If Sunnyside is a small town in the big city, Sunnyside Gardens Park is our town square. The park is where we gather for special events like the Memorial Day Festival and Out-Of-School Barbeque, it’s where toddlers learn to walk, and older children learn to ride bicycles, and it’s where we make friends who come to know our children and look after them.
For many Sunnyside moms and dads, the park is where we feel most at home. “It’s a place where everybody knows your name,” said park member and mom to two young children, Fallon Connolly. “Kids learn to socialize and network. It’s a great foundation for life.”
Founded in 1926, Sunnyside Gardens Park is a private, three-acre park located on 39th Avenue between 48th and 50th Streets. Recently designated a Historic District by the Landmark Preservation Commission, the park is open 364 days a year. It is the only members-only park in the city besides Gramercy Park. A membership fee and commitment to volunteering are prerequisites for joining.
The park includes an asphalt area with sprinklers and dozens of shared riding toys, a baseball field, track, basketball courts, toddler wading pool, swing and sand areas, garden plots and one of the last remaining picnic groves in New York City. Sunnyside Park Tennis Courts, among the oldest in the city, is also located in the park and requires additional fees and volunteer hours to join.
Like a number of Sunnyside parents, I remember my first day in the park clearly. It was April four years ago, after a long winter at home with my first baby, when a neighbor invited me to the park as a guest. A number of us entered together at opening and I could almost hear the others sigh with relief as they passed through the gate. As soon as parents unbuckled their children’s stroller straps, toddlers were free to roam without anxious moms and dads following their every move. Older children could ride scooters and bicycles safe from the danger of traffic. Because there is a closed gate and a park manager who knows nearly every family, young kids develop an independence not possible to gain elsewhere. “It’s a godsend for our family. I love that everyone knows everyone,” said mother of three, Ellery Beggs Sandhu. “I can let my kids go off on their own and no one can kidnap them.”
The first summer of my membership, I was a stay-at-home mom and, like many others, I often found myself at the park from its 10 a.m. opening until closing at sundown, with the exception of my daughter’s midday nap at home. Four years later, I still find myself rushing home from work to spend the last few hours of daylight with my children and neighbors at Sunnyside Gardens.
Because it is such a tight-knit community, the first few days of a new membership can feel a bit like entering a dining hall alone your freshman year of college, while you hold your tray, or in this case your stroller, and look around for someone you know. But after a few days of pushing swings, sitting on benches, and mediating arguments over who got to the fire truck first, you quickly become part of the community. “My children can ask another mom or dad for help. They can say, ‘where is my mom?’ and the parent will know whose ‘mommy’ they are asking for,” said real estate agent and mother of two, Amy FitzGerald Bottero.
Volunteering is the most important way for the large, diverse group of members to connect. “The sense of community and volunteerism, where you own your own park, is what makes it so special,” said park board president and mother of three, Natalie O’Sullivan. “Your volunteer hours are really vital to the community.”
The park manager is the only full-time employee. In addition, there are two groundskeepers who live on site for free in exchange for doing maintenance work. To keep the park running smoothly, it’s crucial for members to complete 12 volunteer hours per household. Volunteers help keep the park clean, organize and work at events–many of which are open to the public– and develop programs for children.
Because volunteer hours help keep the cost of membership affordable, those not fulfilled must be paid for. Like the park board president, many other members contribute dozens of hours beyond those required. Currently, the membership fee for a family of two adults with children is $335, plus a one-time initiation fee. It is less for single parents and adults without children. The fee for seniors, who can opt out of volunteering, is $40. In addition to membership fees, Friends of Sunnyside Gardens, a tax-exempt, nonprofit, is an organization dedicated to raising funds and soliciting contributions.
Last year the park had one of its busiest seasons ever with 417 member families. In order to prevent overcrowding, new members this season are limited to Sunnyside and Woodside residents but membership beyond these areas are considered individually. In other words, board members do not want the park’s success to detract from the park.
Last Friday night, I went out in Sunnyside with a group of friends. Park board president Natalie O’Sullivan was there. “I’m writing an article, what do you think makes the park so special?” I asked her.
She looked around our table at the large group of women who have known each other since their children were babies, and whose children are now friends. “That’s where we all met,” she said.
By Kim Brown Reiner
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