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 5  









Part 5. Sunnyside Today

The history of Sunnyside Gardens illustrates beautifully the path of planning ideology and the planning process through the better part of the twentieth century.  Based on the benevolent, paternalistic assumptions of a few urban theorists with a penchant for liberalism and suburbia, the original development represented a reasonably successful experiment in modernist social engineering.  The progenitors of Sunnyside Gardens did not think about planning in terms of history or community self-empowerment; those interested in buying homes in the neighborhood were simply expected to accept the grand vision forwarded by Stein, Wright, Bing and Mumford, among others.  The act of conforming to the legal, spatial and social constraints imposed through design, covenants and easements defined the community.  Without this framework, enforced from above, the “democratic community” envisioned by the RPAA could not exist.

The decades following the 1920s underscore the difficulties associated with maintaining even the most inspired master vision of community life.  From the rent strikes of the thirties through the social and physical decay of the fifties, Sunnyside Gardeners often willfully forwarded their own interests, or lack of interest, in spite of their utopian environment.  Thus the rampant property alterations of the 1960s were in some sense the pinnacle of a self-interestedness which had always existed.  Additionally, during the 1950s and 1960s the planning process in Sunnyside Gardens, like the planning process in much of the country, stagnated, providing neither the inspiration of utopian models nor the more disjointed catharsis of community-based planning.

The growth of the Sunnyside Foundation during the 1980s and 1990s corresponded to an emerging redefinition of planning, one which prioritized history, community self-determination, and a small-scale, piecemeal, grass-roots approach to neighborhood problems. The Foundation’s emphasis on a community defined by its history and its participation in the planning process created a new set of questions and contradictions, however. It was, after all, Sunnyside Gardens’ lack of history, its separation from the corrupted past of the rest of New York City, which so inspired its designers; the RPAA envisioned Sunnyside Gardens as a forward-looking community, capable of realizing ever-greater levels of democratic cooperation. The notion that the neighborhood would become a static historical monument to planning ideals would have deeply disturbed the progressive minds behind its design.

Community participation in the planning process, furthermore, has not been the panacea envisioned by the advocacy planners of the 1970s. Like virtually any group of neighbors, the residents of Sunnyside Gardens do not represent anything like a consensus. Offering residents the option of participating in the Conservation Easement Program has had only a minor effect on the restoration of common courts. Efforts to protect the historical character of the neighborhood have resulted in epic battles. Even modest rezoning proposals take years to resolve. Perhaps worst of all, the Sunnyside Foundation’s effectiveness as a small, grassroots organization close to its constituency is constantly undermined by its lack of funding. Ironically, the democratization of the planning process seems to have made it even more difficult to realize the community-oriented spaces designed by Stein and Wright.

Mediating between overarching socio-spatial goals and the individual and often individualistic interests of community members presents a daunting task for contemporary planners. In an age which frowns on master plans of any variety, the community planning process increasingly consists of a series of minor battles which cannot hope to address the larger issues. At the same time, however, this kind of planning ensures against many of the minor defeats and major catastrophes wrought by the more confident planners of earlier generations. Sunnyside Gardens illustrates the successes and failures implicit to both methods of planning. It is a neighborhood which continues to represent the difficult aspirations of planners and the frustrating complexities of the planning process.

Sources Consulted

City Housing Corporation.  Block Plan of Third Unit of Sunnyside Gardens.  New York, 1924.

________.  Declaration of Easements and Restrictions.  New York, February 8, 1926.

Havelick, Franklin and Michael Kwartler.  “Sunnyside Gardens: Whose Land Is It Anyway?” New York Affairs, Vol. 7, no. 2 (1982): pp. 65-80.

Kroessler, Jeffrey Andrew.  “Building Queens: The Urbanization of New York’s Largest Borough.”  Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1991.

Lee, Penny.  Personal interview.  March 22, 1996.

Mastopietro, Nancy.  Personal interview.  March 22, 1996.

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

New York City.  City Planning Commission.  Board of Estimate Resolution Adopting Sunnyside Gardens Planned Community Preservation District.  Comprehensive City Planning Calendar of the City of New York.  CP-22502, June 12, 1974.

________.  Resolution to Grant Special Permit to Margaret M. Weiri for Enlargement to Rear of House. Comprehensive City Planning Calendar of the City of New York.  C 910338 ZSQ, November 20, 1991.

________.  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, June 12, 1974.

________.  New York City Zoning Resolution, December 1961 and as Subsequently Amended.  New York, 1995.

New York City.  Department of City Planning.  A Fact Sheet for Sunnyside Gardens Residents.  New York, 1982.

Rappaport, Nina with Steven Saltzman.  “Sunnyside Gardens,” Metropolis, Vol 10, no. 10 (June 1991): pp. 15-19.

The Sunnyside Foundation.  A Decade of Service to the Community: A Brief History of The Sunnyside Foundation for Community Planning and Preservation.  New York, 1995.  

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