Q&A with Adrienne Onofri, author of Walking Queens
Local author Adrienne Onofri has been leading tours and writing about New York City for over a decade. A longtime Queens resident, she wrote Walking Queens: 30 Tours for Discovering the Diverse Communities, Historic Places, and Natural Treasures of New York City's Largest Borough. The second edition of her 2007 book, Walking Brooklyn... was recently released by Wilderness Press. Here, she answers a few questions about Queens' history of multiculturalism, her own writing process, and the Newtown Creek sewage plant. She can be found on Twitter @WalkingQueens and Facebook.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
Since I’ve lived here virtually my entire adult life (and when I was a baby), the obvious answer would be “home.” But having roamed around all its neighborhoods, it’s hard for me to come up with just one thought or image. That said, if I close my eyes and think “Queens,” what comes to mind is the view from the 7 train. The various things you can see along the ride—high-rises going up in Long Island City, the multilingual streetscape, the LaGuardia control tower, the Unisphere and New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows—pretty much capture the essence of Queens.
What brought you to lead walking tours and write Walking Queens?
I had written a Walking Brooklyn book for the same publisher (while I lived in Astoria), and it was successful enough that the publisher wanted to add a Queens title. I got my tour guide license around the time the Brooklyn book came out, which made me a professional tour guide. I’d already been an “amateur” guide—for friends visiting from out of town, and even friends of friends. I’ve always enjoyed exploring and learning more about New York City, and showing people around. I’m a native New Yorker and my New York roots go back several generations on my mother’s side. Prior to writing the books and becoming a guide, my experience in the tour business had been covering it as a travel writer.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
I got a nice surprise from The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin. I hadn’t heard anything about it before I picked it off the library shelf. It’s a historical novel about two real-life women who helped launched the motion picture industry in Hollywood: actress Mary Pickford and the less famous screenwriter Frances Marion. Enjoyable reading, and certainly interesting if you’re a movie buff. I have to say, though, that when I think of recent writing that has moved me, it tends to be op-eds or certain coverage of Trump. I feel like I’m too angry to write coherently about it, so I really appreciate a column or essay that eloquently and pointedly takes on any of his innumerable transgressions.
What inspires you?
Dedication to social justice and progressive ideals.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
It often begins, unfortunately, with procrastination. I almost always write at home. That’s where I’m most comfortable and have everything that I may need to refer to—like notes or a book—without having to pack it all up and carry with me. I get more done when I’m by myself in my apartment or a room, partly because I give in too easily to distractions. If I’m feeling stuck, I’ll do the “easy” parts first. For example, with Walking Queens, if I felt stalled writing the walk text itself, I’d put together the end-of-chapter list of points of interest—which was just, like, the name of a museum or store, its address, phone number, website . . . you know, much easier than actually writing sentences. When I write, even if I have a word limit, I’ll get everything down and then go back and cut. So rewriting—and editing—is a big part of my process.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
I’ve recently done a new (for me) type of writing: TV recapping. This season I recapped some episodes of Saturday Night Live for Entertainment Weekly. As a journalist, my specialties have been the arts and entertainment, along with travel.
When you’re not writing or leading tours, what do you like to do?
Take other people’s tours? Well, I still enjoy exploring in New York City—indoors and out—and occasionally it is on a tour. I took a really cool tour earlier this year: of the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The city sanitation department offers free public tours there a couple of times each year, and you get to go up to the observation deck atop the “digester eggs.” (You also learn what you shouldn’t be flushing!) I like the theater and traveling—which is why those became my specialties as a writer.
Which Queens walking tour is your favorite to lead?
I have several favorites, not just one, but I’ll zero in on one as a response: Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. In the book, they're actually two different walks—one per neighborhood—but I give tours in person that vary from what’s in the book, and sometimes they are combined. Elmhurst has some of the oldest buildings and churches in Queens, or even the whole city, and I think its history would be surprising to many, who may just think of it as a Chinatown or "that area with the malls" (or gas tanks, if you’re older). You hear about the ethnic diversity a lot, but it’s still amazing to see houses of worship or community centers for, like, six different religions/nationalities on one block.
Jackson Heights is impressive for how its original plan from the 1910s has been preserved: apartment buildings with their own private park/gardens, set back from the street, attractive architecture. It also has some of the prettiest blocks with freestanding houses you can find close to a subway, such as 86th Street between 34th and 35th Avenue. And it’s always fun to show people the birthplace of Scrabble—commemorated with a special street sign that has the subscript value of each letter in 35TH AVENUE à la Scrabble. I like sharing these kinds of sights that people may not know about, but would be impressed by. I also like doing this tour because it’s convenient and personally meaningful for me. I live in Elmhurst, but just a few blocks off Roosevelt Avenue, so it’s like I also live in Jackson Heights.
What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia?
It’s anything but trivial, but trivia in the sense of relatively unknown: the Flushing Remonstrance, which was written by the colonial citizens of Flushing in 1657 in response to Peter Stuyvesant’s attempts to ban religions other than Dutch Reformed. It was written on behalf of Flushing’s persecuted Quakers (though none of the men who signed it were Quaker), and affirms everybody’s freedom to worship, or not, as they choose. As the first statement of religious tolerance in what would become the United States, it’s considered the inspiration for the First Amendment. So this is profoundly significant history, but it’s also very fitting that it happened in Queens: a leader in multiculturalism for over 350 years!