One-Man Orchestra Behind 17-yr-o Romanian Paper

"New York Magazin" founder Grigore L. Culian in his home office. (Photo by Carlos Rodriguez)

New York Magazin founder Grigore L. Culian in his home office. (Photo by Carlos Rodriguez Martorell)

There are no signs at the door of the offices of New York Magazin, the weekly Romanian-language newspaper that Grigore L. Culian founded in 1997 in his Middle Village home. The spacious two-story brick house seems like just another typical family home in this quiet section of Queens, until you get to the basement: This is Culian’s territory.

Here, he is surrounded by a computer and a huge plasma TV tuned to a Romanian channel, along with Romanian books, religious icons, flags, and an assortment of cigarette packs. Two boxing gloves and a picture of boxer Lucian Bute hang from the wooden walls, which lead to an adjunct kitchen where he prepares his coffee.

“This is a one-man show,” said Culian, a burly 61 year-old former musician with a raspy voice and a meditative demeanor. “I do absolutely everything myself: Advertising, design, management, proof reading, everything.”

New York Magazin, which has a circulation of 2,000 copies, is the only weekly in the Romanian language in the United States. According to Culian, there are some 10 Romanian publications in the country, but most of them are bi-weekly or monthly. He says an estimated 250,000 people from the Eastern European nation live in the tri-state area and Pennsylvania, but that includes second and third-generation Romanian-Americans who may not speak the language.

He himself distributes the paper in his car, and it takes him about 6 hours to reach the 54 stores, mostly in Queens, where it is sold for $1.50. He also ships copies to other parts of the U.S., like Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, but he doesn’t make a profit. “For me, it’s just a passion,” he says. “I don’t own a house, I just rent this place.”

Most of the coverage concerns Romanian affairs, but in April, for example, two editions featured the Boston bombings on the cover. “I have to follow the story,” he said at the time. “People in the Romanian community who doesn’t speak English, especially old people, they need to read the stories in their native language.”

Grigore L. Culian shows off a recently published book chronicling New York Magazin's first 25 years. (Photo courtesy of Grigore L. Culian)

Grigore L. Culian (r.) and senior Romanian diplomat Simona-Mirela Miculescu hold a copy of a recently published book chronicling New York Magazin’s first 25 years. (Photo courtesy of Culian)

Culian is particularly proud these days of a book he recently published chronicling the magazine’s first 15 years (1997-2013). The 1,000-page tome includes a brief description of every issue, along with pictures of Culian with Romanian celebrities, including tennis star Ilie Nastase and goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam, a legend who played for Steaua Bucharest, Culian’s favorite soccer team since he was a child.

But it would take an equally hefty tome to tell the unlikely journey of Culian from rock star to political refugee to newspaperman.

A classically trained bass player, Culian tried to make a career playing jazz but it was very hard to make a living. “I’m actually from the rock ‘n’ roll generation, so I started playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band for 20 years, touring all over the place, in Europe.” As a member of the band The Romantics, Culian earned a comfortable living in Bucharest.

That changed when, in the mid ’80s, the communist regime implemented a new law that hit musicians hard. “It said that we’re not allowed to play in any public place in Romania but Romanian music. So if you want to play a masterpiece from, let’s say, Duke Ellington, they ban you,” he said. “It was outrageous, absurd to ban a musician to play. At that time, I decided that I had to leave.”

Keeping his plan secret even to his own wife, an Olympic handball player, Culian got an American visa to visit his sister, who defected to the U.S. in 1977. To do so, he bribed a Communist official with a VCR he had bought in Germany.

He defected in February 1989 and was soon granted political asylum in the United States. But, to his astonishment, only nine months later, a revolution overthrew and killed Nicolae Ceucescu, the country’s dictator for 22 years.

“If I had expected something like that, I wouldn’t have defected to the U.S.,” he says. “I was absolutely sure that the communists and the Ceausescu clan would survive forever.”

In January 1990, he flew back to Romania with the intention of staying. “I thought, it’s a revolution so everything will change, ” he said. “But I was very disappointed because I realized that in fact in Romania, there wasn’t a revolution; it was a coup d’état organized by part of the unhappy communist regime.”

In a matter of months, he was back to the U.S., where he was joined by his wife and his daughter Andreea. “From the time I was granted political asylum in the U.S., I realized that this is my country,” he said.

In New York, he worked as a limo driver and waiter, among other jobs. In 1994, he started collaborating as a translator, proofreader and “handy man” for “Micro Magazin,” a weekly Romanian-language paper that was owned by Catalina Ligi, who died in 1997 when she was only 46.

“When Catalina died, it was something of a loss for the community,” he said. With the help and encouragement of his daughter, he launched the new publication, even though he didn’t even know how to operate a computer. “Imagine, I had to edit the newspaper by cutting columns with a shear and stick them together in a paper.”

Over the next few years, thanks to countless work hours and attending journalism workshops at CUNY and the New York Times, he managed to establish the newspaper. “I didn’t have any money, zero, as an investment,” he said. “I bought a computer on my wife’s credit card, and that was it.”

His main mission is to inform his newly-arrived countrymen about the American system, but especially of what’s going on in Romania, where he is deeply connected with the local media and writes a column in the online newspaper “Cotidianul.”

“A lot of people of the Romanian community in America have properties in Romania and want to go back to retire there, so they need information because the Romanian government is using these people,” he said. “They take advantage of the fact that they live in America and they don’t know the new rules in Romania, and they’re exposed to losses.”

Also, he is convinced that Romania, although now a member of the European Union and NATO, remains in the hands of the old communist guard.

“If you look at the Parliament, you’ll probably find 80 percent of former members of the communist party, so how the hell can you say there is democratization?” he said. “Of course it’s not the same, but the mentality and the system is the same 23 years later, which I write about every single week. After 23 years, I still fight them.”

Although he is a latecomer when it comes to journalism, he believes that having been a professional musician helps him. “People think musicians are crazy,” he says. “But musicians are always honest people and this is very good in journalism, because they write free. They’re not afraid of anybody.”

“It’s simple,” he adds. “If you play music you can’t lie to anybody, because you have to be onstage and perform, for good or for bad.”

This story is part of a series of profiles on editors from the community and ethnic press. Read the rest of the profiles here.

One Comment

  1. Adriana Hegbeli says:

    You are right Grigore !!! Congratulations !!!!!!
    Adriana Hegbeli

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