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In New York's Multinational Astoria, Diversity Is Key To Harmony

Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens holds classes for people who are learning English as a second language. A teacher leads the class in a rendition of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Night."

Queens, N.Y., is one of the most diverse urban spaces in the world, and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Queens is Astoria, across the East River from upper Manhattan.

Astoria has a reputation as New York City's Greektown, but it's more like an urban United Nations. People from nearly 100 countries live there, according to census data.

They coexist pretty peacefully, but that wasn't always the case. The explosion of diversity has helped foster a more tranquil community.

"North Africans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Tibetans, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Bangladeshi," says Sofya Aptekar, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "I could go on."

No one group dominates numerically. That's a change from a few decades ago, when Astoria's newer immigrants were basically Greeks and Italians, and there was a great deal of tension between the Italians and African-Americans living in the neighborhood.

Eric Mathews, an African-American who runs Minor Miracles of Astoria, an after-school program, first lived in the neighborhood in the 1970s.

"When I was growing up, kids would say, 'You can't go across 21st Street, because something is going to happen to you,' " Mathews recalls.

Over the past few decades, though, a lot of Italians and Greeks moved to the suburbs, and a polyglot mix replaced them.

"Now things are much more peaceful," Mathews says. "With the increase in minority groups, everyone seems to have found their own space."

And the neighborhood changed to accommodate the new residents: On one of Astoria's main boulevards, there's a shop festooned with signs in Spanish, but the proprietors are Pakistani, not Latino.

Ashiv Shah, from Pakistan, is the nephew of the owner. He gives a tour, pointing to shelves stocked with dried channa dal, yellow onions and Gatorade.

"It's like a mix, like a mix culture," he says. "One part of the store is Mexican; one part is Southwest Asia. Some part is actually American."

His mother says the Spanish language signs went up after Sept. 11 to broaden the store's clientele, as a lot of other Pakistanis were leaving the country in the aftermath of an immigration crackdown.

Other institutions in Astoria have adapted to the changing demographics. At the Astoria Public Library, Sofia Zambrano works in the children's section. She's a native of Ecuador, and originally moved to the neighborhood in 1976. Today, she helps immigrants from places as far flung as Morocco to Mexico navigate life in New York City. "I see myself more as a social worker than as a librarian," she says.

The neighborhood isn't done changing, Professor Aptekar says. New luxury housing is going up, including two buildings right next to public housing.

"I think a lot of people who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time are worried," says Aptekar. "Does it mean ultimate displacement?"

For Astoria, it would be just one more transformation.

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