On a recent Tuesday evening every cell-phone ring and beer sip, every crunch of a potato chip is subject to heavy shushing during the hour-long program. Waiters and busboys are forced to duck in order to avoid blocking views of the television screens. The sound of a burp could almost be heard between bass thumps in a room that would ordinarily be filled with loud drunken patrons, but is instead packed with the kinds of young professionals who make up the core constituency of the hyper-local social networking site WhyLeaveAstoria.com.
As their eyes remained glued to the LOST show, a lightly bearded man with a shaved head sat at a back table with a few close friends and some attractive women, savoring the moment with a glass of sangria (no fruit) in his right hand. The majority of the 4,000 members of WhyLeaveAstoria?! wouldn’t know him if they saw him, but he is the man who makes events like “Lost in Astoria”, “Saint Cinco De Patrick Pub Crawl” and “Astoriantation” possible; the man who ran with an unusual plan- Ran Craycraft.
“The website creates a way, like a digital social lubricant, for people to be able to start a conversation without being creepy,” said WhyLeaveAstoria? founder Ran Craycraft.
Just over five years ago Craycraft, an Ohio native, was himself a newcomer to New York City, where he moved to fulfill his childhood dream of working for NBC. Growing up in a town of 200 people in the southern portion of Ohio, Craycraft always aspired to work for NBC because it was the only channel that came into his house with clear reception. “It was clearer than HD is now,” he joked. After finishing up at the University of Cincinnati in 2004, and moving around from Cincinnati to Miami to Madison, Wisconsin, Craycraft enrolled in the Newhouse School Program, at Syracuse University, and was hired at NBC after earning his degree.
“I graduated on Saturday and started work on Monday,” said Craycraft. Between handing in his final project and selling his motorcycle, Craycraft needed to find a place in the city that would be easily accessible to his new job at Rockefeller Center, without all the hustle and bustle- and high rents- of Manhattan. He said he searched for a neighborhood that was “a little bit more chill, where I could have plenty of space to spread my wings, have a quick commute and not pay a ton.”
If Ran Craycraft were Cinderella, Astoria would be his glass slipper.
Being new to New York, Craycraft had a very limited number of friends, and the ones he did have weren't living in Astoria. During the writers strike of 2008 Craycraft, who was then working as an NBC producer, had plenty of free time. He decided to create a small, online meet-up group for people who “just wanted to get together and grab a beer.”
He organized his first event at a hip rustic wine bar in Astoria called Winegasm, which drew about 12 people. As he organized more events at different bars around Astoria, turnouts got bigger and bigger. “The more people that would show up, the less they would have in common, the more baby-sitting had to take place to make introductions. That’s not what I’m in this for. So I decided to start a website as away for people to be able to do this themselves, and create their own meet-ups. So that people could have a little more in common. So I don’t necessarily have to be the one facilitating all these introductions all the time.” Thus WhyLeaveAstoria.com, a Facebook-esque networking site, was born.
Sites like MySpace, Facebook, and more recently Twitter have ushered in a new era of online socializing. But Craycraft has brought the phenomenon to the neighborhood level. In New York, in Queens, especially, few projects like his have had similar success. Instead of connecting with people from across the globe, Craycraft reasoned, why not connect with people from across the street? And he was right; WhyLeaveAstoria?! has emerged as the perfect vehicle to connect neighborhood newcomers.
Craycraft, who lives on 48th Street, said since he first moved in about five years ago he’s watched more younger professionals, like himself, move into the neighborhood. “There was a need that I addressed, a need that’s present in a lot of neighborhoods where there are like-minded people,” said Craycraft. “I started this because I would be waiting for the train and see people that looked like they could be my friends.”
The “digital social lubricant” that he created to make a few new buddies has transformed into a social media empire. Craycraft has since left his position as Senior Producer/Manager of Innovation at NBC, and focuses full-time on WhyLeaveAstoria?!, running the website by himself out of his spare bedroom until offices adjacent to Studio Square are ready.
Craycraft even offers his members a neighborhood discount card. Called the “WLA card”, it sells for $50 and is good for one year; the card gives cardholders considerable discounts at participating establishments around Astoria. According to Craycraft the goal of the card is to “get people off the couch and into establishments.”
“Ran is a pioneer around here, that’s for sure,” said Dean Tomic`, owner of Winegasm, a partner in the WLA card program, and the place where Craycraft held his first event. “He’s skilled in many different ways,” Tomic` added, “from promoting, to being a leader in the community and connecting people.”
Two years in, WhyLeaveAstoria.com (WLA) has over 4000 members and counting from Astoria and all over Queens, and countless groups like “Astoria Park Runners,” “Astoria Beer Pong,” and “Astorian Urban Gardeners.” Through meeting together on a regular basis, the groups have turned strangers into neighbors, neighbors into acquaintances, and in some cases into good friends.
Still, many people wonder if WhyLeaveAstoria?! has helped speed the gentrification of Astoria, or caused any tension between new residents and the neighborhood's traditional communities of Greek, Italian and Croatian immigrants.
“I really haven’t experienced much friction between new and old residents,” Craycraft said. “From time to time, of course, [longtime residents] say things like, ‘You know you’re not really Astorian.” He chuckled. “Ok. That’s cool. Whatever.” Aside from some occasional hostility directed from longtime Astorians, Craycraft said there is a surprisingly large number of lifers who are active members of WLA- and he appreciates the input they give to the site. “Its fantastic whenever the people that have been here their whole lives are weighing in and giving a little bit of a different insight.”
“Astoria is probably the most culturally diverse neighborhood in the world,” Said Taso Pavlou, owner of Studio Square in Astoria where Craycraft hosts a big chunk of his events. “Ran just has a knack for bringing people together in the community.”
“I think anyone who lives here is an Astorian,” said Ran Craycraft. “Astoria is changing so quickly, whether you know the old or you know the new, it all kind of blurs.”