Streams

Louis Armstrong's Corona Sure Has Changed

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Room for Rent signs hanging in Corona, Queens, where three quarters of the residents arrived in the last ten years. Room for Rent signs hanging in Corona, Queens, where three quarters of the residents arrived in the last ten years. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

Mayor Bill de Blasio won office, in part, by describing New York’s story as a tale of two cities. And indeed, there are corners of New York City populated solely by the super-rich and others shadowed by the most desperate poverty. But most of us live somewhere in between – and some of us live squarely in the middle. All this week, WNYC reporters are visiting neighborhoods – one in each borough – smack at the city’s median income: just $51,865 per household. We want to learn how it feels to live here on that sum, and how it feels to be middle class in New York City now.

Today Ilya Marritz reports from Corona where single-family homes dominate, but many residents are just passing through.

In the popular imagination, Queens is a land of proud homeowners. Think Archie Bunker, Peter Parker’s Aunt May and Uncle Ben, or George Costanza’s parents. And the stats seem to bear this out. The borough has many neighborhoods where median yearly income is close to the city’s median of $52,000.

Corona is one such neighborhood. And strange to say, its reputation as a modest sort of place to settle down is partly due to a man who was rich.

For the last three decades of his life, Louis Armstrong made a simple two story house on 107th street his home. His wife Lucille picked it in 1943; her best friend lived next door. The price: under $9,000. At that time, Armstrong’s yearly income was half a million dollars – or around $6 million in today’s dollars.

“He was one of the greatest superstars of his generation, and he’s living in a terribly middle-class neightborhood. And the question is ‘why?’” said Ben Flood, a tour guide at what is now the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Armstrong died in 1971…And you have to wonder whether he would recognize the Corona of today.

This former neighborhood of proud homeowners is now much more a neighborhood of renters. On doors and windows and lamp posts there are handwritten flyers, advertising apartments, or rooms. Usually, they’re in Spanish.

“I need to work here first, make money, and go back to by country,” said Carlos Sanchez, a construction worker who was born in Ecuador.

Juan Carlos Minchala, another Ecuadorian construction worker, said despite earning $120 a day on a job, he doesn’t feel middle class.

If he saves any money at all, Minchala doesn’t spend it on fun, or home improvements. No. He sends it to relatives.

“For my family in Ecuador, you know,”

This part of Corona is one of the neighborhoods where the median income is close to the city’s median of $52,000. Middle of the pack. But it doesn’t feel prosperous.

According to the U.S. Census, three quarters of the residents of the tract where the Armstrongs once lived arrived in the last ten years. Only around three percent were living here at the time when you might, through an open window, catch the sound of the great jazzman practicing his trumpet. 

The Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens (Amy Pearl/WNYC)
'Free Soap' advertised at a laundromat on Northern Blvd. in Corona, Queens (Amy Pearl/WNYC)
A worker waits for the bus in Corona, Queens. (Amy Pearl/WNYC)
Northern Blvd. in Corona, Queens (Amy Pearl/WNYC)

Editors:

Karen Frillmann

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Comments [6]

Hello Justine,
I also went to St. Pascals (graduated from grade school in 1953). I maintain a website for alum at http://pascalalumni-nyc.net/pascal/default.htm. Its kinda out-of-date and gets little traffic as the school closed years ago and most of us are moving toward that jam session in the sky (or wherever).
Happy 2014,
Frank

Jan. 08 2014 01:56 AM
Justine Cullinan from Jamaica, Queens

It's easy to see why exnyer made the mistake, for Saint Albans (and its neighbor Hollis) probably had the most jazz, blues, and hip-hop stars in America (which is not to stint the Marcy Projects of Jay-Zee or the Bronx, which I think was the cradle of rap music, or West 110th Street, where Duke Ellington lived). I believe that Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, lived in St. Albans or Hollis (which is where a lot of hip-hoppers and rappers lived, including Run-DMC). I think that at one point the Flushing Town Hall might have run a tourist trolley through the two neighborhoods on a kind of jazz-in-Queens tour. I also think that at one point Billie Holiday lived in South Flushing near Aguilar Avenue and Parsons Boulevard, and would be happy to learn whether this is correct. I'm an old-lady New Yorker, who grew up in St. Pascal's parish in Hollis, and I still smile when I hear "Christmas in Hollis," which came out many years after I'd left the neighborhood for Brooklyn and still, now that I live in Jamaica, Queens. No matter what neighborhood we live in in the four outer boroughs I'd say we're among the luckiest people on earth ....

Jan. 07 2014 06:32 PM

Of course no mention that the men interviewed who "lacked papers" and sent money to their "home countries" are actually illegal aliens. The money they are sending to Latin America is money that would otherwise have been earned by American citizens and spent or invested here in NY.

Jan. 07 2014 05:58 PM

Hmmm. I don't doubt the veracity of the article, but I do wonder how I came to believe Satchmo lived in St. Albans. Seems like I read this years ago. Has anybody else been under the impression he had lived in St. Albans or perhaps another neighborhood (maybe ours wasn't the only one claiming him as their own)?

It's a great looking house. Nice to think of this amiable genius artist living in an "ordinary" neighborhood. Imagine being a neighbor and hearing him practice! Who could top that for a NY story?

Jan. 07 2014 05:19 PM
Magee from NYC

For more information on The Louie Armstrong Museum go here:

http://www.louisarmstronghouse.org/visiting/programs.htm

Jan. 07 2014 03:56 PM
Magee from NYC

This past September I visited the Louie Armstrong Museum in Corona. This place is a treasure. Everyone should visit! This place is a treasure. It's in the house he and his wife lived in for the majority of his life until his death - even after he became a world famous jazz legend he chose to stay in the little neighborhood he loved. All the neighborhood kids called him Pops and he loved being able to come home from being on the road and feel that he could just be himself.
The house has been preserved just as he left it. GO. Take the tour. The whole thing is. deeply touching experience for any Satchmo fan. It will bring a smile to your face a tear to your heart and fill your heart with goodness.
Note: Every year on his traditional birthday, July 4th, The Louie Armstrong Museum throws a party for Satchmo with music in the large lovely garden.

Jan. 07 2014 03:52 PM

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