From Sunnyside to Mexico
by Emily (Drucker) Collins
I was born in 1940 and lived in Sunnyside until 1952. My family, the
Druckers --- Emmy, Susan, Esther and David --- lived at 39-27 49th Street, between Skillman and 39th Avenue. The Lapiners lived two doors down and the Strauses lived three doors down. Jane Lapiner and I were “playpen mates” and remain close friends today. The Foners (my friend Lidgie, Laura, Phil and Roz) lived across the street. The Skalas lived a few more houses down the block. The Swinburnes and Hellers around the corner on 39th Avenue. My parents close friends included the Swinburnes, Starobins, Breineses, the Kesselmans, Fritzi
Gerden, Ruth Rubin and others.
I used to walk to school, PS 150, first with my sister and later on with Arthur Zelman from 48th Street. Phyllis Baron from 47th Street was my other close friend. Emily Starr and Janet Mayerson were also friends from 47th Street. Ann Scherel became a good friend in junior high school.
A few memories include: At PS 150, my kindergarten teacher Lillian Kessel (who was my mother’s dear friend and suggested she name me Emily), Mrs. Russek in 5th grade or was it 6th? At JHS 125 was Miss Ahearn in 7th grade who married a man named Drucker and became Mrs. Drucker during my year with her. (see class photo). I remember walking to school with Artie who was dear and funny, having crushes on my friend Phyllis’ older brother Michael Baron, and also a big crush on Allen Rosenshine who I thought was very smart and handsome.
My parents moved to Sunnyside in the 30s, perhaps when my sister was born, and my father told us with some pride that it was the first planned community in America.
My father David was a lawyer, counsel for the Soviet trading corporation Amtorg throughout the 1930s. After the war, he founded a company called the Chinese American Import Export Corp. with a friend named Frederick Vanderbilt Field. Field was a sinologist, (and a Vanderbilt) and David attempted to set up trade by visiting China for several months in 1949-1950. The Korean War began during this time. On his second visit to China in 1951, when he reached Hong Kong, his passport was taken away by the U.S. State Department and not returned until 1973. Returning to Sunnyside from that trip, he was harassed by
the FBI, i.e., followed around, neighbors questioned, which led him to decide in 1952 to move our family to Mexico until the McCarthy fever subsided. We sold our house and drove the Studebaker to Mexico City, our cat and my mother’s guitar with us in the back seat. My sister had just graduated from Music and Art (in art), and I was halfway through JHS 125.
When we quite suddenly (for me) moved ourselves to Mexico I was 12
years old - a transitional age for most kids anyway. Once in Mexico City, I was suddenly confronted with another culture, language, and visible poverty of a kind I had never imagined. That was particularly upsetting to me since coming from the security and familiarity of Sunnyside and the NYC I knew - extended family, walking to school, neighborhood playmates, ballet and piano classes, summers at camp or in the country. We had lived a comfortable middle class life and now
I was seeing the “real world”. That first shock still stays with me. We were fortunate to meet a group of American expats who were also refugees from McCarthyism - Hollywood writers and others with whom my family became friends during those first years. Still, since I attended the American High School and many of the kids there had parents who worked for the State Department, or big corporations, I did find myself feeling like a little New York Jewish girl with no one to relate to. It took a few more years to fit it and find real friends. Also I was so much younger than the average 14 year old freshman since I came from the SP program at JHS 125 and was pushed ahead to high school once we arrived. So, in my mind and my feelings Sunnyside still represented real home to me for a long time after leaving.
My parents remained in Mexico DF for 24 years. My sister and I moved on. Susan became an anthropologist attending the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico DF for five years and received her MA, then on to Cambridge University for her PhD. She married there and has lived in Cambridge England for the past 55 years, has three children and many grandchildren. She also edited the Cambridge Anthropology Journal for 25 years and is now retired.
I went to high school in Mexico DF, then on to the University of Wisconsin, UC Berkeley and eventually returned to New York. I first worked for the Board of Ed as a Spanish speaking auxiliary teacher. I married, then I worked as coordinator of two parent cooperative daycare centers when our children were young. I got an MA from NYU’s Performance Studies Department and worked in dance and theater production for several years. Later I cared for my parents who
returned from Mexico in their 70s and lived into their 90s.
When we lived in Sunnyside, my mother Esther had been a third grade
teacher at PS 150 for many years. She was also the school music teacher and a folk singer. For a year she was the “Singing Lady” on WNYC radio on Saturday mornings. I believe she arranged for the Weavers to perform at PS 150 sometime around 1948. She was a founding member of the Teachers Union and active in organizing during her years at PS 150. She continued to sing into her late 60s and I have donated her audio tapes to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
music archives in Manhattan. She was a close friend of Ruth Rubin, another resident of Sunnyside and a scholar, collector and performer of Yiddish folk songs whose archives of Yiddish Music are now available from YIVO online. Here is a link to the Ruth Rubin Archives with my mother performing by herself and with Ruth. And my father singing a song as well.
Both my parents were vigorous tennis players into old age, and when we
lived there the Sunnyside Gardens Park was a big part of our family’s life, as well as bicycling, skating, jumping rope and playing potsy on 49th Street. I recently revisited 49th Street with my nephew from the UK, who has made a short documentary film about my father’s years and McCarthy. He wanted to see Sunnyside for himself. It is of course somehow the same, but also quite different. The sycamore trees still arch over the street. There are American flags in many windows. The back alley, where the gardens are, is locked to the public.
49th Street Scenes
Emily and Esther
Eric and Peter Saul, Emily and Susan Drucker
Lidgie Foner and Janie Lapiner
1940s Sunnyside on 49th Street : Emily and friends