Monthly Archives: June 2010


Sandra takes pictures of soaps…

…and signs (courtesy Sandra Robishaw)

“The wonderful thing about Sunnyside is that we are all here together and that it hasn’t made the transformation yet to Bed, Bath and Beyond.”

Sandra Robishaw likes to get to know her neighbors. An activist, painter, hobby photographer and census enumerator, she has always been drawn to the fringes in Sunnyside: Think Indian goat milk soap, hand-painted signs of beauty salons, cemeteries, illegal immigrants and littered sidewalks along railroad tracks.Sitting by her mysteriously tail-less cat, Sandra explains that she isn’t drawn to things that are beautiful in the traditional sense. Instead, she attempts to illustrate an object’s quirkiness and ambiguity, giving glimpses of its owner’s unique personality. “The wonderful thing about Sunnyside is that we are all here together,” Sandra says, “and that it hasn’t made the transformation yet to Bed, Bath and Beyond.”

Sometimes the owners of Sunnyside’s Mexican, Turkish, Romanian and Lebanese delis are reluctant to let her photograph the displays inside of their stores, but being “a nutty little lady” she quickly wins them over. “I had storeowners take my photos and rearrange things, so they look better. People are ready to interact,” says Sandra, whose goal it is to one day be able to say “hello” and “thank you” in every language spoken in the neighborhood.

Her ability to get people to interact came in handy when she took a job as a Sunnyside census taker. Going from house to house to count those who didn’t respond to the initial mailings, she sat down with illegal immigrants who confided their fear of the Department of Homeland Security. Sandra patiently explained to them the long history of American census-taking and the need to provide the Census Bureau with headcounts in order to secure ESL programs and quality education for their children. “I think you can relate it to them on a level they [understand], especially if they have kids,” she says. Like the storeowners, the immigrants gave in to Sandra’s entreaties.

Sandra moved to New York in the early 1980s after receiving a graduate degree in art from the University of Colorado. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sandra met her husband on the N platform in Astoria, and that the couple decided to buy a home in Sunnyside that was once a socialist meeting place. (The house on 49th Street appeared “on the crest of thinking,” she says.)

In the podcast Sandra talks about her interactions with Sunnyside storeowners.

Listen to Sandra’s interview


Jimmy Van Bramer, trying to look busy, while I’m (unsuccessfully) trying to adjust my camera to the neon light.

The ladies in the back really gave their best!

Thanks, Kinkos! (But doesn’t our councilman deserve a solid plaque?)

“My job is not to be aloof and cold and to run away from the people I asked to give me this job. My job is to be friendly, open and accessible.”

I had almost given up on the accountability of politicians when Jimmy Van Bramer, councilmember of the 26th district in Queens, revived my faith. After months of complaining to the DEP and the local police department about a neighborhood bar whose drunken patrons bawled and bellowed in its backyard at 3:00 am, my husband and I decided to go to a community board meeting and ask for assistance. To be honest, we had little hope.

Catching up with Jimmy Van Bramer as he was leaving the meeting, I presented the problem.

“Kenny!” Jimmy called one of his aides. “Take down this lady’s number and get on it.”

A young man with pen and notebook briefly introduced himself as “Joe Kenton”—and then he “got on it.” Within a couple of weeks the problem was solved. A special clause was inserted into the bar’s liquor license stipulating that it had to close its backyard at 10:00 pm. Furthermore, Joe approached me each time he ran into me on the street. Had the bar been quiet? Please call if the problem recurs.

“My job is not to be aloof and cold and to run away from the people I asked to give me this job,” says Jimmy, who represents Astoria, Woodside, Long Island City, Maspeth and Sunnyside, and who has lived in our neighborhood for the past seven years. “My job is to be friendly, open and accessible.”

To prove his point he recounts another noise complaint, which he and “Kenny” successfully solved. When a group of people approached him one Friday night at 10:30 pm while he was strolling the streets with his partner, he promptly put down his ice cream and got on his Blackberry.

In the six months since he has been in office, he has processed 600 requests and complaints from constituents, including a lack of garbage cans on 39th Avenue, graffiti and drug dealing in Sunnyside Gardens, broken streetlights and falling tree branches.

“Sometimes the seemingly smallest things are actually the biggest,” he tells me in his nondescript office on Queens Boulevard, where we met to discuss his aspirations for the neighborhood. (Those aspirations do not include putting his name on the new garbage cans like some other council members have done, a practice he dismissed as “self-serving and abhorrent.” My request to put Joe Kenton’s name on the cans produced laughter, but no results.)

“What about the bigger issues?” I asked when I saw the black-and-white photograph of John F. Kennedy on his wall. “How do you, for example, fight poverty on a local level?”

Jimmy, who has avidly fought for the continuation of special services at libraries, schools, senior centers and youth programs, admits that “It’s a little frustrating to come into council at a time when everything is facing record cuts. It’s a real challenge to fight for the things you believe in.”

But like a true politician, he doesn’t waste his time complaining about failed endeavors. As aides keep popping their heads into the room, reminding him of the scheduled neighborhood protest to save a small Woodside park from destruction, Jimmy closes our conversation with yet two other achievements.

Not only did he hire two residents from public housing projects in the neighborhood. During his second month in office he passed a law, which he says not without pride, “for a freshman councilmember is very hard to do.” The “Library Card For All Act” requires the Department of Education to help public school students apply for library cards.

“[Libraries are] a particularly good equalizer for children who come from families with low income,” Jimmy says. “We want to make sure that all of those kids have access to the information they need.”

In the short podcast Jimmy Van Bramer talks about what a typical day in his life as councilmember looks like, which events he likes most, and what he does in his rare spare time.

Listen to Jimmy’s interview


“In America, you need an English name.”

Mandy is the owner of Sunnyside Nail Spa on 43rd Avenue, where I sometimes get my fingernails done. When I first moved to Sunnyside, I was thrilled to have finally found a manicurist sensitive and polite enough to not comment on my nervous nail picking habits.

Mandy immigrated from China in 2000. She first took some English classes in Boston, but Boston, she says laughing, was far too boring. Chinese newspapers, restaurants and friends were hard to find. When she was told that New York was far more exciting, Mandy didn’t hesitate and moved. She worked at several nail salons in Manhattan before opening up her own spa five years ago. Her friend, who owns the dry cleaner next door, recommended Sunnyside to her as a good place for business.

Mandy’s customers are from Rumania, Turkey, England and Latin America. They are like family to her. Many have been with her from the very beginning and talk to her about their children and their hobbies. She likes those customers the best who are polite and patient when she is busy, but understands that some people don’t have much time to wait.

In the wee hours of the morning Mandy often gets up and goes online. Sometimes she tries to find cures for nail fungus and other problems she encounters on the job; at other times she researches new products. One of her latest discoveries is a nail polish that manicurists can use even on their own nails. It doesn’t chip or dissolve when it comes in touch with nail files or polish remover. A manicure with this special polish costs $10, as opposed to one with the regular polish, which costs $6.

Mandy lives on Long Island but spends more time in Sunnyside than at home. She sometimes buys lunch at the Natural Tofu Restaurant on Queens Boulevard, where she knows what to order. She doesn’t like to go to other restaurants in Sunnyside because she can’t read the menu and is too embarrassed to ask for help.

Although she is 52 years old and has a 26-year-old daughter, Mandy looks like she is in her late thirties. When I voice surprise about her age, she tells me that she has many wrinkles, often feels old and sleeps poorly at night. Why she has problems sleeping, she doesn’t know. She never worries about or plans for the future. She trusts strangers easily – her friends say too easily – and just lives life from one day to the next.

In the audio piece Mandy tells us that a German friend who thought her original name – Mou Manrong – was too hard to pronounce, chose an American name for her.

Listen to Mandy’s interview



Warren G. Harris stands where the entrance of the Sunnyside Theater used to be.

This is what the entrace used to look like.

The splendid interior of the Sunnyside Theater

(All b/w photos and ads courtesy of Warren G. Harris)

They even had basketball as part of the opening act!

The old 43rd Street Theater at Greenpoint Avenue

Warren in front of the Halal Chinese Restaurant on Greenpoint Avenue, where the entrance of the 43rd Street Theater used to be.

The doors of the old Bliss Theater are still the originals…

…but the Egyptian-style murals have been painted over with demure nature scenes.

Ad for the opening of the Bliss Theater and for its magnascopic screen

Center Cinemas: the only Sunnyside theater that is still operating

“When I was a kid I always thought that Bliss was the happiness and joy you’d experience from going to a movie.”

Warren G. Harris has been interested in movies and cinemas for almost as long as he can remember. The author of nine critically acclaimed biographies of some of Hollywood’s most famous stars, Warren began his immersion in the subject in the Sunnyside Theater at the tender age of five. When his grandmother took him to see a movie starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, Warren got lost in the movies—quite literally.

“In the midst of the movie I had to go to the bathroom. Coming back into the auditorium, I got lost,” he reminisced one recent afternoon as we sat in the movie section of the Sunnyside library. “It was so huge, I didn’t know where I was at. An usher came over and held his flashlight over my head and walked me up and down the aisle until my grandmother spotted me.”

Warren’s fascination for the world of films continued unabated. He read his grandmother’s movie star magazines and, as “a walking encyclopedia,” he provided information on movies for the children in his neighborhood. He lectured on the history of movies in high school—“The teacher gave me such a dirty look”—and wrote a report on a book that was made into a movie. (“She thought that was awful also.”) While in college he worked as an usher at Jamaica’s Valencia Theater, and later became a publicist for Paramount. Eventually he began writing biographies, most notably about Sophia LorenCary GrantClark Gable and Carol LombardAudrey Hepburn and other stars. Today Warren contributes the results of his ongoing research to

With its 2,000 seats, its crystal chandeliers and an interior architecture reminiscent of the Renaissance, the Sunnyside Theater was magnificent. Opened in 1926 in what has now become Rite Aid’s parking lot on Roosevelt Avenue and 52nd Street, it was demolished in 1960 to make space for an A&P Supermarket. Now the only reminder of the site’s glamorous past is the seven-foot pitch of the parking lot: the upward slope from the theater’s stage to the seats in the last row.

In the 1940s Sunnyside, once a major shopping hub that attracted people from all over Queens, had four movie theaters operating concurrently. Seedy Center Cinemas on Queens Boulevard is the only one that has survived.

Each of the four Sunnyside theaters had its specialty: Center Cinemas was the first one in Queens to show exclusively foreign movies; Sunnyside Theater featured Vaudeville acts, dance teams, acrobats and even basketball teams to lure visitors to movies that may have not been that good; 43rd Street Theater, which still stands on Greenpoint Avenue, showed movies after they stopped playing in other theaters, giving visitors an opportunity to catch up on what they might have missed; and Bliss Theater on Greenpoint Avenue and 46th Street distinguished itself with its Egyptian-style interior architecture and its “magnascopic screen,” a screen that expanded for special effect.

“When I was a kid I always thought that Bliss was the happiness and joy you’d experience from going to a movie,” Warren remembers. Later he learned that the cinema was named after the Bliss family, who was instrumental in settling the area. The Bliss Theater building, which still flaunts 2,000 seats, a stage and balconies, was bought by the Jehova’s Witnesses in the 1970s. They painted over the splendid Egyptian-style murals that featured nudity with a demure landscape perhaps more fitting for the theater’s new function.

The glorious days of movie theaters—fittingly referred to as palaces—are long past, and today Warren rarely goes to the movies. Instead he rents old movies at the library. Multiplexes are “like shoeboxes divided into nine sections,” he says. “One of the enjoyments of seeing a movie is about seeing it with a lot of people, hearing and seeing the reactions of the people around you. If you go into those little theaters you don’t have that.”

In the podcast Warren talks about his first experiences in Sunnyside’s movie theaters in the 1940s.

Listen to Warren’s interview


“Technically they are my boss, but I like to look at them as my neighbors”

Sometimes they knock on his door at three o’clock in the morning. This usually happens on Friday nights when his neighbors go out to party and forget their keys. Milton Freitas has keys, lots of them. For the past 14 years he has been the super of a Sunnyside co-op building with 51 apartments. While theoretically his work hours are from nine to five, he is on call 24 hours a day. Milton unlocks apartments, accepts packages and fixes leaky garden hoses. Most importantly, he frequently repairs the boiler and keeps the building clean.

Milton is  good-natured, humorous and patient. “Technically they are my boss, but I like to look at them as my neighbors. I am very lucky,” he says. His neighbors who come from Japan, Brazil, Germany, China, Belgium, the Philippines, Thailand, Indian…—the list goes on—bring him home-cooked meals and souvenirs from their travels abroad. This is good, because Milton loves to eat and to have a good chat.

After having worked in his native Brazil and in Mozambique, he came to New York almost by accident. He just meant to pass a few months before starting a job in Peru, but fell in love with the city. At first he worked as a carpenter and when his friend offered him this job, he jumped at the chance.

A Mormon, Milton has befriended an international community at his church in Woodside, where he spends his Sundays. Born and raised Catholic, he converted to Mormonism because the Catholic Church was never able to answer his most pressing question: “[In afterlife,] is the relationship with my mother the same I have to some Chinese guy I have never met?” The Mormon belief of his family staying close together in the afterlife appealed to him. Milton still diligently visits his family in Brazil every summer. “They hunt me down if I don’t visit my whole family,” he says, chuckling. To be close to his family, he plans to retire in Brazil.

A fiend for history and mathematics who can often be seen with a book under his arm, Milton sometimes regrets not having gone to college. He always told himself “tomorrow.” “But tomorrow never came,” he says. “Here I am in the same place. If I want to move up, I have to buy the building. I have a job, but I don’t have a career.”

In the podcast Milton talks about his most shocking discovery in the building on 39th Street.

Listen to Milton’s interview