Astoria is one of New York City’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, according to a 2015 New York University study of rising rents and changing demographics. But it didn’t take an academic study to alert some Astorians that development was altering their neighborhood. Alarmed by the area’s vanishing history, a handful of locals have taken to social media to try to preserve memories – and just possibly slow the pace of change.
For photographer Anthoula Lelekidis, 27, who was born and raised in Astoria’s Ditmars neighborhood, the inspiration to preserve history on Instagram came in 2013 when her local corner deli, Shree Gayatri, went out of business. Lelekidis knew three generations of the immigrant family that ran the store, and when they could no longer afford the rent, “It was like: I have to get out there with my camera.”
That’s how Ancient Astoria began. It’s the Instagram account where Lelekidis posts hundreds of photographs of old Astoria houses, storefronts, signs, historical buildings and landmarks — anything she feels might disappear.
It’s a very personal project. Before Lelekidis’s mother, Betty, passed away, they would walk the neighborhood together, with her mother stopping constantly to talk to store owners. “She was the one who really made me fall in love with Astoria,” says Lelekidis. Now, as she roams the same streets with her camera, “It’s a mapping out of the past of my mom, where she used to walk, where she used to hang out, all those memories that she had here,” says Lelekidis, who calls her mother the “secret curator” of Ancient Astoria.
Ancient Astoria gained 4,000 followers since last year. Although she makes no money from the project, Lelekidis recently quit her nine-to-five office job to have more time to work on the site. People send her messages about landmarks or architectural details, and she runs out to photograph them. “I’m being taught by the people who go to my site,” Lelekidis says.
Brenda Balin, founder of the Facebook group ‘Astoria, NY — Past and Present’ has united over 1,700 people interested in preserving Astoria’s history. Though Balin no longer lives there, Astoria was her home for several years as a child, and she retains powerful memories of it – like her first date, her first babysitting job, and early 1960s strolls along Shore Boulevard when teenage boys cruised the street in Ford convertibles.
“I guess it was where I learned how to flirt,” says Balin, who also remembers the bouquet of dandelions gifted to her by one of the Shore Boulevard boys. “It’s like there’s a thread of Astoria running through my life,” she says.
Such memories unite the older members of her Facebook group – memories from a pre-gentrified Astoria, when “it wasn’t just a real estate designation,” says Balin.
Balin’s page is also a platform for community activism. Group member Peter Argyris is petitioning Queens County Planning Board 1 to widen Shore Blvd to improve traffic safety, while the Greater Astoria Historical Society is soliciting signatures from the Facebook group to preserve the terra cotta facade of the former Childs Restaurant on Broadway at 36th Street.
“Gentrification is creating significant alteration in the social fabric,” says Balin. “As these changes are inflicted in Astoria, I see more social action coming to the fore.”
Astoria Stories profiles the Broadway Silk Store
Gentrification may be moving fast in Astoria, but some of its oldest businesses are still safe — for now. Filmmaker James Ogle, 32, teamed up with two colleagues, Kevin Provost and Dan Connell, to make Astoria Stories, a series of short films shared on YouTube that profile some of the area’s oldest businesses.
“There’s more and more of these larger corporations coming in, and larger apartment buildings buying up blocks,” says Ogle, giving him a sense of urgency to document the small businesses they may replace.
One of Ogle’s video profiles tells the story of Broadway Silk Store, which has been managed by the same family for four generations. In the film, Broadway Silk owner Sarah-Beth White says, “If you want to get a sense of what Astoria might have been like 80 years ago, you can walk through our doors.” And indeed, the store has hardly changed, with high wooden shelves crammed full of fabric bolts of every color.
“I walked by for years before I ever went in there,” says Ogle, “and now I feel a connection to the entire family.” Unlike new services like Amazon and Seamless, he says, small businesses foster a sense of community. ”People come in every day and they stay there and they get to meet people,” he says.
Each of these three Astoria projects seeks to preserve memory. Could they also preserve some of the buildings and businesses they document?
Perhaps, says Ogle, who hopes his films will encourage younger people to explore older parts of their neighborhood.
Balin sounds less certain. Ideally, Astoria would find some balance between new development and preservation of the past. But, “we may have slid over the line,” she says.
Lelekidis strikes a more optimistic note. She hopes Ancient Astoria will be viewed by young people who want to move into the community, and help convince them that “instead of renting a $3,000 one-bedroom or two-bedroom, they can maybe go towards the older-style houses and help those people that own that house make some money, instead of giving it to these newer buildings.”
Otherwise, she says, “All that’s left are these pictures.”