Twelve years ago Nancy Mastopietro returned to live in the house where she was born in 1928, in a Queens community that has stayed pretty much the way it was 70 years ago.
Mastopietro lives in Sunnyside Gardens, one of Long Island's earliest Utopian communities and the jewel of the larger Sunnyside area. The project began in 1924 on 77 acres excessed from the construction of the Long Island Rail Road's Sunnyside Trainyards. The object at the time was to provide affordable housing -- with open space, light and sunshine -- for working families who were crowded into cold-water flats in congested city neighborhoods.
Mastopietro's parents, James and Elsie Stewart, were the kind of people philanthropist Alexander M. Bing probably had in mind when he founded the City Housing Corp., the private social-policy housing development group that built Sunnyside Gardens, which is a portion of the Sunnyside community in northeast Queens. James Stewart was a chauffeur who had immigrated to New York City from Scotland and Elsie had been a nursemaid in England. The Stewarts were living among other immigrants in a railroad flat in Manhattan when they learned through a newspaper ad about Sunnyside Gardens.
They bought an attached two-story single-family brick house for $9,500 in 1927 and settled into Lincoln Court. (Each court was named for a president.) Terms were easy: A $1,000 or $2,000 down payment bought into this new lifestyle. Mortgage payments averaged $10 a month per room.Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright, famed architects of their day, modeled the neighborhood after Welwyn Gardens, one of England's garden cities. One-, two- and three-family homes were built around communal courtyards while a three-acre park was shared by all. For Nancy, an only child, it provided an idyllic childhood. ``I had my own small playground; I always felt safe here. I still feel safe walking around these familiar places,'' she says.
Sunnyside was originally the name of the hilltop farm of Richard Bragaw, an American Patriot who was imprisoned by the British. When a railroad station was built in 1875, it was given that name. During the next two decades, many of the farms in the vicinity were subdivided into building lots. The area, then known as Blissville, was part of Long Island City when it became a city in 1870 and joined New York City in 1898. Another nearby section was known as Celtic Park because of its large Irish population.
In 1907 the Pennsylvania Railroad, which then owned the LIRR, purchased a large hilly section for its trainyard. Workers leveled the hill to an elevation of 50 feet above the tide, and filled in 250 acres of swamp. The excess land was later acquired by the City Housing Corp. for construction of a model community. Sunnyside Gardens, begun in an age of Utopian idealism, has survived largely intact, thanks to solid brick construction and the vigilance of residents.
Still, the neighborhood has had its ups and downs. The first shock waves came with the Depression. More than 200 homes were foreclosed, and the City Housing Corp. went bankrupt in 1934. Sunnyside Gardens recovered in the 1940s and continued growing, with young families replacing the original homesteaders. But in the 1960s, when the 40-year deed restrictions expired, bitter disputes arose over residents' plans to cut away curbs and build driveways and private fences. To protect the development's original characteristics, the city declared it a Planned Community Preservation District in 1974.
Residents formed their own preservation group, the Sunnyside Foundation for Community Planning and Preservation, now headed by Dorothy Morehead. In 1984, after a long campaign, she said, the area (including the neighboring Phipps Garden Apartments) was designated a national historic district.
Other innovative housing projects bloomed in Sunnyside and nearby Woodside over the years, including the Metropolitan Life Houses, now called Cosmopolitan. Originally peopled by German, Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, Sunnyside has more recently attracted Latin Americans and Asian-Americans. The old Knickerbocker Laundry, a relic of Sunnyside's industrial past, has been purchased by the New York Presbyterian Church, which has a large Korean congregation.
Over the years Sunnyside has produced a wealth of talent, including entertainers Ethel Merman, Perry Como, Nancy Walker, Judy Holliday, James Caan and Rudy Vallee; artist Raphael Soyer, and writers and social activists such as Lewis Mumford, Mark Starr and A.H. Raskin.
Where to Find More: ``Small Town in the Big City: A History of Sunnyside and Woodside,'' by Pam Byers, in the Sunnyside and Woodside branch libraries and the Queens Borough Central Library, Jamaica.