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24 blocks in Astoria designated boro’s first art district

By Bill Parry

Queens has its first arts district.

Several leaders of cultural institutions joined elected officials on the Landmark Portico of Kaufman Astoria Studios last Friday to celebrate the official proclamation of the Kaufman Arts District, a 24-block area of Astoria that includes the Museum of the Moving Image, the Queens Council on the Arts and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.

“This corner of Queens has quickly become a vibrant community of cultural venues and art organizations that have attracted some of our generation’s greatest artists,” City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said. “Today we solidify the Kaufman Arts District as one of New York City’s premiere destinations for arts and culture. With the borough’s first official arts district, our goals will be to nurture the existing artists and arts organizations; to draw additional, cutting-edge arts groups here; and to create an environment in which artistic work will flourish.”

The new district is bounded between 31st and Steinway streets and 34th and 37th avenues. It is an area that was neglected and rundown until George Kaufman bought the underused property, at 34-12 36th St., in 1982.

Kaufman was away on vacation and missed the designation ceremony, but when his studio opened the city’s first open-air soundstage in December, he said, “I knew that we had the potential to turn this neighborhood into a thriving production, arts and cultural district for the city.”

Institution leaders approached Van Bramer with the idea and, as chairman of the Council Cultural Affairs Committee, he was able to push the proclamation through.

Van Bramer remembers what the neighborhood looked like, having grown up on 44th Street.

“This place was a dormant ghost town. No people and no business, and now it’s thriving,” he said.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who grew up a little further north, said, “I have loved watching this neighborhood change. When I was young, you would never come here unless you didn’t want to be seen.”

Like the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District surrounding the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the district will become eligible for funding that would draw more art-related businesses and further economic development bringing in hotels, affordable housing and artists spaces.

“Investing in the arts is good for neighborhoods,” Van Bramer said.

Instead of looking to the future, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth) remembered former Borough President Claire Shulman’s role in the genesis of the district. Shulman made a deal with the federal government for the 5 1/2-acre lot that would become Kaufman Astoria Studios.

“She brokered the deal for $1. It was a real-life dollar and a dream and the dream came true,” Markey said.

Union leaders, desperate for jobs during the financial crisis during the late 1970s, approached Shulman with the idea of making movies in Queens.

“City University had the lease for the old Army Pictorial Center, but had no money to do anything with it and it was sitting there abandoned and vandalized,” Shulman said.

The former beep formed what she called a dream team with Mario Biaggi, Geraldine Ferraro and even socialite Kitty Carlisle to form a nonprofit called the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation that secured a 99-year lease for $1.

The property would later be sold to real estate developer George Kaufman in 1982.

“We turned Queens into the Hollywood of the East,” Shulman said, “from an area that made zero into the $7 billion in economic activity that you see today.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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