Sunnyside, Seattle and Beyond
by Josh Lehman
Sometimes we better appreciate a place once leaving it. Sunnyside imparted lifelong lessons during the 20 years I lived there, and continued to guide me after I relocated to other corners of the continent. The title of this brief work is, in ways, my update of Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again." You may move, but you don't necessarily leave home.
We lived on 39th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, shouting distance from the park but at the tail end of Sunnyside Gardens, and lacking a complete court. The difference between our Sunnyside setting and the adjacent 50th Street residential development was plain as day and made a lasting impression on me. We enjoyed quiet open space behind our home; the residences fronting 50th Street had a swath of concrete behind, providing access to ground-level garages. Lesson learned: space for protected human circulation isn't the same as that given over to cars.
I walked to school, part of the Sunnyside educational experience. (During PS 11 reconstruction, we accessed PS 89 in Elmhurst - our temporary kindergarten host - by bus.) From first grade through senior year at Bryant, my mobility was on foot. While at PS 11, the adjacent vacant lots were a world apart, inviting a schoolboy's imagination, notably during snowy conditions. Sunnyside's trees and calm were especially welcome after crossing the major boundary thoroughfares, Queens and Northern Boulevards. The Matthews houses fronting Skillman Avenue between 54th and 52nd Streets, along 48th Street between Broadway and Northern, and on 49th Street between Skillman and 43rd Avenues sharply contrasted with the Gardens' atmosphere. The network of treed streets, access alleys, and court sidewalks allowed attractive, protected access while visiting friends and family within Sunnyside.
Queens College shifted the educational equation, with transit figuring more prominently in my daily travel. Fortunately, there were multiple bus and subway options from which to choose. Several times I returned to Sunnyside from campus on foot, a wonderful way to experience Queens' varied neighborhoods first-hand. Bicycling to and from QC was faster than walking and offered other lasting images, most notably the shower of sparks flying from the Flushing line passing overhead.
On campus, new doors opened, most notably through the Cycling Club, a loose union of like-minded souls. Our weekend excursions included Long Island, Staten Island, and, once, an extended foray to Princeton, returning by train. The club's commonality reinforced my growing sense that bicycling wasn't so strange. In fact, William F. Buckley came to campus in 1965 to speak at a Mayoral forum. There, he elaborated upon his vision to construct elevated bikeways in Manhattan. Revelation! He lost the race, but bicycling gained. Similarly, bicyclists assembled to peaceably protest for better bicycle access to the World's Fair, bound by the rallying cry: "Bicyclists unite - You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains!" The protest came at a time when bicyclist and pedestrian access was being eliminated along major roadways, such as the Grand Central Parkway and Kosciuscko Bridge. The issue of bicyclists' rights in New York lacked the fervor and intensity of other sixties movements, but it carried a local immediacy.
Queens College offered personal and professional possibilities. There I was able to explore issues of importance through the research I conducted and the papers I wrote. A new Geography major was offered during my attendance in the mid-60s, and that focus fit, both in terms of depth and breadth. Planning loomed larger as a professional pursuit, prompted in large part by Sunnyside, a successful community experiment which I'd experienced first-hand. Melding the personal and the professional made increasing sense.
So, why Seattle? My logic was that if I didn't leave New York City after Queens College, I never would. Seattle appeared to be an attractive alternative: a striking city in a beautiful region, a jumping-off point for both Alaska and Asia. The University of Washington was close to downtown; its Geography and Planning Departments were closely allied. The bus transit system linked the city's neighborhoods, and the ferry system afforded access to the nearby islands. (I had considered Berkeley but the Bay Area felt too culturally close to New York. Additionally, the then-Governor was wreaking havoc with the University of California system.)
The University of Washington and Seattle provided the planning education I sought, with an urban transportation focus. Sunnyside figured in my studies, as I wrote about my experiences there, and about other contemporary planned communities, such as Reston and Columbia. I had migrated, but hadn't really left Sunnyside. Through a series of serendipitous circumstances, I was able to apply my planning studies to work as Seattle's Bicycle Program Coordinator. Much of my time was spent by bike and on site, assessing potential improvements suggested by Seattle citizens. The position was hands-on, seat-of-the-pants transportation planning, the essence of spatial problem solving.
One post led to another: Bicycle-Pedestrian Program Manager with the US Department of Transportation in DC during two short assignments; then, Bicycle-Pedestrian Program Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in Boston, from which I recently retired after more than 22 years' service. My operative philosophy throughout was "to change the prevailing paradigm." After all, wasn't that the underlying objective of Sunnyside Gardens nearly a century ago, to recast the urban form and to provide new settings, opportunities, and experiences? I remained a loyal son of Sunnyside while in Seattle, and beyond.