There are very few places I love more than the place I call home, Astoria, NY. So, when I stumbled upon a blog called “Astoria Characters” I was excited beyond words. I couldn’t believe that I was JUST discovering this great project.
I discovered Astoria Characters while browsing Why Leave Astoria, a website dedicated to promoting the best of Astoria, which linked to the original entry on Huffington Post. After reading one story, about an Ecuadorian breadmaker named “Chubby” (pronounced Chooby) I was hooked. I contemplated staying up to read all of the Characters (there are many!) but I used my better judgment and got some sleep—but I wasted no time—I just knew I had to meet the mastermind behind these beautifully written portraits of my fellow Astorians.
So, I contacted the author, Nancy Ruhling, who graciously accepted to meet me for coffee last weekend. She picked a great spot which I had always said I wanted to try, Astor Bake Shop on Astoria Boulevard and 14th Street.
Ms. Ruhling is a freelance writer who has called Astoria home for eight years. We had a great conversation about why she began this project, Astoria and its diversity and the power of people’s stories.
Ms. Ruhling, who previously worked in the print world, covering events in Queens, says she got the idea to do this from a friend, who suggested that she write about the diverse people in her neighborhood. She says at first she didn’t want to do it, but then the stars aligned and the project began.
Every week for the last four years, Ms. Ruhling has been documenting an Astoria resident’s story on Astoria Characters, which appears on Huffington Post every Tuesday. Ms. Ruhling doesn’t get paid, but she enjoys telling other people stories for a few reasons: First, you can’t find these stories elsewhere. Most publications don’t want to write about “regular” people; ordinary lives are not published. Second, she believes, (and this was my favorite line in our whole discussion) that everybody has a story to tell, and that everyone’s story is important.
How does she pick the Characters? Ms. Ruhling says she sometimes just approaches people and asks if she can interview them. Other times, she gets referrals. She never knows what an interview will bring; it can be full of surprises! People often ask her “Why do you want to write a story about me?” She says they think their lives aren’t interesting, that they have nothing to say, and nothing that could interest other people.
In reality, the stories are very moving and inspiring. You read them and feel for the characters, and maybe you will have something in common with them. The first story I read “The Breadwinner” was about a man who had immigrated to this country from Ecuador (like my parents). He tells the story of how he began working at Tom Cat Bakery, and about his family. So beautifully captured, it brought tears to my eyes.
Of course, what makes these stories compelling, in addition the beautifully captured images by Ms. Ruhling herself, is the diversity of the characters. Queens is the most diverse county in the United States, and Astoria is perhaps the most diverse neighborhood in Queens. These stories wouldn’t be so compelling if all the characters were the same. Many of these characters have overcome great adversity, others are simply inspirational because of their work and dedication to others, others are entrepreneurs who will inspire you and maybe make you say “Hey, I’ve always wanted to do that, maybe I should.”
Steinway Street, Astoria (Photo credit: The Anti Tourist blog, 2012)
Ms. Ruhling has interviewed people from over 50 countries and about 30 states. She says that when asked if they would change anything in their lives, people always say they wouldn’t, even if they have experienced hardship and overcome great obstacles.
I haven’t finished reading all of the stories (there are about 400 and counting!) but I can’t wait to read them all, I am learning so much about the great people that live in my hometown! One Character, The Super Sister, Sister Tesa, runs Hour Children an organization which helps formerly incarcerated women with job training, housing, child care services and more. Sister Tesa dreams of buying some buildings so that she can create housing for families. If anyone wants to help, she only needs $1.7 million,
What I l love about this project is that it shows the diversity in Astoria, and that it showcases the strength and determination of the human spirit. It also reiterates what I have always thought: I live in a pretty amazing place.
You can catch a new Astoria Character every Tuesday on Huffington Post. Make sure to come back and tell me which one your favorite is!