Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 52043 views | 0 0 comments | 231 231 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Immortalizes the Dearly Departed
by Nruhling
Feb 28, 2017 | 3283 views | 0 0 comments | 86 86 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Effie opened her monuments shop in Astoria in 2014.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Effie Sfikas is gazing out the front window. The sun is shining, the stores are open and people are walking up and down Ditmars Boulevard.

The world is bursting with life.

She turns her big, brown eyes to the ground and composes herself.

Death is not an easy subject to talk about.

“You need to show sympathy and compassion to the families,” she says in a somber voice.

Her grave garments — black slacks, white pleated blouse, black tie and black stilettoes – are accented with a serious smile.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Monuments by Effie is on Ditmars Boulevard at 38th Street.

The bright red soles of her shoes, barely visible when she walks, offer the only relief to her sartorial grief.

Effie, young, beautiful and bubbly, is the owner of Monuments by Effie, the only retail headstone purveyor in Astoria.

It is she who helps heartbroken families tell the stories of their dearly departed in the immortal granite of the gravestone.

“Yes, it’s sad,” she says, “but I feel like I’m doing good also.”

Effie is the first to admit that she’s the last person she ever expected to work in the funeral industry.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
An angel at the front door greets mourners.

“I had a big fear of death growing up,” she says. “But I have kind of come to ease with it being around it so much. You’re here today and gone tomorrow; I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles.”

Born and raised in the Bronx, Effie earned a degree in education at Mercy College and eagerly embarked upon a teaching career at a private Greek school in Corona.

It was the passing of her paternal grandmother and collaborating with a friend who worked for a monument maker that changed her course in life.

“When I was 17, I had a job in retail, and I loved it,” she says. “I always loved working with people, and after some sales work with my friend, I started Effie.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Effie contemplating her own mortality.

The first shop, which opened in 2009, is in Manhattan.

“My mother cried when I quit teaching,” she says. “My family was not excited when I started, but now I’m the go-to person they refer people to about the procedures of death.”

Effie married in 2012 (they met when she was 18, re-met when she was 32 and wed six weeks later) and as her own life changed, it shed a new light on death and dying.

The Astoria shop followed in 2014, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Valentina.

“I had been looking for the perfect spot in Astoria, where my husband is from and where I spent a lot of time with the Greek community when I was growing up,” she says. “My father-in-law encouraged me. His funeral was at Farenga, which is right across the street, and the day of his viewing, the curtains were open and I saw the for-rent sign.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A detail of a headstone.

The tomb-size shop is appointed with two desks, a mini-cemetery of sample headstones and an angel who spreads his benevolent wings in welcome at the front door.

The walls are lined with blown-up photos of Effie-made monuments.

The only personal effect is the small framed wedding photo Effie has on her desk. Her husband placed it there. She keeps it turned toward her.

The stories and sobbing that she hears are laced with undying love.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Effie, somber and supportive.

Babies die shortly after birth; little boys riding bikes get run over by cars; middle-aged husbands and wives succumb suddenly to heart attacks; and seniors pass away with generations of mourners at their bedside. Dogs and cats, eternally faithful, leave their owners alone all too soon.

“We individually design each monument,” Effie says, adding that the stones are sand-blasted in a factory in Woodside. “We work with the family to create a connection with the deceased.”

She points out a monument that memorializes a car lover; it depicts a sporty Cobra with the deceased’s first name on the license plate. For a boxer’s grave, the headstone includes a pair of gloves, and a woman who loved Halloween is remembered with a holiday slogan on her stone.

The granite monuments, which weigh 400 to 600 pounds and rise 3 to 4 feet, sell for about $2,200. Flat stones start at $900.

“I want to offer this service at an affordable price,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Sample headstones form a mini-cemetery in the shop.

Working with grieved families has made Effie, who is 36, more aware of her own mortality.

When her father-in-law died, she talked her husband into buying the in-ground crypt next to his in the St. Nicholas section of St. Michael’s cemetery.

“We have set up a headstone there,” she says. “I wanted to put our names on it and leave the dates blank, but my husband said no.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Effie’s stones make the deceased immortal.

As for her own funeral, Effie hasn’t made definite arrangements yet.

“As long as I know where I’m going to be buried, everything else they can surprise me with,” she says.

Effie, who gets orders from as far away as Pennsylvania, hopes to add a third location soon. She’s considering the Bronx, where she makes her earthly home.

She could accomplish this in a couple of years. Or a couple of decades.

Like death, it is inevitable. Only the timing is uncertain.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Returnee
by Nruhling
Feb 21, 2017 | 3539 views | 0 0 comments | 91 91 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dominique is a native of Astoria.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Dominique Perrot
has painted striking stripes in her long, dark hair. She’s decided to go grey gracefully, and the indigo streaks blend in and stand out at the same time, making her ageless.

She’s never worn her hair short and cannot imagine what it would be like to have her ears and neck uncovered.

She doesn’t know what color her hair will choose to be in this, a new chapter in her life that brings her back to her beginnings, but strand by strand, she’s willing to let the past, present and future merge.

Speaking of the past, Dominique has pulled out a binder filled with vintage postcards that illustrate the history of Astoria.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
For 39 years, she was a teacher in Canada.

She’s sitting in the 1901 Victorian house her parents bought when she was 4 months old. In the days before nearly everything in the neighborhood became numbers, her street was called Clark.

Her parents, French immigrants, met in New York City shortly after World War II.

“We only spoke French at home,” she says. “I learned English on the street.”

They settled in Astoria for no reason other than that it was close to the United Nations.

“My father worked there, and he literally took out a compass and drew a circle on the map,” Dominique says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She moved back to Astoria in 2014 to care for her mother.

The Perrots, who paid about $7,000 for their three-family home, were the third owners, taking up residence in 1951.

“We lived on the bottom floor, where my mother lived until she died last year,” Dominique says. “We didn’t have a phone in the beginning. We still have the same phone number. I don’t want to change it.”

The area where 14th Street, Astoria Boulevard and 28th Avenue cannot help but run in to each other goes largely unnoticed these days, but back in Dominique’s time it was a vibrant village of mom-and-pop shops.

Dominique remembers making trips to the supermarket, the vegetable store, the florist, the drug store, the fish market and the paint store. She recalls going into the 5 and 10 and the soda fountain.

She bought her god-awful-ugly Our Lady of Mount Carmel regulation oxfords at Tina’s Shoe Store.

She still has one of her navy-blue school jumpers packed away somewhere in the house.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Minette showed up on the doorstep.

She recalls gazing at the tuxedos in the window of the men’s clothing store where Astor Bake Shop stands. She can’t remember its name, but she sees it clearly in her mind.

And the library, that was her ticket to her future.

“I read every book that was there,” she says. “I still teach knitting and crochet there.”

Dominique’s parents divorced when she was 10, but they kept the house, which is why everything brings back memories.

“My mother, younger sister and I remained downstairs,” she says. “For many years, my father lived upstairs in the apartment we’re sitting in.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s begun studying the history of Astoria.

It was he who made the floor-to-ceiling closets in the bedroom.

See that mirror? He hung it there.

And he created the large painting over the sofa. It’s of fig leaves like the ones on the tree in the back yard.

The items in the house may have stayed in place, but the family did not. In addition to annual visits to France, Dominique saw much of South America and Europe.

“My mother worked for Air France,” she says. “We got a lot of free trips.”

Always adventurous, Dominique studied at the University of Ottawa, where she majored in archaeology and classical history and met the fellow student who became her husband.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dominique’s family bought the house in 1951.

They settled in Canada, living in Ottawa and Toronto, and Dominique became a public-school teacher and the mother of two.

“I taught French and every grade from kindergarten on up,” she says, adding that she retired after 39 years in the classroom. “I also trained teachers. When I was teaching third grade, Justin Trudeau and Matthew Perry were in my class. They were a couple of years apart.”

Every summer and every holiday, she and her children came back to Astoria.

“It was only a 10-hour drive,” she says.

When Dominique’s mother became ill in 2014, Dominique moved back permanently and started studying the history of the neighborhood in depth.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A vintage photo of the 1901 house.

“I wanted to rediscover Astoria,” she says. “It’s like a small village. Every time I walk down the street, it takes me 20 minutes longer because everyone stops to talk to me.”

She flips through the postcards.

“I even discovered a Perrot Street on the map,” she says. “I don’t know how or whether it relates to my family.”

Dominique’s mother died in the summer of 2016 at 92, but she has decided to stay, at least for a while.

Minette, her mother’s 6-year-old Calico cat, jumps on the sofa. She’s not supposed to be there, but Dominique is indulgent.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dominique’s favorite spot.

“She’s got diabetes and has to have insulin,” she says. “When my mother died, she hid under the bed for six weeks. She’s a feral cat – she just showed up on our doorstep.”

Dominique mentions that she would like to travel again. Perhaps she will camp her way across the country. And she has to go back to Paris.

“Right now, my life is here,” she says. “I want to share the history of Astoria with other people, so I’m putting together a walking tour.”

She closes her scrapbook of postcards but puts it on the coffee table where it is within easy reach.

“I want to cherish the past and embrace the future,” she says. “The past is why the future is here.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Woman of the Cheese Caves
by Nruhling
Feb 14, 2017 | 3900 views | 0 0 comments | 87 87 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Elizabeth’s the vice president of sales and marketing for Murray’s Cheese.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When she was a little girl, Elizabeth Chubbuck used to climb to the top of the wooden jungle gym at the elementary school by her house.

Each time, she opened her big blue eyes wide in hopeful expectation.

Illinois is a flat-out flat state so she could see for miles and miles.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Murray’s Cheese moved its caves to Long Island City in 2013.

But the view offered her nothing more than the unrelenting cornfields of her hometown of Urbana.

“I kept telling myself that there was something else out there,” says Elizabeth, the vice president of sales and marketing for Murray's Cheese

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Elizabeth started her career in magazines.

She had had glimpses of this elusive “something else” before.

Hers was an adventurous family. Her people came to America in 1642, and both sides of her family fought against England in the Revolutionary War.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s always excited to visit the caves.

Urbana is a conservative city, but Elizabeth’s father established a small liberal-minded church, and the University of Illinois took another big bite out of the Midwest mindset.

“The school was multicultural, and we rented rooms to grad students,” she says. “One of them was Dutch. He traveled a lot and brought me souvenirs from around the world.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Cheese ready for sale.

When it came time for college, Elizabeth chose Trinity in Hartford, Connecticut. It had nothing to do with wanting to leave her home state.

“I ended up there because I got a scholarship,” she says, adding that she had wanted to study journalism at Illinois’ Northwestern University.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
These boots are made for walking ... in the cheese caves.

She quickly changed her focus, majoring in Spanish language and literature and minoring in French language and literature.

“I spent four years lying on a couch reading and dreaming,” she says, smiling. “When I graduated, I wanted to teach English in Prague. My parents asked me who was going to pay for the plane ticket. I told them I thought they would. They told me to get a job.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Different caves age different cheeses.

She moved to Manhattan, where she had friends, working for a brief time for an import-export company before landing an ad sales job at Cosmopolitan magazine then Good Housekeeping.

“I did well, but I didn’t enjoy it,” she says.

Part of her job was entertaining clients, so she began taking them to Murray’s for wine and cheese classes.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Murray’s usually has 20 kinds of cheese in the caves.

“I fell in love with cheese,” she says.

In fact, she became so well known to the staff at Murray’s that she was offered jobs twice.

“The experience totally reshaped my life and my ideas about food,” she says. “I had been selling ads to industrial food companies.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Exploring the cheese caves is always an adventure for Elizabeth.

When Murray’s offered her job No. 3 in 2009, she almost didn’t take it.

“The pay was 40 percent less than what I was making,” she says. “I called my mom, and she said that it was the worst decision I could ever make. But when it came time to sign the papers, I did.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Greensward waiting for its prime time.

She started out as the wholesale manager, and in 2015 became the vice president of sales and marketing, which also includes directing the catering and events/education departments.

Elizabeth, a certified yoga instructor who starts each morning with a 20-minute meditation, likes nothing more than giving a tour of the cheese caves, the lab-like vaults where some 20 kinds of cheese are sent to age for 10 days to 14 months like fine wine.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Elizabeth loves her job because she learns something new every day.

Murray’s, the only cheese caves in Queens, sells close to 1 million pounds of cheese each year in New York City alone.

Established in 1940 as a wholesale eggs and butter purveyor on Bleecker Street, where its flagship retail shop is, its cheeses are also sold at a shop in Grand Central and at more than 350 grocery stores around the country.

The caves were moved from Bleecker Street to Long Island City’s 16,500-square-foot Borden Avenue site in 2013.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Clothbound cheddar is the only cheese Murray’s makes.

“Murray’s only makes one cheese – clothbound cheddar,” Elizabeth says. “It’s made at the Cornell Dairy Plant at the university in Ithaca and sent here to age. The other cheese are made for us and sent to the caves.”

When Elizabeth was working with restaurant chefs, it was common for her to taste dozens of different cheese each five-day workweek.

To unwind her tricked and tired taste buds, she turned to French Comte, which she calls her “Saturday cheese.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Some 60 to 70 people work in the cheese caves.

“It’s simple and balanced yet sweet,” she says. “It’s mild. I grate it on eggs, eat it with chunks of apple or by itself.”

Walking through the caves is always a treat for Elizabeth, who typically works 45 to 55 hours a week. She gets so excited that she starts snapping photos on her cellphone.

“I can’t imagine a better job for myself,” she says. “I learn something new every day. I see my job as opening doors for people, guiding them through and creating space to find themselves.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The mouth-watering label.

When asked whether she wants, someday, to own her own business, Elizabeth offers a practical middle-of-the-road answer that could have been homegrown in Urbana.

“What I’m doing now is the best of both worlds because I have a lot of liberty to exercise my ideas,” she says. “It’s like operating my own business without the stress of owning it.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Shave-and-Snip Barber
by Nruhling
Feb 07, 2017 | 3528 views | 0 0 comments | 92 92 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Val owns Val’s Barber Shop.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

There are only four stations at Val’s Barber Shop.

Val Suyunov, the owner, mans the one closest to the front plate-glass window, where the shop’s humble name is proclaimed is big, bold golden letters.

“Val’s is old-fashioned,” he says proudly. “Like the sign in back says: Enter as strangers, leave as friends.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Val’s, on 23rd Avenue between 31st and 32nd Streets, opened in 2000.

Men – the wholly haired to the brazenly bald – come to Val’s for a haircut, a hot-towel shave and a muscular fellowship that is rooted in each clip and snip.

“I’m like a therapist,” says Val, a gracious and gregarious fellow. “I listen to what’s going on in my customers’ lives.”

Val’s life is another matter. He has never told his story, probably because nobody has ever asked. He hopes it’s not too boring.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Val was born and raised in Uzbekistan.

Val, one of four children, was born and raised in the small town of Navoi in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “But they made it difficult for Jews to be doctors; you had to pay a lot of money, and we didn’t have it.”

So he went to college and became a chef instead.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He learned his craft in 13 days.

“At this time, there was a problem with getting food, and my father told me to do it so I would always have a full refrigerator,” he says.

But before he could start his restaurant career, he had to complete a mandatory two-year stint in the army.

“This was during the time of the war with Afghanistan,” he says. “There was a lottery like Russian roulette that determined where you were stationed. I stayed in Moscow.”

By the time his tour of duty ended, Val was married.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Val’s is an old-fashioned shop.

“She lived in my hometown,” he says. “I had known of her when we were children, and she grew into a beautiful woman. It was love – we married three months later and are still together.”

When he was 26 and the father of a 4-month-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, Val, his parents and his siblings and their children joined the wave of Soviet Jews who were immigrating to America in the early 1990s.

“Ever since I was 7, I wanted to come,” he says. “That’s when I started learning English in school.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s happy to be a U.S. citizen.

When the 12 of them left, they were forced to hand over their possessions.

“Each of us came with $100 in our pocket, which is all we were allowed,” he says. “They took all of our gold jewelry, even my wife’s wedding ring off her finger. She was crying.”

He pauses; he’s been so busy earning a living that he hasn’t thought about this in a long time. His eyes tear up.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He cuts hair — and listens to his customers’ stories.

They settled in a studio apartment in Forest Hills, where Val’s grandmother lived.

“I became a barber right away because I knew it would be easier to make money,” he says. “My uncle was a barber, and he taught me it in 13 days before I left Russia.”

Although Val got work immediately, it was still a struggle.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Olesya Plotnikova at work.

“I worked seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” he says. “I made $50 a week, but my apartment was $560 a month. I did some extra jobs, and my aunt was helping me financially. My wife was working part time cleaning houses and in a nail salon.”

In 1998, the year Val’s third child, a daughter, was born, he became a U.S. citizen, and in 2000, after working for several other shops, he opened Val’s.

“Living in America has made my dreams come true,” he says, adding that he has been successful enough to buy a house in Hollis. “I couldn’t be a doctor because I came here too late, but I made sure my three children are. The older two are pharmacists; the youngest is in college studying to be a dentist.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Where customers become friends.

Val still works seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“I’m living for my kids,” he says. “I’m a survivor.”

Val, who jokes that it doesn’t matter who cuts his hair because there’s so little of it left, doesn’t have much time for anything other than working.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Val’s station.

Every year, however, he does take a vacation. For one week.

“I can’t leave my customers, who are the best people in the world,” he says. “They would panic. But they tell me all about their trips. I know Greece, but I’ve never been there; I know Italy, but I’ve never been there.”

He smiles with satisfaction when he says this.

In the back of Val’s, there’s a glass case filled with familiar faces. He points to an old photo of Hillary Clinton. She visited during a campaign stop.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s at the shop seven days a week.

“Every customer of mine is famous,” he says. “The surgeons who save lives, the teachers who help people learn to read, they are more important than Hollywood stars.”

As for Val’s, Val intends to keep it exactly as it is.

There is, he says, no other place like it.

The ceiling is painted like the sky with puffy white clouds; antique Russian leather barber strops hang on the wall next to a silver sword; and the old-time cash register is decorated with a decal of an American bald eagle that has a barber-pole body and razor-clutching claws.

Right next to it, there are a commemorative photo of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rabbi, and a Shrek doll.

“I’m just a barber who comes to work every day,” Val says.

He shrugs and picks up his scissors.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Massage Master
by Nruhling
Jan 31, 2017 | 3704 views | 0 0 comments | 101 101 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Anthony is the co-owner of The Giving Tree Yoga Studio.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

The subway screeches, the city screams and Anthony Wood stands serene.

He finds his piece of peace at the massage-therapy table, which is tucked into a corner of The Giving Tree Yoga Studio.

In this sky-blue space, which is the color of his intense eyes, Anthony heals bodies and enlightens souls.

“My work has a strong intuitive slant,” he says. “Each session for each person is different. I go deep physically and energetically, and I aim for a strong but nurturing approach.”

The soft sound of bird-chirping music, the scent of essential oils and the power of positive, easy-going energy create Anthony’s isle of calm.

Anthony’s spiritual journey, which continues to be a work in progress, began on a far different stage.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s a licensed massage therapist.

He and his fraternal-twin brother spent their first decade in Lexington, Kentucky.

“We don’t look much alike,” Anthony says. “But we had a lot of fun together as twins, and we shared a lot of inside jokes.”

They family moved twice more – to Arlington, Texas and then Williamstown, Kentucky.

Anthony, who had become interested in acting, relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend a performing-arts high school during his senior year.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He thought he wanted to be an actor.

“I liked the idea of being seen and acknowledged,” he says. “And I loved the creative process.”

At Indiana’s University of Evansville, Anthony earned degrees in theatrical performance and music then headed to Rutgers University, where he earned a master’s degree in acting.

It was while he was studying the Loyd Williamson Technique of energy-centered movement for actors that Anthony’s world shifted.

“I had some metaphysical experiences and heightened awareness after the classes,” he says. “So I started reading self-improvement and healing-arts books.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He also teaches kundalini.

Settling in New York City pushed him further from center stage.

“Once I got here, I did not feel inclined to pursue acting,” he says. “I was not equipped for the cut-throat energy.”

It was his girlfriend who suggested massage therapy.

“Occasionally, I was giving her back and shoulder massages to relieve tension, and she told me I was better than her therapist,” Anthony says. “She suggested I do it to supplement my acting income.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The Giving Tree opened in 2009.

So he studied at the Swedish Institute, becoming a licensed massage therapist, and also got certified in kundalini yoga.

“I took catering jobs to support myself while I was attending the institute,” he says.

It was at a catering event that he ran into Anne-Margaret Redding, a sweetheart from their days at the University of Evansville.

They chatted and went their separate ways.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Anthony starts each day with meditation.

Two years later, their paths crossed again, this time at a Starbucks, and they exchanged contact information.

“We agreed to meet for breakfast,” Anthony says. “And after about two weeks of dating, I knew that I wanted to spend my life with her. This was the first time in my life I had ever felt that way.”

By that time, Anthony was working in various New York City spas and sometimes teaching kundalini.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Staying grounded with tree pose.

After they married, in 2007, they became interfaith ministers and often co-officiate at weddings.

“We both got the idea to do this at the same time,” he says.

Creating a yoga studio was on Anne-Margaret’s to-do list, and in 2009, they opened The Giving Tree, which looks out over the El at the Ditmars subway stop.

For the first four years, Anthony was a full-time massage therapist at the Four Seasons, where his clients included an array of A-list celebrities, Fortune 500 CEOs and other VIPs. He worked part time at The Giving Tree massage table.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Serene in the city.

In 2013, his set up shop full time in the sky-blue room at The Giving Tree.

“It’s so satisfying to help people feel better and bring them back to their natural, relaxed at-home state,” he says. “It’s also been healing for me. My diet has changed – I’m vegetarian now – and from working on people, I’ve seen how lack of care can affect the body and the mind.”

To maintain his Zen, Anthony starts each day with chanting and silent meditations and often practices yoga. He also swims and jogs.

He remains open to the possibilities the universe presents, whatever they may be.

“I don’t know where we’re going to be in five years,” he says. “We may move the studio to a different location in Astoria or expand it. Or I may be acting – I’ve felt a pull to do that again.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Bagel-Factory Boss
by Nruhling
Jan 24, 2017 | 4185 views | 0 0 comments | 103 103 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
George is the co-founder of New Yorker Bagels.

Photos and Text by Nancy A. Ruhling

“My life is bagels,” declares George Menegatos. “It’s my love.”

George, the co-founder of New Yorker Bagels, is standing in his Long Island City factory opening his arms in a wide embrace that is meant to take in every single one of the 75 million bagels he bakes every year.

If you haven’t heard of New Yorker Bagels, chances are you’ve eaten one or even a dozen because it’s the world’s largest wholesaler of fresh-baked bagels.

You may have bought a couple at Whole Floods or noshed on a few in Washington State, Arizona, Connecticut, California, Colorado or even eaten some in South Korea, Japan or China.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
New Yorker Bagels is at 34-20 12th St.

George, who was born and raised in the city of Assos on the Greek island of Kefalonia, spent the first 23 years of his life without ever taking a bite of a bagel.

(For the record, George likes all 20 of New Yorker Bagels’ flavors but has a particular fondness for the cinnamon and raisin, cranberry and olive varieties.)

George, a solid man with a barely there halo of white hair and blazing blue eyes, grew up in the grocery business.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
George in the factory.

When he was 7, he started helping out at his parents’ mini-market, a practice he continued through high school.

When he turned 18, he became a sailor on a commercial ship that brought Colombian sugar to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

He entertained the idea of earning the title of captain, but when he was 21, he decided to let the ship leave New York City without him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Workers hand-roll bagel dough.

“I had my first bagel when I was 23 in a Manhattan coffee shop,” he says. “I had never even heard of bagels. I liked it a lot, but I never thought I would make one.”

He also found something else he liked at the coffee shop – a woman.

“I got married to her because I needed papers,” he says, adding that he eventually became a U.S. citizen. “We stayed together five years then got divorced.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
New Yorker Bagels makes three types — hand-rolled, large and mini.

During that time, George worked in restaurants, buying one with the same friend who would become his partner in New Yorker Bagels.

In 1980, they bought a little bagel shop in Manhattan.

It was around that same time that George met another woman in another coffee shop.

“We’ve been married 37 years, and we have three beautiful children – two sons and a daughter,” he says.

Nancy A. Ruhling
Hot from the oven.

The shop started selling wholesale, and the business expanded and moved to Astoria in 1986.

In 1992, the factory took over a long and low triangular building in Long Island City across from Ravenswood Houses on 12th Street.

There’s a gigantic construction-orange bagel-shaped logo outside, but your nose is your best GPS. Follow the sweet scent of bread baking in the oven.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
George is at the factory six or seven days a week.

“I had never made a bagel before,” George says. “But in my hometown, my parents and I baked bread for the town, so I had some idea of how to make the dough. And I made my own recipes.”

Today, 60 workers make the brand’s signature hand-rolled and mini and large bagels, and the borough’s only bagel factory operates 24/7.

“I used to do everything myself from making the bagels to fixing the oven when it broke down at 2 a.m.,” says George, adding that it was always more fun than work. “We are a family operation – I’ve had some people working for me for 35 years, and 90 percent of the staff has been here over 20 years. I’ve hired sons and daughters of workers.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Waiting for your mouth.

He attributes his success not only to his loyal staff but also to his longtime customers.

“America has given everything to me in life,” he says. “I love America; it’s my No. 1.”

George, who lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey, still pulls 12-hour shifts six and seven days a week.

“This factory is my house, it’s my life,” he says, sitting in his office, where colorful icons of Greek saints decorate a wall. “All these years, my wife almost never saw me. When I was home, for three to four hours, I was sleeping.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Sixty workers produce 75 million bagels a year.

Recently, he has started taking some time off.

“I do go to Greece for a couple of months each year,” he says, almost apologetically.

George figures that when he’s in his mid-70s, which he swears is a long time away, he’ll be able to take it easy.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He wants to open a second factory.

Actually, he could do that now.

“My son Steven has replaced me,” he says. “And my partner, Stefanos Evangelinos, is like a third son to me.”

But there are still things George wants to do.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Back to work.

In five years, he’s hoping to open a second factory.

“I’d like to keep it in Astoria or Long Island City close to where this one is,” he says. “But maybe we’ll put it in New Jersey or in the Bronx.”

When that happens, George says he’ll consider retiring.

“I would only come in for five or six hours each day,” he says.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Italian Fairy
by Nruhling
Jan 17, 2017 | 3253 views | 0 0 comments | 106 106 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

“I wanted to greet you as the Italian Fairy,” says Simona Rodano as she opens her arms and embraces me like a long-lost friend.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The Italian Fairy, aka Simona Rodano.

Her Italian-flag red, white and green costume, which culminates in a three-foot-high cone hat sprouting streamers, is, like the character, of her own creation.

A singer/performer/producer/teacher, Simona got the idea in a class of toddlers she was schooling in the Italian language.

“One of the fathers called me the Italian Fairy,” she says, as she strolls through Ditmars Park, where she is holding court with a couple of kids. “And I thought it would make the class more fun if I became that character.”

It worked like magic. The students – and Simona – were enchanted by the Disneyesque diva.

Simona, a pixie with surprise-wide eyes and an evergreen smile, has been on many stages, but it was the Italian Fairy who breathed new life into her career.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Simona designed her own costume. She made the top and hat; the skirt was made in Florence.

She got her first taste of music in church, which she attended every Sunday in her hometown of Torino, Italy.

By the time she was 7, she was singing and playing guitar. At 15, she was performing in local clubs.

“It was my passion,” she says. “During the day, I was one person. At night, I was another. I lived with my dualism for many years.”

Although her mother’s side of the family is peopled with professional musicians, Simona’s parents did not want her to be their encore.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Children — and adults — are enchanted.

So she studied science in high school and at the University of Turin. When she wasn’t in the classroom, she was on the stage.

Upon graduation, she got two offers – a scholarship from a hospital in Westchester and a singing lead in a new variety show on Italian national TV’s Rai 1.

After much soul searching, she selected New York, where she set about settling in.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Simona was a singing star on Italian TV.

“I knew some English, but it’s one thing to sing in English and another to speak it with people every day,” she says.

She loved the city, but after three months, when Milan-based Rai 1 called again, she said yes.

For seven years, Simona, a soprano, sang on the five-day-a-week show, Ci Vediamo in TV (I’ll See You on TV), working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She produces children’s ‘edu-tainment’ shows at Queens Theatre.

On weekends, she performed at weddings and clubs, traveling all over Europe.

“It was easy,” she says. “The plane rides were not long.”

From 2003 to 2010, she also starred, when her TV schedule allowed, in the musical Pinocchio, whose performances were on nights and weekends.

In her free time, she took voice lessons at the International Music Academy in Milan with the hopes of doing opera.

“I was completely fulfilled,” she says, adding that she didn’t think much about sleeping. “My dream had come true.”

When the TV show ended, in 2006, Simona came to New York City to visit a friend.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She also starred in the Italian production of the musical Pinocchio.

“I needed a vacation,” she says. “I had worked so much that I felt like an empty bottle that needed to be filled.”

She took time to do an audition, which led to a Carnegie Hall recital in 2007 and a decision to move to Astoria.

“I started from zero again as a singer,” she says. “Nobody knew me, and I only knew two people.”

That’s when the Italian Fairy started teaching Italian to children at a private school in Manhattan and when Rai 1 called her to do some reunion summer shows.

By this time, she had Durr, an ancient snow-white cat she had adopted from one of her pupils who had become allergic.

Luigi Rosa, an engineering student from Frosinone who was studying at New York University, was in need of an apartment. Simona was in need of a cat sitter.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She brings laughter to her role.

He moved in, and when she came back, he stayed.

“I fell in love with him, and we got married in 2014,” she says.

The next year, St. John’s Preparatory School hired Simona to teach the after-school glee club and then named her director of its nascent performing arts program.

Living in New York with the Italian Fairy, who makes appearances at venues like the Columbus Day Parade, has fueled Simona’s creativity.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Simona when she’s not the Italian Fairy.

In addition to creating a line of educational products under the Italian Fairy brand, Simona co-produced the 2010 two-week run of the Italian-language Pinocchio at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.

She’s also writing, directing and producing bilingual and multi-lingual "edu-tainment programs" for schoolchildren at the Queens Theatre.

“I’ll always keep singing, but I won’t be touring any more,” she says. “There are seasons in life, and being the producer of new shows is my new one.”

The Italian Fairy takes off her tall-tale headdress and heads back to her apartment to change into Simona’s street clothes.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Ex-Ballerina Who's Doing a Different Dance
by Nruhling
Jan 10, 2017 | 3027 views | 0 0 comments | 92 92 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Alina Faye’s life is all about movement.

Alina joined ABT when she was 17.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

She’s a former professional ballerina, so she doesn’t so much as walk through a room as flow through it like a gentle stream.

Her story entails a physical journey as well as an inner expedition.

Dance was simply the movement that started her on her continuing path of self-discovery.

Her toes took her all over the world.

Alina, who is from Long Beach, California and has dual U.S. and Irish citizenship, was 3 when she put on her first tap and toe shoes.

“My older sister was dancing, and I begged my mother for a year before she finally agreed,” she says.

By the time she was 13, Alina was spending all her free time at the barre.

She designs ballet-centric jewelry.

“Ballet was always my love,” she says, gracefully moving her long arms into first position as she sits cross-legged in a chair. “It’s beautiful. It’s something I can create on my own.”

Following in her sister’s plies, releves and sautes, Alina, long-limbed and lithe, earned a coveted position with the American Ballet Theatre.

She was 17.

“I had started home study as a high school sophomore because I was commuting to take my dance lessons,” she says. “And I graduated early because I doubled my coursework. My diploma was sent in the mail. I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure my mother still has it.”

Alina’s a Hellerwork practitioner.

The move to New York City, to a couch in the apartment her sister and too many roommates lived in, was terrifying to the teenager.

“I was on my own for the first time,” Alina says. “My parents were getting a divorce so they were basically missing in action. I was going through puberty and my body was changing, and I was terribly homesick. But I blossomed.”

The work was hard yet rewarding; during performances in ABT’s 32-week seasons, Alina was on her toes from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week in shows around the globe.

She spent four years on the stage, and she might still be with ABT had a herniated disc not sidelined her.

A sketch for a new necklace.

“I was injured and unhappy from the pressure and stress,” she says. “I was trying to figure my life out, and I could not remember why I had even started dancing. I started feeling anxiety when I went to work.”

She walked – not danced – out in mid-contract and headed to Mount Shasta, California, where she soothed her mind with meditation and satisfied her body with rock climbing and snowboarding.

As she tried to figure out her next steps, she continued to take dance lessons, this time in San Francisco, eventually getting a job offer from the Boston Ballet.

Instead of joining the company, she stayed in San Francisco, where she was introduced to Hellerwork, a body-realignment technique that incorporates deep-tissue massage, introspection and exercise.

She moved to Astoria last year.

“My back injury was gone after several sessions,” she says.

After 1.5 years of training in California and New York, she opened her own Hellerwork practice in Manhattan. She also kept up her dance classes.

“I had fallen in love with a fellow Hellerwork student,” she says. “He was in San Diego, so I moved there and became a ballet mistress at a school while continuing to see Hellerwork clients.”

Alina’s signature Dancer necklace.

In 2009, she got married and returned to New York, a city she sorely missed, to play Susan the Silent, a mute who communicates by dancing, in Finian’s Rainbow.

The couple then went to Washington, D.C., where her new husband had a new job, and where Alina worked with Hellerwork clients full time.

“I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I didn’t feel fulfilled in my work because there was no time for my creativity.”

In 2014, she came back to New York. Her husband promised to follow, but when he didn’t, they divorced.

She wants to form a network for dancers.

“I hit the ground running and tried to reinvent my career,” she says.

During the summer of 2015, she drew a dancer, which eventually became the catalyst forFayeLife, a line of ballet-centric jewelry.

“The first one was 3D printed,” she says. “I started wearing it around my neck using a string for the chain. Everybody liked it, so I thought I would make some more.”

She’s all set to take her next steps.

She sees designing jewelry as a way to bring beauty into the world while still keeping a toe in dance.

“I want to use the jewelry to create a whole community for teenage dancers, which is something I didn’t have,” she says. “I want to be a resource for them and connect them with each other.”

Alina doesn’t know where this new dance will take her, but she’s willing to let it lead her where it will.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Found Himself at Home in America
by Nruhling
Jan 03, 2017 | 2836 views | 0 0 comments | 93 93 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nabeel is the marketing director of Bareburger.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

There are bags under Nabeel Alamgir’s eyes. It has nothing — and everything — to do with age.

Nabeel, a 25-year-old with a black beard, a child-like face and enough enthusiasm to power the sun, has been working a lot, probably too much. That’s why he’s so happy.

The marketing director of Bareburger, he also is a co-founder of the startup Tapt, a social media app for college students.

“Tapt is taking up all my spare time,” he says. “I gave up having a girlfriend or friends so I could do this.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nabeel began at Bareburger as a busboy when he was in high school.

Nabeel has never been one to sit around, which is why he got his first paying job as a teenager.

“I get nervous when I’m not working,” he says.

Nabeel, the oldest of three, gets his hard-work ethic from his parents.

He was born in the coastal city of Chittagong in Bangladesh.

When he was 7, his father moved the family to Bneid Al Gar, Kuwait, for better job opportunities.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Bareburger’s headquarters is in the Piano Factory.

“There were a lot of U.S. soldiers and U.S. tourists there,” he says. “They gave me my first glimpse of America. I liked it a lot.”

Which was a good thing, because that’s where they moved when Nabeel was 14.

“We spent three months in St. Louis, Missouri, where we had relatives,” he says. “I could speak French and Arabic but not English, which I eventually learned from watching Mafia movies. It was culture shock. It was only a couple years after 9/11. I did not fit in.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The offices include a training counter.

His father also had difficulty adjusting and finding a job, so the family headed for New York City.

“My first day in Astoria also was the first day of school,” he says. “Astoria should be the gateway to the United States because as soon as I arrived, it was so welcoming that I felt like I belonged. I was in Bryant High School, and my teachers were immigrants. They took a serious interest in me.”

Nabeel’s first job, when he was 16, was a paid internship at Donors Choose, a Kickstarter-like charity that finances teachers’ projects.

When he was 17, he became a Mac specialist at Apple’s Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Bareburger’s menu is natural and organic.

“I was the youngest person there,” he says. “I wanted to work for a smaller company, so one of my teachers suggested Bareburger, which was just starting up. At that time, it was a tiny hamburger joint.”

Nabeel began as a busboy, and one of his jobs was mopping the floor.

Although Nabeel was interested in a design career, ever since his birth his parents had planned for him to be a medical doctor.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nabeel was born in Bangladesh and lived in Kuwait before coming to America.

“I’m an obedient son,” he says. “I studied all my life to be a doctor, and when it was time for college, I went to Syracuse University for pre-med. Every summer, I came back to work at Bareburger. After seven semesters – one semester short of graduation — I couldn’t do it any more.”

Bareburger offered him a full-time position.

“I didn’t even know what job I was going to do,” he says. “When I called the owner, he said that we’d figure it out.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The office decor is playful.

A year ago, after taking online marketing courses from Cornell University, Nabeel became the company’s first marketing director, working out of the playful headquarters in the ground floor of the Piano Factory that is outfitted with a pool table and gold-framed portraits of animals in formal wear.

“I love this job so much that I pinch myself every day,” Nabeel says. “I came as an intern, and they gave me the opportunity to grow and even paid for my Cornell courses.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A beef burger on the hoof.

Nabeel’s parents finally have accepted the fact that he’s promoting sandwiches instead of performing surgeries.

“My dad and I didn’t talk for about a year,” he says. “Recently, my mom and dad ate at Bareburger for the first time. When they realized what it was, they were proud.”

Nabeel and Bareburger have grown up together. The company, established in Astoria in 2009, operates 45 natural, organic restaurants in the United States, Canada, Japan, Dubai and Germany.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nabeel also is working on a social-media app for college students.

Nabeel has seized the chance to share his success, which is why he invented Tapt.

“I want to help college students and teachers because it was such a formidable time for me,” he says. “In high school, my teachers cared about me. In college, there was a disconnect because the school was so big. There was also a disconnect between students.”

Since its debut in January 2016, the app, which Nabeel likens to a digital social-media bulletin board, is being tested at Syracuse University, Baruch College, The City College of New York and the University of South Alabama.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Clowning around in the boss’ chair.

“We have 5,000 students using it,” he says. “My hope is to get it to more schools.”

Of course, that means that he will have to work even harder.

“I like a challenge,” he says.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Champion of Playground 35
by Nruhling
Dec 27, 2016 | 2834 views | 0 0 comments | 95 95 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

At Steinway Street and 35th Avenue, there’s a patch of pavement that since May 1947 has been designated a public playground.

Nancy’s on Community Board 1.

At Steinway Street and 35th Avenue, there’s a patch of pavement that since May 1947 has been designated a public playground.

Nancy Silverman knows this not because she has children, which she does not.

She knows this because it’s the only open space near her apartment, and she frequently walks or cycles by it.

She helped get funding for Playground 35.

Imprisoned like a penitentiary by a sky-high chain-link fence, the space, which has been christened, inmate-like, asPlayground 35, is not a pretty place.

And it’s always crowded – kids are climbing on the jungle gym, flying through the air on swings and scrambling on the life-size polar bear statue whose most distinguishing feature is its patches of peeled-off paint.

The playground is at 35th Avenue and Steinway Street.

“I thought they deserved better,” Nancy says. “I wanted to give the playground some love.”

Instead of complaining, Nancy, the co-chair of Community Board 1’s Parks/ Recreation and Cultural Affairs Committee, did something about it.

When the city doubled the funding for the Community Parks Initiative, she pushed to make Playground 35 No. 1 on the board’s list, and it was awarded $1 million to $3 million for a makeover.

Nancy moved to Astoria 19 years ago.

A remarkable accomplishment, considering that it is only recently that Nancy, who moved to Astoria 19 years ago, got involved in community matters.

She was born and raised in the sleepy suburbs of Long Island. But she never really fit in in Jericho or its old-school read-and-recite education system.

“I loved learning, but I didn’t like the traditional school environment,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to go to college. But I did for a while and failed because I never went to classes. I got a job instead.”

Nancy doesn’t have children but she thought the kids at the playground deserved better.

At 20, she relocated to Los Angeles, a city that she had frequently traveled to to visit a cousin.

“A friend and I spent six weeks driving across country in a used Beetle convertible,” she says. “I wanted to live near the beach.”

Nancy grew up on Long Island and lived in Los Angeles for a while.

After working in a series of retail jobs and at a public library, Nancy, at 26, enrolled at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she earned a degree in liberal arts while working full time.

Acceptance into a doctoral program in public art at New York University brought her back to the East Coast, where she held a series of academic positions before becoming coordinator of the PhD program in English at CUNY’s Graduate Center.

The polar bear will be repainted as part of the makeover.

“I worked on my degree for nine years, but I never finished my dissertation,” she says. “At some point, I realized that I could earn more money working where I was.”

Nancy’s an urban cyclist who frequently pedals not only past Playground 35 but also does the 10-mile round trip to and from her office at the Graduate Center in Manhattan.

Nancy, a solid, feet-on-the-ground woman, parks her jet-black eight-speed Trek in the living room of her tiny apartment, which is just big enough for her and Betty, her calico cat.

Where you’re likely to meet Nancy: on her front stoop.

“The bike has opened up worlds for me,” she says, adding that she also likes to cycle to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a trip that takes an eternity on the subway.

She found herself drawn to transit issues and began working with Transportation Alternatives’ Queens committee.

“I went to a lot of meetings as a bike advocate,” she says. “They introduced me to local government.”

Nancy often cycles to her office in Manhattan.

After she volunteered on City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer’s 2013 re-election campaign, Nancy joined Community Board 1.

“I’m the progressive voice for what Astoria is today,” she says, adding that she’s the advocate for the southern part of Astoria near Northern Boulevard. “My job on the board is to represent the community and pay attention to the things like Playground 35 that are not getting the attention they deserve.”

Her personal and professional advocacy soon dovetailed, and Nancy found herself in Albany on behalf of her union, the Professional Staff Congress, during recent contract talks.

The issues facing CUNY and Astoria, she says, overlap.

She may run for City Council in 2021.

“I want to keep CUNY affordable for students,” she says. “So many of the students and union members live in Astoria, which is getting less and less affordable.”

With Playground 35 set to get its makeover in the spring, Nancy has turned her attention to addressing the next big issues on her priority list, which include making 21st Street safer, working on the $30-million upgrade of Astoria Park, siting docking stations for Citi Bike and making the neighborhood more cycle-friendly.

“I will continue to be involved in my community,” she says. “Someday, I’d like to seek an office in local government.”

She mentions the 2021 City Council race and smiles.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;;

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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