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Reasons to say ‘I heart Astoria’

If New York is a city of neighborhoods, to borrow a phrase from Gotham−lovin’ scribe E.B. White, then Astoria is one beloved ’hood.

So much so that Astoria resident Ran Craycraft created the Web site Why Leave Astoria?!, which lists a multitude of Astoria−centric groups and activities that makes boarding the N, W, G, R or V trains optional for diehard neighborhood dwellers.

Craycraft, a native of Portsmouth, Ohio, moved to Astoria four years ago after attending graduate school at Syracuse University. In addition to the neighborhood’s easy commute to his then−job at NBC and more affordable rents, Craycraft was drawn to Astoria’s unmistakable neighborhood charm.

“I didn’t want to be surrounded by skyscrapers and sirens and broken glass,” he said. “It still has a small−town feel.”

Like many New York newcomers, Craycraft found that after living in Astoria for three years, he was still having trouble meeting people. So, he originally began Why Leave Astoria?! as a group on Meetup.com that met at such neighborhood watering holes as Dillingers and Club 21 for happy hours.

Spurred on by the success of the Meetup group, which still exists and now counts more than 500 members, Craycraft created whyleaveastoria.com, which he has run full−time for the past year. Roughly five new members each day join the Web site, he said, which lists a full roster of activities for each day of the week ranging from 2−for−1 appetizer specials and assorted happy hours to bingo and open mic nights.

The Web site also features links to related community groups, including Wine is for Lovers, The Astoria Society of Photographers, Astoria Dog Lovers and New York Knife & Fork. Besides running the site, Craycraft also serves as the group’s primary event planner, organizing everything from Sunday afternoon wine tastings at Winegasm and the Great Astoria Water Balloon Fight in Astoria Park to a Halloween Pub Crawl and Cosmos for the Cure, a pub crawl to benefit breast cancer held in October, during which local bars donated $3 per cosmopolitan to charity, said Craycraft.

Those looking for help in planning their weekends need look no further than WLA?! Weekender, an e−newsletter sent to members’ inboxes every Friday with a full itinerary of events, many of which are free or discounted, in the neighborhood.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a crowd of nearly 15 gathered at Winegasm, a wine bar and restaurant located 31−86 37th St. in Astoria, for an introductory wine class at 4 p.m., followed by an intermediate wine and cheese pairing session at 5 p.m.

Winegasm co−owner and sommelier Dean Tomic suggested different cheeses and spicy nuts to pair with various red wines to the group, quizzing participants on the body of the wines and asking them which spices and notes they recognized.

The wine tasting was the first WLA?! event that Astoria resident and clothing designer Johanna Bruinsma attended since joining the group a couple of months ago.

“The easiest way to make friends is to do something fun in the meantime — not just standing in a bar, trying to strike up a conversation,” she said, adding that she made a few friends from all walks of life at the tasting.

Alicia Carroll, a law student at Fordham University who moved to Astoria in July, attended the tasting with Jordan Alterbaum, a chef for Wyndham Hotels in Manhattan.

“It was fun,” said Carroll. “(We) met some nice people. I think that we’ll be attending more in the future. They talk a lot about deals, happy hours — I would check those out.”

What’s next for Why Leave Astoria?!

Craycraft plans to sell membership cards that, for a nominal fee, would entitle cardholders to discounts at local establishments. His goal is to have 100 participating merchants. WLA?! recently held a roundtable, during which members suggested changes such as seeing more interaction with Facebook, to chart the course for the group’s future, said Craycraft.

If Craycraft has anything to do with it, Why Leave Astoria?! will be the definitive guide to the neighborhood.

“I’d like for it to be the go−to site if people come to Astoria, whether they’re moving here or just visiting from Brooklyn,” he said. “The goal is for the community to create the content — not just me to create the content. That way, it’s much more immersive.”

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