Astoria Boulevard is the second-to-last stop on the N-W subway line. The N train whistles against the track on a banking turn near 39th Avenue, five subway stops south of Astoria Boulevard. There’s a sign posted inside the train explaining that “falling leaves when crushed by moving trains” make for slippery travels, and as a result, “trains may operate at reduced speeds and/or operate slower than normal.” Despite the redundancy, the ride from Times Square is still under 30 minutes. At night, on the elevated platform, the lights of Manhattan blink quietly across the East River, and the city’s closeness is clear.
In addition to its proximity to Manhattan and relative affordability, Astoria’s key defining characteristic is probably its rich multiculturalism. Even in a city as diverse as New York, Astoria’s unique ethnic blend is noteworthy—and like other neighborhoods and boroughs throughout the city, that blend has morphed and evolved over the decades as tides of immigrants and home-seekers have ebbed and flowed.
But before the Greek tavernas, the elevated trains, and even the heavy smattering of Dunkin’ Donuts stores, there was Astoria’s first settler: an Englishman named William Hallett.
According to the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Hallet received a grant for the land—2,200 acres in all—from Governor Peter Stuyvesant in 1652. Twelve years later, Stuyvesant ratified the grant by actually purchasing the land from Native Americans tribes. The cost was 58 fathoms of wampum, seven coats, one blanket, and four kettles. The area, formerly called Hell Gate, became known by the more prosaic name of Halletts Cove. Dutch and German settlers arrived in the area in the 1600s. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Irish and Italian immigrants followed suit.
In the mid-1830s, however, Astoria was still heavily forested and sparsely populated. Fur trader Stephen Halsey took note of the undeveloped land while taking a ferry to his home in Flushing. Halsey saw an opportunity in the area's proximity to Manhattan, and with the help of his brother, he purchased land and began to develop it. He laid out streets, built houses and stores. Homesteaders began to trickle in, but even so, Halsey knew he needed more investors to establish a community with long-term stability and staying power.