Category Archives: Culture

The Year of the Dragon

Happy Lunar New Year! I heard a fellow New Yorker once say this interesting observation, “New York City celebrates three New Years: Gregorian, Jewish, and Chinese.”  (By the way, Koreans and Vietnamese also celebrate this Lunar New Year.)  While New Yorkers from other cultures–Tibetans, Bolivians and Peruvians of Incan descent, for example–celebrate their respective new years too, the most prominent ones are these three.  As if to confirm this observation, the Empire State Building was lit red and yellow on Jan 23 to commemorate the arrival of the Year of the Dragon.

Chinese astrology assigns a different animal to each year for 12 years and after the twelfth year, the cycle repeats again.  Similar to the Western zodiac signs, personality traits are attributed to each animal and it is believed that individuals born under each sign exhibit such traits.

My Komodo Dragon Mug from Starbucks

I was born in the Year of the Dragon and an Aries. These two signs are often said to be the cultural parallel of the other since they supposedly share similar traits. Dragons and Aries are often described as leaders, risk takers, and adventurous while also being assertive, judgmental, and quick tempered. I was never one to believe in astrologers nor have I ever had my palm or tarot cards read. Yet somehow, I am strongly drawn to my astrological signs for their seemingly accurate descriptions of my personality.  I like to think that being both signs makes me doubly potent!  I swell with pride at all of my supposed positive traits and feel encouraged to act in these ways in times of uncertainty.  The negative traits serve as excuses to support my bad habits such as my proclivity to start many projects without finishing one.

A new year means a clean slate full of endless possibilities. When I was a child, I always loved the start of the school year in September: the smell of fresh crayons in the box, newly sharpened pencils all the same height, and unwritten composition notebooks waiting to be filled. But by October, I would be bored of them because the luster was gone. As an adult, I still act that way today in many aspects of my life.

Months ago as a bikram yoga teacher trainee, we were required to memorize a dialogue—a script if you will—for each of the 26 postures that we teach in class. A large part of training was spent in posture clinic, where each trainee recites one posture as three fellow trainees demonstrate. This recitation was done in front of 40 fellow trainees and [at least] two teachers who provided feedback at the end of each recited posture. Posture clinic lasted for 6 weeks and it was the part of teacher training I dreaded the most. Every time I went up, my goal was to deliver verbatim dialogue. I needed to be flawless.  I needed to be perfect.  Yet just like everything in life, I never finished reciting the end of each posture:  either I blanked out or never bothered to learn those last few lines.  Teachers often gave me the same feedback:  finish what you started.

I blamed it on my Dragon-Aries personality.  Was it a lack of focus, a lack of desire? Later, a teacher back home suggested that I choose not to finish things because I don’t want my end-product to be judged for fear of not attaining perfection. It was a breakthrough moment for me. This thought never occurred to me but it makes a lot of sense.

Dragon years are considered to be very lucky and are a great time to take huge risks or undergo incredible change.  For people born dragons, 2012 is full of promise and highly fortuitous.  Big changes are coming to ActionJoJo this year that include: a website overhaul; greater and more consistent print and video content creation; and more engagement with both my local and online communities. Heck, world domination is another goal! There, I said it.

I left an office job to create a life of freedom and flexibility to do what I love. However, I need to earn a livelihood to make this new life a sustainable reality. In order for me to achieve these goals, I have to remember to strive for action and not perfection. Heck, my online name should serve as a daily reminder. It will be hard work to overcome my bad habits but I will use my positive Dragon-Aries traits to attempt to trump them.

Welcome, Year of the Dragon! I’ve been waiting for you.

Dragon Meets Dragon in Lima's Chinatown (Peru 2003)

Forgiveness, Courage, and Leaps of Faith: Why I Left My Job

Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes.  As leader of the newly formed, democratic South Africa, he rejected anger, revenge, and violence despite decades of suffering incredible injustice. Instead, he turned to reconciliation and encouraged both the former oppressors and oppressed of his country to work together to do the same. In the movie Invictus, he offered this advice to his black bodyguard who had trouble working with newly assigned white colleagues:

Forgiveness liberates the soul.
It removes fear.
That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

I was drenched in sweat. My face turned to the right, my entire left ear pressed against the soaked towel. I lay on my belly, body and mind still. My Bikram yoga teacher broke the silence in the room and said, “Time waits for no one. What are YOU waiting for?” Her words slapped my face and seeped through my every pore. The clarity I sought for years suddenly came rushing forward out of the fog of uncertainty and fear. That moment propelled me to listen to what my heart had been saying for so long.

Eight years earlier, I felt directionless and burned out. I left my job and took a leap of faith by backpacking for four months through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Portugal, and England with someone I loved. As I lived through this life-altering experience, I had no idea that the travel bug would bite me so hard. When I came home to NYC rejuvenated, I promised myself that I would see at least one new country every year.

I worked at a private, philanthropic foundation helping give away millions of dollars annually to colleges and universities. I was ambitious, driven, and pushed myself to the limit. I asked for (and got) more responsibilities, pursued a Masters degree part-time, got married, bought a house, and still managed to travel for three weeks to my new country of choice. But soon I would learn that my go-getter attitude was not sustainable. My body eventually rebelled and broke down gradually, cracking under my self-imposed physical, mental, and emotional prisons. Medical doctors only offered me prescription drugs and surgery to help me deal with the severe, chronic pain I felt throughout my body.

Desperate for an alternative, I turned to an Eastern healer and Bikram Yoga. I channeled the same hard work, focus, and determination that put me in this mess to get myself healed. Working to heal myself was hellish and grueling because it was an irritatingly slow process and went against everything that our pill-popping, quick-fix culture teaches us.

In every Bikram studio, students are instructed to look at themselves in the mirror for the entire 90 minute class. As a beginner, I could not look at myself without unceasing criticism. You’re too fat. You’re too injured. You’re not flexible enough. You’re not good enough. Each time I looked in that mirror, I confronted my own worst enemy: me.

The intensity of the heat magnified the challenge of the yoga poses. Many times, all I wanted to do was collapse, give up, or run out of the room screaming. Magically, my teachers knew when to offer me the compassion I needed to back off. Johanna, stay still. All you have to do is breathe. They also knew when I gave up too easily. You fall out, you jump back in! Johanna, what are you waiting for?”

To survive in that hot room required only a calm breath. Surprisingly, even that seemingly simple act was the most challenging. The classes where I struggled to “just” breathe were the ones that dealt heavy blows to my ego. Patience, compassion, and forgiveness were forced to set in because there was little room for self-criticism, judgment, and attachment. The salty tears and gallons of sweat chipped away at the protective walls I built so long ago against hurt and pain. It no longer mattered if I wasn’t good enough, quick enough, pretty enough, or smart enough. All that mattered was that I do my best. And when I fell down or fell out, all I needed to do was jump right back in.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, acknowledging my humanity afforded me the freedom to access my inner strength. Only when I forgave myself could I allow myself the chance to start again.

In the 2½ years of practicing Bikram yoga, I no longer feel the weight of the world.The chronic debilitating pain I once felt, is completely gone. Today, I am the healthiest I have ever been in body, mind, and spirit. I have learned to live my life the same way I practice yoga. I tackle each challenge and uncomfortable situation with a calm breath, a focused mind, and a compassionate heart. I have learned to be okay with uncertainty, fear, and discomfort knowing that these feelings ­shall pass. I am still learning.

Last Thursday, I said goodbye to my colleagues of eight years at my secure job. I venture now into uncharted territory. Yesterday, I arrived in Los Angeles for 9 weeks of full-time certification to become a Bikram yoga teacher. I have always dreamed of becoming self employed, doing things that I love most. Leaving my job and becoming a yoga teacher will make room for my greatest passion: writing travel stories and making travel videos with my husband. I feel that my mission in this post 9/11 world is to promote cultural understanding and healing. As a yoga teacher, I can help others who seek redemption. As a traveler, I can tell you stories about the places I visit and the people who live there. As an anthropologist, I can provide a unique insight to these cultures.

Every morning we awake, we are given another day for the chance to start anew. That journey always starts with the decision to forgive. I’ve learned that forgiveness first begins with ourselves before we can bestow it to others. Only then can we become courageous. Only then can we aspire for greatness. Only then can we inspire others to do the same.

A Tradition from Ponza, Italy Continues: The Feast of San Silverio

Religion. Politics. Power. Plots. Exile. Death.

Tile Rendering of Ponza's Main Port

All these ingredients create a perfect recipe for a dramatic plot.  But residents of Ponza, the largest of the Pontine Islands off the Italian coast in the Tyrrehenian Sea, celebrate a man whose life experienced them all.  The Ponzese annually celebrate the feast day of their patron saint on June 20 with a Roman Catholic Mass, a street procession with the statue, and abundant food.  Accused of treason for another’s political gain, Pope Silverius was deposed in the early 6th century.  Despite numerous attempts to prove his innocence, he was exiled to Palmarola, a harsh and rugged island 8 miles from Ponza, where he died.

The Ponzese were among the surge of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s.  Many arrived in New York City and eventually settled in the Bronx.  Like most immigrants, they continued their cultural traditions, one of which was the feast day celebration of their patron saint.  A fraternal society organized the Bronx celebration, which would mimic the one in Ponza.  After Mass at Our Lady of Pity Roman Catholic Church (now a closed parish on 151st Street near Morris Avenue), the faithful would process behind the statue throughout the neighborhood.

Hymn to San Silverio

By the mid 20th century, irreverent onlookers would throw eggs and bottles from building windows onto the processors.  In response, society member Ercito Mazzella offered to donate 81 acres of land in Dover Plains, NY that he recently purchased.  Located approximately 70 miles north of the Bronx, Mazzella originally intended to develop the land but instead, urged the society to raise funds to build a shrine that would serve as a permanent site for future processions to be held in peace.  In 2012, the San Silverio Shrine in Dover Plains will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

A Mass celebration and a small procession continues to be held every June 20 in the Morris Park section of the Bronx.  A week later, on Sunday morning, the shrine in Dover Plains hosts another celebration attracting hundreds of families, all of whom are descended from or somehow connected to the island of Ponza.

Fr. Ciro Iodice, OFM, sailed to the United States from Ponza on the Andrea Dorea in 1956, the ship’s penultimate voyage before it sank.  For the last 30 years, he has celebrated Mass at the shrine, driving several hours from Massachusetts to do so. He explained that many people participate in a procession because the saint is invoked for a specific intention or thanked for an answered prayer.  “A procession is a solemn, spiritual dialogue where a person can be in communion with the saint, with other members processing, and with the earth…the surrounding elements, both visible and invisible.”

The procession snaked along a forested path, led by a marching band and Rev. Iodice followed by men who carried the statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and San Silverio with the rest of the participants behind them.  The procession lasted 30 minutes with a pause in the middle for prayer. Red carnations on San Silverio’s boat were distributed to the crowd and several people pinned money to the ribbons adorning the saint’s statue at the conclusion of the ceremony. These donations were visible signs of requests or thanks.

Guido Rivieccio carried the statue of San Silverio this year as he has done for many previous years.  “As a kid, I was involved with the feast in Morris Park and I’ve been carrying the statue for about 10-15 years,” said Rivieccio.  He does it to honor his parents pointing especially to his father who was standing a few feet away.  The elder Rivieccio carried the statue in New York and in Ponza as a young man.  Rivieccio tries to remain connected to his roots by attending this annual celebration and by traveling back to Ponza.  Four years ago, he tattooed an image of San Silverio on his entire right deltoid and bicep!

Over time, most societies formed by newly arrived immigrants whither away as the connection to the homeland becomes more distant.  Yet for generations, these American descendants of Ponza have gathered with their families to celebrate this annual tradition in Dover Plains for almost 50 years.  Their devotion to San Silverio and their connection to their roots have not died. Let’s hope they never do.

A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza

The King of Queens?

Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona
Seein’ me and Julio down by the schoolyard.
– Paul Simon

When I think of Corona, Queens, four things come immediately to mind:  1) this Paul Simon song; 2) the home of Louis Armstrong, now a museum; 3) the Lemon Ice King as seen in the opening credits the TV show “King of Queens“; and 4) Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

I grew up in neighboring Elmhurst (formerly named “Newtown” during the British colonial period)  just as Paul Simon grew up in neighboring Forest Hills.  And like Simon, as evidenced by his song, I know Corona today as a neighborhood predominantly comprised of Latin American immigrants.  This week’s challenge instructed me to take a walking tour so I sought out the person I believed could best guide me:  Jack Eichenbaum,  urban geographer.  After hearing him featured in this great NPR story just after he was appointed the Queens Borough Historian, I knew he was the man for the job.

Jack and I met on a cold spring morning at Corona Plaza, near the #7 train entrance at 103rd Street.  Before we began, Jack started by explaining how the arrival of different forms of transportation affected not only the landscape of Corona but also how people came to interact with it.  “No wonder Corona Avenue winds through the neighborhood like a snake!” I exclaimed after Jack described how this street was once the colonial route from Brooklyn to Flushing, and followed the contours of the land.  Anglos arrived in the 1800s after the building of the railroad (now the present day Port Washington branch of the Long Island Rail Road) and by the 1890s, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants arrived as trolleys traveled down the streets.

By 1917, the elevated #7 train was built above an available area — now known as Roosevelt Avenue, a highly commercial area — which at the time was the least desirable part of town.  The neighboring business district of Flushing resisted the intrusion of an elevated train but in 10 years the subway line was extended to terminate at Main Street, the current last stop.  Flushing’s resistance resulted in the underground building of the Main Street station, which required more money and engineering finesse.  (Jack claimed the reason for the subway line’s continuing signal problems today relates to the elevation change from about three stories above ground to going underground into Main Street.  Hmmm… I thought this whole time “delays due to signal problems” was a NYC MTA euphemism for “we’re taking a coffee break.”)

Immediately, Jack impressed me with his incredible knowledge.  More importantly, he seamlessly connected economic factors to the emergence of transportation advancements that brought about the neighborhood’s changes. He was also able to contextualize the historical events in Corona to what was happening in neighboring parts of Queens, the city of New York, and even the United States.

Park of the Americas (formerly Linden Park, which once contained a lake) was renamed as a tribute to the countless ethnic communities who lived and still live in Corona.

By the mid- to late 20th century, an influx of Latin Americans arrived in Corona. In the photo above, you can see a storefront sign in the upper left called “Tulcingo Deli”, one of a number of Mexican restaurants in NYC with this name.  In fact, my favorite Mexican restaurant in my former neighborhood of Astoria was Tulcingo on Broadway!  In Mexico, Tulcingo is a city in the state of Puebla from where many of the Mexicans living in NYC hail.

Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast food restaurant, has a location in Corona while Rincon Criollo, one of the oldest Cuban restaurants in the city still remains.  Jack tipped me off that any business signs with the words “Quisqueyano” or “Cibao” catered to the Dominican population because the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic was once called Quisqueya by its native people, the Taino.  Cibao, also a Taino word, refers to the northern region of the DR.  A geography lesson from a geographer, I expected nothing less.

Reading the signs & utilizing our Spanish skills

English translation: "Want to try our Fanesca? Then come here. We have the best and most delicious." Fanesca is an Ecuadorian stew made only around Easter.

It was clear that Jack and I were kindred spirits thanks to our mutual interest in the inhabitants who create the culture of a place.  I also discovered that Jack likes to travel to the homelands of the immigrants who live in the NYC neighborhoods he explores.  Out of all the countries he visited, he claimed Vietnam to be his favorite because the country was nothing like the negative messages he heard about as a young adult.

The tour included a stop at the former Tiffany glass factory and furnaces, which now houses several business including a halal live poultry corporation.  How perfect to finally visit the building since I learning about its existence just a few weeks ago during a visit to the nearby Queens Museum of Art for the first week’s challenge!

The former glass factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany

Sign in English, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi (?)

Our final stop brought us to Silver Bell, a Lithuanian bakery from the 1920s that “is still family owned and dedicated to keeping alive the wholesome traditions of ‘Old World’ baking” according to its website.  I wonder what it means to bake “old word” style?  Nevertheless, I’m amazed that Silver Bell has managed to remain and succeed in a neighborhood whose demographics have changed so dramatically since it opened.

Standing in front of freshly baked bread. I could not resist a treat!

As an anthropologist, I learned that a place is where politics, economics, and ecology intersect.  Jack taught me that technology can also be included in this mix.  Akin to an anthropologist doing work in the field, Jack sees the street as a “lab” where observations of the residents’ social behaviors can be made and its effects on a place.

His passion of exploring cities on foot started as a child when his father and grandfather took him on long walks.  As a college professor, he took his students to the streets.  He organized his first walking tour in 1982 of Long Island City, which was  sponsored by the Queens Historical Society.  It was in response to the few walking tours offered at the time, which were typically focused on architecture in Manhattan.  He wanted to guide tours that focused on the vitality of a place – its people – in a borough that he loves:  Queens.

I learned so much from the mere hour I spent with Jack, and I am certain it won’t be the last tour I take with him.  Jack sees himself not as a tour guide but as an educator so if you are curious or interested in history, culture, demographics, transportation and New York City in general, go on a walk with Jack!  You won’t be disappointed.

Be sure to check out his upcoming signature tour highlighting “The World of the #7 Train”, held on one day only — April 30, 2011 — as detailed below.  For additional tour schedules, check his website.

Jack Eichenbaum
www.geognyc.com
jaconet@aol.com
718-961-8406

Saturday, April 30, 2011
10:00am to 5:30 pm (with lunch break)

THE WORLD OF THE #7 TRAIN
Long Island City – Sunnyside – Woodside – Elmhurst –
Jackson Heights – Corona – Flushing

Your tour leader, Jack Eichenbaum, maintains a storehouse of researched facts and biased memories of bygone eras.  Eichenbaum holds a Ph.D in urban geography, teaches Geography of NYC at CUNY  and has been riding the #7 for six decades.  His expertise lies in historical geography and ethnic and technological change.  His tour will focus on what the #7 train has done to and for the surrounding neighborhoods since it opened in 1914.  The #7 has been designated a “National Millennium Trail” for its pioneering role in transporting people in what is probably the most demographically diverse cityscape in the world.

Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to:
Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354
(include name, phone and email address).
The tour is limited to 25 people.
For further information, email jaconet@aol.com.

Doubles, Mauby, Aloo Pie, Oh My!

The best part about Queens?  Hands down, the food, because the incredible variety of options reflects the rich diversity of the borough’s people.

Out of curiosity, I recently listed all the cuisines I’ve ever had in Queens:  American, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Central Asian (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, western China), Afghani, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Veitnamese, Thai, Chinese (including the regional flavors of Dongbei, Shanghai, Sichuan, Hong Kong), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, Polish, Czech, Greek, Cypriot, Bosnian/Balkan, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Irish.

That’s 37 cuisines from around the world, yo!  37!!!  And there’s still so much more to try!

The third week’s challenge charged me to eat in a neighborhood I rarely visit.  After contemplating my options, I decided to not only go to a less familiar neighborhood but to also try a cuisine I’ve never had before: Indo-Caribbean.  I headed to Richmond Hill with a well-established West Indian population particularly from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago.

I selected Singh’s Roti Shop after doing research online and getting recommendations from friends.  Dishes and drinks I’ve never heard before–doubles, aloo pie, buss up shot, salt fish and bake, mauby, sorrel, sea moss, and peanut punch–I wanted to try.

Upon entering Singh’s, my senses were immediately overloaded.  The huge line extended from the counter to the door, at least 40 feet.  To while away the time, people in line and families seated at tables watched TV transfixed.  It played music videos of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and various West Indian artists while the sound blared from floor speakers.  The television jockey seemed to suffer from ADD because he changed the video every 2 minutes, never completing any one song.  During my 30 minute wait, I observed what seemed like satisfied customers leaving with bags…and trays, MULTIPLE TRAYS, of food.  If impatient New Yorkers are willing to wait long, then the food must be delicious.  I got excited!

When I reached the counter, I saw at least 10 Singh employees taking orders and dishing out food.  I asked my server a question but the high glass counter filled with numerous to-go containers prevented eye contact and the loud blaring music made it really hard to hear each other.  I asked for clarification on the menu and I got a “hold on”.  She suddenly disappeared to the kitchen, returned minutes later, and proceeded to take another customer!  I tried to get her attention. Heck, I tried to get anyone’s attention but all were busy.  After another 7 minute wait, my server yelled “next” and I went back to her and asked why she didn’t serve me.    She came up with this crazy line about how long the line was and that I had to wait.

And then, I LOST IT.

I got all New York on her, ActionJoJo-style!  Despite my yelling still sounding like a whisper thanks to the loud music, she begrudgingly took my order….which she eventually got wrong.

Clockwise from center left: aloo pie, doubles, sorrel and mauby (drinks), chicken roti.

I got doubles, an aloo pie, a roti chicken and to drink I decided to try sorrel and mauby. The roti chicken reminded me of its Malaysian cousin, chicken roti canai sans the coconut milk in the curry. The West-Indian roti is far thicker and bigger, which makes it heartier to absorb the delicious sauce.  Without coconut milk in the curry, it was less creamy but still full of flavor.  Shaped like a tapered submarine sandwich with a slit on its side, the aloo pie surprised me.  I did not expect the consistency of the fried dough to remind me of an Italian zeppola filled with a mixture of chickpeas and potatoes instead of ricotta cheese.  My favorite by far was the doubles, a chickpea curry filling between two pieces of baras bread.  The juxtaposition of the hearty and spicy creaminess of the chickpeas between the thin soft pieces of baras made the dish delicious partly because of taste and mostly because of texture.  I came to understand how it is a popular snack food in Trinidad:  light enough to not make you feel full but heavy enough to tide you over until your next real meal.  The sorrel was essentially a fruit punch but the mauby was more complex:  earthy and herby, akin to a non-carbonated homemade root beer that started semi-sweet and ended with a bitter aftertaste.

Flags of countries from the region

Now that I’ve sampled West Indian cuisine, I would definitely eat it again.  Much of the population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago descended from Africans and Indians who arrived as slaves or indentured workers.  Even the Chinese ended up in these countries, which is why you’ll see lo mein, chow mein, and fried rice on the menu.  I tried to sample the “Singh’s Special Fried Rice” for comparison but they were out.

I would not suggest going to Singh’s if you are a first timer like me unless you are accompanied by someone who knows how to order.  I would’ve been better suited going to a sit-down restaurant serviced by wait staff who could answer my questions and explain the menu.  If you have any suggestions of places like these, leave them in the comments!  I’ll wait to go back to Singh’s until I’m far more familiar with the menu.

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar
131-14 Liberty Avenue
South Richmond Hill, NY  11419
(718) 323-599

A train to Lefferts Boulevard
M-Thu 6am-12am; Fri 6am-2am;
Sat 5:30am-2am; Sun 5:30am-12am
www.singhsrotishopnyc.com

Aerial View of NYC

Welcome to the first week in a 12-week travel series on Queens, New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough!  This first week starts off with a bang!  Charged with viewing my city from above, I headed straight to the Queens Museum of Art for the very first time in my life…and I’m a Queens native!  Inside, I bee-lined straight to the museum’s permanent and most popular exhibit.

Behold, the Panorama of the City of New York!!!

The boroughs are labeled in this picture for your easy reference.

Without rising more than 20 feet, I saw the entire city’s five boroughs spread before me.  And I didn’t have to worry about wind conditions, precipitation, cloud cover, crowds, and steep admission prices!

In 1939 and 1964, New York City hosted the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where the museum is currently located.  Commissioned by the city’s most famous urban planner,  Robert Moses,  the panorama was built for the 1964 fair and the project was spearheaded by an architectural model making firm.  It took 100 people to build it in 3 years.  At present, the model is 9,335 square feet and contains every NYC building built before 1992 to total 895,000 individual structures.  Sure enough, I even managed to pinpoint my own house built in the 1920s!

Midtown Manhattan with Queens & the Bronx in the background,all connected by the Robert F. Kennedy (formerly, the Triboro) Bridge

Lower Manhattan with the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges& the World Trade Center (RIP)

Islands in the Harbor (clockwise starting at top right): Governors, Liberty, Ellis

View of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn & Staten Island& the Atlantic Ocean beyond

The panorama has remained open to the public ever since its debut in 1964.   If you are an architecture, history, or NYC buff, you’ll definitely love this exhibit.  As a native New Yorker, it was fun for me to point out the changes that have occurred in the city since 1992.  For example, the building construction of the AOL Time Warner Center, 4 Times Square/Condé Naste, and the glass addition to the Hearst building, the rezoning and subsequent development of the Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts particularly in the neighborhoods of  Long Island City, Williamsburg, DUMBO, and more recently Red Hook, and the gentrification of the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Meatpacking District was yet to happen.  Heck, even Battery Park City, created by filling in an area of the Hudson River with the rocks and soil excavated from the World Trade Center construction site, was in the panorama but without any buildings.  The panorama certainly cannot keep up with the constant, fast paced changes of NYC yet it still manages to capture the incredible vastness and diversity of the place.  To see more pictures of the panorama, click here.

Before you leave the museum, make sure to check out the other worthwhile exhibits.  The small Tiffany glass exhibit is worth a stop.  Artist, Louis Tiffany had his studio and furnace in neighboring Corona.  And the World’s Fair memorabilia from both 1939 and 1964 are telling indicators of life within the United States and the world during those periods.


Queens Museum of Art
New York City Building
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Queens, NY 11368-3398
Wed – Sun: 12 – 6pm
Suggested Donation: Adults $5; Seniors & Children $2.50; Members & Children Under 5 FREE
7 Train to either 111th Street or Mets-Willets Point

www.queensmuseum.org