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.


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 3  









Part 3. Deregulation and Designation

Sunnyside Gardens interior courtyard, where onetime common space has been fenced in by current property owners

For the eight years following 1966, every common court in Sunnyside Gardens experienced some dissipation through backyard fencing. In a few instances, courts were nearly completely appropriated by private residents. Walkways and mews, protected by permanent easements, remained largely unobstructed, but access to subdivided courts held increasingly less appeal for neighborhood residents. Several owners also took advantage of their newly acquired artistic license and renovated their houses in styles ranging from Californian and Mediterranean to imitations of the White Castle fast food restaurant.  These alterations created startling contrasts to the English country houses built by CHC and left many members of the community aghast. Furthermore, although the original plan had provided parking garages for Sunnyside residents at the edge of the development, a number of residents preferred driveways in front of their houses. Those who felt this way were free during this period to cut the curbs in front of their houses and pave areas previously used for front yard gardens.

Battles over preservation and property rights polarized the residents of Sunnyside Gardens. Debates took on overtly political overtones, pitting “liberal” preservationists against “conservative” property rights advocates, the result being a further breakdown of any cohesive sense of community.

As these disputes became more intense, the City Planning Commission came under increasing pressure to take action. Rather than analyzing Sunnyside Gardens’ problems specifically, however, the CPC opted to include the neighborhood in a zoning resolution which applied to four separate communities around New York City, communities bound only by their perceived historical value as feats of early twentieth century planning.

The other three areas dubbed Special Planned Community Preservation Districts were Fresh Meadows Housing Development in Queens, Parkchester in the Bronx, and Harlem River Houses in Manhattan. Like Sunnyside Gardens, these three developments each boasted unusual site plans; unlike the CHC project, however, these three later plans were characterized by an emphasis on large-scale apartment buildings rather than single-family houses. Many Sunnyside Gardeners thus immediately criticized the resolution as inappropriate to the needs of a more suburban-style development.

"The objectives of the Special Planned Community Preservation District are to preserve communities which are superior examples of town-planning or large-scale development; to preserve and protect the character and integrity of these communities which by their existing site plan, pedestrian and vehicular circulation systems, balance between buildings and open space arrangement and landscaping add to the quality of urban life; to preserve and protect the charity of neighborhoods and communities that presently exist which contribute greatly to the uniqueness and livability of the city; to maintain and protect the environmental quality that these communities offer to their residents and the city-at-large, and to guide future development within these areas consistent with the existing character, quality, and amenity of the Special District." 

New York City Planning Commission, “Zoning Text Amendment to Permit the Mapping of Special Planned Community Preservation Districts,” Comprehensive City Planning Calendar of the City of New York, CP-22501 (New York, June 12, 1974).

The restrictions imposed by the 1974 zoning resolution required the issuance of special permits by the Board of Estimate prior to almost any property alteration. The law was not retroactive however, and therefore did little to restore the common courts in Sunnyside Gardens. Furthermore, as Havelick and Kwartler point out, “the city was [not] able to enforce the new law effectively, since it had difficulty with, among other things, distinguishing between old legal fences and new fences built after the zoning ordinance.”  Curb cuts represented a particular sore spot among many residents, and by 1978 an organization called the Concerned Citizens for Sunnyside was created to lobby the City Planning Commission to allow as-of-right driveway installation. These efforts were not successful however, and the driveway issue remains a point of contention to this day.

In the wake of the 1974 zoning ordinance, preservation-minded Sunnyside Gardeners were compelled to devise new methods for restoring the original character of the community. While the CPC’s action had largely staunched the building and fencing activities which had run rampant during the previous eight years, it did nothing to encourage the upkeep and restoration of the neighborhood.  Frustrated by the divided spaces and social networks of the community, a number of residents took it upon themselves to revive a demoralized Sunnyside Gardens.

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