The UA Steinway Theatre is gone now, but I think of it almost daily. The UA Steinway was an old theatre converted to a six-plex in a space that was too small for a six-plex. I never went to the movies there, as every time I walked by it, there would be banks of giddy, mouthy teenagers congregating outside. I could tell just by looking at them that the movie was not the point of the trip to the movies; they’d spend the running time of the movie taking cell phone calls, yelling to their friends across the aisle, generally grabassing and threatening bodily harm to anyone who asked them to be a little quieter, namely me. I am ashamed to admit to being intimidated by the big kids after eclipsing their ages by 10, then 15, then 20 years, but there you are. So there were no trips to the UA for me. I went to the movies in Manhattan, and at the bigger, better plex that was built in Astoria, near the Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where the screens are huge and the seats are plentiful, easy to find a place to neck with your sweetie, or to just watch the damn movie in peace.
Nonetheless, I love the UA Steinway, and I mourn its conversion into another outpost of the predominant NYC drugstore/megalomart, for one simple reason: If there was something you wanted to see at the Steinway, and you called the theatre for show times, you were greeted by a jocular recorded voice: “Hello! Thank you for calling the United Artists Steinway Theatre, located in beautiful uptown Astoria!”
The first time I heard this, I found it risible. No one I’d ever met in Astoria, native, resident or transient, had ever distinguished between uptown or downtown, east or west; it was all Astoria, and until you came to visit, you had no idea of just how big the neighborhood was. And Steinway Street, nice as it may be for shopping or finding good cheap Thai food or extraordinary flat-crust Sicilian pizza at Rizzo’s, is nobody’s definition of beautiful. But I learned, and sharpish: Astoria is beautiful. As my friend Eric Olthwaite would say, even the ugly bits are beautiful.
If you mention Astoria to a New Yorker who doesn’t know the neighborhood well, probably the first thing he will mention is the Greek food. Astoria was once known, colloquially, as the third-largest Greek city after Athens and Thessaloniki, and while the density of the Greek population here is not what it was 50 years ago, it is still the majority ethnic group (followed closely by Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, and new waves of Indians and Pakistanis moving west from Jackson Heights). On weekends, the children of our neighbors, children who moved to the suburbs of Long Island and Rockland County, come back to buy food in the old neighborhood, where you can buy mozzarella made fresh hourly and $12/gallon olive oil that is better than anything you will find at Dean and Deluca. After the Greek food, he will probably mention the piano factory; Steinway Street is named for the piano company, and for the family that gave it its name, and yes, Steinway pianos are still being built in Astoria. Movie geeks will mention the American Museum of the Moving Image, Kaufman-Astoria Studios, the Hollywood-Before-There-Was-Hollywood, and Silvercup Studios, the bakery converted into a television studio, home to The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Hipsters will mention the sculpture garden, or Bohemian Hall, the last remaining beer garden in the city, a block away from our apartment. It is all of this, my neighborhood.
We have been here for 10 years. With the lease coming due on our criminally-overpriced studio in the East Village (now a lethally-overpriced one-bedroom in the East Village, thanks to the landlord’s installation of a half-wall), we spent weekends touring Brooklyn and Queens, looking for a neighborhood we could live in for a year or so, until something cheaper opened up in our own nabe. One snowy January we rode the N train to the end of the line, got out and started walking. Pretty neighborhood, we thought, not fancy but cozy, snug under its elevated train line. A block from the train, on Ditmars Boulevard, we smelled bread. “Astoria Bagels,” said the awning. I was not expecting much. After two years in the city on my own and one year with spouse, I’d found that New York City bagel quality had, by and large, hit a steep decline, turning into soft, smooshy, chewless, flavorless travesties, what the baker Maggie Glezer has since termed “circular buns for the additive-deprived.” On the other hand, there was a crew of bakers sliding racks of shaped, unbaked bagels into a boiling water bath, a critical step in bagel-making, now largely abandoned by most bagel bakeries. “This could be okay,” I said.
It was better than okay. Our bagels were perfect. The crusts were crunchy. The crumb was chewy, not cottony, and was filled with the taste of wheat, rather than the taste of nothing. “I want to live here,” I said, mouth full of bagel. “Me, too,” said spouse, mouth similarly full. We ended up moving around the corner from the bagel place, and while we didn’t do it on purpose, I am glad that that’s where we ended up, and have been glad nearly every morning for the past 10 years.
The night before we were scheduled to move, 14 inches of snow fell on the city. “Of course you know we can’t show up,” said the mover, and he suggested we try again that weekend. Fine, fine, fine, except that ConEd did not actually have to come to our old apartment to cut the gas and electricity. I came home from work to find spouse sitting in a rapidly darkening apartment, shivering and glowering. “Look,” I said. “If the lights are off here, they must be on at the new place. Let’s just get our sleeping bags and our clothes and sleep in the new apartment tonight.”
“Grrrnnnph,” he replied. But he packed up our sleeping bags, and off to the subway we trudged, through nearly thigh-high snowdrifts. By the time we got on the train, we had each fallen down twice. We were blue-fingered, icy-haired and in evil moods. We got off the subway in Astoria, where we found an Italian deli open. The owner made us sandwiches, clucked over our bad fortune, welcomed us to the neighborhood. Sure enough, the power was on in the new place. We unrolled our sleeping bags into what would be our bedroom. We unwrapped the butcher paper from our sandwiches. Gradually we knew that we were no longer on the verge of killing each other. Spouse got up to look out the bedroom window. “Say,” he said. “Look at that.” I looked, and saw the Triborough Bridge, lights blazing, prettier than pearls. I couldn’t believe, still can’t believe, that we have a view of this beautiful bridge from our bedroom and living room, and that the sky over the bridge is big and open. If there are dramatic cloud formations to be had, they almost always form over the bridge, postcard-ready. It is almost impossible for me not to hum “Rhapsody in Blue” when I look at it.
Astoria is not going to be our neighborhood forever. Despite the New York Times’ assertion that Astoria missed out on the same kind of rent spikes that hit other New York City neighborhoods, the fact is, the rents have spiked—apartments that rented for under $500 when we moved here are now starting at $1,100—and it has been a year since I have seen a house for sale for under $500,000. We will have to go, and I know that when that time comes, we will be headed for a place to which we’re happy to go, and which is happy to have us. We have talked about moving to Pittsburgh, a city that deserves a valentine of its very own, or Philadelphia, where my parents grew up, my extended family lives and the best memories of my childhood are embedded deeply. We have also talked about moving to Vermont, where about once every three months I court my dream job with my dream company. In our grandest fantasies, we talk about having enough money to move to Amsterdam, where we spent part of our honeymoon. When the day comes, we will be ready for it. But we will also take one more look backward before we go: at the Amtrak track that runs over our apartment, with a roar that we don’t even hear anymore but always alarms anyone who happens to be on the phone with us ("what was THAT?"); at the local pasta wholesaler that makes pasta so good that Manhattanites get all snobbish about it, say that it deserves to be in Manhattan, where the locals can appreciate it properly (meanwhile, I queue up with my fellow wretched plebes, who can’t enough of this wonderful stuff); at the bus that takes us to Jackson Heights, home of some truly swell Indian groceries; at the Catholic church up the street whose bells chime “Lord Who Hast Made Us For Thine Own” every single damn morning at 8:00; at the store merchants who will extend you credit when you come home and discover your wallet is missing from your bag; at the view of the neighborhood in miniature, spread out around us and below us as we ride the N or W home, our beautiful home.