Social worker Liivia has lived in Sunnyside for 61 years

Liivia (bottom left) and her parents on the ship to America in 1949

Liivia practicing ballet behind her home in Sunnyside Gardens

Liivia showing off her junior prom dress (and her Sunnyside Gardens home)

Liivia and “the boys” in front of the former candy store on Skillman Avenue and 46th St.

And a little later in the evening…

“I think they chose it by accident. It must have sounded like a lovely name.”

Having escaped the Soviet occupation in Estonia, Liivia Westervelt immigrated to America via Germany and Czechoslovakia as an eight-year-old. After a short stint in Port Washington and in the Bronx, her parents bought a house in Sunnyside Gardens. “I think they chose it by accident,” the 69-year-old laughs. “It must have sounded like a lovely name.”

For Liivia, the lovely name lived up to its promises. While she was only one of two immigrant children at P.S. 150, she remembers her neighbors as “very accepting.” Sure, it was hard at first—she didn’t speak any English, and some of her schoolmates made fun of her name, calling her Libby’s Orange Juice and Liverball Soup—but since her parents had instilled her with a strong sense of dignity, she quickly made friends. She played hopscotch and roller-skated down 45th Street, where, with some interruptions, she has lived to this day. In the 1950s the streets of Sunnyside Gardens were so void of parked cars and traffic that people were accustomed to burning stacks of fall leaves in the middle of the street.

After Liivia married, she and her husband found a house coincidentally also on 45th Street. Liivia had two children in Sunnyside. This was also where she had her first Chinese food, her first Pizza and her first kiss. In Sunnyside she organized neighborhood protests against the Vietnam War and fought for women’s and civil rights and for the landmarking of Sunnyside Gardens. Not surprisingly, it was a neighbor who suggested she pursue a master’s degree in social work, steering her toward what she calls “the passion in my life.”

Even after Liivia divorced and moved to Bayside, she continued to come to 45th Street several times a week to take care of her aging mother and to spend time with her friends, some of whom she knew since childhood. When her mother died in 2003, Liivia moved back into the house where she had spent her teenage years. “I meet some of the older people here that remember me since I was 10 or 15,” she says. “It’s great to have this continuity.”

Liivia now tries to pass on this sense of continuity and community to her grandchildren, who often come to visit from Ohio and Florida. The kids quickly connected with other kids on the block who now visit them in Florida in the summer. Liivia enjoys introducing her grandchildren to the ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood and watching them play in her spacious courtyard. “Sunnyside,” she says, “has been a very big part of my life.”

Listen to Liivia’s interview


Dorothy Cavallo has lived in Phipps Garden for 46 years.

Dorothy appreciates her home and her garden.

This is the original peephole in Dorothy’s entrance door.

The original apartment rental brochure (courtesy Rev. Michael J. Moran and

The former Phipps playground at 39th Avenue and 50th Street

“The newer children who are coming here unfortunately do not have this available to them, and their parents don’t know all the history.”

Forty years ago, when her little son ran through one of the hedges of the Phipps Garden Apartments, Dorothy Cavallo immediately received a phone call from the management office reprimanding her. Phipps’s on-site nursery school and playground offered sand boxes, slides, swings and a swimming pool to romp around in, but the Gardens were just to be seen.

“Our site here has diminished somewhat in its outside appeal,” Dorothy laments in her Phipps Garden apartment of 46 years. “It’s sad to see and sad to say.”

An anniversary brochure from 1980 likened Phipps Garden to the great Botanical Gardens in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. “To step into the gardens through the archway,” it reads, “is to move into a world whose existence in the midst of New York City is as astonishing as the land into which Lewis Carrol’s Alice tumbled.”

Today the Phipps Garden management frequently receives complaints: Children run across the grass and ride their bikes on the pathways, colliding with pedestrians and strollers, and teenagers skateboard down the old steps. Adults feed the Garden’s colony of stray cats, scattering Styrofoam plates on the lawn, and dog walkers fail to clean up after their dogs.

Built in the 1930s by philanthropist Henry Phipps and urban renewal architect Clarence Stein, the Phipps Garden Apartments followed the ideals of the turn-of-the-century English Garden City movement. In high contrast to the dark, dingy and crowded tenement buildings still common in New York at the time, Phipps Garden offered 472 clean, bright and safe apartments to working class families. It even allowed cats and dogs. A private well was dug to water the flora, and old female guards were employed to sit on the courtyard benches and make sure no children tramped through bushes and across lawns.

Landscaped courtyards still take up 57 percent of the development, but the guards have long vanished and the nursery has shut down. The playground was sold to a private developer in 2007.

Phipps and Stein’s social vision was to encourage tenants to actively participate in the communal living environment, and Dorothy, who was raised in Astoria and moved to Sunnyside as “a brand new bride” in 1958, was quick to implement their ideals. In the winter she led children through the Gardens singing Christmas carols and in the summer she was part of the “carriage-stroller-brigade,” blocking rush hour traffic to lead the little ones safely across 39th Avenue. (“You were risking your life out there!” the 71-year-old laughs.) As a substitute teacher at the nursery school, she even jumped into the playground pool. “I was the bathing beauty,” she giggles, adding that she was the only teacher willing to show herself in a bathing suit at the populated corner of 39th Avenue and 50th Street. (In the podcast she tells us more about her experiences at the Phipps Garden playground and nursery.)

Whenever Dorothy now passes the closed-off, derelict playground with its deteriorated aluminum shed and its rusting swings, Dorothy hears the children’s laughter. “The newer children who are coming here unfortunately do not have this available to them,” she says, “and their parents don’t know all the history.”

Listen to Dorothy’s interview


Gallerist Stephanie doing the ubiquitous Sunnyside sign in front of her apartment building on 46th Street.

An installation shot of Stephanie’s gallery in SoHo with sculptures by Norman Darren and paintings by Eric Poitevin (left) and Juliette Losq (courtesy THEODORE:Art)

“People don’t move to Sunnyside because it’s cool. This is the New York New Yorkers live in.”

Having been raised on Long Island, Stephanie Theodore moved to Rego Park right after college. She hated it there and swore to herself that she would never live in Queens again.

“I’ll live in Manhattan from now,” Stephanie told herself. “This is where it’s at!”

What followed were 17 years on Mott Street, where she lived in a six-floor-walkup and only communicated with her neighbors over disagreements and at co-op meetings. Slowly, bankers, lawyers, brokers and trustafarians descended on SoHo. When Stephanie fell in love with a man who owned a house in Sunnyside Gardens, it wasn’t hard for her to leave. The relationship didn’t last long, but her love for Sunnyside continued unabated. The neighborhood’s architecture, pubs and tight community structure reminded her of London, where she studied at Christie’s Education. In 2007 Stephanie bought an apartment on 46th Street.

On the weekends, she still returns to SoHo, where she runs THEODORE:Art. Her gallery represents primarily British artists with whom she has fostered long and growing relationships. Stephanie describes her artists’ work as “aesthetically mature, well-crafted and appealing,” but with a “conceptual and subversive agenda.” She shudders at the hype in the contemporary art scene and laments that many gallerists are more concerned with “packaging” and “surface” than with the work itself.

The pragmatic idealism Stephanie brings to her work as an art dealer mirrors her feelings towards her Sunnyside’s community. She does not want to live in a neighborhood overrun by superficial hipsters and is happy to return to Sunnyside at the end of the day. “I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “It’s nice to get away and not have black-clad hipsters all around or business people or tourists. People don’t move to Sunnyside because it’s cool. This is the New York New Yorkers live in.”

But Stephanie worries that Sunnyside’s Starbucks—a neighborhood’s “signifier of acceptability”—is the beginning of the end. Maybe real estate agents will invent a gimmicky name for Sunnyside, like when they dubbed her part of SoHo “Nolita”? And maybe hipsters will follow, clogging the streets with their “hipster babies in Sonic Youth t-shirts… Gag!” But Stephanie hopes that the existing nuclei of world cultures will continue to attract a steady stream of diverse immigrants with equally diverse professions—and with people who appreciate this “neighborly neighborhood” for what it is.

Listen to Stephanie’s interview


Acupuncturist and herbalist Dong Soo Chang

“The real treatment begins from the moment the patient walks into the clinic.”

Dong Soo Chang, a former accountant who lives in Maspeth, had a very pragmatic reason for opening up his acupuncture and herbology practice on 43rd Avenue and 46th Street. The close proximity to the 7 line and to the city would allow people easy access to his services at rates far lower than those of his colleagues in Manhattan. After working with and learning from his father-in-law for several years, he and his wife opened up their Sunnyside clinic four years ago. It has since attracted clients not only from New York City, but also from Boston and Long Island, and even as far as California.

“The real treatment begins from the moment the patient walks into the clinic,” Chang quotes one of his old professors to explain the holistic approach. This, together with his knowledge and technique, is responsible for his success. (With 35 percent of his patients being Hispanic, it also helps that Chang, who used to live in Buenos Aires, is fluent in Spanish.)

Having studied in both the U.S. and Korea, Chang takes advantage of the benefits of both cultures. In his home country acupuncture and herbology stem back thousands of years and are considered the primary medical treatment options. Chang explains that while Korean acupuncturists know more techniques, the U.S. leads in terms of double-blind studies, proving and disproving alternative healing methods and showing the chemical process initiated by such things as herbs, minerals, roots, leaves and seeds. American scientists have also conducted magnetic resonance imaging during treatment to show the effect acupuncture has on a patient’s brain.

While the 80 percent of his patients who have been referred to him by relatives and friends are generally trusting, walk-ins often express doubt. “Does acupuncture really work?” some ask. Chang always takes the time to explain the benefits to them, most notably that acupuncture is natural and strengthens the immune system so the body can pick up from there and heal itself. “If I explain these positive aspects to them, they become hopeful,” he says, “and try acupuncture.”

Listen to Dong Soo Chang’s interview


Mary in front of one of her photographs in her Sunnyside apartment
Festival of Mexican Artistic Expression, Tepeyac Association, Queens, NY
©Mary Teresa Giancoli

“I wanted to find out what is the root of these traditions.”

When Mary Teresa Giancoli began to immerse herself into Mexican culture in New York City it was a challenge. The patrons at the small Mexican church on 14th Street celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe were suspicious and did not want to be photographed.“I am not fluent in Spanish and I don’t look Mexican,” says Mary, who has photographed Mexican rituals for 17 years. But having had a Mexican grandfather, whom she has never met, was “a touching point” and “a mystery” that she was determined to unravel. “I really wanted to find out where the center of Mexican life is in New York and this was part of my search.”

One thing Mary found at the little church was her husband, Cristian Peña, a Mexican and fellow photographer. (Cristian even appears in some of her early photographs.) Eventually the couple had iced tea after one of the events. “That was when the grand love was born,” Mary says giggling. Mary, Cristian and their seven-year-old daughter Leila now often travel to Mexico to visit remote villages where the couple documents festivities and everyday life.

“I wanted to find out what is the root of these traditions,” Mary says. “What is it like in Mexico, how are they celebrated there? So there is this continual dialogue about what is happening in Mexico and what is happening in the United States. There is a lot of fusion because the traditions evolve in the United States and mix with the American traditions.”

To trace Mexican customs in the U.S. back to their origins, Mary visited Mexican tortilla factories in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and tortilla makers in Cuetzalan, Mexico. Her award-winning work documents Mexican celebrations in community centers and churches in New York and in Puebla, and market scenes in Atlixco, featuring protagonists whose relatives have left to work in America.

In the podcast Mary talks about the photo of the three little girls above and the origins of the traditional China Poblana costumes they are wearing.