The Roar of the 1920s Dies in the Great Depression

                         by Grace Polk

Max Henry Hubacher captured this wonderful scene of the Bliss Street subway station in 1954. Note the newsstand, the skirts, the A-line coats, the hats, the newspapers, the seamed stockings, a wealth of detail here. 

By 1924 the City Housing Corporation had pulled together 70 acres of idle land on which to build their garden dwellings to house 88 families in Sunnyside Gardens, similar to those of England and Belgium. They had been letting the land "ripen" as the landfill settled from the construction of the LIRR. By 1926, 400 families lived in Sunnyside. (For a complete history of the CHC, see the Historic District Designation Report.) Once the houses were finished in Sunnyside Gardens, (five sections were built in 1924-1928,) the Phipps apartments went up on 39th (Middleburg) Avenue.

 

Sunnyside Gardens offered 900 one-, two- and three- family homes, and mortgages were provided by the CHC to young families of modest means. There were co-operative apartments, too, available directly from the CHC. At the time the subway cost five cents, and you could get the IRT at Bliss Street, or ride the number 15 bus into the city. The trolley still ran across the bridge. I remember riding it as a kid. The Second Avenue elevated train crossed Queensborough Bridge and went to Willets Point, stopping at Bliss Street.

In 1925 the Celtic Apartments were built in Woodside "across the boulevard" at 44th Street and 50th Avenue  to appeal to the large Irish population. The neighborhood was predominantly Irish (our next door neighbors must've been pioneers; Mr Clancy was an Irish policeman). 

The Celtic Apartments stand quite alone, with moving truck and early automobiles bringing class to the south side of "the boulevard."

The developers of Sunnyside Gardens had an appreciation of a healthy lifestyle, and hence the value of green space; many of the people who moved there came from cramped apartments, in dark, airless tenement buildings. As refugees, my parents first lived in shared apartments with other families, along with their cooking smells and shouting matches, until the day my mother found an apartment for rent on 44th Street in a multi-family Gardens house. It was there that I came into the world. Sunnyside was referred to as the "maternity ward of Greenwich Village" in the 1940's.

My mother rejoiced in the greenery, and pushed my baby carriage to the private park faithfully. The wading pool offered toddlers a relief in the summer months. Families shared the basics of gardening as they planted flowers and shrubs in front and behind their homes. The central landscaped commons were a distinct feature of the Gardens, as were the London plane tree-lined streets. The back porch was the main door for kids running in and out to play. Parents who came from the dank Lower East Side tenements rejoiced in the cross ventilation of fresh air, and the hum of crickets in the summer. 

The Sunnyside Gardens Arena replaced the tennis courts of Jay Gould, after the roaring 20's subsided, and stood at Queens Blvd and 44th Street until 1977. The arena was part of the big league prize fighting circuit and was built by a pair of boxing and wrestler match promoters in 1945. It was a mecca for fight fans. It closed down with the growth of television and waning interest in boxing as a professional sport. It was the site of campaign stops by JFK during 1960, and RFK during his 1964 Senate race, as it could hold the big crowds.

The Great Depression had a grave impact on the young families in Sunnyside Gardens. Many lost their jobs, and were unable to pay their mortgages. They staged "rent strikes" and barricaded themselves behind barbed wire. Marshals removed people's furniture, and foreclosed on their homes. People were evicted, and their homes reverted to the CHC. Eventually, more than 60% of the homes were foreclosed and the City Housing Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1934.The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the US held the mortgages on the CHC properties. When my family moved to Sunnyside, and bought their Bliss Street house on July 1, 1944, we got our mortgage from them. The previous owner had bought the brand-new house in 1926.

In the 30's and 40's many Sunnyside families responded to the collapse of American capitalism by turning to socialism or communism as a solution. The men went off to war. They served in Europe and the Pacific. They were early opposers of fascism, and became unionizers. They held regular meetings and study groups which were announced in the Sunnyside News. The Daily Worker was sold alongside the Long Island Star Journal and the Herald Tribune at the newsstand. Paul Crosby, a Communist candidate for mayor and then Congress, lived in Sunnyside. The American Labor Party had its headquarters there in the 40's.

Many of my classmates came from Jewish families who banded together as their friends were fired from their jobs in the McCarthy era. I remember the shock of seeing the picture of a schoolmate's father posted in the Post Office: he was one of the top twelve wanted Communists, and eventually was caught and jailed, while my friend moved away from Bliss Street, never to be heard from again.

Mine was a quiet family of misfits: we were Protestant, my parents spoke with German accents, and we kept to ourselves. We were uncomfortable in the swirling political atmosphere. We patronized a delicious German delicatessen, where the dense rye bread was just like it was back in Europe. The salads and cold cuts, smoked meats and sausages made my grandfather very happy. My mother's dancing school prospered. New people moved into the neighborhood as Communists moved out to build houses in the suburbs. People had more cars, and our two-way street became one-way. Children still felt safe playing outdoors and riding the subway without an adult. Babies were booming. 

My research into demographics substantiates what I remember from PS 150 (built in 1931) days. When we walked to school (without our parents), the only blacks we saw were the housekeepers and Mrs. Armstrong, my beloved third and fourth grade teacher. Letters to parents were in English. Even the new immigrants had to learn English to figure out what our report cards meant by “needs improvement!”

Mrs Armstrong's 3-2 stands for its portrait on the steps of PS 150

In 1924, the CHC reported constructing dwellings to house 88 families. By 1926, 400 families were living in Sunnyside Gardens. Americans, German immigrants, Jews and Irish Catholics constituted the majority of the population. The number of homes in the Gardens grew to 900.

By 1937 the population of Sunnyside was 31,308, of which 5,000 dwelled in Sunnyside Gardens, a “better class of business people,” the newspaper reported. In 1971 Sunnyside was reported to have Colombians, Puerto Ricans and some blacks. The blue collar population was settling “across the boulevard” in rental apartments, and instances of drug traffic in heroin were reported on 48th Avenue between 44 and 48th Street, and at the park along Greenpoint and 43rd Street. Parents of children at JHS 125 were anxious.

 

By 1989 a middle class population included Korean, Taiwanese, Ecuadorians, Chinese and Indians as well. Letters to parents now were translated into seven or eight languages by the multilingual staff at PS 150.

 

In 2009 Turkish, Lebanese, Mexican, Rumanian and Pakistanis were recorded. Today the Turkish markets have replaced the German delicatessens of my childhood; there is even a social center for the Turkish community. Queens is today our Ellis Island, processing the incoming populations from all over the world at JFK Airport, and sending them to out to further change the complexion of our diverse neighborhood.

Copyright © 2017 Grace Polk.  

All Rights Reserved.