“There’s so much to do in Queens,” says Nick, in his blood-streaked apron. “It’s ridiculous.” As we chat outside Old Fashion Butcher Shop, on Steinway Street in Astoria, a group of burly workers are unloading boxes labelled ‘lamb liver’ onto the gum-blackened sidewalk. “I’m Greek — I was born here. This is the best area,” he continues, as the guys nag him to help. “I’m doin’ it — take it easy! I’m busy!”
Astoria is an enclave in Queens, known for its large Italian and Greek communities — it’s said to have the second largest Greek-speaking population outside of Greece. But there are also sizeable Middle Eastern, Balkan and Brazilian groups, plus moneyed residents from Brooklyn and Manhattan moving in, making this area ripe for change. “But it’s getting better,” Nick urges. “The locals are still here. I’m tellin’ you — if you were here 20 to 25 years ago and seen the neighbourhood, it was all mom ’n’ pop [independent] stores. Not that it’s a bad thing — but now nice high-end places are popping up.”
Along busy blocks, people swoop into pricey coffee dives, breweries and newbie boltholes selling hand-rolled bagels. But the culinary core is still schwarma shops, tavernas and delis that squeeze snugly next to the 99-cent stores, laundromats and massage parlours.
I grew up nearby on Long Island’s North Fork, and when I decamped to the city years ago, I opted instinctively for Brooklyn, but some friends and family have since moved to this corner of New York.
Within five minutes of leaving my brother’s apartment I find a mural of ancient Greece beneath a bridge, the gold and grey Saint Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek American Retirement Club — it’s as if I’m in Athens. Inside Artopolis Bakery, shelves are packed with filo pastries, melomakarona (honey, spice and walnut cookies) and sweet tsoureki bread, ready for Greek Orthodox Easter. I buy a strong coffee and halloumopita, a herb bread studded with chunks of halloumi and onion.
It’s a spring morning and nearby Astoria Park is bursting with cherry blossoms. Beyond it, the Tetris-block buildings of Manhattan are stacked above the East River. I walk towards Athens Square Park to finish my coffee. Beneath the gaze of bronze Socrates and Sophocles sculptures, locals are hunched over chess tables.
Feeling peckish after a few more hours of walking, I pull up a pew at The Queens Kickshaw — a narrow joint with Edison bulbs, long wooden tables and brick walls. Lunch is a grilled cheese sandwich packed with Gouda, black bean hummus, guava jam and pickled jalapenos, paired with a local Native White Stout from Big Alice Brewing. I start chatting to Jennifer, one of the owners, about the surge in the borough’s breweries. “It’s still accessible for small producers,” she tells me, adding that NYC’s first cidery, Descendant Cider, has also opened in Queens. “I think it’s a place that’s still very affordable.”
Keen to try more of the area’s craft beers, I head along a quiet street, where SingleCut Beersmiths’ taproom has 12 brews on the board. I order a Mad Michael, its 14-month-aged sour wheat lager, and take a seat at a large red-oak table beneath wire-caged bulbs. There are nods to music everywhere — tap handles are guitar necks, records line shelves by the bar and a stage awaits live performances.
Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden isn’t a brewery but a Queens institution nonetheless. A mug of Czech Staropramen is sloshed toward me at the bar later that evening. I grab it, and head outside, where the smell of bratwurst recalls balmy evenings in Salzburg beer gardens.
The following morning, I stop in The Bagel House on Ditmars Boulevard for an ‘everything bagel’ with olive pimento cream cheese. Steve, the owner, is behind the counter. “I’m first-generation American, my parents are Italian,” he explains. “Don’t get me wrong, Astoria has a lot of Greeks. They call Astoria ‘Little Athens’, but when I grew up there were more Italians — it was beautiful.”
We talk about the borough’s new-found popularity. “I’d say in the last five years it’s really exploded, and it’s all good that it’s changing — it’s just that the rent’s going out of control,” he says. “An apartment that used to cost $600 now costs $2,000 for a single bedroom.” His friend, Bobby, chimes in, “Oh, it’s insane — there’s been a 400% increase in rent in five years. The city hasn’t seen growth like this since what was happening with Williamsburg.”
Change, though, is in Queens’ nature. And it seems that the newcomers are integrating with the well-established communities that came before them, I tell Steve. He grins. “We’re not going anywhere.”
HOW TO DO IT: British Airways flies up to 13 times a day between London and New York from £434 return, including all taxes and charges. Rooms at Z NYC Hotel from £155, room only. Price includes bicycle rental, wi-fi, international calls and a shuttle bus to Manhattan that leaves every hour.
Read more of the New York cover story in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)