“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.”