How Queens is becoming king
For years, Queens was usually identified by the cast of TV characters coming from there-Archie Bunker, George Costanza's screeching parents and Fran Drescher, the nasal-challenged nanny.
But recently, the talk centers around who's going there, thanks to a number of developments that have upped the borough's Q factor, particularly in Long Island City and Astoria, waterfront neighborhoods with excellent access to Manhattan, and a growing base of sophisticated services.
Industrial and artistic, Long Island City seems perpetually on the edge of great things. It boasts an award-winning urban park, killer views, and world-class cultural institutions such as P.S. 1 and the Noguchi Museum. Also nearby, the newly refurbished Museum of the Moving Image, Silver Cup and Kaufman Astoria studios lend star appeal. And a new seal of approval: Prudential Douglas Elliman will open an office here, the first major residential brokerage to do so.
"LIC is such a unique neighborhood because it's been in transformation, yet it still has such interesting diversity," says Gayle Baron, executive director of the Long Island City Business Improvement District. "The commercial businesses have enriched the overall environment. We have a large base of artists and arts institutions, the Mom and Pops; when you put everything together, LIC is a microcosm of any large urban center."
The heart of the sprawling improvements is Vernon Boulevard, a well-established row of evolving eateries and bars poised to serve the thousands of tenants expected to populate the new waterfront towers in various stages of occupancy. TF Cornerstone is but one of several developers offering luxurious condominiums. Its View project, with one-bedroom units in the $700,000s, is 80% sold.
For retailers like Donna Drimer, owner of Matted, one of the few shops on the boulevard, it's a perfect case of "if you build it, they will come."
"In coming here, it reminded me of the East Village, where we watched it go from drugs into a really great neighborhood," she said.
Deepti Koikara, 30, moved to LIC in 2006 and bought her condominium on Jackson Avenue in 2008 just before moving to Norway. When she returned stateside last month, she said she was surprised at how much the neighborhood had changed.
"Just from what I noticed, three years ago, people would just live in LIC and commute into the city for other things," she said. "But I feel like there's a change in terms of people staying in LIC and going out-at least with the restaurants."
That's just the hope of restaurateurs such as Jeff Blath, 38, who opened the artisanal-focused Alobar five months ago to give LIC "a full restaurant experience without going into Manhattan." He credits M. Wells, the popular diner that closed last year, for proving LIC could attract foodies, but reckons "big changes will take time. People say it's like Park Slope 20 years ago, but it has to be its own thing."
Long a destination for Greek dining, neighboring Astoria has always been a village of Old World Mom and Pops. It's now enjoying a new generation of sophisticated restaurant and bars owners. Places like Rickshaw Dumpling, William Hallet and Butcher Bar-all opened in the last year-have a hip vibe not previously seen in Astoria. It's rumored that celebrity chef Michael Pslakis will take over an empty spot on Ditmars Boulevard, and downtown wine guru Paul Greico says he has his eye on Astoria for an expansion of his popular Terroir wine bars.
The changes are welcome to long-time Astorians like Katherine and David Flaherty, 34 and 36 respectively, former Manhattanites who still work there, but increasingly play in Astoria.
"I [lived] on Houston Street and had so many cool bars, restaurants and shops, I was worried it was going to be boring here," said Katherine. "But over the years, we've seen exciting growth and concepts around here." She added, "At first I used to embarrassingly say I live in Astoria, but now I'm proud to live here."
When the birth of their first child caused the couple to move to larger quarters, they considered moving to satisfy their "Brooklyn envy."
"Because we work in the food and beverage industry, we wanted to be near the new wave of artisan shops, so we thought about moving to Brooklyn," says David. " But we looked at the pricing and were sticker-shocked. Having a kid now, we didn't want to go to the [affordable] fringe."
The couple stayed local after finding a two-bedroom apartment for what Katherine said is the cost of a studio in Cobble Hill.
Residents like the Flahertys are one reason why Yang Gao, 32, took a chance opening Astoria Wine & Spirits, the neighborhood's only boutique wine store.
"I obviously took a gamble but had faith that people wanted a place like you have in Williamsburg or Manhattan," he said.
Gao's vision is similar to other young entrepreneurs who are modernizing the Old World ethos here. At William Hallet, co-owners and Queens natives George Rallis, 36, and Gary Anza, 47, say they wanted to give a nod to the neighborhood but elevate the offerings.
"There wasn't any American-style food in Astoria: it was all ethnic," Anza said. "We wanted to do a relaxed restaurant with five-star food coming out of the kitchen."
Frank Arcabascio, president of the 30th Avenue Business Association, says the new generation brings marketing savvy to the neighborhood without losing tradition.
"You get Mom and Pop for the first generation, and it's the second generation that brands it," he said. "Instead of owning the diner, they own the café."