My Astoria

I have recently acquired a pen pal in St. Louis, my home town, who was under the mistaken impression that I live in L.A., due probably to my recent interview for the Women and Hollywood blog. He wrote from a gloomy day in St. Louis, grumbling that he didn’t even want to hear about how the weather was where I was (L.A., he presumed) and complaining about the weeds taking over the zoysia grass. I’m sure zoysia is common worldwide, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about it in these parts. This is probably because I live in New York City, where talk of lawn care in general is thin on the ground. But the word “zoysia” immediately evoked my South St. Louis grandparents and their too-perfect lawn.

“I don’t live in L.A.!” I wrote back to him. “I live in Astoria, Queens.”

He wrote back that although he had grown up in Brooklyn (back when there were still Brooklyn Dodgers) he knew little of Astoria except for having traveled through it to visit a relative.

Well, that was Astoria, originally. A place to travel through. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes it thus, in the 20’s, before Astoria was transformed by the great wave of Greek immigrants in the 50’s. Back then, it was just a dismal backstage boneyard feeding the roaring 20’s maw of Manhattan:

This is a valley of ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

A place, in other words, no decent Princeton grad like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” would be caught dead stopping in, even for gas, traveling between his “bond business” on Wall Street and the great West Egg of Long Island to Gatsby’s mansion. How awful, to have to witness the “obscure operations” of the working class from your Ivy League gaze.

And popular culture has been no kinder. The people of Queens are depicted in the movies as buffoonish ethnics, the defeated lower middle class, slamming crockery and stepping on their vowels, or a curiously unethnic, untough and un-accented Hollywood baby-faced Spiderman.

What I had been about to tell my pen pal about Astoria was that I chose it, or it chose me, for a variety of practical reasons – its persistent lack of cool keeps the prices down, its proximity to Manhattan repeatedly startles visitors from other boroughs, and primarily, its sense of déjà vu. “It is like South St. Louis,” I would have written him, “except substitute Greeks for Germans, and I don’t know which is more xenophobic.”

Well, I do know which is more xenophobic. For one thing, the Germans are colder towards everyone, even their own kin, while the Greeks are more clannish.

Also, “xenophobia” is their word — “xenos” from the Greek meaning foreigner and “phobos” from the Greek meaning fear. I have lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years and only recently has the butcher or the tailor at the dry cleaner given me a reluctant nod in response to my “Good morning.” Even my saying it in Greek elicited no kinship: “kalimera” brought nothing but smirks or blank faces. “You Greek?” they ask. “No, actually I’m from –” I start to reply, but already the shades are drawn and the front door lock has clicked.

It would also be helpful to remember here that the word “barbarian”, now understood to mean an uncivilized person, means, in Greek, “one who does not speak Greek.” It was thought, according to noted Classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver, to derive from the Ancient Greeks’ mockery of the languages of other tribes: “Bar bar bar,” they would say to the mongrel tribe leaders, much as we say “blah blah blah” to indicate the speech of those whose interests and patience do not match our own.

What I would have told my St. Louis pen pal is that the pre-war buildings and the tidy gardens of Astoria remind me of South St. Louis. I bought my apartment because I loved the pre-war building, about which I have written here. The building has lovely arch doorways, and beautiful landscaping (though no zoysia) to which several of my neighbors contribute the whole of their weekends. My neighbors and I are not as close as I would like. But I realize that in NewYork City, even in the “ashes” of its glitter, that lack of neighborliness is a luxury problem. My building is diligently tended to, scrupulously clean, generically attractive, as the lobby of an “extended care facility” might be attractive, full of unused couches and artificial flowers. No, my building is not cool. But it is lovely.

But my grandmother would have been pleased. I would say “delighted” but “delighted” was never her style. I was able to buy the apartment in the first place because of a small inheritance from her and her frugal, reserved lifestyle. When I stepped into my then-empty apartment as a prospective buyer, I felt that my grandmother’s dishes would fit into the kitchen. I felt that she would have approved although, had she been there, she would have had no one to talk to, Germans and Greeks being what they are.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal was the latest to “discover” Astoria
as a “gentrifying” and “hip” emerging new nabe. We have been down this road before. Roomy apartments! Young hip filmmakers! Close to Manhattan! Up and coming! Have a baklava!

But on second thought, you know what? Stay away.

Originally published Wednesday, May 19, 2010

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