History of Sunnyside

history-sunnyside

The neighborhood of Sunnyside is located in Queens County, just a few minutes from the Queensborough Bridge and the Queens Midtown Tunnel. More cars pass through the commercial district of Queens Boulevard (one of Sunnyside’s restaurant rows) each day than most neighborhoods see in a normal week. Located between the long-established communities of the Blissville, Long Island City, and Woodside, Sunnyside’s unique location makes it easily accessible to Manhattan, as it is only 17 minutes by train to Grand Central Station or the Empire State Building. Sunnyside is convenient, centrally located, and a great place to live, as long-time residents are quick to attest.

Sunnyside is situated in northwestern Queens, within Long Island City. It is bounded to the north by the Sunnyside Yards, to the east by Calvary Cemetery and 51st Street, to the south by the Long Island Expressway, and to the west by Van Dam Street.

It is believed that Sunnyside got its name in 1850 when a railroad station was built across from the Sunnyside Roadhouse Hotel on Jackson Avenue to accommodate visitors of the Fashion Race Course in Corona. Shortly thereafter, a small hamlet was established between Northern and Queens Boulevards, which became known as Sunnyside.

Most of the land was low-lying, and therefore cheap; from 1902 to 1905 the Pennsylvania Railroad gradually purchased all the land south of Northern Boulevard between 21st and 43rd Streets. The entire area was leveled; the swamps were filled in by 1908; and the new Sunnyside Rail Yards opened in 1910. Even today, a persistent gardener digging deep will find the odd rail car part or railroad tie segment.

The Queensborough Bridge opened in 1909, and from it extended the new Queens Boulevard, which ran to the center of the borough. The Boulevard passes directly through Sunnyside, where streets were established along the busy thoroughfare. Convenient rail services and bridge accessibility to Manhattan lead to the creation of Sunnyside Gardens between1924 and 1929.

This complex, consisting of apartment building and attached two and a half story houses, each with basements and attics, front and rear gardens, and a landscaped central court, was one of the nation’s very first planned communities. Hailed for its innovative design by such scholars as Lewis Mumford, the area is a subject of study among architecture students worldwide. (Mumford was also a former Sunnyside resident whose name gives a secondary street designation to Skillman Avenue’s intersection at 46th Bliss Street, and for whom a commemorative plaque has been established at his former residence on 44th Street.)

During the years following its formation, the neighborhood quickly became middle class, with primarily German, Irish, Czech, Dutch and other European immigrants among the first groups to establish themselves in Sunnyside. However, as the neighborhood became more suburban, those who grew up in Sunnyside commonly moved to Long Island and upstate New York in search of rural areas reminiscent of the neighborhood’s more pastoral days. During the 1940s and 1950s, Sunnyside’s large apartments enticed artists, writers, and their families to leave their cramped quarters in lower Manhattan, and the neighborhood became known as the “maternity ward of Greenwich Village.”

Some saw the neighborhood as a communist hotbed, with Manhattan’s private, progressive “Little Red Schoolhouse” a popular elementary school choice among Sunnyside residents. During the 1980s, Sunnyside attracted immigrants from Korea, Colombia, Romania, and China, though fewer settled in Sunnyside as compared to the surrounding neighborhoods in  northeastern Queens.

After several years of hotly-contested debates among residents, Sunnyside Gardens was designated with Landmark status in 2008 by the NYC Landmark Preservation. Advocates against Landmark status claimed that such a designation would gentrify its once low-income housing—and would fundamentally go against the original ethos of its foundation. Residents in support of Landmark Status, the majority, claimed that legal sanctions were necessary to protect the historic character of the neighborhood from rapid urban development initiatives. Time eased the tensions around this issue, and the value of real estate sales in Sunnyside Gardens remained above that of other areas of New York City which experienced recessions.

Today, Sunnyside continues to thrive, and the diversity of its residents meaning the best food in Queens.  Our many churches surprise many visitors. The neighborhood remains vibrant example of a peaceful multicultural community ideal, with strong representations from Turkish, Romanian, South and Central American, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Irish, young singles and families priced out of Brooklyn and Manhattan, or as we call them, the “other boroughs,” and white working class families here since mid-century.

The Chamber hopes one day to have a local museum to showcase the multitude of photographs and items we own or are available to us. Preserving the history of Sunnyside is very important to our identity as a community today. If you have any old photographs taken in Sunnyside, please contact us at SunnysideChamberofCommerce@gmail.com. Our historical archive will be posted again soon, started and curated by the late Luke Adams, in his “Good Old Days.” We have access to the wedding dress of the daughter of Neziah Bliss, and the boxing bell of the former “Sunnyside Garden” sports arena. 

In particular, the Chamber is seeking documentation of historical moments and landmarks such as: John F. Kennedy’s appearance at the Sunnyside Garden Arena; Mayor Jimmy J. Walker at the opening of the Sunnyside Gardens Park on May 18, 1926; the Gleason Centennial Hotel; the Miller Hotel; the Sunnyside Pool; The Sunnyside Theatre; The 43rd St. Theater; the Knickerbocker Laundry Building; Edelbohls Animal Farm, and more. If there are family members in the photographs, so much the better—we welcome all submissions, whether they be scans or photo donations.

Our area boasts a wealth of wonderful historians who we thank for keeping our heritage alive for generations.