In my opinion, there is no better way to learn about a neighborhood than by looking at how that neighborhood throws a street fair.
Austin Street, the main commercial strip of my hometown of Forest Hills, Queens, is always bustling. Dozens of restaurants and clothing shops are a draw for people of all ages. Teenagers love to loiter around on the corners; someone is always passing out fliers for cheap manicures at one of the many spas, or happy hour at the local bar. I'm buddies with the fruit vendor who parks a few paces from the subway station, and am always drooling after passing the chicken-and-rice guy a few paces later. It's a fun place to be.
Never more fun, however, than during the twice-annual Forest Hills Festival of the Arts—more commonly known as the Austin Street Festival. Thrown once at the beginning of the summer and once at the end, this festival takes up the entire five-block-long strip and features vendors of all varieties. Each business sets up their own stand, and dozens of non-local businesses are represented as well. Anything you could want, from clothes to shoes to jewelry to newspaper subscriptions, are available for a reasonable price.
But I wasn't interested in those things. I was looking for some good food.
This was one of the biggest festivals I've ever seen on Austin Street, and I was taken aback by how many great food vendors were setting up shop. First, the savory. Mardi Gras, a well-regarded Cajun joint, had out warming trays of pernil and rice and beans. There was delicious-looking Greek food from Corfu, one of my Austin Street favorites. And A&J Pizza was serving up pizzas by the slice, fresh out of the restaurant's oven. My mom also picked up a tasty, spicy vegetarian burrito from a Mexican food vendor.
And what about the sweet offerings? One of my local favorites, Martha's Country Bakery, had a lovely display of goodies up for grabs. I can personally vouch for their deliciously fluffy cakes, excellent tiramisu, and dense cheesecake. There were also amazing-looking pies from Sweet Chefs Southern Style Bakery, a Harlem-based operation that specializes in sweet potato and pecan pies.
I've been going to the Austin Street Festival for as long as I can remember. I always run into people I know, both young and old. It's a gathering spot for locals and a treat for those looking to familiarize themselves with the area. In my opinion, there is no better way to learn about a neighborhood than by looking at how that neighborhood throws a street fair. This festival demonstrates that Forest Hills is a multi-cultural, spirited place—and a destination for some serious eating.