Interview with Gerry Modica

May 18, 2000

Gerry Modica owned a grocery store on the south side of Skillman Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets, during the 1950s.  In 2000, he was interviewed for a history of the neighborhood for the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance.  http://www.placeinhistory.org/projects/sunnyside_gardens/  Below is an excerpt.

          “1927, we moved from the city to Woodside. Then in 1931, we moved to Sunnyside. When I came here there were a lot of empty lots, and there were even some farms around here.  I think on 48th Street there was a farm between Skillman and 39th Avenue.”

 

          My father and brother and mother, they opened up a store, and above the store was two apartments on Skillman Avenue.  And then I went into the war, come back, got married.  That’s it! Then moved in here in 1954.  Sunnyside at that time was a little more sedate.”

 

          At that time we had the easements, and they were pretty strict. You could only paint the windows a certain color, you couldn’t have fences along the hedges, a lot of things…Some resented the fact that they had to paint their windows yellow and their doors green. I painted my windows white. I said, ‘white on brick is terrific, why can’t we have white? Why is it that stupid yellow? And green. But the thing is the green came out because it was predominantly Irish, and the Irish like green!...These tile roofs are great, and these foundations are terrific.

 

          They have a private park that, at one time, when I was a kid you had to belong to Sunnyside Gardens (to use), and I was just on the borderline. So I couldn’t get in there.  And it was a nice park, still is a nice park. Just couldn’t get in. And I sort of resented that.  I says, they’re a bunch of snobs, which they were.   I was a kid on the other side of the tracks.  That’s it.

 

          When I was, must have been, about 10 or 12, they had a rent strike.  Don’t forget that was during the depression.  They didn’t want to pay, so they concocted different reasons, ah, the brickwork wasn’t right, this wasn’t this.  Finally, the sheriff would come if they didn’t pay. They used to ring the siren, and all the kids would run, including myself, ‘cause we were going to have a show, you know.  And they would put all the furniture out on the sidewalk, and the people would be yelling and screaming.  And they were taking pictures at that time, too, I remember. They didn’t win though.

 

         Believe it or not, at one time this area had a lot of communists. Matter of fact, one of my customers – he was a war hero in World War II, he was a scout in the Philippines, worked behind enemy lines – he was the third man in the communist party in this country. And so I had a store up on the hill, and my brother was here, and he calls me up and he says, the FBI is coming up to see you.  So they came over and they said, you know Mr. Thompson?  I says, yeah, I know him.  Just as a customer, yes.  He said, you know if you withhold evidence, it could be tough on you!   I said, I’m not withholding evidence, you want me to tell you the truth, I’m telling you the truth!  It seemed that one of the checks they gave us to pay the bill, they seen the name, and I endorsed it or my brother endorsed it, and they were wondering what we had in common with them. We had nothing in common with them, just one of the customers. They were looking for him at that time. He disappeared. At that time they were after the communist party. They caught him. I don’t know what happened after that. This corner house, he was number five man. At that time there were those people who gave the secrets to the Russians, the Rosenbergs. They were all over the area. A lot of these people who were here moved to California, believe it or not. And yet they were very good citizens as far as I was concerned. Their political leanings were a little rough.

 

          Actually, this is more along the Socialistic lines, these homes here, because it’s economical and they’re all together.”