Under bands of wood held tensely in place by the ceiling of the Steinway & Sons piano factory, 19 thin sheets of tulipwood are pressed into one uniform piece. Behind the worktable, newspaper clippings from the sports page of an Italian newspaper scream soccer highlights.
Up the stairs and past workers from Bangladesh, India and Croatia, another workstation showcases articles about the New York Giants. In the employee locker room on the same floor, a makeshift shrine to the Yankees hangs at eye-level.
On each of the four floors composing the 40,000 sq ft. building, banners display the company motto: “We Are Family.”
But despite the eclectic taste in sports and mélange of ethnicities, none of the 450 employees that work at Steinway in Astoria need to be reminded that they are family; the average tenure of a worker is 15 years and many have been there for more than 30.
The company has provided steady employment for more than 150 years, relying heavily on the waves of immigration that continuously wash into New York’s harbors.
“First it was Germans, Italians, Yugoslavs and Russians. Now it’s India and Haiti,” said Dominic Iovino. “But it’s always been a family.”
Iovino should know. During his 40 years as a tuner with the company, he has worked with two of his uncles and a cousin. And for many of those years, he tuned pianos side by side with Wally Boots. Boots, who grew up two blocks from the factory, has worked at Steinway for 46 years. So have three of his brothers.
“At first it was just a job,” Boots said. “Now it is a passion.”
The passion Boots speaks of is obvious — the factory is full of burly blue-collar men delicately crafting intricate parts and running their ruddy fingers over faux-ivory keys. It is the thread that connects workers, who hail from more than two dozen countries.
Though historically the factory provided a bellwether for immigration patterns in the Astoria, a recent influx of young professionals priced out of Manhattan has changed the neighborhood’s demographics. Steinway now relies on word-of-mouth — passed from cousins and uncles in America to relatives in villages all over the world — to find workers with the technical skills required to make one of Steinway’s iconic pianos.
“What we get are talented workers coming to us, either in woodcraft or in music,” said Leo Spellman, senior director of communications for Steinway.
In the small world where Boots and Iovino have sat together for decades, pictures cover the walls from ceiling to floor. It is impossible to tell where the photographs of family stop and those of colleagues begin. Leaning over the shiny lacquered top of a Steinway Grand, Boots proudly shows off the fringed American flag vest he wears while riding his motorcycle. Next to the vest is a calendar he recently made, each month featuring a fellow worker’s bike.
Looking on, Spellman smiled.
“The faces will change; the accents may change,” he said,”but the characters don’t.”
(Click here to read an interview with Henry Steinway)