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


Merry in front of her landmarked house in Sunnyside Gardens

Built between 1924 and 1929, Sunnyside Gardens was modeled after the English Garden Cities of architect Ebenezer Howard.

The brick row houses share more or less feral courtyards in between blocks.

In 2003, Merry went to visit England’s first Garden City, Letchworth, which was built in 1903. (Photo: courtesy Merry Chang)

Welwyn Garden City, built in 1920 near London, also resembles Sunnyside Gardens. (Photo: courtesy Merry Chang)

Architect Ebenezer Howard’s “The Three Magnets” diagram…

…and his original Garden City concept

“It was amazing. It looked like a forest to me.”

Merry Chang’s father chose the spelling of his daughter’s first name to counteract the popular Chinese belief that a baby girl is worth less than a baby boy. She lives up to her name as an adult, perhaps partly because in 1972 her father showed her an ad from a Chinese newspaper for a rental in Sunnyside Gardens.

Raised in the Bronx, Merry had only been to Queens to visit the 1964 World Fair in Flushing and had never even heard of Sunnyside. But when she visited the apartment she was awestruck.

“It was amazing. It looked like a forest to me,” Merry says. The two-bedroom apartment had a balcony that looked out on a giant crabapple tree and one of the Gardens’ feral courtyards. The rent was $190 a month including utilities, and her new landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Moy, were “lovely, lovely people.”

It took Merry 20 years to get a down payment together for her own house and to find something that suited her needs. “Even back then,” she says, “the houses were rather dear here.” Coincidentally, she ended up on the same block as her old apartment. Merry loves Sunnyside so much that she didn’t even consider leaving the neighborhood when her company relocated to Westchester, offering her generous relocation allowances. To this day she endures a daily four-hour commute.

Over the years, the original Sunnyside Gardens became compromised by residents who painted over the charming brick facades, put up chain-link fences, and cut down the old sycamore trees to install driveways and carports in their front yards. Merry, who felt strongly about saving the development’s original concept and design, became an activist with the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance. Thanks to the Alliance’s efforts the neighborhood was landmarked in 2007.

During the long and contentious landmarking process, Merry learned about her neighborhood’s progressive architectural concept. Built between 1924 and 1929, Sunnyside Gardens was modeled after Great Britain’s first “Garden Cities.” The Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities—from 1903 and 1920, respectively—were planned by architect Ebenezer Howard. His idea was to create a balanced and humane relationship between residences, industry and nature. The residents were to benefit from the advantages of the city while being spared noise, pollution and dark and cramped living spaces.

Inspired by Howard’s Garden City concept and his “Three Magnet” diagram, architects Clarence Stein and Henry Wright planned 600 row houses in Sunnyside in a homogenous style. The one-, two- and three-family houses face each other across big open courtyards in the center of the blocks. Like Howard, Stein and Wright wanted the residents of Sunnyside Garden to live with each other rather than next to each other.

Infatuated with her neighborhood’s rich history, its greenery and communal atmosphere, in 2003 Merry travelled to the British cities after which Sunnyside was modeled. She asked the cab driver to bring her to “the old part of town” and got lost “in an ancient neighborhood,” but eventually met someone who happened to share her passion for Garden Cities and who showed her around. Merry tells this amusing lost-and-found story in the podcast.

Listen to Merry’s interview


Angelica in front of La Marjolaine, the little French bakery on Skillman Avenue

“If you are busy, you don’t feel it.”

Angelica Ulloa’s palate is considered an authority by the eight bakers in the back kitchen. If she tastes the dough and doesn’t find it sweet enough, they fix it. Angelica sells baked goods at La Marjolaine, the little French bakery on Skillman Avenue and 50th Street, and she wants her Woodside and Sunnyside customers to be happy. La Marjolaine could not get a better advertisement than Angelica herself. “I can’t miss it,” she recently raved about her favorite pastry as she took a quick break to talk. “Every day I have my chocolate croissant. And Sundays I take two.”

Angelica found out about the job through an employment agency on Queens Boulevard six years ago. She used to work as a babysitter and never imagined working at a bakery, but the job suited her surprisingly well. It allowed her to study English part time and to make new friends. She got to know many of her customers by name and has even gone out to dinner with some. When a regular doesn’t appear, she worries about his or her wellbeing. “We are friendly with them,” she says. “Some of them are lonely, you know.”

As her English improved, Angelica took on more hours to make ends meet in New York and to support her family back in Ecuador. She now works six days a week, up to ten hours a day. “If you are busy, you don’t feel it,” she says. Laughing, she adds that running and walking around to explore the neighborhood is one of her hobbies.

In the podcast Angelica talks about her first winter in New York eight years ago.

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Greg used to manage The Shirelles

“You are the boy that danced with me in Astoria.”

“I was educated in a different way,” says Greg Chavez, who was born and raised in Astoria. He dropped out of high school to travel around the world with The Shirelles, the first major American girl band, which landed their biggest hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” in the early sixties. After a rapturous life in show biz, Greg returned to Sunnyside three years ago to care for his 86-year-old father.

At a concert in Astoria in the early seventies, Greg, then 16, sprang into action when Addie “Micki” Harris asked if anyone in the audience could dance “The Bump.” Greg’s bump made such an impression on Micki that she recognized him a few months later at a concert in Florida. “You are the boy who danced with me in Astoria,” Micki said, according to Greg. From then on the two were inseparable. For a decade, Greg worked as a road manager for The Shirelles, carrying their luggage, making sure no one entered the dressing room and buying pantyhose and super glue when the need arose. In return he was slipped $50 bills in his pocket during their many flights.

“I was a gopher,” he says laughing, as we recently sat talking at “The Haab” on 48th Avenue. “You know, not the animal, but ‘go-for-this’, ‘go-for-that’.” Eventually Greg was promoted from “gopher” to “manager,” booking shows for the band, but his new position didn’t last too long. In 1982 the band broke up after Micki died of a heart attack on stage in Atlanta.

Greg says he was treated “very bad” after that. He followed Shirley, who had begun a solo career in the mid-seventies, and later worked as a freelance booking agent for South Florida clubs and for individual artists, among them Mary Wilson of The Supremes, Bonnie Pointer from the Pointer Sisters and Grace Jones.

As the music scene changed and as he felt the tug of family, Greg decided to return to the apartment in Sunnyside he had bought 30 years ago, where he now lives with his brother and father. Until recently he worked as a barkeeper at Daizies Restaurant, but the job didn’t allow him enough flexibility to continue his career in the music business.

“I had the time of my life,” Greg says about his previous career, “but I could have done a little bit more of mine. I always put myself out for somebody else.” Currently Greg works with the 10-year-old granddaughter of Mary Davis, who once toured with The Shirelles and with whom Greg has stayed very close over the years. “As a tribute to the girls” he shows the child old video footage and teaches her the songs and moves of Billy Holiday and Dinah Washington. His dream is to get a young R&B group together and act as their manager. “What they call R&B today is not R&B,” Greg says. “I don’t want to see a girl grabbing her crotch on stage. It’s not classy, it’s trashy. I call it bootie-shake music. I want to bring the respect back to girls.”

Listen to Greg’s interview


Singer/songwriter Michele on a very hot day at the playground on Greenpoint Avenue

This little hipster lured Michele to Sunnyside… (courtesy Michele Riganese)

“I always focus on my [own] feelings, but I find the stuff that’s really simple and raw is what people really connect with.”

If it wasn’t for Chili, her little Pomeranian, singer-songwriter Michele Riganese may have never moved to Sunnyside. Chili came with a certificate for three free visits to a vet in Sunnyside, and while Michele first thought, “Where the heck is this place?” she quickly fell in love with it. She moved from Gramercy Park to a “gorgeous apartment” in Sunnyside eight years ago. Here she found the sense of community her old neighborhood lacked. “You can rely on your neighbors for this cup of sugar,” she says. Besides the new apartment came with “a fantastic hallway, really bouncy with sound that feeds inspiration for me.”

Michele’s music is inspired by current events, her own relationships and those of others. A performer since she was seven, she likes to create heartfelt, melancholy songs infused with hope. “I always focus on my [own] feelings,” she says, “but I find the stuff that’s really simple and raw is what people really connect with. I don’t worry too much about being global or universal.”

Michele’s career as a child actress took her to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. It wasn’t until college that she found her real passion and decided to dedicate herself exclusively to music. To her, making money is secondary. She volunteers with Musicians on Call, a nonprofit who sends musicians to care facilities, and intends to donate half of the money she makes through her crowd-funding project at Rockethub to BARC, an animal shelter in Williamsburg. Michele supports her career as a singer/songwriter by doing voice-overs and writing songs for weddings; she doesn’t want a nine-to-five job. “Unless it is something that feeds my soul, it’s tearing me away from music, which is my gift and the very reason why I am here,” she says.

Michele has live performances scheduled at the LIC Bar on August 30, 2010 and at the Sidewalk Café in Manhattan on September 5, 2010.

In the podcast Michele talks about what is involved in being a singer/songwriter.

Listen to Michele’s interview