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

  A Thoroughly Conscious and Workable Community - Part 2  









Part 2. A Social Laboratory

Sunnyside's architects also wanted to show that their planning was more than just a clever reconfiguration of space—that it would lead to more highly valued communities in both economic and social terms.  

As Henry Churchill wrote, “What Henry [Wright] did was to evolve a qualitative as well as quantitative analysis of land-planning and house-planning, considered as an unitary and indivisible process.  He developed economic analysis to match, and to justify, social reform.  Thus, by a process of indirection, he gave respectable status to ‘social values’.”  For many of Sunnyside Gardens’ early residents, including Wright and Mumford, the development was a kind of activist utopia, that used communal spaces to unite and stimulate its residents.

"It is evident that both the City Housing Corporation and the Institute start with certain assumptions regarding home ownership... The first and most evident is the social importance of home ownership as a basis of good citizenship...[A] home owner is almost invariably a good citizen..."

-Richard Ely, "The City Housing Corporation and “Sunnyside”," Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics (April 1926)

Some of its other proponents, however, portrayed Sunnyside Gardens as an exciting new spin on traditional social aspirations.  Richard Ely of the Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities, and one of CHC’s directors, made explicit connections between private ownership and good citizenship.  

Breakdown of Sunnyside home buyers, circa 1926

Building trades 26
Tradesmen 21
Chauffeurs 8
Store and office employees 39
Housekeepers 3
Factory employees 8
Salesmen 8
Teachers and city clerks 12
Professions 21
Domestic employees  11

Source:  Sunnyside Foundation

The original literature about Sunnyside Gardens managed to evoke socialist ideals while simultaneously stressing individuality and upward mobility.  In the 1920’s, before the respective trainwrecks of the United States economy and the Soviet socialist system, this combination looked to be the formula for a newly authentic American Dream. 

Sunnyside Gardens was portrayed by Richard Ely and others as a scientific laboratory where experiments were being carried out to develop a new product.  If successful, the product was to be replicated not only in New York City, but around the country, even the world. 

This idea that corporate vision could change social conditions now seems a relic of an unusually progressive and prosperous historical moment, when it seemed likely that both the economy and the government might support ongoing experiments. 

Unfortunately, the Depression hit soon after Sunnyside opened.  The first wave of settlers, most of whom were carrying their first mortgages, had great difficulties making their monthly payments, and about half of them lost their homes.

Many Sunnyside Gardeners who had been drawn to the community because of its utopian ideals participated in rent and mortgage strikes against the City Housing Corporation.  Others barricaded their doors against marshals serving foreclosure notices.  Others simply bailed out, and moved elsewhere.

Sunnyside children demonstrate to prevent foreclosure of their parents' mortgages, May 1933

By the mid-thirties it was evident that as an experimental model of a new kind of homeownership for lower income New Yorkers, Sunnyside Gardens was a public failure.  But by then both civic leaders and Sunnyside Gardeners were preoccupied with the basic elements of survival, and no longer thinking in terms of utopian visions. 

By the late 1940’s, those who had survived the lean years, and the newer residents who had moved in to the foreclosed homes, were squarely middle-class.  And the political spirit that had united many Sunnyside Gardeners died down, though many of its residents continued to attract unwanted attention from the government through the McCarthy era and into the 1960’s. 

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