I was a Sunnysider for 14 months, my first year in the city. For a Northern Californian transplant, Queens was an alien landscape where just about everything is organized differently: better public transportation, transparent but approachable personalities and a true melting pot society where you can literally hear six different languages crossing the street (and not be in a tourist spot). Though I enjoyed Sunnyside, my eventual exposure to Brooklyn called me away and I soon left to re-engage my youth and a growing sense of superficiality. While I’d stepped foot back in the neighborhood a handful of times since moving, after two-years away I went back to Sunnyside from my home in Bushwick to see how the neighborhood had changed.
Biking northeast on Greenpoint Avenue, I pedaled uphill, expecting a wave of gentrification to present a marked difference – two-years in Bushwick and you’ll believe the face of a neighborhood can change dramatically within months. Instead I was greeted with vibrant familiarity! Storefronts remained the same: a mottled collection of 99-cent bargain bins, Unisex salons and Empanada and Taco stands.
Old favorite restaurants were still going strong, some were dolled-up and remodeled. One formerly known as Los Pollos Limeños was simply now, Los Pollos, where you can have one-half of the juiciest Peruvian rotisserie chicken at three-quarters the cost of the Pio Pio Riko half-a-block up the street. The tiny 12-seat restaurant that was once a generic, glass-encased chicken counter had been transformed into an open-air, French-doored outdoor destination! The chicken was still juicy and delicious!
I even found my old favorite Hot Dog cart at the corner of Greenpoint Ave and 46th street, selling Skinny Dogs for $1.25 and meatier Hot Sausages for $1.50 – “I’ve been at this corner for thirty years, I haven’t changed my price in ten” the stand’s owner commented.
Sunnyside’s streets are lined with Tudor style apartment buildings, 50-foot maples and bordered by one of the largest, gothic cemeteries in the city. The area is so quaint it’s easy to think you might be in some cul-de-sac in Long Island. You can still smell home-cooked food wafting through the air. Travel another block and the smell of motor oil overtakes your senses while passing two guys working underneath the open hood of a beater Ford. Yet another block and you can listen in on a conversation between two neighbors, “They’re a good family, I think their son would be a good match for you, he just graduated from college!”
Here, you won’t find a plethora of bicycles. In fact, the only bike lane that runs through the northern section neighborhood is barren. Instead, a dangerous abundance of cars speed through Queens
Interstate Boulevard which bisects the neighborhood’s northern and southern areas, the elevated 7-train running alongside. Like clockwork, every 4 minutes straphangers spill out of the elevated subway line, forming a human barrier of safety from the momentarily parked cars while crossing the boulevard.
You won’t find skinny jeans here either and in fact, my cut-off brown corduroy shorts and graphic tee drew a few uneasy, but welcoming smiles. Instead, a rich mixture of South American, Dominican, East Asian and Eastern Europeans inhabit this (sub)urban landscape once populated by one of the city’s largest Irish communities – the neighborhood still has a dense array of Irish Bars and a St. Patrick’s Day parade, the only in the entire city that invites Irish members of the LGBT community to march.
While I was photographing some buildings, I was called out by a kind older-gentleman, “Go with your camera one-block [west] and you can see the Empire State Building.” I asked him how long he had lived in Sunnyside, “60 years! This church…” a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, who’s awning we were under “used to be a showhouse!” Indeed, I walked a block and found the Empire State off in the distance, standing alone and perfectly framed by a street cresting a small hill with large Queens brownstone apartment buildings standing on both sides.
Finally, I biked to New Cavalry Cemetery, something I had never considered when I lived 2 blocks from the sanctuary’s western border. Entering from the bustle of Queens Boulevard, old Oak trees, tombstones, angels and Virgin Marys greeted me and were interspersed betwixt small mausoleums bearing the name of former residents: Capone, O’Sullivan, Petrillo, Mercier. As I biked by, green, rolling fields of memorials serenely unfurled themselves, Manhattan’s skyline still vividly sharp in distance.
Then, it was time to go home, back to Brooklyn, back down the barren and industrial Greenpoint Avenue. Bidding adieu to my former neighborhood, I was reminded of how kind and engaging Queensians can be, even more impressed by how well the Sunnyside residents are maintaining their neighborhood’s cultural integrity in the midst of a city that aggressively pursues gentrification. For once, being the only cyclist around was a welcome feeling.