Place in History

Sunnyside Gardens Neighborhood History

Year: 2000
Project: A two-phase initiative to document and publicize the history of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, one of America’s first planned Garden Suburbs.

In Phase I of the project, Place in History conducted an in-depth examination of this pioneering housing development.

This effort focused on the evolution of the Sunnyside community, and the history of disputes over residents' right to lay claim to formerly public space.

In the course of Phase I, Place in History combed secondary sources, gathered primary records and memorabilia, and interviewed those few longtime Sunnyside residents who remember the community's first few decades of existence.

In Phase II, Place in History presented its findings to the Sunnyside community in an exhibition at the Fall 2000 Skillman Avenue street fair.

Transcripts

Partners and Sponsors

Without the assistance and resources of Dorothy Morehead, director of the Sunnyside Foundation, this project would not have been possible;  we at Place in History are grateful to her for putting everything into place and leading us to all of our sources.

In addition, we would like to thank Bea Badian, Jerry Modica, and Maxine Shacker, who talked with us at length about their memories of Sunnyside.

We also would like to acknowledge all of the people who spoke with us at the Skillman Avenue Street Fair, including:

Elena Acosta
Dan Allen  
Isabel Bocchino  
Anne Cody  
Molla Corson  
Kim Edel  
Barbara Gilbert
Maria Guzman
Walter Iwachiw
Patricia Noel  
Carole Smargon
Patrick Sweeney
Howard Weiner


  Space and Community at Sunnyside - Part 1  

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Space and Community at Sunnyside

Part 1. An Introduction

Mews, Sunnyside Gardens

Over the last thirty years, Sunnyside Gardens in Queens has been the site of an ongoing series of disputes concerning the private adaptation and appropriation of space within a planned community.  Designed in the mid-1920s using English garden city principles, the community was organized around a number of large common courts and parks which provided shared space for gardening and other group activities.  City Housing Corporation (CHC), the developer which commissioned Clarence Stein and Henry Wright to plan the neighborhood, protected this common space by establishing a series of covenants and easements, most of which lasted forty years. When these easements expired in the mid-1960s, effectively deregulating the neighborhood, many residents began to make changes to their property immediately. These modifications included renovating facades, adding decks or porches to the backs of houses, cutting curbs for driveways, and fencing off sections of the common courts for private use.

The actions taken by many Sunnyside Gardeners in the wake of the expiration of the CHC easements engendered angry reactions from the more preservation-minded residents of the community.  Claiming that newcomers failed to appreciate the spirit of Stein and Wright’s plan, many original residents argued that the fencing off of common courts constituted a violation of the entire community’s rights.  After several years of dispute among the neighborhood’s various factions, the New York City Planning Commission intervened in 1974, pushing through zoning which established Sunnyside Gardens as a Special Planned Community Preservation District.  Following the Planning Commission’s rezoning decision, which required special permits for virtually any modification to the neighborhood, the alterations to the neighborhood’s buildings, courts and sidewalks stopped almost completely. The zoning was not retroactive, however, and many of the changes realized between 1966 and 1974 remain to this day.

More recently, a community land conservancy called the Sunnyside Foundation has implemented a number of programs designed to restore the original character of Sunnyside Gardens. In spite of sustained efforts over the last fifteen years, however, the neighborhood remains divided both socially and spatially. Only one section of one common court is currently free of backyard fences; renegade curb cutters have gone ahead with their plans in spite of legal obstacles; and a number of the walkways and mews providing access from the street to the courts are now gated. Newer residents have tended to view the 1974 zoning plan as excessively restrictive, and the process of obtaining a special permit for property modifications daunting. Currently the Sunnyside Gardens Civic Association is attempting to push through a rezoning proposal which would allow for as-of-right construction of decks, porches, porch enclosures and dormers, suggestions which have inspired counter-proposals from the more preservationist Sunnyside Foundation.

The disputes which have characterized life in Sunnyside Gardens over the past thirty years underscore the complexity of the legal, political, architectural and cultural issues surrounding the planning process in New York City, particularly in neighborhoods dubbed historic districts. Furthermore, the clear desire among many residents for fenced-in space and as-of-right building privileges illustrates the difficulties of maintaining early twentieth century planning ideals in the context of a late twentieth century society ever more suspicious of regulation and increasingly anxious to control space through privatization. The optimistic, paternalistic evaluation of community space embodied in Stein and Wright’s plan represents a progressive era vision which seems strangely at odds with the contemporary American notions of civic society and the urban environment.

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