1927: Queens’ Greek Stronghold
A Haven Found In Astoria
By Theresa Juva
Youngsters perform traditional folk songs and dances during celebration of Greek Independence Day event, Friday, March 23.
On the Tuesday before Palm Sunday at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on 31st Drive in Astoria, the smell of palm filled the church basement. Women at tables rustled through piles of reeds as they twisted them into the crosses for the weekend services. Conversations in Greek floated from the room.
Since the 1920s, Astoria has been an attractive area for Greek immigrants who wanted to be close to Manhattan to work, but far enough away to have space to build their own homes.
Reverend John Antonopoulos has lived in Astoria since 1961, but his father Konstantinos was one of the first Greeks in the area when he moved to Western Queens in 1918. He worked as a florist outside the subway stations in Manhattan and lived in Astoria until he decided to move back to Greece in 1930.
But the borough continued to attract more Greek families and by 1923, the Stell, Tourpou, and Altomerianos families settled in Astoria, a neighborhood named after the famous fur merchant John Jacob Astor.
It would be more than 30 years until the Antonopoulos family returned to Astoria: Rev. John moved there in 1964 after he was ordained and assigned to the predominantly Greek neighborhood. He is currently writing a book in Greek on Astoria’s history called, “The Community of St. Demetrios of Astoria in the Arena of the Greek Church in America.”
He attributes the large Greek population to strong family ties and Astoria’s proximity to Manhattan where families traditionally owned luncheonettes.
By 1928, the community was planting itself in the form of churches. Antonopoulos noted that 14 families banded together and bought a plot of land on 31st Street across from where St. Demetrios now sits—a temporary space for worship until St. Demetrios opened in 1927.
“The church was the center of the whole thing,” Antonopoulos said. “They hear the music and language; they thought it was home,” he said of the Greek immigrants who flocked to the church and community center. It flourished as a place for faith and culture and by the 1970s, 3,500 families were registered at St. Demetrios.
At the school next door that teaches Greek, Greek history and the Greek Orthodox religion, 750 children were enrolled in 1975.
But Antonopoulos acknowledges that the neighborhood has changed.
With a new wave of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East, Antonopoulos said the number of Greeks has sharply declined since the 1980s. Many families, he said, after achieving financial success with businesses in Astoria, have moved to the suburbs. St. Demetrios enrollment reflects this change: today, there are fewer than 2,000 families registered.
Despite the shrinking population, Antonopoulos said the community remains strong.
“I’ve been here 41 years,” he said. “I come here young and grew up with these people. I share everything with these people.”
As for his book of Astoria history that has been put together from resident stories, church records and old photos, Antonopoulos said he hopes it will serve as a lasting memory.
“Besides my work here,” he said, I want to leave some history.”
1927: Double Indemnity Killings
The Trial That Sparked The City
By Matt Hampton
Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in “Double Indemnity.”
It was 80 years ago in Queens Village, when a housewife and her lover perpetrated New York’s crime of the century, setting off a media frenzy and redefining the way the press covered crime in the 20th century – and even today.
In a corner house at the intersection of 222nd Street and 93rd Avenue, Ruth Snyder, “Mae” to her family, plotted with underwear salesman Judd Gray, her lover, to murder her husband and profit from an illegal insurance policy.
The murder and subsequent trial was such a media circus that newspapers of the period devoted almost as much coverage to it as to Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, according to author Landis MacKellar, a former Queens College professor who recently published a book on the killings, “The Double Indemnity Murder.”
“What they did in 1927 was to invent the way in which trials are portrayed in the media today,” MacKellar said.
The crime and capture was largely without mystery, as Judd Gray had broken into the victim’s home after a night of heavy drinking, and brutally beat, chloroformed and strangled him. Immediately after the fact, the victim’s wife, Ruth Snyder, cast suspicion on herself by crafting a strange and elaborate story, one she often changed. Gray’s tie pin was found at the scene of the crime.
“This was the Jazz Age, this was the roaring 20s; Queens Village was the picture postcard New York suburb,” MacKellar said of the ingredients that came together to fascinate the nation. “Suddenly that whole façade was stripped away.”
After the police made quick work of the case, it was time for the criminal justice system to take hold. It was this moment that the wheels of history truly began to turn.
The media of the time, powered by more than half a dozen daily newspapers based in New York City, turned the trial into a media event that would affect every sensational trial that came after.
The truly reprehensible touch on the proceedings came as it was revealed that Ruth Snyder had duped her husband and a desperate insurance salesman into drafting an insurance policy with a lofty payoff, and one that doubled if her husband was violently killed.
“Without the Snyder-Gray case you don’t have the O.J. Simpson case, and without the Simpson case you don’t have Court TV,” MacKellar said. “So it’s a straight line from Snyder-Gray to Court TV.”
The trial, held in the Long Island City Courthouse, was equipped with microphones for the first time in New York history, and a gallery designed for 500 people was packed with more than 2,000. According to MacKellar, the event was such a hot ticket that people tried to scale the walls of the three-story courthouse to try and climb in the windows. Crowds were so heavy inside the courthouse and out that pickpockets freely circulated, and one local even tried to set up a makeshift concession stand.
“Queens was thrown into an uproar by this trial,” MacKellar said. Police presence at the courthouse had to be so strong, MacKellar said “traffic was tied up entirely; there was a rash of daylight robberies elsewhere in Queens.”
Years after the conclusion of the trial, several of the journalists involved chronicled the events in books and fictional adaptations, including the play “Machinal.”
The most famous adaptation of the events surrounding the murder is the Billy Wilder film “Double Indemnity,” a classic film noir co-written by Raymond Chandler, which remains a glowing example of 1940s cinema.