I attended a very interesting meeting of the Astoria Civic Association the other night. It centered, as always, on important concerns for the citizens of Astoria. The topic was the real estate boom in our neighborhood. It is no secret that Astoria and Long Island City have been earmarked for great expansion. Prices of homes and rentals are moving toward the stratosphere. For those of us who live here, it is not too surprising that so many people want to live here. A safe community very near to Manhattan has always been an attractive option.
When some people ask me why do I live New York City, I simply respond that if I have only one life to live on earth, I want to be part of the greatest city on earth; but then they rightly respond: “But it is so big and noisy and scary in its size and energy.” To which I answer: “But not in Astoria!”
We have the best of both worlds here. It is part of this great city with all its energy, opportunities, culture and diversity. Yet it is also a small town where you can walk to the store, where you don’t need a car for everything, where you can know your neighbors and in which you can enjoy a stroll with nothing to do but enjoy. A sort of Mayberry in Gotham!
Unfortunately, these same forces can subvert this idyllic vision. As things get more expensive, many people cannot afford to live here anymore. Struggling families who are the basic units of our community will find it impossible to stay here. Mom and Pop stores that are the bedrock of our neighborhood will not be able to pay the exorbitant rents. Out go the fish stores, the bread stores, the delis and in come the high-end clothiers. Out go the Diners and in come the Bistros. It happened to the once very ethnic neighborhoods of Manhattan, many of the communities of Brooklyn, and will be the fate of Astoria as well.
The challenge of our civic leaders is to help guide the forces of this change so that much of our community is preserved. Granted there are only some things that can be done in preserving affordable housing and the building guidelines can only do so much against the forces of the market, but we need to try to make Astoria an exception to the rule. We do not want to become a bedroom community to Manhattan, a place where singles can sleep more affordably while they pursue their careers and where families find they cannot remain. This has not happened yet, but what happened to parts of Brooklyn that were equally attractive could be the end of Astoria, as we know it; and not in the next century, but in the lifetime of all of us!
What can we do with these historical forces that seem to be beyond us? We have to be involved in our community. People working together can make a difference in a neighborhood. People who are not aware and organized will just be run over with these changes. We have, for instance, in place some zoning requirements that help us to protect our neighborhoods. A block that has been zoned for one and two family homes is an important bulwark against these forces for change.
Astoria must always be a fit place for families who want to set down roots in our community. We still have people in our parish who have lived all their lives in this community, whose children, now married, are still here. This deep commitment by resolute Astorians can be the basis for both civic and religious continuity in our distinctive and historically significant place in the living organism that we call New York City. While we should welcome and value the people who are here only for a time, until their jobs change or their marital and familial obligations require a move, we should never forget the rooted Astorians who are the very bedrock of our community, present and future.
This came home to me when I surveyed the couples I am preparing for marriage. Church law requires the resident parish to prepare paperwork for a marriage to be celebrated in another locale. I am preparing about 14 couples for marriage. Only three of them will be married here in Astoria. The rest are transplants from other places that live in Astoria but have no roots here. These couples will be married upstate or in Michigan or in Ireland or in Columbia or in Florida. Previously, these transplanted couples were the exception. Today they are the rule. We desperately need to provide affordable places to live for real families who have grown up in Astoria and who will remain in Astoria.
We truly have the best of both worlds: Big City and Small Town. But we must also protect this reality before the tsunami of economic change makes it impossible.