The original apartment rental brochure (courtesy Rev. Michael J. Moran and MillerMicro.com)
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.”