Big Apple's new gloss Trend: Queens has become the hippest and hottest of the five boroughs of New York City, at least according to its residents.

October 20, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ASTORIA, N.Y. -- The name of the new hot club on Broadway is carved into a corrugated steel sign, which hangs above the potted palm trees and the blackboard advertising $4 margaritas and $3 frozen cappuccinos. Inside, bartender Nick Lion, ring firmly planted in left ear, turns on the stereo behind the bar (next to a relief of Medusa) and talks about the "very bombed-out, Gothic, Soho feel" of this place.

Tuesday is gay night, and the weekends bring in Manhattan-thin women. "We've rolled out the welcome mat for anyone who is escaping Chelsea or the Village for something a little more Bohemian," Lion says. The club's name is Amnesia, because, says regular customer Jeff Isbell, "You forget you're in Astoria, Queens."

Faster than you can say Archie Bunker (who lived here), Queens -- long viewed as a bastion of old-line white ethnics -- has morphed into what its residents plausibly claim is the hippest and hottest of the five boroughs of New York City.

Artist colonies have grown up in Long Island City, a western Queens neighborhood just across the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan. In eastern Queens, Latin American and Asian immigrants are revitalizing whole blocks of Flushing and Corona. Even the Mets, who play in Flushing's Shea Stadium, are winning again.

So young Manhattanites are fleeing their $1,300-a-month studios in trendy Soho and Greenwich Village, in search of neighborhoods that feel "a little cheaper, a little different, a little more real," says 24-year-old aspiring actress Amanda Quillen, who left the Upper East Side for Astoria.

Manhattan, a Village Voice article complained recently, has been "Giuliani-ized" into just another clean and crime-free playground for tourists. "Now only Queens is like no other place in the universe," the article said.

Queens, with well over 2 million of New York's 7.3 million residents, is the most diverse county in the United States. The minority population has grown even since the 1990 census, when the borough was 12 percent Asian, 20 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black and 48 percent white. Strong middle-class minority communities abound, from the African-Americans of Rochdale Village to the Indians of Jackson Heights.

"Queens is certainly the fastest-growing borough, and the most interesting borough culturally, if you ask me," says Nat Leventhal, president of Lincoln Center. Ed Koch, the former mayor, chimes in: "The America of the future will look a lot like Queens. I don't think it's an overstatement to call Queens chic."

The borough surely has never had a higher opinion of itself. Long Island City residents brag of their "art loop," a hotbed of studios and display space that includes the Socrates Sculpture Park, the International Design Center and the Thalia Spanish Theatre. Kaufman Astoria Studios, which once struggled to coax TV and film crews over the East River, has filled all six of its sound stages. Bill Cosby and Dan Aykroyd tape their sitcoms there, and radio shock jock Don Imus broadcasts from the basement.

A new professional theater company, the Trinity Players, recently started up. ("Everything in Manhattan is overwrought to justify the ticket prices," says Trinity head Anthony Patton. "In Queens, the theater is real.") And a slew of Manhattan-style clubs and cafes, from the gay Crash Nightclub to the cool, thrift-store decorated Cafe Bar, have sprung up to cater to all the young hipsters.

"It's places in Manhattan, Soho and the Village that are our competition," says Monica Constantinides, 31, the Cafe Bar's owner.

The borough's middle-class Flushing section is building a brand-new library. Grittier Jamaica is getting a new courthouse that has won raves from the architectural digests. There are plans to transform the neglected beaches of the southeastern Queens' Rockaway Peninsula, one of the poorest parts of the city, with a $1 billion entertainment, sports and convention center complex. Throughout the borough, Realtors report long waiting lists for apartments.

"There's so much going on in Queens," says Agnieszka Stepinska, 23, who left Manhattan for Queens earlier this year. "Soho became so trendy that it isn't trendy anymore."

Despite such testimonials, politicians in this borough have long grumbled that Queens doesn't get its fair share of attention. But this summer, a blockbuster movie, "Men in Black," made great use of the Unisphere, a globe-like structure in Flushing Meadows that dates from the 1964 World's Fair, in its climactic shootout between actor Will Smith and an alien. Queens residents, their noses sensitive from living so close to the East River, couldn't help but smell an opportunity. So they launched a public relations campaign to promote tourism.

This month, tour directors and travel agents around the country will receive in their mailboxes "Queens, New York City: A World of Choices," the first tour planner's guide for the borough. The mailing also includes a list of "10 Reasons Why Queens, New York City, Is a Tourist Destination."

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