Sunnyside Gardens Park
by Bob Stonehill
My preschool education took place in the ground floor retail space of an apartment house on the corner of Skillman Ave and 49th Street.
Our daily exercise walk took us to Sunnyside Park, one of only two private parks in the entire city of New York. The other is Gramercy Park, located at Lexington Ave between 20th and 21st Street, it requires a key for entry, issued only to those who reside in brownstones and apartment houses that directly face onto the park. Maintained by amateur horticulturalists, Gramercy Park is the antithesis of Sunnyside Park.
Built in 1924 when the community of Sunnyside Gardens was planned, only a green wooden swinging gate stood in the way of complete access to the park. Located on 39th Avenue at 49th Street near the border of the Gardens, the park consisted of a kiddie playground, tennis and basketball courts, baseball fields and a picnic area in a heavily wooded section providing leafy branches as cover from the baking sun. Many of the patrons came from the Phipps Apartments across the street, the only high rise in the immediate area, and not part of the Sunnyside Gardens development, having been built with funds from the Phipps Family Trust.
Russ, the park director, taught a bunch of us boys how to score points in basketball using the "Kentucky Shot," in which you threw the ball from behind your ear at a strange and difficult angle. The Irish field game of Hurling was played mostly on week-ends by adults. This game featured the most majestic way of throwing and catching a hard ball midair on a long curved stick, and returning it 300 feet to the to the opposing team at the other end of the baseball field. I assume that when the ball was dropped, a point was scored, similar to ping pong.
A mini rebellion took place when the park was short of funds and the voluntary family contribution was raised from $12 to $15 a year. This was in contrast to the newly built free park at Skillman Avenue and 43rd Street.
Russ moved on and the park seemed to go downhill, as maintenance looked like an afterthought. I haven't been back to the park since 1957 and I can't speak of the changes which might have taken place in over 60 years.
I often reflect on the pleasant memories of my youth.