Sunnyside Gardens provides "oasis" in Queens

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Columbia University on November 12, 2000.

The stately tree in the midst of the old brick buildings reluctantly surrendered to autumn, holding on to a few orange leaves while sending their brown brethren to the ground below.

Most of the other vegetation has already capitulated, leaving the maze of gardens a little less colorful than it might be otherwise. But the coming of winter can't disguise the verdant beauty of Sunnyside Gardens, a celebrated and historic group of residences on the edge of Queens.

"It's an oasis," said Dante Bietto, a Sunnyside Garden resident who bought a two-bedroom apartment in the row of brick behemoths almost half a century ago. "It's a good place to have a life. No one wants to leave here, it has such an ambiance."

Bietto paid $17,000 for his "oasis" residence in the days after World War II, seeking a home close to the bustle of Manhattan that was still a good place to raise a family.

"I grew up on the other side of (Queens) Boulevard," he said. "We'd roller-skate here when I was a kid. I wanted my kids to have that."

Such a quest has drawn hundreds of residents to the Gardens, a mixture of brick apartments, row houses and green spaces designed in a fit of utopian fervor early this century. The neighborhood has now become one of the more sought-after areas in this part of the city, with vacancies snapped up within days.

Sunnyside Gardens takes up 16 city blocks, squeezing 600 two-story row houses, nine apartment buildings and a conglomeration of parking facilities, gardens and day care facilities onto its 77 acres Almost three quarters of the land is open space, devoted to trees, flowers and park benches.

Around 1925, philanthropist Alexander M. Bing funded the City Housing Corp., a private development group that built the gardens. He hired Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright, famed architects of the time, who modeled the new development after Welwyn Gardens, a garden city north of London, England.

Created in the mid-1920s, the Manhattan suburb went through a decline in the 1960s as original residents and post-war renters headed for more affluent suburbs. In addition, efforts to keep the historic character of the area intact met resistance in this period, provoking neighborhood fights over curb cuts and picket fences.

Deed restrictions tied to the original construction expired in the mid-1960s, opening the doors for changes "inconsistent with the historic quality of the community."

"Changes were being made which detracted from the original Garden City plan," explains a publication of the Sunnyside Foundation, an organization formed to protect the area's history. The foundation pressured the revived City Housing Corp. to place new restrictions on the properties and began revitalizing the area by planting new trees, cleaning up the community park and getting street signs installed.

Peter Straus' house at 39-01 44th St. has seen the changes in the neighborhood, moving from being a victim of the Depression to its current status as a highly prized corner lot.

Straus and Francis Grill bought the two-story row house in 1970 with the help of a $50,000 mortgage. In 1988, Grill moved to another house in the complex, with Straus taking out a $15,000 mortgage to purchase her share.

Straus, who now lives in Connecticut, is renting out the property.

Straus was the third owner of the corner house since the post-war period, when Samuel and Sadie Rubin bought the building from the North Kew Garden Development Company in 1953 with a $2,300 mortgage. The development company has bought several of the Garden buildings earlier in the year from the Dime Savings Bank, which had picked up the properties when a number of owners went bankrupt during the Great Depression.

The Rubins sold their house to Limberto and Nilda Martinez on Aug. 31, 1967, with the new owners taking out a $25,000 mortgage to help pay for it. The Martinezes sold the building to Straus three years later.

The property is now appraised at $271,000, a valuation that jumped from $249,000 last year.

The increase in the Garden's value began in the late 1970s, when some community activists began burnishing its image. Eventually, the complex gained a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and saw a new sense of community develop.

"I think it's a great place to live," said Dorothy Morehead, a Realtor and past president of the Sunnyside Foundation. "The people come together as a neighborhood -- which is what it was designed for."

The neighborhood continues to live up to its design as a social experiment, urban planners said. "It was simple physical planning -- the kind of humane, paternalistic, thoughtful layout that dealt clearly and primarily with a better way to live," the New York Times' architectural critic wrote at the time. "Move people to a better place, was the credo, and you will have a better world."

Most residents, though, said they weren't looking for a better world -- just a place to call home. They were drawn to the Gardens because of its closeness to the city, its quiet streets and its cozy nature.

Joan Chute, for example, lived around the corner in a more traditional apartment until two years ago, when her husband died. "I wanted something smaller, something cozier," she said. "I didn't want a handyman special, but I was looking for something charming."

The row house she found met her needs well. "I liked the idea of the history," she said. "It wasn't the main selling point -- I was more concerned with the shape it was in -- but I liked knowing it was there."

Chute paid around $200,000 for her place, which she said is now assessed at $270,000.

The rising value makes Chute happy, but she said that's not the best part of living in the Gardens. It's the people.

"I know my neighbors. I know the neighborhood," she said. "My friends live in other apartments around here. This feels like home."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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