Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 50205 views | 0 0 comments | 215 215 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Who Does It All for the Kids
by Nruhling
Sep 06, 2016 | 3382 views | 0 0 comments | 83 83 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink


 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Aiysha’s a crossing guard for P.S. 171 elementary, aka the Peter G. Van Alst School.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

“Would you like to see my corner?”

Before there’s even time to answer, Aiysha Mayfield strides down 14th Street and plants herself squarely in the bold white stripes of the crosswalk at 30th Avenue.

She puts her hands on her hips. She owns the space; no car is going to mess with her.

Every school day, this is where Aiysha is stationed as the kids at P.S. 171 cross and re-cross the busy intersection.

“I love to see their faces,” she says, adding that the universe has not seen fit to give her any children of her own. “I keep a watchful eye on them and give them a hug and words of encouragement.”



Aiysha, compact, comforting and confident, is new to this job, but she’s an old hand at helping kids in the community.

Her kid-centric activism stems from her own childhood. The oldest of three girls, Aiysha was born in Jamaica, Queens.

Things weren’t always easy, in fact, they rarely were, and by the time her family moved to Astoria Houses, Aiysha was 14.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


She’s been working with children since she was 14.

She and high school didn’t get along socially or academically, so she eagerly entered the workforce.

Her first job was as a summer camp counselor. She liked the work because as a child, she related to her young charges.

Eventually, she became a program coordinator for the Astoria office of Goodwill Industries, a position she retained for more than two decades.

“I never stopped doing community service,” she says. “It has always been a vital part of my life and what I do.”

Off and on she worked on a college degree, recently earning her online bachelor’s diploma in business from the University of Phoenix.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


She founded the Global Citizenship Academy for kids.

“Graduating from college was always one of my aspirations,” she says proudly.

At the same time, she revved up her civic work, doing administrative tasks for a variety of neighborhood nonprofits, and establishing Alternative Escapes, an event-planning business.

Five years ago, in conjunction with Astoria Houses and the Minor Miracles Foundation, she developed the Global Citizenship Academy.

The eight-week summer program for children 5 to 13, run at the Two Coves Community Garden, gives kids a place to go and grow.

“Astoria is the most diverse community in the world,” Aiysha says. “But we don’t know much about our neighbors because people from different countries focus only on their own traditions. The academy focuses on the things we share in common.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Aiysha recently earned her college degree.

Aiysha, who wears a serious smile and a hip head wrap, knows first-hand how important it is for kids to have safe havens.

“I grew up in the Eighties when everyone was either on drugs or crazy,” she says, “so we raised ourselves. Community programs saved my life. I used to go to church rec rooms after school for lemonade and cookies. They made sure I was all right and had enough to eat. It was there that I learned kindness in an unkind world.”

Aiysha hopes her academy and the other programs she has developed give children a similar feeling of comfort and connectedness.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Mahogany, for Aiysha’s alter ego, Mahogany Phoenix.

There are lots of things Aiysha, who is 38, wants to do, and she’s sure she will accomplish them.

Someday, she’s going to have a space to call her own where she can run her youth programs every day of the year.

 If Aiysha’s community programs are a form of self-expression, so is her rapping.

She’s been rhyming for a long time, and this summer she finally got up enough nerve to compete in a battle rap.



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


She helps children of different cultures find common ground.

“I’m a behind-the-scenes type of person, and it took me a year and a half to prepare,” she says. “There’s much more that goes into it besides writing. It’s performance art. It’s inflection and elocution and diction.”

She looks down at her Converse All Stars, which an artist friend graffitied in orange and black.

The toes are tagged Maho Gany, which stands for Aiysha’s alter ego, Mahogany Phoenix, the one who rises from the ashes of her past.

“I went three rounds in the battle, and I won two out of three, so everyone agrees I won,” she says.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

There are so many things she has yet to do.

On Aiysha’s upper left arm, there’s a tattoo partially covered by her shirt sleeve.

It looks as though it says Life Is Divine.

That’s not quite right.

Aiysha adds the most important word, the one unseen but deeply felt: My.

My Life Is Divine.

“I’ve learned that whatever I’m going through, there’s somebody out there who has it 20 times worse,” she says. “Love is everything. I wake up every day and exchange love and feel love. I could not be in a better place.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram; nancyruhling.com; astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 
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Astoria Characters: The Stand-Up Mom
by Nruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 1545 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
 

It’s a warm, sunny day, so 2-year-old Ani is dancing around the apartment in anticipation of playing outside.

Her mother, Christine Serdjenian Yearwood, has piled the little girl’s unruly ringlets onto the top of her head and has managed to get her to stand still long enough to strap on her sneakers.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Christine became a mother two years ago.

They are pink. Ani, who is holding a baby doll, likes them because they are covered in sparkly sequins and light up when she walks.

Since Ani came into the picture, Christine’s life has changed in ways she never would have imagined.

Shortly after bringing her daughter into the world, Christine gave birth to a business.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ani at play.

Ani’s younger sibling is named UP-STAND, and it’s dedicated to getting people to STAND UP to make public spaces and transportation safer for pregnant women.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Christine says. “I had a great pregnancy. I didn’t have any of the bad symptoms like dizziness, backaches, leg cramps, headaches, blurry vision and nausea that you hear about, but a lot of other women I met in my moms’ groups did.”



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ani looking at Mommy.

This is not to say that she didn’t have any issues. There was more than one time that she was taking the subway into Manhattan to work and would have been grateful for the seat that no one ever offered.

“I wasn’t comfortable asking people to get up,” she says, “because I thought that the person sitting may have a greater problem than I.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Daddy and daughter.

That’s why she came up with the idea of creating an educational campaign that would make it easy for expectant moms and their supporters to connect without conversation.

UP-STAND sells awareness pins – “Pregnant? Take My Seat” and “I Stand for Expecting Moms” – and signs for businesses.

In a sense, Christine has been preparing for this socially conscious entrepreneurial venture virtually her entire life.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

UP-STAND pins and signage.

Growing up in Waterville, Maine, as the youngest of three, she had no early opportunity to view the progress of a pregnancy.

She did, however, have a role model: Her mother, a teacher, successfully went to arbitration to force the city’s public school system to allow her to use sick days as maternity leave instead of taking a pay cut.

Her father, a soccer coach at Colby College, also played a key role in her future development.

Christine took up the sport at age 4, and her travels in England, Italy, Austria, Germany and Switzerland as a member of Brown University’s varsity team further cemented her ideas of feminist empowerment.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

And Ani makes three.

“I saw that other countries recognized pregnant women,” she says. “I was partially inspired to create UP-STAND by other countries that encourage women to advocate for themselves and use ‘baby on board’ buttons.”

None of this would have happened had she not gone to Brown.

“Many of my Maine classmates were from low-income families and did not go to college,” she says. “I was fortunate because my parents had steady jobs, and I got the opportunity to go to an Ivy League college.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Christine and Jose met at Brown University.

Equally influential was her 3-month stay in Armenia through the Birthright Program, which she did to honor the heritage of her paternal great-grandparents who were from Turkey.

Still, the import of her experiences did not hit home until she and her husband, Jose Yearwood, were expecting Ani.

Christine and Jose, who is a vice president of institutional equity sales for JP Morgan Chase, met at Brown.

He proposed on the rooftop of Astoria’s Studio Square NYC in Long Island City, and they married in 2012 after she earned a master of science in teaching degree in English as a Second Language from Pace University and a master’s of education in higher education from Harvard.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Christine started UP-STAND last year.

Jose, who tried out for the NFL, is the son of Panamanian immigrants who settled in Spring Hill, Florida.

Christine had had a number of jobs, including a teaching and then a staff position at Teach For America.

When she got pregnant, she was working at Yeshiva University, coaching women’s soccer and overseeing its Title IX compliance.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


She wants to make public spaces safe for pregnant women.

“This was a great experience in pushing for things that students wanted and respecting the boundaries of the people in place,” she says.

Although she took a yearlong maternity leave, Christine decided not to return.

“Jose works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. then entertains clients at night,” she says. “The Yeshiva job also included night work, and I didn’t want Ani to be raised by a nanny.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Ani with her baby doll.

Jose, colossal and calm, and Christine, comely and convivial, invested a portion of their savings to get the company up and running and send Ani to a day-care center three full days a week so Christine has time to develop UP-STAND.

Christine wants to create a national UP-STAND community, but right now, she’s focusing on areas closer to home, getting local businesses and obstetricians and gynecologists to join the movement.

“I’d like to see my signs in waiting rooms, laundry rooms and on the subways,” she says.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ani’s doll, abandoned.

Christine doesn’t know whether UP-STAND will take off or where it will take her.

“Since I’ve had a child, I’m much less certain about everything,” she says. “I would love for this to be my career. I’ll see how it goes.”

Ani, who’s trying to get Christine’s attention, drops her baby doll on the table.

She runs, her pink princess sneakers shooting sparkling stars along the ground in front of her.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram; nancyruhling.com; Astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 
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Astoria Characters: The Bug Buster
by Nruhling
Aug 23, 2016 | 4012 views | 0 0 comments | 75 75 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
 


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gil’s the president of Standard Pest Management.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

There’s a fly buzzing around the office. Instead of trying to swat it, Gil Bloom, president of Standard Pest Management, watches in wonder as it wings its way his way.

Although Gil makes his living ridding the world of the creepy crawlers that give us the creeps and the shrieks, he’s in awe of them.

“The insects and rodents that we consider pests are industrious, efficient and creative because they have the ability and tenacity to evolve and survive,” he says. “Bedbugs, for instance, are admirable because they found a niche and filled it.”

In addition to bedbugs, Gil, a certified entomologist, thinks booklice, ghost ants and even American cockroaches and rats are cool.

“The only pests I dislike are the two-legged kind,” he says. “People can be the biggest pests.”

He’s probably repeated this pesky jest 100 or 1,000 times; no matter, he still thinks it’s shockingly funny.

It’s because he has spent so much time around pests of the insect and rodent persuasion that he likes them so much.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Standard Pest Management at 25-80 Steinway St.

 

Standard Pest Management, arguably the oldest continuously run pest control company in New York City, was started by his grandfather in 1929. His father joined the team in 1962, and Gil started helping out when he was 10.

“I filled cans with insecticides and labeled them,” he says. “I also mixed rodent bait. And I went with my dad when he used the fog machine to smoke out mosquitoes.”

It wasn’t until Gil discovered the scientific side of the business that he decided to make a career of it. After college, he got licensed. By that time, Standard Pest had moved to its present Steinway Street location, site of the legendary Loew’s Triboro Theatre.

In the beginning, Gil went on house calls, treating spaces as diverse as subway tunnels and penthouses.

“Pest control is based on science,” he says. “You have to know the life cycles and lifestyles of each pest. You can’t anthropomorphize them.”

And, he adds, you have to think like a pest.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The only thing Kodiak, the office mascot, knows how to sniff for is food.

 

“There’s this myth that bats eat mosquitoes,” he says. “But why would they eat a skinny mosquito when they can make a much meatier meal of a beetle by expending the same amount of energy?”

He likes to tell the story of The Case of the Mistaken Identity.

An art-packing company had what it thought was an infestation of wood-boring beetles.

From scene samples, Gill quickly determined that the problem was phorid flies, which feed on garbage, but he could not find out where they were flying from.

The trail ultimately led to a crate that everyone assured him was empty. But when he looked inside, he discovered bags full of garbage from the office Christmas party.

He solved The Case of the Comical Chirping Crickets after a spate of apartment dwellers called to report they could hear the vocal insects.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gil started helping out at age 10.

 

“This was about a year and a half after the city mandated smoke detectors, and the batteries were starting to go,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Many of these were installed in closets or packed away, unopened in their original boxes. It was they, not crickets, that were chirping.”

If pests have had to evolve to survive, so has Standard Pest Management. In the old days, when the term exterminator was employed, solutions simply addressed the symptoms and let the causes take care of themselves.

Now, practitioners are pro-active and do everything from tracking the pests and collecting data via iPhones to closing up the holes that the insects and vermin are inhabiting.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


What you don’t want to see in your house.

 

And Gil, who is white-haired and 60, spends most of his time filling out paperwork (it’s a heavily regulated industry), teaching and training.

Standard Pest Management’s 23 employees include Gil’s sons Josh and Dan, who may or may not secure its future until it celebrates its centennial.

“My first goal was for us to make it to 80,” Gil says. “When we hit 80, I raised it to 85. We’re 87, and it would be cool to make it to 100, but I won’t be here to see it.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gil’s hoping Standard Pest makes it to 100.

 

Standard Pest Management, he says, will either continue as it is or will be sold to a larger company.

“We get offers all the time,” he says.

He looks around and notices that the fly is gone. It probably flew out the same way it came in – through the front door, which he had opened because it was such a nice day.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram; nancyruhling.com; Astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

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Astoria Characters: The Power Couple
by Nruhling
Aug 16, 2016 | 6407 views | 0 0 comments | 616 616 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
 


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Noel is from New Jersey.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

Saturday night. Love at first sight. (Well, almost.)

The time: December 2007

The place: a club in Manhattan

The characters: Nick Fiorentinos, the clubgoer; Noel Descalzi, the club’s hostess.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick is a Queens native.

The story:

Nick and his friends were out on the town. Noel seated them at the club. Nick wished that she were their waitress. Noel wished she were, too.

He says/she says the flirtation was fiery and flamboyant.

“We’re very social,” Noel says. “So we were both doing it.”

 Bantered compliments – and cell numbers – were exchanged.

And then …

OK, let’s back up a bit.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

And Max makes three.

Noel, who is from Secaucus, New Jersey, got the job at the club to pay her way through Pace University, where she was majoring in marketing and advertising.

She also did a lot of bartending during her college years and was a cheerleader for the New Jersey Nets her freshman year.

Nick, who is three years older, had just left Queens College and was working for his father’s taxi garage, FA Management, on Broadway at 11th Street in Astoria.

His parents came to New York from the Greek island of Zakynthos and settled in Jackson Heights, where he was born, and eventually moved to Hollis Hills. They divorced when Nick was 12.

Noel was a competitive gymnast who practiced 4.5 hours five days a week from age 5 through high school.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Nick works for his father’s taxi garage.

“I had to quit after I blew out my left ankle,” she says.

She longed to start her own business, and with Nick’s encouragement and financial backing, she opened two Work it Out gyms in Hoboken, New Jersey, that specialize in women’s workouts and children's gymnastics.

“We focus on female fitness and empowering women to be the best versions of themselves,” she says. “We’ve created a safe haven for women and their workouts.”

Nick, meanwhile, made other investments while continuing in the employ of his father. He started working there part time when he was 16 and began dispatching taxis when he was 18.

“I have never driven a cab,” he says, adding that he now manages operations.

He devotes most of his time to developing his family’s properties.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The Horstmann factory will be replaced by a residential complex.

Soon, he will demolish the old Horstmann Mix & Cream factory, on 12th Street at 30th Avenue, and replace it was a 44-unit residential building.

“We’re keeping the front sign just like they did at the Pepsi Building,” he says.

Noel and Nick, who look as though they have momentarily stepped out a of Ralph Lauren ad, have been married three years.

They have decided to settle in Astoria.

Recently, they found a detached house they would like to buy that’s a street away from their Piano Factory apartment.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s focusing on the family’s properties.

“It’s just perfect,” Noel says, as she shows off a photo of the exterior on her iPhone. “If we get it, we are looking forward to renovating it.”

There’s something else they want to do in Astoria: open a Work it Out gym.

What with the new house and the new gym, Nick, who is 33, and Noel, who just turned 30, will be very busy in the next couple of years.

Which is why they savor moments like this, when they can sit down together and have a cup of coffee and do nothing more than enjoy each other’s company.

Max, their sweet, snow-white Shiba Inu, joins them after performing his morning ritual. He does a perfect downward-facing dog and puppy pose then sits at Nick’s feet.

“He really knows how to start his day,” Nick says, adding that it’s hard to believe he’s 10. “We should all stretch when we get up in the morning.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Soon, they will own their own home in Astoria.

Their coffee consumed, Nick and Noel get ready to go their separate ways.

But wait.

What about that Saturday night in December when they met?

“Our first date was on Monday,” she says.

“We saw each other every day that week,” he says.

“We knew it was love after one week,” she says.

“We knew it was love after two weeks,” he says.

They laugh. At themselves. And at their good fortune.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram;nancyruhling.com; Astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Face Behind the Mural
by Nruhling
Aug 09, 2016 | 3790 views | 0 0 comments | 87 87 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
 


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ron started drawing when he was 10.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

Every day, Ron Hall walks three and a half miles. He’s a heavy smoker, has been for 42 years, and he figures that the exercise cancels out the tobacco.

Now, his strolls have an added purpose: They give him the opportunity to pass by his mural.

With support from the community, he painted Astoria: We Are All Family on the 8th-Street side of the deli on Astoria Boulevard where Two Coves Community Garden meets the Astoria Houses projects.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ron’s We Are All Family mural on 8th Street at Astoria Boulevard.

“Unity is my message,” he says. “People of all different nationalities and all ages live in Astoria.”

Ron, a powerfully small man, runs his hand across the bricks of the 40-foot-long work that superimposes a sea of faces on the Stars and Stripes.

A Mexican, a Muslim, an Irish, a Hispanic, an Arab, a Puerto Rican, a Native American, an African American, a Chinese, a Hasidic Jew, a silver-haired senior citizen and a baby are among those who smile back at him.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Trading smiles.

He pauses at the painting of the little girl wearing a cheerleader’s uniform.

There’s a huge tear rolling down her face and a sign in her hand that pleads, “Stop the Violence Let Me Grow Up!”

“The placement of the mural is ideal,” Ron says, smiling. “Four bus lines go right by it.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


It took him two weeks to do the painting.

Although this is not Ron’s only mural, he typically creates smaller works.

His shoebox studio, in the living room of his two-bedroom unit at Astoria Houses, is illuminated by a dim ceiling fixture supplemented by a trio of 100-watt bulbs shining from a vintage pole lamp.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The mural shows the faces of the community.

The air conditioner is in the back bedroom, so Ron keeps the window open.

Ron’s four easels are filled with 16-inch by 20-inch canvases. He bought dozens of them because they were on sale.

His portraits, which feature applied rhinestones and glitter, include stenciled designs and airbrushed areas.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Double portrait: African American and Native American.

He keeps the compressor in the front closet to muffle the noise so it doesn’t bother his neighbors.

Although Ron has tried out a couple of careers, it was inevitable that art would be the one that he stuck with.

Growing up in Brooklyn as an only child, Ron began drawing at 10, and other than a couple of classes in grade school and high school, he’s had no formal art training.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ron touched up the Martin Luther King mural at Astoria Houses.

“I draw what I see,” he says. “I was inspired by my aunt, who was a seamstress. I watched her put together the pattern pieces. And by my collection of comic books.”

Ron, who was in the school system’s gifted program, started tutoring his peers when he was in 9th grade. To this day, he’s proud that it was a paid position.

“I persuaded my mother to buy me the World Book Encyclopedia,” he says. “I don’t know how she scraped the $200 together. I read them every day, and when I came across words I didn’t know, I looked them up in the dictionary, memorized them and made a habit to use them in sentences.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ron spent 20 years in North Carolina.

Ron’s father died shortly before his high school graduation. He did a 2-1/2–year stint in the Air Force, training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas then serving in Duluth, Minnesota.

When he got out, he sampled a job or two before settling in as a high school security officer.

Things were swell until he started smoking pot and was introduced to cocaine.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He overcame a problem with drugs.

“I was curious about drugs,” he says. “I was never an addict; I was only a recreational user. I always did my work and paid my bills first.”

It was an injured Achilles tendon that led to Ron’s downfall, which in retrospect turned out to be a good thing.

“I was at rock bottom,” he says. “I lost my job and my second wife – I’ve been married three times and have five children – and I was afraid the coke would make me crazy.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A detail from Ron’s Prince portrait.

Instead of going to rehab, he moved to Statesville, North Carolina, his mother’s hometown, to get a fresh start.

Over the course of 20 years, he got clean and got serious about art, setting up a business.

“I kept coming back and forth because my mother was ill,” he says. “I finally moved back to New York in 2008.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Ron’s living room is his art studio.

He uses a variety of techniques, notably airbrushing and stenciling, to create his comics-centric portraits, many of them of famous people.

“I got the idea for airbrushing when I saw the World War II girlie art on the noses of B-52 bombers,” he says.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


A portrait of a princess behind barbed wire.

He picks through a pile of paintings, producing ones of Muhammed Ali, Aaliyah, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“I start from photos I find in books and magazines,” he says. “I draw what I see then embellish.”

Ron generally paints during the day, working to the blasting beat of R&B.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Keeping an eye on the studio.

“I like songs about love,” he says. “I like to keep the vibe positive.”

As for the mural, Ron says that unlike the ones in nearby Welling Court, which are painted over once and sometimes twice a year, his is made to be a permanent part of the community.

At the moment, a homeless woman sits cross-legged against it, adding her face to Ron’s family.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram; nancyruhling.com; astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Astoria Characters: The Iron Men
by Nruhling
Aug 02, 2016 | 3649 views | 0 0 comments | 84 84 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
 


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Harvey has been working for Empire City Iron Works since 1961.

 

Belmont. JFK Airport. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The World Financial Center. Con Ed. Lincoln Center. Yankee Stadium. The Metropolitan Opera House. The World Trade Center. Aqueduct.

 

 As Harvey A. Heffner is reciting this auspicious list, his younger brother, Edward D. Heffner, interrupts: Don’t forget the 1964 World’s Fair.

Oh, yes, Harvey says, we did 16 pavilions there.

Sixteen! It was a rush job, they say simultaneously.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Edward joined the family business in 1968.

 

There are many more big-name clients, but when you’ve been in business as long as Harvey and Edward – a combined total of 103 years – and your company is 112, well, sometimes even the more obvious ones like the U.S Tennis Association’s Arthur Ashe and the Louis Armstrong Stadiums don’t come readily to mind without a little coaxing.

Empire City Iron Works, the company started by their grandfather, Leopold, in 1904, is the oldest steel and miscellaneous iron company in New York City. (More photos.)

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The factory is at 10-37 46th Road.

 “Primarily, we make staircases,” says Harvey as he heads to his second-floor office. “You can see some of them here. When we started building the factory in 1959, it was my dad’s idea to put different styles on each half flight so architects could see what we do.”

He points to the landing right outside the elevator; it’s from the arrival area at JFK.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A staircase under construction.

 Before he and Edward sit down, he unfurls a set of ancient blueprints that were recently unearthed from the files during a renovation.

During World War II, Empire City Iron Works had contracts with the British and U.S. governments to manufacture parts, including ammunition boxes and water-tight doors, for the ships being built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Harvey’s office: hard hat and hard facts.

 The blueprints remind Harvey that there’s an Empire City Iron Works coal hole cover embedded in 73rd Street in Manhattan.

He’s not sure exactly where it is, so Edward prompts him — between Park and Lex, on the north side of the street.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Henry Alvarez at his post.

 Harvey, who is 76, and Edward, who just turned 70, have never worked anywhere else but Empire City Iron Works, and they couldn’t be happier.

The brothers, who often finish each other’s sentences as spontaneously as an old married couple, declare that it has never occurred to them to be bored.

“It gives us great satisfaction to point to major buildings in New York City and say, ‘We did this, we did that,’” Harvey says.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Harvey in the factory, which his father built in 1959-61.

 Empire City Iron Works started out in Manhattan and moved to Long Island City in 1911. It stood a block away from its current location on 46th Road until 1959, when their father began to build the big red-brick factory.

“To get enough land, he had to buy the row houses across the street one by one as they came up for sale,” Harvey says.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A welder’s helmet waits for the shift to begin.

 Adds Edward, “That’s why it took so long.”

The brothers, lanky and loquacious, joined the company after earning civil engineering degrees in college, Harvey from Brown University and Edward from Columbia University.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael Husbands is one of some 100 employees at Empire City.

 There was never any question that their business would be the family business.

“In the 1950s, someone wanted to buy the company, but our father wouldn’t sell because he had two sons,” Edward says.

Harvey isn’t sure whether Edward has heard this story, but he had applied to Con Ed, where he had worked in the summers of his youth, and actually got a job offer.

Edward looks surprised.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Julio Landivar is part of the Empire City family.

 

“When it got back to my dad, my grandfather called me and that was that,” Harvey says, smiling widely.

Less than a year after Harvey joined Empire City, Leopold died so he ended up working for his father and his uncle.

In 1975, when their father died, Harvey and Edward took over.

“If you think it’s easy to run a family business, it’s not,” Edward says.

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Simon, Harvey’s son, joined Empire City 15 years ago.

 Harvey smiles and nods in agreement.

“We have been successful because we were taught very well by our father how to run the business and how to make things,” he adds.

Harvey’s son, Simon O. Heffner, joined Empire City Iron Works 15 years ago after a brief career on Wall Street. He went to night school to earn a master’s degree in construction management and an MBA.

“Running Empire City Iron Works is a great deal of responsibility,” he says. “But I’m excited to be involved.”

 



Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling


Harvey, Edward and Jonathan Weaver work to solve a problem.

 Edward and Harvey, who are young for their ages, swear they aren’t retiring any time soon.

Their grandfather worked until the day he died, and their father was at the factory when they rushed him to the hospital the final time.

“We Heffners have a tradition of retiring in a pine box,” Edward says.

“I wouldn’t want to say it that way,” Harvey counters. “I’d rather say that coming to the office keeps me young.”

Edward shrugs.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram; nancyruhling.com Astoriacharacters.com. Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 
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Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Never Left Home
by Nruhling
Jul 29, 2016 | 4180 views | 1 1 comments | 223 223 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Tony De Pace, tanned as a pancake, has just come back from Disney World.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tony has been living in the same house since birth.

 

If you didn’t know that, the Mickey Mouse mugs on the cluttered coffee table and large framed photos of the celebrated Florida amusement park that are perched prominently on the bookshelves would have clued you in.

This was his 20th trip; he’s been going since he was 30, which was nearly four decades ago.

“Disney World brings out the little child in me,” he says, grinning.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tony made his career in banking.

 

Actually, Tony doesn’t have to travel to Orlando to be a kid again. All he has to do is look around his two-bedroom apartment.

He’s lived in the same building since birth. Before you can convey your astonishment, he’s quick to point out that he hasn’t been in this space his whole life. He spent his childhood in the unit next door.

Tony, who speaks what he calls “broken Italian” and is not up on family history, says all he knows is that his people come from Calabria.

He queries his 90-year-old mother, who reports that she lived in Sorianello until she married his father, who came to New York from Gioia Tauro when he was 5.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The building was bought by Tony’s grandparents in the 1940s.

 

His grandparents bought the four-apartment building in the 1940s, before it was even a decade old. They took one unit. His parents occupied another. An uncle inhabited a third, and the fourth was rented to an outsider.

“It’s always been for family,” Tony says. “And it still is – my mother and my niece also live here.”

Everywhere Tony goes, his childhood memories follow.

The 21st Road building is around the corner from P.S. 122, where Tony, his younger brother and their father went to school, and is a short walk from Immaculate Conception Church, which he has attended ever since he came into this world.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tony, bottom bunk, during his Army days in the Vietnam War.

 

His mother still celebrates mass there regularly, as did his father up until his death. Once a week, Tony assumes the role of volunteer accountant.

Tony doesn’t think it’s odd that he never left home.

“I’m single and have no children,” he says. “Originally, I stayed because I didn’t want to leave my mother alone. The apartment is in a convenient location, and all of my friends were here.”

When he graduated from Long Island City High School, Tony enrolled at a two-year business school in Manhattan intent on pursuing a career in finance, high or otherwise.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be in the Army,” says Tony, a towering  man with sky-grey eyes that are sheltered by frowning inchworm brows. “But when I got drafted, I didn’t want to be in the Army.”

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Disney World is his favorite destination.

 

Tony was called up in 1970, right after he got his first full-time job in banking. During his two-year hitch, instead of being shipped off the Vietnam, he was ordered to stay in the states and work in finance, which suited him fine.

Afterward, he landed a job at Bankers Trust in Manhattan, where he worked for 27 years until he was downsized. He took short-term assignments at a number of other banks before retiring in 2011 at 62.

“I wanted my freedom,” he says, adding that “the last job I had was very boring.”

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He retired because he wanted more freedom.

 

Besides which, fate is fickle.

“Tomorrow is a promissory note,” he says. “There’s no guarantee.”

Tony used to have several hobbies, but he’s been trying to simply his life in the last couple of years. At one time, he was collecting a lot of things.

He mentions acquiring 18 wristwatches and rummages through the closet to produce a miniature Louisville Slugger bat he got at Cooperstown. It is part of his baseball memorabilia collection. (For the record, he’s a Yankees fan.)

“I like to buy in bulk,” he says, glancing at the dozens of pens that are on the coffee table.

 

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Mickey mementoes.

 

For a long time, he took long walks and documented his solitary treks with photos. The pictures fill the dozen albums stored in the living room credenza. He’s also taken many shots of Disney World.

Tony owns a bunch of cameras and brings three of them from the bedroom. He holds up the Nikon N55, his favorite. It’s a shame it uses film. It’s more convenient for Tony to tap his iPhone, especially when he’s exploring Manhattan.

Sometimes, Tony does think about leaving the neighborhood.

“I can’t take the snow any more,” he says. “But I don’t know where I would want to go. Astoria is A-No. 1 for me.”

Later today, he’s going to do some errands on Ditmars Boulevard. He’ll pass by P.S. 122 on the way.

Nancy A. Ruhling, a freelance journalist who has had bylines in more than 50 online and print publications including The New York Times, may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram; Astoriacharacters.com, nancyruhling.com.

Copyright 2016 by Nancy A. Ruhling

 

 

 
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Dan S
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August 01, 2016
Astoria rules. Why ever leave?

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