Astoria Businesses Hurting Over Subway Station Closings

Best Fish Market worker Luis Martínez. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

For most of the five years in which Luis Martínez has been working at the seafood store “Best Fish Market,” one of the most popular in Astoria, Queens, he has always felt “like a fish in the water.” The more than $50 extra in tips that customers used to leave in a small plastic jar, on top of his weekly wage, would make his day. But since last October, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) closed the 30 Avenue and 36 Avenue subway stations for renovations, his pocket has been feeling the pinch.

The subway construction work has resulted in a decrease in customers, which is already starting to sink the business. The jar keeps getting emptier, two Hispanic employees were laid off, and Martínez is now worried that if the renovations don’t end soon he will suffer the same fate. “We’re in crisis,” said the Mexican employee with a worried look on his face, as he cleaned and descaled a fish that a woman purchased.

“Those renovations are affecting us all because things are slow and if you don’t sell you get fewer tips and your job is in jeopardy, and finding a job is hard these days,” said Martínez, who asked the MTA to speed up the work and open the stations before June – the planned end date for the project.

Laura Camajarca, owner of the “La Cabaña” bodega, which has been operating for 20 years on 30 Avenue and 33 Street, is also very worried about the future of her business, as the number of customers keeps declining.

Laura Cajamarca (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“This station has been closed for four months and they say it will remain closed for almost a year. You can imagine how this is affecting our business,” said the Ecuadorean woman. She went on to say that the crisis affecting the area’s merchants is so big that she worries that even bigger revenue losses will eventually lead to problems in paying the rent. “What the MTA doesn’t understand is that every day the stations are closed hits us really hard, because we have to pay employees, we pay taxes, electricity and rent, and, if there are no customers, the landlord will not want to wait… you can really go bankrupt,” said the business owner, visibly worried.

Joining forces

While Astoria business owners feel that nobody, not even the MTA, will make up for the losses they have already suffered, they have decided to organize in the group “30th Avenue Business Association,” to demand the Authority to seek solutions to at least mitigate the damage.

“This is killing us all, and that’s why some 100 area businesses have joined to ask for at least a shuttle bus service to bring people to the stations and give us some measure of relief,” said the association’s president, Frank Arcabascio, who insisted that the MTA is ignoring their claims and is not doing anything for them.

“Our businesses are suffering terribly. Here, we have lost 13,000 transactions at a cost of $20 each since Oct. 23, when construction started. They’re killing us; we are losing between 200 and 300 clients each day, and the MTA is not offering many answers,” said Robert Battipaglia, owner of “Grand Wine and Liquor Store,” just off the 30 Avenue station. “In the 75 years that this business have been going, passing from one generation to the other, we’ve never seen anything as devastating as this.”

(…) The MTA, for its part, says that it is working directly with the community to minimize the impact of the closings (…)

“We deeply value our association with the community and we have worked to decrease the impact of the construction and help local businesses,” said Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson, who did not elaborate on how they are helping merchants, and who insisted that the repairs are necessary.

“To guarantee the future viability of those essential subway stations that serve thousands of Astoria residents every day, we must fix them; we can’t delay critical repairs and maintenance,” said the spokesperson, adding that the $150 million repairs were announced well in advance last summer, even going through the Community Board and local politicians, so residents and business owners were warned.

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Artist Gabriele Perici (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“Blind Eye” Campaign

Gabriele Perici, one of the artists who work in the studio “Astoria Art and Framing,” responded with irritation to the MTA comments. Not only does he say they are “mere nonsense,” he also decided to create a painting called “30 Avenue” in which he reflects the sense of crisis that is felt in the neighborhood. “They are just mocking us and they don’t care what we’re going through,” said the painter, who along with other affected residents launched the campaign “Blind Eye” to denounce what they dub a severe injustice. “Justice has only one eye open,” is the movement’s motto that is joining the calls for the MTA to take real action.

His colleague Ricardo Chancafe shares his opinion, and said not only that his wallet is bleeding money, but he also called for a reparation for the damages caused by the closing of the stations.

“My sales and commissions have decreased 300 percent because there is no movement of people around here anymore. Besides, I have to stop at other stations and walk more,” said the Peruvian artist. “I’m asking the MTA to put more people to work and quicken the process, and even though I know that it would be utopian, I think it’s only fair that we should get compensation.”

While many commuters join the protests against the closings, others like Andrea Lucero, a resident who is affected by the construction, supported the MTA.

“You can’t please everyone all the time, and I think that, as commuters, when the trains don’t work we can take the bus. The best of all is, when they reopen, we will see great improvements,” said the Mexican woman.

History will repeat itself

The headaches will probably not go away soon because, once work on the 30 and 36 Avenue stations finishes, the MTA will close the Broadway and 39 Avenue stations. Next April, Ditmars station will partially close, which will only increase the woes of merchants and residents.

Astoria’s councilman, Costas Constantinides, denounced the negative effects of closing so many stations in the area and, after several meetings with business owners, not only demanded that work on the closed stations be accelerated, but is also promoting a formal petition to cancel the Ditmars Boulevard renovation, which will go on until June 2019, because it seems more aesthetic than essential.

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