Isabel giving Emma, whom she rescued in Spain seven years ago, a belly rub

“Leaving the neighborhood was a measure of success and it was really difficult for me to accept that I had to come back.”

Isabel Cuervo has lived in Sunnyside since she was six, but had to travel halfway around the world before she could appreciate the neighborhood. Growing up as the daughter of a Colombian single mother in a one-bedroom apartment wasn’t easy. Isabel was not allowed to play on the street or walk to school by herself because her mother was “overprotective.” She often dreamed of owning one of the “pretty, little houses” beyond Skillman Avenue, the virtual border that still largely separates the working class from the middle class.

After high school, Isabel began studying different architects’ approaches to low-income housing at Barnard College and later enrolled in a Master’s program for environmental psychology in Spain.

“I always wanted to travel the world,” the 35-year-old says. But Spain wasn’t what she had hoped, and Isabel returned to Sunnyside, broke and pained. “I felt like my life wasn’t progressing,” she says. “Leaving the neighborhood was a measure of success and it was really difficult for me to accept that I had to come back.”

In 2003 Isabel began her PhD studies in environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, which slowly changed her feelings towards Sunnyside. Isabel now appreciates the neighborhood’s small town feel, its accessibility and diversity. “It’s not in the middle of all that chaos that can be New York City.”

Isabel’s doctoral thesis combines her two main interests, traveling and low-income housing. She recently spent three months in Bogotá, Colombia, interviewing key stakeholders of low-income housing, including residents, developers and representatives of city agencies. She hopes her research will contribute to a better understanding between these divided parties and improve the living conditions of working class families.

As to Sunnyside, Isabel has found a good reason to return: One year ago she fell in love with a man who grew up on the same block as she. Her new boyfriend is the son of Turkish immigrants and was one of the children she envied because he was allowed to play on the street. “Sometimes I feel like in ‘The Godfather,’ ” Isabel says laughing. “The main character wants to leave the mob but he is always being pulled back in. This is the story of my life with this neighborhood.”

Listen to Isabel’s interview