closed,” and an outdated paper menu with the name, “Michael’s.” After a near minute of glancing at the broken glass and boarded up windows on the building, the woman gives the restaurant one last glance and slowly walks away.

1One block up, on the other side of Broadway, a group of 4 girls stroll into a posh looking boutique with black and white striped overhanging tents framing the windows. The letters above spell out “Lockwood Clothing and Accessories.” In the shop window sits a mannequin wearing a plain but chic black leather sleeveless dress with a long thin gold chain around the neck. The girls ogle at the dress and eagerly enter. They begin searching for clothes their size to try on in one of the two dressing rooms. Coming from brunch, one of the girls comes out with option number one.

“I don’t really have anywhere to wear it. I think it looks good though.” Her friends all nod in agreement, giving her the unanimous vote she needed to purchase the dress.

This is Astoria, Queens.

Astoria has recently been subject to the increasing trend of gentrification across the city. When one locally owned business like Michael’s boards up its doors, a Starbucks, or a cool new pizza place with pretty marquee lights opens in its place. Why? To please the new customer base in the surrounding neighborhood.

In Astoria, this new customer base looks like the girls who strolled into Lockwood Clothing and Accessories: young professionals, mostly white. First settled by Dutch and Germans in the 17th century, Astoria quickly became a dominantly Italian and Greek enclave by the 1960s. A recent study by Neighborhood Trends and Sights suggests that this is about to change. It reported that migrants from Asia and other places in New York are taking the place of the declining population of Italian and Greeks.

5But now, property values are up 75 percent from 2004 to 2013 in Astoria alone. Accompanying the rising property values are the number of young students and single professionals who are willing to pay more for housing, and food.

Samantha Sanchez, a junior at NYU and a native Colombian, grew up in the neighborhood.

“Astoria used to be cheap for what it is because it’s close to the city and has a large Greek community,” Sanchez said. “It’s getting a lot more expensive, but I guess it helps my dad since he’s a business owner in Queens. People are willing to pay more.” Sanchez’s father owns a insurance firm in Astoria.

Astoria Council Member Costa Constantinides, agrees that the area has evolved significantly.

“The Astoria community is growing.  That growth has brought new jobs and a stronger economy to our neighborhood, as well as a greater need for more housing,” Constantinides said.  “More and more people are moving here, while families that have grown up in Astoria want to stay in our community.  That’s why development needs to be inclusive and contextual of all.”

Rising housing prices can have varying effects on residents, even within the same family. While Sanchez’s father has benefited from rising rent in the neighborhood, her Aunt has been more of a victim of the housing crisis plaguing the city, loosing her home in Astoria.

“[My aunt] had a rent controlled apartment, but the landlord pulled some weird moves on them and they had to move out,” Sanchez said. “He took advantage of the language barrier and was unspecific. He was not formal with the process.”

This type of surge in pricing for housing and questionable landlord practices are what Mayor Bill de Blasio is attempting to stop. In his recent state of the city address, the mayor highlighted affordable housing as one of his administration’s top priorities. A possible solution to the exponentially rising housing price is a new housing development called Astoria Cove.

Initially met with a high amount of praise from the City Council, including Constantinides, because the development promised it would make 25 to 30 percent of the complex affordable housing, the project now has a growing number of critics. The criticism is directly tied to the announcement of the developing company Alma Realty. Alma Realty has been accused by critics of future plans to flip the affordable housing complex. This accusation is a consequence of a judge’s 1995 ruling  that Alma Realty bribed a Greek Bank.

In spite of the criticism, Constantinides still believes that the future housing complex is one step forward to procuring housing for families that are being pushed out of Astoria.

“The agreement that we secured for Astoria Cove shows that affordable housing in the 21st Century can be inclusive of all lower- and -middle income families,” said Constantinides. “I hope that the affordable housing deal that we achieved for Astoria Cove is looked at as a model for future development in Astoria and across the city.”

Despite the controversy, Astoria Cove could be exactly what Queens natives, like Sanchez’s aunt, need to continue to call Astoria home.

“My aunt just wanted to stay in the place where she’s lived for over 20 years,” Sanchez said. “It’s her home. It’s what she knows.”

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