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The Story of “Astoria Characters”

“Astoria Characters,” the weekly blog that is published on the home page of the New York section of the Huffington Post, profiles the people in my Queens, New York neighborhood.

Astoria, which Archie Bunker and the Steinway & Sons piano factory call home, is the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in New York City, and when I moved here in 2005, I became fascinated with the people, nearly 50 percent of them foreign-born, who were walking up and down my street. I wondered what their stories were.

In September 2009, in the tradition of  Mark Twain, I, a transplant from the “Show- Me” state of Missouri, assumed the role of an “innocent abroad.” I set out to paint a portrait, in words and photos, of the actors in this wonderfully eccentric working-class neighborhood, where the same old ladies who throw cardboard pizza cartons into the street rush out with their brooms at the first blush of spring to save the pavement from the kiss of falling rose petals.

It was my intent to create a vibrant documentary-style tableau vivant that would serve as a historical snapshot of life in Astoria in the first decades of the 21st Century.

My premise was that every one of the 182,000 residents in this northwest Queens neighborhood 15 minutes from Bloomingdale’s flagship in Manhattan has a singular story that deserves its own 15 minutes of fame.

I’ve told the stories of people who come from all over the world – Egypt, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Mexico, Spain and Sri Lanka – and around the country — California, Delaware, Indiana, Hawaii and Alaska.

Each of them, from the 101-year-old wheelchair-bound woman who lives for each new day to the man from Mexico who makes his living as a clown, has been a revelation to me.

I assumed that “Astoria Characters” would appeal to people who live and work in the neighborhood, but the stories I’ve been told – of hard luck and hard work, of determination and dreams – have resonated with readers around the world.

“Astoria Characters” also has accomplished something I never expected: It has made the community of Astoria closer. I’ve watched people who never paid much attention to each other greet each other on the street. They truly feel like neighbors because although they come from different countries, they’ve told me that they now know, from reading “Astoria Characters,” that they really are very much alike.