You grew up riding the subway/running with people/
up in Harlem, down on Broadway/
You’re no tramp but you’re no lady/
talkin’ that street talk/
you’re the heart and soul of New York City.
Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, Native New Yorker
When I was growing up in Manhattan, New York City’s four other boroughs – Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island – were not considered the heart of this internationally lionized metropolis. As a teenager, my friends and I would refer to kids from the “outer” boroughs as “B&Ts.” (“Bridge and Tunnels.”) A disparaging term at the time, reflecting that either a bridge or a tunnel was the only access route to Manhattan, the place we lived and where everyone else wanted to be.
That has changed dramatically with the development of waterfront Brooklyn, the success of Broadway shows such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s The Heights and Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel, which reframed the term “B&Ts” to reflect outer-borough pride.
These days, Astoria, Queens, is one of New York City’s trendiest neighborhoods. Because of my interest in the changing composition of my native city, I chose Astoria as the setting for my first novel, Hush Life.
Part romance, part mystery, here are a few excerpts from Hush Life’s Astoria, Queens, setting:
A cheer rose from the far side of the tent. Laughter. Smack talk. Beefy soccer players in uniform blowing off steam after a game. During the last gasp of Indian Summer Angie and Janna sat at a picnic table at The Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden on 24th Avenue. With a seat-yourself policy, the outdoor bar was relaxed with a hangout vibe, each table shaded under large umbrellas imprinted with Czech beer promos. It was crowded for a Thursday but that was part of the fun. Angie said it would be busy not crammed. The 40-minute train ride from Manhattan meant the Thursday night crowd was mostly local, from Astoria. On Friday and Saturday, the Manhattan crew packed in.
Janna wanted to graze throughout the evening. Angie said, “Gotta load up now.” There seemed to be only three wait staff. “Once this guy takes our order we’ll never see him again.”
From the American and Czech bar food menu Angie ordered pierogis and double fries she swooped through gravy. Janna ordered a burger, shared the fries. A $16 pitcher of Schöfferhofer Grapefruit rounded out their tab. “Okay,” Angie said. “We’re set for the night.”
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Beyond Astoria’s affordability, Janna loved the energy of both newcomers and longtime residents. It had certainly captured her during that first recon visit to New York the previous summer. Now that she had been living in it, she knew she had made the right decision: a real neighborhood with a vibrant cultural mix as cornerstone – traditionally Greek and Italian; now an increasing melting pot of Brazilians, Bangladeshis, Eastern Europeans, Colombians and Egyptians.
“When you’re writing you need to be inspired by real life not a theme park,” Angie said of Janna’s choice to move to Astoria. In less than a year, she had nestled into community, the environmental equivalent of a fluffy blanket. Small town living in the big city. Living with Toby in a house with a porch. Inspiration everywhere. It swirled around her in the vintage boutiques on 31st avenue, the scent of spicy pork and salted beef huaraches floating from the taco truck on 30th avenue, musical Croatian languages and an occasional waft of vaporized, flavored tobacco from the Hookah lounges on Steinway Street’s Little Egypt.
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Though I’ve not lived in my native New York for more than two decades, the city’s culture will always inform my sensibilities and worldview.
For more of my take on New York City: