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


  A Thoroughly Conscious and Workable Community - Part 3  

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Part 3. Sunnyside Gardens Today

Place in History's display on the history of Sunnyside Gardens, at the Skillman Avenue street fair, Summer 2000

So what is left of Sunnyside Gardens?  Well, after three-quarters of a century, much of the original plan is still visible. The architectural elements that were a part of the initial package have stood the test of time, though changes have been made to the original buildings. The courtyard structure still survives, and most (though not all) of the courts still have a combination of shared and private space.  Some of them have thriving associations and related clean-up days and social events.  Sunnyside Park, which was reserved by the initial design for the exclusive use of Sunnyside Gardens residents, continues to be a popular spot for recreation, especially for families with younger children.  And many of the original trees are now mature and loom majestically over their emerald courts—though just in the past two years several have been lost to the Asian long-horned beetle.

Sunnyside Gardens has survived not only as a chapter in planning textbooks, but also as a neighborhood in 21st century New York.  The collaborators from Place in History, a non-profit organization that sponsors projects about the complex histories underlying everyday urban places, decided to look more closely at Sunnyside’s past and present as a historically significant planned community.  With the help of Dorothy Morehead, Director of the Sunnyside Foundation, Paul Parkhill, Katherine Gray, Molly Turner, and Tina Chiu thumbed through boxes of old photographs, programs, letters, journals, and newspaper articles.  We interviewed several residents, some of whom had lived at the Gardens through much of its history.  Then we put together an installation on a Skillman Avenue kiosk, in the heart of the community, on the morning of the annual September street fair. 

The kiosk display included quotes from our interviews, blown-up photographs, old newspaper clips, and miscellaneous fragments of the past, including, maps and plans, social programs, and letters.  The display was organized around three different themes.  “The Home Ideal Versus Reality” chronicled the different obstacles and conflicts that had eaten away at the original vision of Sunnyside Gardens’ designers throughout its history.  “A Radical Community” examined the socialist leanings of both the developments’ planners and its residents through the years. “A ‘Social Laboratory’?” displayed artifacts of some of the theoretical models that had been applied to Sunnyside Gardens, along with other items that showed how those models might have looked in practice.

As local residents wandered past and read around the kiosk, we asked them what they knew about Sunnyside Gardens.  Many of those who stopped were residents of the Gardens, and we conducted an additional series of interviews and asked people for their reactions to our installation.

Most locals we talked with felt that Sunnyside Gardens was a special neighborhood, that was different from the rest of the Sunnyside community.  Its tree-lined streets and uniform architecture marked it clearly as a unified development, and its extra open space made it seem special, perhaps exclusive.  One resident remembered growing up outside of the Gardens:  “They had a private park.  When I was a kid—and I resented this--you had to belong to Sunnyside Gardens, and I was just on the borderline.  So I couldn’t get in there…I says, they’re a bunch of snobs, which they were”  (Modica, 2000).  Like others we spoke to who had grown up in the neighborhood but not in Sunnyside Gardens, he eventually “moved up” to living in the Gardens. 

Several of the people we met at the street fair had moved into the community in the last few years.  Some of them felt that it was a wonderfully friendly and active community, where neighbors looked after one another’s children, and where different generations and, to some extent, different ethnic groups and cultures coexisted in harmony.  Others found the shared open spaces to be over-bureaucratized, expensive, and badly managed.  Several people had found the houses to be a good bargain and weren’t interested in the other benefits of the community.

Residents did not agree on whether or not Sunnyside Gardens had succeeded as a planned community, but they did all have some sense of what the original plan had been, and how it had been altered in recent decades.  Original easements that prevented homeowners from adding on to their houses, enclosing their porches, cutting their curbs, or fencing in their yards ran out in the early 1960’s.  Although some residents took preventive action and  tried to extend the easements starting in the fifties, many other homeowners took immediate advantage of the lapsed regulations and renovated or altered their properties, sometimes radically.   Immediately preservationists began to band together to try and protect the initial plan for the development.  By 1974 the New York City Planning Commission had rezoned the community as a preservation district, and put an end to the alterations.  But those that had been made were allowed to remain.

Such tensions are common to historic neighborhoods, but they have a distinctive twist in Sunnyside Gardens since a major goal of the preservationists has been to preserve the shared common space, and revive the court associations.  For many contemporary urban residents, open space is either a public park run by government, or a private yard that is free of government regulation.  The public/private nature of Sunnyside Gardens is baffling to many residents, and consequently less governable.  Several long-term residents spoke regretfully of  having to lock the gates of courtyards to keep out roving teenagers with boomboxes, thus closing the public right of way.  They tended to agree that the courtyards’ primary value was aesthetic, and that aside from landscape maintenance, done in many cases by the residents, they should be quiet sanctuaries. “I think it’s more for a visual effect; you’re allowed to walk around the perimeter but you can’t have the kids running all over it because it would destroy it.”  Some younger residents, however, wanted their small children to be able to play in the courtyards, or to sunbathe, or have barbecues there.  People on both sides agreed that many new residents moved in without understanding either the rules or their history.

The original plan of the Gardens incorporated community organizing and activism into its architectural design.  The common courtyards were to be the foundations for what urban planner and Sunnyside Gardens resident Lewis Mumford later described as “a robust political life, with effective collective action and a sense of renewed public responsibility” (Mumford 1938 p. 484)  “Stein and Wright wanted to create a place where a democratic community could flourish, with the courts as the focus of neighborly activities and the park serving as the communitywide social center.”  (Havelick and Kwartler 1982, p. 69).  Their ideas echoed public park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who believed that city dwellers must be guaranteed access to open space, fresh air, and some kind of natural sanctuary from concrete and urban bustle.  This guarantee would lead to improvements in the individual human spirit, which in turn would lead to increased productivity and a lower crime rate.

Stein and Wright carried Olmsted’s ideas one step further.  Their vision for Sunnyside Gardens reflected their belief that guaranteed open space and pleasing buildings, offered to a socially and economically diverse collection of urban dwellers, would diminish differences in income, education, and culture, and in turn lead to improved community morale and the possibility for collective action. In a 1933 article, Wright noted that the relations between homeowners and renters in Sunnyside Gardens had posed a challenge to the overall sense of community, but that this challenge would strengthen the activist spirit in the long run.

It is clear from documentary and oral histories that the community was indeed “workable” at different points in its history, if not quite in the way its founders had intended.  In the 1930’s residents banded together against the City Housing Corporation to participate in the rent strike, and to prevent evictions.  Bea Badian remembers that activist spirit of the thirties lasting throughout the war years, particular among women who depended on the community for help as their husbands were overseas and they themselves had joined the workforce.  She tells a story of a group of working women who organized to eject a school principal because he insisted on sending the children home for lunch even though their mothers weren’t there to receive them.  

There is less evidence, however, to suggest that the physical layout and planning of the Sunnyside Gardens community had any direct link to the “consciousness” of the community.  The overall consensus that arose from conversations with residents was that Sunnyside Gardens had experienced similar ebbs and flows to other New York City neighborhoods. Many early residents were left-leaning, and as a result of that as well as the currents of the times, Sunnyside Gardens had an activist bent in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Most current residents stated that the Gardens’ carefully designed buildings, plentiful trees, and well-maintained open space enhanced their lives, and sometimes made for better neighbors.  However, they didn’t seem to think that the design of Sunnyside Gardens possessed intrinsic community-building qualities.  And many evoked the conflicts over the community’s easements and restrictions that raged during the 1950’s and 60’s, as those easements ran out, as evidence that the design elements of the Gardens did not lead to any kind of consensus.

As planned communities grow and mature, they become more less planned and more like other neighborhoods—collections of people living in close proximity.  The original design fades, deteriorates, and gets painted over, and the original residents who moved there for ideological reasons grow old or move away.  How does such a community in an urban setting perpetuate its own identity, if at all?

Second-generation Sunnyside resident Jerry Modica shares a photo of his father at work in the family grocery

To a certain extent all urban neighborhoods are subject to periodic reinvention as a result of patterns of homeownership, the rises and falls of the real estate market and the local economy, and trends in lifestyle and labor.  Sunnyside Gardens, like any other urban neighborhood, has slipped in and out of favor.  But one sign of a real “neighborhood” is multi-generational loyalty.  And we found many Sunnyside Gardeners who had grown up there and moved back, or bought in when they’d reached home-buying age. 

Another clue to a cohesive neighborhood is well-groomed houses and yards, and neighbors who share a pride in the taking care of their environment.  One striking feature of our interviews with Sunnyside Gardens residents was the frequency with which certain community leaders or long-term residents’ names would arise in conversations, showing that many residents knew, or knew of, one another.  They were in most cases cognizant of efforts to preserve the neighborhood, even if they were uninvolved, or opposed to some of the methods used in preservation.

Since Alexis de Tocqueville published his travel observations about the United States in the nineteenth century, it has been a truism that Americans create and reinforce community life through the formation of civic associations.  Sunnyside Gardens was designed to hang together around court associations overseen by a five-member board of trustees. That original decision-making structure has evolved through the neighborhood’s changes into a more splintered system of court associations and the independent, preservation-oriented Sunnyside Foundation.  Over the years the associations have generated their own documentary history and archives, which work to define Sunnyside Gardens and distinguish it from the larger Sunnyside neighborhood.  The neighborhood has been further defined by Sunnyside Gardens’ legal status as a preservation district, and projects such as the Place in History research and interviews reinforce the idea that the neighborhood and its past contain special meaning.

In the context of Sunnyside Gardens’ history, Stein and Wright’s intent to create a neighborhood that facilitates organizing and exchange amongst residents has been successful, but with different causes and effects than they had foreseen.  The physical design has often been a source of discord rather than a site for consensus.  However, it has been enjoyed and appreciated by most residents, and has given them incentive to become involved in the neighborhood issues.  It seems fair to assume that with sustained public attention (such as this project) Sunnyside Gardens will continue to develop its sense of place and history.  This in turn will continue to fuel an organizing spirit as Sunnyside Gardens faces new obstacles and challenges.


Sources

Badian, Bea (2000).  Personal Interview with Molly Turner, May 26.

Badian, Bea (2000a).  Personal Interview with Paul Parkhill, July 19.

City Housing Corporation promotional pamphlets:  “Good Homes and Good Citizenship”; “Sunnyside and the Housing Problem”; “Garden Homes”; “Low Priced Garden Homes Next Door to Manhattan”; “Ask us Another!.”

Churchill, Henry (1936)  Henry Wright: 1878-1936.  Journal of the American Institute of Planners

Ely, Richard (1926) The City Housing Corporation and “Sunnyside” in Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics April: 172-185.

Friederick, Anton (1933)  Case History of a Community of Mortgaged Home-owners.  In Survey Graphic 22:311-312, June.

Havelick, Franklin and Michael Kwartler (1982).  Sunnyside Gardens:  Whose Land Is It Anyway?  New York Affairs, 7(2): 65-80.

Modica, Jerry (2000).  Personal Interview with Paul Parkhill, May 18.

Mumford, Lewis (1938)  The Culture of Cities.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Shacker, Maxine (2000)  Personal Interview with Paul Parkhill, May 21.

Wright, Henry (1926)  Home Ideal Versus Reality.  In American Federationist 33:65-69, January.

Wright, Henry (1933)  Housing—Where, when, and how?  Part I, in Architecture, July 1933:1-32.

Wright, Henry (1933a) Housing—Why, when, and how?  Part II, in Architecture, August 1933: 79-110.


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