Queens Mamas Spotlight: Annabel Short & the 30th Ave Project

The 30th Ave. Project is quite remarkable. It documents a “year in the life of a street,” and by doing so, reveals so much about our changing borough, especially in Astoria.

Started by Annabel Short, the concept of this project is pretty simple: over the past year, she has interviewed 52 residents and shop owners/employees along 30th Avenue in Astoria. By doing so, she really highlighted the changing times and also the incredible diversity in Queens.

I had the opportunity to speak with Annabel and ask her a few questions about what motivated her to start this project, and what she hopes people will take away from it.

Being originally from London, what is it about living in Queens that appeals to you, particularly as a parent? 

Where to begin?!  There’s the accessibility of all you need without having to have a car; the number of playgrounds for kids; the friendly interaction on the sidewalks; and the passion that people have for their community, in whatever way that might be expressed.  (I haven’t lived in other parts of Queens so am talking about my experience of living in Astoria).  

There’s the sense that the neighborhood is always changing, in a dynamic way, while managing to retain a lot of its basic character.  And there’s the wonderful fact that you’re living somewhere with a strong sense of community, but at the same time you have all the inspiration of a megacity at your fingertips – with the hopes, disappointments and experiences that come with that.  It may not be the most easy or comfortable environment to bring a child up in (what is?!) but there’s certainly no shortage of things for them to learn from.

There are certainly parallels with London: both are diverse, international cities.  But in very general terms I’d say the interaction between people of different backgrounds is more open in Queens (and other parts of NYC) than in London.

What was your motivation behind starting the 30th Ave. Project?

I trained as a journalist and enjoy hearing people’s stories, and communicating them.  I realized that there are thousands of stories to be told right here on my doorstep.  I also knew that a lot less is written about Queens than other parts of the city, and that information is a crucial part of community-building.  So I thought why not tell the story of the neighborhood – or at least part of the story – through individual interviews with people who live and work here.

There were also very practical considerations behind doing it the way I did.  I was working 4.5 days a week at a non-profit and had a baby son, Jack (now a toddler).  So whatever I embarked on was going to have to have limits!  I decided to do just one interview each week, with people along one Avenue, for a year.  I choose to post them on a website as I did them, to start a bit of a conversation going and encourage people to contact me with suggestions of interviewees. 

I was lucky to have a lot of support from my husband Carlos through the project (he’s an English professor and proof-read the write-ups before I posted them!).  Though no doubt he’s also relieved I’m not continuing to do an interview a week in the coming year as well.

What was the general response from people you interviewed? Were they excited to tell their stories? Did you experience any resistance?

Overall it was positive and people enjoyed telling their stories.  There’s something about an audio-recorder that sometimes prompts people to say things that surprise even themselves.  And people were excited to see their interviews online, or on the hard copy that I would give to them after posting it.

Photo credit: Jeanne Noonan/ NY Daily News

Getting the interviews did involve persistence though.  I’d say that for each interview on the site, I probably asked around two or three people to be interviewed who declined.  That’s totally understandable: they may have been shy to talk about themselves; too busy with their work; unsure what to make of this English girl coming up to them in the street; or wary of having their photographs and stories online.  (One crossing guard who I asked, said, “you mean it’s going to be on the internet?  After Weiner?  No way!”  I later did interview a crossing guard, Julia Bravo).

In asking people to be interviewed, I was aiming to reflect as much as possible the huge diversity of people along 30th Avenue: in terms of ethnic background, age, profession and so on.  Yet while I guided the content in that broad sense, of course it was totally unpredictable who was going to say yes, who say no, who I might encounter one day to ask.  The majority of the interviewees were people I had not met before other than in the context of the project, but some I had: for example Demetrios Markouizos is Jack’s pediatrician, Kristijana Jakulj cuts my hair; the Ahmads prepared my 2010 tax return.

What is the next step for the project?

This month I’m donating the audio files and photos from the project to Queens Library, and they’re going to be used by the wonderful “Queens Memory Project” which was launched last year.   The project brings together interviews and archival records from across the borough.  I can’t think of a better place for them to be.  Perhaps people coming across them a hundred years from now will find some interesting details among them! 

What do you hope people will take away from the project?

I’d say both information and inspiration.  Information, in terms of people who live in Astoria knowing more about their neighborhood and its people, and people outside Astoria learning about it too.  A few comments I got on the site and via email were from people who used to live in Astoria many years ago: they said it brought back memories, and also that they enjoyed getting a picture of how the same street they knew so well is today.

Inspiration, because it’s such a dynamic neighborhood, full of people to be inspired by.  For example someone might read the interview with Melissa Rivera or with Sami Mobarak and be motivated to set up their own small business.

What did you take away from the project? Was it what you expected?

In some ways it was what I expected: I already walked up and down 30th Avenue each day and knew it would provide some wonderful interviews.  In other ways it wasn’t.  The interviews evolved in a more ad-hoc way than I imagined, each one unique in terms of how it came about, where it took place etc.  Also, the neighborhood itself took on a more prominent role in the interviews than I had originally thought.  I asked each person about their own lives and work, and also for their thoughts on Astoria.  Themes and interconnections began to appear between the interviews.
An important lesson I took away was to have faith in the street!  If I didn’t have an interview ready to post the following week I’d begin to get a bit edgy, in case I didn’t find one or set one up in time.  So I’d venture out with my son on a Sunday morning.  Invariably we would find someone happy to talk.

To read the interviews, Annabel’s own observations, and to look at the images that make up the project, visit 30th Avenue.


Jesseca Stenson