Transitions

From Harlem to Astoria: Leaving roommates to live with a boyfriend, and enjoy a foodie mecca

"We live on a side street in between two major avenues [in Astoria]. I kid you not, these avenues have some of the best food. I have a real sweet tooth and I'm in my glory," a New Yorker named Lauren says.

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2020
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When her lease ended during the pandemic, a New Yorker named Lauren, who is in media relations, decided to take a leap and move from a roommate share in Harlem to an apartment with her boyfriend in Astoria. Now, not only is she saving money each month, but she is indulging her sweet tooth and adventurous tastes in cuisine, thanks to her new neighborhood’s diverse food scene. Here’s her take on how the neighborhoods compare.

For three years I lived near the northwest corner of Central Park with two roommates who I knew prior to rooming together. We lived in a three bedroom, one bath with a dishwasher and a washer and dryer in the unit—which is a real treat to have in a New York City apartment, especially during the pandemic—my old apartment in Hoboken didn’t have a dishwasher and laundry was in the basement—a giant pain.

The apartment was renovated right before we moved in, so everything was new and clean. The bathroom was giant and we had a big tub, another NYC treat. Our super was friendly and responsive.


[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series “Transitions” features first-person accounts of what it’s like to move from one New York City neighborhood to another—or outside the city. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]


My roommates’ windows looked out onto Frederick Douglas Boulevard—so when the 7 p.m. first responder cheers started, it was nice to be right there. My own room was away the street, quiet and dark, which was perfect for sleeping.

This all sounds great, and it was, but there were certainly downsides. We lived in a fourth-floor walkup, for starters. The renovation was not high-end—the fixtures were of low quality. The drain in our tub broke and we couldn’t take baths anymore. The pipes above us leaked and we had a hole in the bathroom ceiling for weeks. The apartment also didn’t get much sunlight. Even though my bedroom was the largest, it only had one window, so with an air conditioner, much of the light was blocked.

My room felt particularly bleak during the lockdown. My one window looked into another unit three feet across the way. So, I had to put a large decal over my window for privacy. It was manageable pre-pandemic, but when I transitioned to working from home, it contributed to a lot of depression.

African, soul, and Caribbean food

Still, the neighborhood lent itself to many experiences. There were new people, cultures, and foods that I hadn’t experience before: African food, soul food, and Caribbean food. (Just thinking about the meals there, my mouth waters!) I also loved being close to two parks—Central and Morningside—but in retrospect realize I didn’t use them nearly enough. I could see Central Park and the statue of Frederick Douglass when I walked out the door. I lived a block away from a major subway and there were two more 10 minutes or less away. I also discovered chopped cheese (yum). 

The food there really deserves its own story because Harlem—especially Freddy D, aka Restaurant Row—is phenomenal. Zoma was great Ethiopian food (now closed). Seasoned Vegan I didn't go to enough but I love the mission of the restaurant and truly I don't even know how it's vegan—it’s so rich and delicious. Cafe Amrita was my favorite place to stop in when I would work from home—they served all the meals and made great breakfast sandwiches. I loved the farmer's market on 110th and Manhattan Avenue. Sugar Hill Creamery brownie sundaes were an emotional lifeline during quarantine. Harlem Shake was amazing after a night of drinking, I took my friends to Row House when they came to visit, took myself out to Vinateria for some of the best black ink pasta and to Lido for spaghetti and meatballs before Yom Kippur fast. I made it to Sylvia's and Melba's, which feels historic. The two things I wanted to do that I never got to do while I lived there was go to gospel or Jazz brunch. I'm Jewish, but I think I would have really loved gospel brunch. My roommates and I had some nice roommate dinners at Cantina at Central Park North where they served the best margaritas.

Also, the best bagels in Manhattan are at Absolute Bagel on 108th and Broadway and I am forever thankful to a former client who made that recommendation to me.

And don’t get me started on the museums. I was close to many. When things were feeling particularly rough for me one day, I took myself to the planetarium. Nothing will make your problems seem more insignificant than learning about the galaxies.

I moved to Harlem not knowing anyone locally aside from my roommates. A few months after moving I lost my job, so in order to occupy my time I started volunteering at the local yoga studio, Land Yoga (it sadly closed its doors, but is now remote!) where I met a ton of people in the community and got to engage with other businesses. I also picked up a new appreciation for yoga! When I was in the groove I was really in the groove.

I would do my grocery shopping at Trader Joe's on 94th and Columbus, Best Market on 117th or Central Market on 110th. Central Market was very expensive but convenient. Trader Joes was good for after work or on the weekend. I haven't gone to a TJs since the pandemic started and there aren't any where I live now. I miss it.

I liked knowing that I lived in such a culturally rich part of New York City, but it was clearly impacted by gentrification and lack of economic investment. There were lots of vacant storefronts and yet not enough banks or pharmacies. Many people in the area were poor. I always felt safe, but at times the disparity made me feel sad. And as the virus wreaked havoc on the city and affected jobs, we had a lot of package theft the last few months we lived there.

Taking the next step in a relationship

My lease was coming to a close. Since my boyfriend and I were ready to take the next step and move in together, I moved to Astoria, Queens in June to be with him. He had been living in Sunnyside and grew up in Jackson Heights. I knew I wanted to get out of Manhattan and try and save some money. I also wanted to see if we could get some outdoor space—doesn’t everyone want that since the lockdown took effect? Spoiler: We couldn't!

We found our place on StreetEasy. Moving during a pandemic was both easier and harder in some ways. We were first planning on moving for May 1st, and then the pandemic made it unsafe to look for places, so my roommates and I extended our lease by another two months. My boyfriend had his lease until July anyway. My other two roommates moved into a new apartment together. We looked at apartments virtually, and then saw a few on our own. It was nice just being able to look at units without being hounded by brokers. We only looked at four or five before signing the lease.

I was paying $1,400 for my share of the Harlem apartment. We each paid the same, so $4,200 total. Utilities averaged $55-$75 each throughout the year. Now I pay $2,200 total for a two bedroom, one bath with my boyfriend, which we split evenly. I'm saving $300 in rent and my utilities are only marginally more because we only split between two people. We use just as many air conditioners.

We're on the second floor of a five-floor walkup in Astoria. It's not perfect by any means, but it's great for us right now. Two bedrooms give us enough space to both work from home. We have so many closets!  We have a dishwasher and the mail area has tons of cameras. Trash and recycling are well organized. The building is clean and quiet. It's a dog-friendly building (which, in addition to a dishwasher, was a requirement) and we're in the process of looking for a dog to adopt! I like that there are more trees around. My boyfriend keeps tomato and aloe plants.

We also have many windows! I have two windows in the room where I work every day and two windows in our bedroom—they overlook a courtyard and I can see the trees on the other side. I can see sky. It's wild how little things like that really impact your quality of life. 

In general, this is the first place that really feels like mine, even though I share the space with my boyfriend. I've always lived in three-bedroom apartments until now and let me tell you, 50 percent equity feels much better than 33.3 percent equity. 

The biggest fight my boyfriend and I had was about how to decorate the main living space, which is half kitchen, half living room. There was no ideal way to lay it all out. We've since decided on a layout— looking back, it was funny we fought so much on it. We both just felt so strongly about our opinions.

More stores and more affordability

I've always really wanted to live in Astoria. Like Harlem, I like that it's diverse. And better yet, I have access to way more shops than I did in Harlem without having to go on a subway. The grocery stores are more affordable and are larger. There are great clothing store options a few blocks away. A gym is nearby, whenever it reopens. I also have friends and family here—we haven't seen people that much due to quarantine, but when I put it out on social media that I was moving here, I heard from a ton of people I hadn't talked to in a while. It felt cool! I like knowing I know people nearby.

One drawback is we overlook a courtyard, but we don't have access to it. People are very big on fire escape use here and now I see why! I also wish there were more parks. Obviously, there's Astoria Park and everything near the river, but we haven’t ventured there yet.  

Most of Manhattan is also a grid. Queens is less so. So, it's been pretty disorienting, but I thank goodness for Google Maps and the fact that I learn quickly.

A great array of restaurants

And I still have access to amazing food! We live on a side street in between two major avenues. I kid you not, these avenues have some of the best food. I have a real sweet tooth and I'm in my glory.

I live right by Chip—a gourmet cookie shop—and Ample Hills Creamery. Down the block from that is Queens Comfort—where I have not been yet, but their donuts are legendary. Also, on our block is Sweet Afton, which makes great breakfast nachos. I've been eating a lot of Mediterranean food. We've been with both of our parents to Forno Siciliano in Ditmars—they're a great family owned place that makes amazing coal fired pizza. We buy cheap tacos at Los Portales.

One of the most stressful things about the move has been finding new beauty spots. I chopped my hair at Salon Gigi and got a great, first-time-in-five-months mani/pedi at Wellshow nails—would definitely recommend.

Whenever indoor cultural centers reopen and we feel it’s safe to attend, I want to go back to the Museum of the Moving Image and Kaufman Movie Theater. I can't wait to feel safe enough to go to a biergarten or an improv show. (I did improv when I lived in the city.) 

I have to go to a laundromat now, and I thought it would bum me out, but it's actually really great. The place is just two doors down and never super crowded. I like that I can wash more clothes at once and be done in 90 minutes. An apartment unit can't dry clothes very well, so sometimes a large load would take a day or two.

A work commute is non-existent now since I work from home. I've taken the subway into the city twice since I moved and if I have to go back in, it should take me about 40 minutes. I’ll only need to take one train, too!

All in all, we made a great decision on both the apartment and new nabe. I predict there will be even more to love in the coming months as more things reopen and hopefully, we feel safer about venturing out and meeting up with friends.