Saturday, I decided to visit an old part of Astoria the area in and around 12th & 14th streets. My mission was to photograph the old mansions and stately homes of the wealthy upper middle class that inhabited the Village of Astoria, once upon a time during the 19th and early part of the 20th century. I took the Q69 bus down Ditmars turning onto 21st Street getting off at 24th road and walking towards 25th to first make a little personal side tour down memory lane.
I was born on Steinway Street but, moved to 25th Road when I was in the second grade (aged 7) I lived there until I was ten or 11. We moved two more times after 25th road but, the memories of this block are the most vivid, as it was packed with kids of varying ages and the “block” was our playground, our world. This was the 1960’s and we played street games like scully, Johnny-rides-a-pony, red-rover, stickball, stoopball and handball, we had chalk season, top season and skate season. There was an alleyway where “us” girls lined up our Barbie carrying cases and pretended they were apartments and played with our dolls for hours. In the summer the asphalt would soften and we would carve our names along the curbs in the melted black top with an old Popsicle stick.
Walking down this block now, it seemed so small probably due to the many cars parked on either side of this narrow street. When I lived there, this block was inhabited by blue collar working class families and only one, two or maybe three owned a car. A few of the old houses remain including the two family house, where I lived with my family in a rented apartment on the top floor. It is painted salmon pink and has a modern white fence, a big improvement over the battle ship grey facade that it sported when I lived there. The memories were pulling me back in time and I stood for a few moments seeing my young self sitting on the stoop on a hot summer night, waiting for the Mr. Softee ice cream truck to come rolling down the street. As soon as that little jingle was heard (diddelee diddelee deeee dee dee), all the kids on the block would go berserk yelling, running towards the truck, fists full of dimes and nickles.
The saddest moment was standing on the corner of 18th street and 25th road where Bob’s used to be. Not Bob’s store, just Bob’s as in “Go to Bob’s and get me cigarettes.”) Bob sold canned and packaged goods, sliced deli meats and sandwiches, beer and soda and had a huge display of candy!!! This is where I bought (or stole if given a dare) grape Bazooka bubble gum for a penny and a bag of Wise potato chips for a nickel! Bob’s has been replaced by a mechanical heating service and no bubble gum, (sigh.)
Continuing my walk along 21st Street, passing under the arches of the Triboro bridge I paid a visit to the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Cemetery a.k.a the Irish Famine Cemetery. Local lore has it that this is where the Irish , who had fled Ireland for America during the potato famine and took jobs as servants in the homes and mansions on 12th & 14th Streets, were buried. The original name for 21st Street was Emerald Street. Back in my young days this cemetery was a favorite if not scary Halloween dare, to see who was brave enough to wander around after dark through the tomb stones….all….alone!!! The cemetery had been neglected and almost forgotten for many years until Our Lady of Mt. Carmel took ownership, cleaned it up, cut the grass and made sure the graves were weed free. They also surrounded it in a fence; no more Halloween pranks in this cemetery.
After my nostalgic tour I finally arrived at my original destination and busied myself capturing the beauty of these homes through a maze of unending thick black telephone wires. Really, there is no escaping them, they are a part of the urban scenery and I tried to use them as an abstract nuance (or nuisance if you will.) The houses are painted pink, light blue, deep maroon, yellow and white, most have porches, pointed turrets and bay windows. They are a mix of Federal, Greek Revival and Gothic styles. Some of the sidewalks are still paved with slate (great for chalk season) and the trees are huge and overgrown. Two historic churches serve the neighborhood: St. Georges on 14th Street with its square crenelated tower guarded by four jutting gargoyles and, the First Reformed Church of Astoria on 12th Street celebrating 180 years in the community.
It was a fun nostalgic day for me and I hope you take a few minutes to walk around Old Astoria through my words and images.