Astoria to Harlem: A neighborhood that feels like the UWS (circa-1985)

By Ben  | April 19, 2013 - 10:46AM

I knew that there would be a lot I would miss when I left Astoria, Queens, but after six years, it was time for a change. And, since I was making the change in order to move in with my girlfriend and start our life together, I was excited about what was coming next.

Julia had been living in Harlem for six years and liked it a lot and although I probably would have considered staying in Queens, the commute to her job at the Metropolitan Opera would have been pretty awful from there. I’m a graphic designer and can easily work from a home office so we decided to focus our apartment search on Harlem, because of the convenience factor and because space would be affordable. 

Harlem also has a culture, which at the moment, is still intact, and is asserting itself against gentrification. This may not last over time, but at the moment it is definitely true.

I liked Astoria more than any other place I had ever lived. I moved there from Brooklyn (Park Slope and then Windsor Terrace), and by then, to me, Brooklyn had begun to take on a manufactured look. The original ethnic neighborhoods--and their respective flavors--have been, or in the process of being, ironed out rather than embraced. 

In contrast, Astoria, though it sure isn’t pretty, is certainly real.

When I first moved there, Astoria seemed unattractive, even ugly, but the small scale-feel, the narrow streets, the balance of wealth and the huge mix of people out on the streets--Italians, Greeks, Egyptians, Koreans--grew on me.

Food in Astoria is great, not in a polished or Brooklyn-style artisanal way, but in an authentic ethnic way. I loved Steinway Street, known as Little Egypt, and especially the Kebab Cafe where you feel as though you’re eating food made by your make-believe Egyptian grandmother. And Fatty’s on Ditmars has terrific Cuban food.

In Astoria, I lived in a two-and-a-half bedroom apartment in a privately owned two-family house with a living room and dining room and a parking spot in back for (are you sitting down?) $1,600. I shared it with my younger sister.

But, as I said, it was time to go and time to start a new chapter in my life, so Julia and I began our search for a three-bedroom--we each wanted a home office space--in Harlem.

Amazingly, our search took exactly one day.

The apartment we took--we found it on Craigslist--was the second we looked at. The first was gorgeous but it was a fifth floor walk-up so we passed on it. Our apartment is on St. Nicholas Terrace and 129th Street, on the fourth floor of an elevator building, overlooking St. Nicholas Park. Our rent is $2,100.

It’s in a beautiful building, probably built in the 1940s. We have three bedrooms, two baths and a great kitchen with plenty of room for Julia and I to cook together. She loves to cook and is thrilled with the dishwasher and the new appliances. We have lots of light. I’m setting my office up in one of the bedrooms and I’ve got plenty of room for all of my stuff.

We’re up on a hill and I love looking out over the park from our apartment.

Most of the folks who live in our building are Harlem-born-and-raised and they’ve been extremely welcoming and friendly. We got to know our neighbors right away.

Our block is a little sketchy looking. Because Saint Nicholas Terrace doesn't connect to 125th Street, and has no car traffic and not much foot traffic, all of the shops on the street are shuttered, giving a bit of a war-torn feeling, especially at night when there's a lack of light and activity. But there are always lots of people out on the stoops which gives it a comfortable feel.

Will it be noisy in the summertime? Maybe, but we’re not too worried about that. Growing up on Amsterdam and 92nd Street in the 1980s has basically made noise part of the charm for me.

One drawback is that at the moment we have no place close by to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. There are three shuttered bodegas on our walk from the subway--no idea what that’s all about. There’s an Associated Market not too far but it’s closed on weekends which is pretty weird. We go to Fairway on 126th Street to do our shopping, which is all the way west and about a mile away; eventually there will be a Whole Foods on 125th Street closer to us. So, problem soon to be solved.

All in all, to me, this part of Harlem feels a little like the Upper West Side when I grew up there in the '80s-- a very real, slightly gritty, no b.s. neighborhood.

So far, my favorite spot to eat in the neighborhood is Maison Harlem, a relatively new French restaurant on 127th Street and St. Nicholas. It’s packed every night with a wonderfully mixed crowd all just hanging out and enjoying the vibe.

And Showmans, a jazz club on 125th Street, that’s been in Harlem since the 1940s, is a short walk from our apartment.

Public transportation from here is great--we’re right by the A,B,C and D trains. Columbus Circle is just one stop away and Julia can get to the Met in 15 minutes.

We’re loving it here and although we’re still settling in, we know we’ve made the right choice.

Transitions highlights New Yorkers’ first impressions as they transition from one  neighborhood to another. Want to tell us your transition story? Drop us an email.


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