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Fuming Astoria Residents Seek Big Trouble For Little Egypt
by Ron Brownlow, Western Queens Editor September 29, 2005
Every weekend, and some weeknights too, Moe Abdalwahed heads to the Egyptian Cafe on a stretch of Steinway Street known as Little Egypt to meet friends. There, they play cards, drink tea and smoke a flavored tobacco called shisha through waterpipes called hookahs.
“This is our culture,” said Abdalwahed, 44, an Egyptian immigrant who comes to the cafe for an hour or so around midnight, before heading to work. “In America people meet in the home. In our culture we meet in a cafe. I come here to have my time.”
But some residents living behind the shisha cafes say the smoke from this form of socializing, which often starts at midnight and lasts past 4 a.m., became annoying two years ago and was unbearable at times this summer. They say they often smell the smoke in their backyards. And a few smell it in their homes.
“It’s awful sometimes,” said Eugene Knippel, a 76-year-old who has lived on 38th Street for four decades. “I’m at the twilight of my years and I have to smell that. Then I have my grandkids come here, and they gotta smell that?” He complained that a ventilation fan behind the Egyptian Cafe blows smoke into his yard. While he cannot smell the smoke in his house, his wife Franziska, 77, can.
Next door neighbors Connie, 56, and Frank Dangelo, 63, have called various city agencies to complain about the noise and smoke more than 30 times this summer. Like Knippel, Frank has asthma. He has also been exposed to asbestos. “It hurts here,” he said, pointing to his throat, adding that the feeling lingers for a couple of days after he gets a whiff of the shisha.
Patrons at the Egyptian Cafe, located at 25-62 Steinway Street, estimate there are 8 shisha cafes on the strip, 6 or 7 in Brooklyn and 10 in Manhattan. The cafes serve an assortment of beverages, including Turkish coffee and tea, which patrons let cool before drinking. They also serve pastries, fruit and other food items. The Egyptian Cafe has a big screen TV that plays Arabic-language programming.
When the city banned smoking in bars in 2003, Health Department agents visited some of the establishments and issued summonses (the cafes don’t qualify for a cigar bar exemption because they don’t serve alcohol). One owner received a $1,200 fine.
The cafes then received a cultural exemption from the ban, but that did not end visits from law enforcement. Nabile Abrahim, 34, who manages the Layali Beirut, said police officers started visiting his cafe two months ago in response to 311 calls complaining about the noise and smoke coming from a tent the cafe had erected in its backyard. Inspectors from the Health Department also came, as did three television news crews.
Abrahim said the inspectors found nothing wrong, and the police officers stopped coming by after failing to find evidence that the smoke from his tent was an undue nuisance. “We’ve been here two years. Why did this start just now?”
Residents living behind the two cafes said they started complaining this summer because the smoke travels further and lingers in the muggy weather.
But they said the smoke began to bother them long before that. “Two years ago when I sat at my desk, my nose would hurt real bad,” said Laurie Lunenberg, 46, who brought the issue up at a local community board meeting, thus attracting the TV news crews.
For a long time Lunenberg, who has 13 different allergy medications on a dresser in her kitchen, didn’t know what was causing the irritation. “The first week of June, my voice started to get real hoarse. By the end of June I had total laryngitis.”
She has stayed in motels four times since then, one at a convent in Brewster, and rented a room in Staten Island to stay at on weekends. “The second-hand smoke has exacerbated my chronic health problems,” she said.
Now Lunenberg wants the shisha smokers to curb their habit. Armed with studies, including one from the American University in Beirut, that have found shisha smoke more carcinogenic than cigarette smoke, she has spoken at local community meetings. She said the practice has spread from the Middle Eastern community to college students who lived in New York last summer and now expound on the virtues of shisha smoking on web sites.
Patrons at the Egyptian Cafe suspect an ulterior motive. “This place opened six years ago,” said Abraham Mohammad, 34, who has been visiting the cafe for six years. “Why does she complain now?” He added that Lunenberg has accosted fellow patrons before and that he would call the police the next time she came. Managers at Layali Beirut, however, said their neighbors were welcome to visit the cafe for a discussion. “We respect their culture, why can’t they respect ours?” Abrahim asked.
A visit at midnight last Tuesday found the aroma of shisha smoke lingering in the cool autumn air outside the cafes on Steinway Street. Five hookahs were in use in the Egyptian Cafe, and one in a tent behind the Layali Beirut. The scent, faint outside the tent, could not be detected inside three houses in the alley behind the cafes.
Astoria Councilman Peter Vallone, who supported a cultural exemption for the shisha cafes from the city’s smoking ban for their role in revitalizing Steinway Street, has written letters on behalf of Lunenberg and her neighbors to the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Buildings.
“Certainly customs should be respected, but at the same time New York City laws must be followed. I am going to continue to work with both sides until some reasonable compromise is reached,” Vallone said in a statement.