Growing up in the Bronx and eastern Queens I’d never even heard of Sunnyside. But when my parents decided to retire and move to Florida, I needed a new place to call home. I wanted to find a neighborhood like the one I enjoyed as a kid in the Bronx. One where you knew your neighbors, felt relatively safe and the shopkeepers greeted you when you walked in. And I definitely needed a place that had the corner candy store that sold newspapers and made a great egg cream soda.
It was 1975 and I was working in the city and became friendly with a young co-worker. Stephanie lived in a place called Sunnyside with her family. She invited me to her home for Christmas Eve, and little did I know how that visit would alter the course of my life for the next 35 years and counting. She found me an apartment above her older sister, Carol. The price was right, and it was nice and big, even though the kitchen was in the living room. But it was clean, sunny and mine.
After many years, I decided to try other places out for size. I went to the Village (unaffordable without roommates) and Los Angeles (unlivable for a true New Yorker). I was so homesick living in LA that after six months, I literally started having dreams of NYC intersections, like Broadway and 86th St., Bleecker and Houston or 59th and Lex. Driving on LA freeways was worse than being on a crowded Flushing train and a lot more dangerous.
Maybe it is in my genes to live in New York. After all, my great grandparents struggled to get here from Poland in the early 1900s (thank God). Something was driving me back here, and particularly to this little neighborhood just over the Queensboro Bridge.
Sunnyside was a bit gritty at the time like the rest of New York City, but not terrible, and certainly affordable for a single working girl like myself. There was the usual graffiti, but also the corner candy store with my cherished egg cream sodas and newspapers. The people who lived here in Sunnyside were mainly Italians, Germans, Poles and Latinos. Our restaurants were either Chinese or Italian: take your pick. Oh! And lots of great Irish pubs. Luckily, that hasn’t changed much.
People refer to Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx as outer boroughs. That phrase makes my skin crawl — it sounds like Outer Mongolia. And forget about Staten Island — now that’s what we should call an outer borough! I mean you have to take a ferry to get there for heaven’s sake.
I used to come home to Sunnyside from work, change clothes, and hop right back on the train or bus and in 15 to 20 minutes, I was enjoying an evening out with friends in Manhattan. I used to walk into the city in under an hour and enjoy that breathtaking skyline along the way, one of the most beautiful sights in the world (in my “unbiased” opinion).
However, people change as they get older and so did I. Sunnyside has changed with me as well. There’s nothing that matches the energy of Manhattan — it’s exhilarating — but at a certain age, after spending 8 to 10 hours of working and commuting the body and soul yearn to relax and unwind at the end of the day. Stepping off the 7 Flushing train in Sunnyside, I can almost sense the communal sigh of relief from the passengers. It’s like one big exhale.
The neighborhood has gotten a little cooler, more citified and cultural diversity has moved in. Apartments have become co-ops. Nannies and their young charges stroll the streets. Different restaurants have opened up. An old bar has become a beautiful restaurant serving French food geared towards the American palate. A mom and pop drug store has become a wine bar. A bodega blossomed into a café. Suddenly we have plenty to choose from. There is Thai food, Indian and Turkish cuisine and coffee bars and Soho-type eateries with names like “Quaint,” “Bliss,” or “Aubergine.”
A little pizza place named Donato’s transformed into a great Italian restaurant with home-made wine and outdoor seating in the spring and summer. Even Starbucks has arrived for the latte generation.
When the holidays roll around one may find the perfect gift at April Glass or Stray. There is no need to fight the crowds in the city anymore. And in September, we have our own film festival that brings a crowd from across NYC to see shorts from all over the world. Some residents have formed a successful graffiti clean-up organization, and one young dad started a Sunnyside Yahoo group while a couple of moms began a Sunny Moms blog. The little things count.
Sunnyside Gardens has been officially baptized a historical landmark district and the neighborhood seniors have their own beautiful center — right next to New York Sports Club!
Why would I want to live anywhere else? It’s all here in my little town. Don’t worry, visitors are always welcome.
Sherry Gamlin is the office manager at Sunnyside Community Services.