A Community Comes Together at a Private Park in Sunnyside Gardens

Story and photos by Diana Coats

Parents help the smallest participants hunt for Easter eggs.
Parents help the smallest participants hunt for Easter eggs.

Taking advantage of a warm and sunny Easter Sunday, hundreds of children in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens and neighboring communities swarmed through Sunnyside Gardens Park in the annual Easter-egg hunt.

With 1,000 eggs hidden around the park, children ages 2 to 10 searched for eggs among the jungle gyms and bushes for three hours, while older children played the role of secret bunnies, hiding the eggs before the hunt began.

Sunnyside Gardens Park is one of two private parks in New York City. Unlike the better-known Gramercy Park in Manhattan, which offers membership only to nearby residents, anyone can purchase a membership to Sunnyside Gardens, which was established in 1926. Sunnyside Gardens itself was designated a historic district in 2007.

At three acres, Sunnyside Gardens Park is about 50 percent larger than its Manhattan counterpart, and over the past five years, membership has soared to more than 400 families, from about 230 in 2006.

Traditionally an Irish and German neighborhood, Sunnyside Gardens now includes Chinese, Japanese, Turks, Indians and African-Americans, as well as immigrants from Latin America.

Marret Cooper, 38, a gymnastics instructor and lifelong resident of Sunnyside Gardens, has been a member of the park all her life. Asked what he liked the best about it, he said, “A lot of trees, a lot of green, a lot of fun.”

Samarra Khaja, 39, an art director and graphic designer, joined Sunnyside Gardens Park last year even though she lives in Jackson Heights, about three miles away. Khaja likes the park because it provides a safe place for her children to play. “The big thing for me is that it is enclosed; it’s safe and child-friendly,” says Khaja, who has a 1-year-old and is pregnant. “Now with another baby on the way, I can come here and let my son play and run around, and I don’t have to be running after him.”

Girls hunt for eggs.
Girls hunt for eggs.

Sunnyside Gardens Park takes its name from the neighborhood, which sits on land that was occupied, in the late 19th century, by a farm known as Sunnyside. In 1907, the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased a large section of Sunnyside’s land to use as a train yard. In the 1920s, Alexander Bing, a developer and founder of the City Housing Corporation, used 77 acres of excess land to develop a model community of brick row houses with gardens, named Sunnyside Gardens. The idea was to provide middle- and low-income families with affordable suburban-style home ownership.

The first residents, most of them Irish and German, began moving to Sunnyside Gardens from Manhattan in 1924. Two years later, the park opened; its playground, baseball field, basketball hoops, tennis courts, picnic areas and a wading pool were intended to provide residents with outdoor recreational space, because the houses themselves had only very small yards.

Not much has changed. Today, all but the brick house at the center of the park, which was used as a theater and a nursery and burned a few years ago, remain. For years, members have used the park for family barbecues and birthday parties.

The park also hosts various public and private events. In addition to the Easter-egg hunt, public celebrations include one on Mother’s Day, an Oktoberfest, outdoor performances of Shakespeare, arts events and film festivals. Members-only events include camp-out nights and cookouts.

To join, members pay an initiation fee of $150 and an annual fee that ranges from $225 for a single-adult membership to $335 for a family membership. Members can also plant a small garden plot for $57 a year. In addition, members are required to complete 12 hours of volunteer work in the park each year or pay an extra $180. The park is open 364 days a year, from 10 a.m. to sunset.

On Easter, the children scrambling for eggs seemed delighted, whether they filled up a basketful of eggs or found just a few. Adults handed out chocolate and attended to the egg-hunt participants, helping the smaller children put the eggs in their baskets. Even after the hunt was over and the treats were gone, children ran around the park, playing and screaming, until the early evening.