The Sunnyside Jungle
by Paul Friedlander
After WWII, my dad and his brother mustered out of the service and bought a 2-family house at the corner of 43rd Street and Skillman Avenue. We lived up; my aunt, uncle and 2 cousins down.
Across 43rd street, stretching two blocks west and one block south lay a two acre vacant dirt lot dotted with crusty old trees and bushes. If one were to mount the small berm along the lot’s northern edge, you would encounter, at the bottom of steep 30-yard slope, a ravine containing a single track direct from Penn Station. Up over the other side lay the many Long Island Railroad tracks taking commuters home. Beyond those, the Pennsylvania R.R. marshaling yards made up all the line’s trains departing from Penn Station heading west.
To our gang of urban Huck Finns, this territory became the “Sunnyside Jungle,” an urban playground for adventure, daring and youthful exuberance. In 1951, the City purchased the lot land to build the Torsney Playground, and the felled trees, piled in the center, became our first neighborhood play structure, a gigantic jungle gym.
Those of us with either a more audacious spirit or a lack of any common sense headed for the “rope,” a thick, manila cable tied to the underside of the 39th street bridge at Skillman Avenue. Under the trestle, we would mount it at the top of the slope while standing on a big knot and swing out over the single track. If we were lucky, a train would be wending its way to the yards as we flew over the top of the cars. The ride would end as we dropped the 15 feet on to the sandy shoulder of the track and ran back up slope for another ride.
After they built the Park, Sunnyside kids had the benefit of a softball field, roller hockey, stickball rectangles on the basketball court walls, handball courts and swings. Nonetheless, we still occasionally gravitated to more venturesome “Jungle” pursuits. Across the single-track ravine and in between the multiple LIRR tracks lay “Rabbit Island, ” a large packed sand and gravel playing space where regularly scheduled ballgames were played. The adventure included actually making it across the tracks to the venue.
Finally, perhaps to corroborate the accusation that 1950s teenagers were really juvenile delinquents, we would occasionally raid the halted or slow moving Pennsylvania RR trains making their way around the big slow horseshoe curve sending them back west to the Marshaling Yards. These barely adolescent Sunnyside pirates sought railroad treasure, consisting of flares, paper cups and “boom booms,” small explosive charges that railroad personnel strapped to the track notifying an engineer of trouble ahead.
Of course there was inherent danger in this particular pursuit. More than one boom boom went off spontaneously. And, more than one “pirate” was apprehended by the railroad police and deposited unceremoniously at his parents’ doorstep, or even worse.
I managed to survive these intrepid adventures with relatively few scrapes, some from rope landings and once from being thrown down the ravine slope by one of the Diablos, a local gang. Soon I was commuting into the City to high school, toting my banjo to Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons, and trying to make sense out of my newfound interest in the opposite sex. Obla-di, obla-da.
The Sunnyside railway yard looking west towards Manhattan from the 39th Street bridge.
Paul Friedlander, Ph.D., Professor of Music Emeritus, California State University, Chico, is an educator, scholar, activist and musician.