Astoria: New Technology, Old Guard

In Astoria, many of the old family-run businesses that put down roots in the community long ago are still in place. If you stroll down Broadway, you’ll see them. There is Sac’s Place, a simple and rustic Italian restaurant that has been open for nearly 20 years. A little further south is Crown Peters Travel Services, another family-owned business, which had been booking flights and vacations for the Astoria community for almost 40 years. And hidden between a Boost Mobile store and a gift shop is Jack’s Shoe Repair,  open for 45 years.

The people who run these businesses have seen a sea of changes come and go in Astoria, but they have not always been happy about them. The latest case in point: new free Wi-Fi stations New York City recently set up along the street.

In the past few weeks, the city erected seven new LinkNYC stations, from 21st to 35th street. These stations provide charging docks for smartphones and free public Wi-Fi. Through the tablets secured on each station, individuals can also access city maps and directions as well as make phone calls to anywhere in the U.S. Each station is also equipped with an emergency 911 button.

LinkNYC was launched in 2016 after the mayor’s office began work on a plan to repurpose all the old payphones throughout the city. The goal is to have 7,500 stations throughout the five boroughs by 2024. So far, there are 839 installed stations throughout the city, including 89 installed links in Queens.

The seven along Broadway are installed but have not been activated. According to a spokesperson for LinkNYC, the Wi-Fi is expected to be activated within a few weeks.

Seven new LinkNYC stations have been installed along Broadway in Astoria. Wi-Fi is expected to be activated soon. (Katryna Perera/NY City Lens)

Seven new LinkNYC stations have been installed along Broadway in Astoria. Wi-Fi is expected to be activated soon. (Katryna Perera/NY City Lens)

“Having these links, it’s going to give people a great sense of what’s going on,” said Florence Koulouris, district manager of Queens Community Board 1. Koulouris pushed for the stations to be installed in Astoria after hearing about them at the Queens Borough President’s Cabinet meeting last month.

Walking along Broadway, the nearly ten-foot-high stations rise out of the sidewalk. Some people stop in their tracks and stare at them in curiosity before hurrying along to their destination.

Some of the local business people, though, are not happy. “I don’t like them,” said Domenico Sacramone, owner of Sac’s Place. “No one has been given any notice.”

Isaac Daniel, manager of Famous Brand Fashions, said he doesn’t see the point of the stations. “They’re just trying to show people coming to Astoria that we have high-tech stuff,” said Daniel.

Stacy Papountza, a travel agent at Crown Peters, had similar feelings, and wonders who is going to be coming to Astoria who will need to use the stations. “It’s not like people are just passing by here, it’s more residential,” said Papountza. “No one is going to be stranded for a few hours in Astoria.”

Jack, from Jack’s Shoe Repairs, didn’t even know about the stations and had not seen them on the street. In mid-sentence, he got cut-off by a man walking into his shop dressed like a barber, with a comb and pair of scissors in his left shirt pocket.

“Hey, you know about these Wi-Fi things coming up?” said Jack.

“What Wi-Fi things?” said the barber.

“There are seven of them along Broadway.”

“It’s just another way for the government to hack into your phone and see what you’re doing,” said the barber. “This is going to make people loiter. Who knows who’s going to be around there at night.”

This is a concern that has come up before. When the stations were first being installed in Manhattan, there were reports of individuals hanging around the stations watching movies, sometimes even pornography. Once these reports surfaced, the web browser option on the tablets were removed from all stations. Since then, loitering complaints have dropped by 96 percent, according to LinkNYC.

Each station is equipped with an emergency 911 button and users can make free calls to anywhere in the U.S. (Katryna Perera/NY City Lens)

Each station is equipped with an emergency 911 button and users can make free calls to anywhere in the U.S. (Katryna Perera/NY City Lens)

Data sharing and privacy are another concern: “I don’t think you should be checking your email or online shopping,” said Koulouris. “People have to use common sense.”

According to the company’s spokesperson, LinkNYC does not track or collect user’s browsing history while they are using the Wi-Fi, and therefore it is not shared with other individuals or third parties. An encrypted Wi-Fi option is also available, for those who wish to have an extra layer of security.

Although some business owners are wary about the incoming innovative technology, the local residents NY City Lens spoke with, most of them younger than the business owners, seem to be delighted with it.

Bercea Alvis, who lives in Astoria said she thinks the stations will help more people in emergency situations who might not have a phone and need to call 911.

Kam Mia, also of Astoria, agrees. “It’s good. I have my 4G LTE, but for people who don’t have it, it’s helpful,” he said.

When told about the resistance from local business owners, Adam Reese said, “Of course they don’t like it, businesses don’t like change. I remember when the smoking ban was put in, restaurants didn’t like that either.”

Lee Fink, another Astoria resident, does not understand the animosity toward the Wi-Fi stations. “That’s bizarre, I think they’re a great thing,” she said. “They have them all over Manhattan and it doesn’t seem to be an issue there.”

Koulouris thinks the business owners will eventually come around to the idea, but that it will take some time. “I’m sure back in the day when phone booths came out, this type of a feeling was had,” said Koulouris. “I think that as it goes on, they’ll see the benefit to the community.”

Once the stations are activated, local businesses will be given the option to advertise through them for a fee of $250 a week. But the owners of Sac’s, Jack’s, and Crown all said they have no plans to take advantage of the feature.

“I don’t bother with all that stuff,” said Jack. “They ask me to upgrade, I say what for? I don’t even have a smartphone.”