Interviewed September 28, 2010, by Susan Hopper, HDC board member
How did you get started with preservation? Sunnyside Gardens was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. I had heard about the Historic Districts Council and called to inquire about our National Register District’s enforcement problems with zoning law. But we all realized the solution was landmarking.
In 2003, my wife and I went to an evening seminar sponsored by HDC in a church basement in Fort Greene. The Landmarks Preservation Commission sent Mary Beth Betts, its director of research, to be on the panel, so we were able to meet and speak with her as well as with Simeon Bankoff, HDC executive director.
LPC was enthusiastic about Sunnyside Gardens and began the designation process, but we learned from HDC that we needed to form a neighborhood group. We met at the Neighborhood Preservation Center with then-President David Goldfarb and HDC’s staff to start our organization, and even settled on the name there. So HDC was present at the birth of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance that year, being midwife if not a parent of our organization.
How has the Historic Districts Council helped? With their personal advice and their manual, Creating an Historic District, HDC gave us a roadmap, and then made sure we could follow it and not veer off the most effective route. The manual was our first primer, and we shared it right away with neighborhood activists, to let them know how much work would be involved and invite them to join in forming a preservation group.
Besides hosting the inaugural meeting of our organization, HDC attended other meetings. At our first fundraiser, three of the HDC staff came and helped out. Later, HDC co-sponsored a panel of people from other landmarked neighborhoods who talked about what it is like to live in a landmark district, discussing the benefits and responsibilities for homeowners.
Seeking landmarks designation is a long campaign, and all our active neighborhood volunteers were working people. None of us had unlimited time nor could be available to do what’s necessary at the drop of a hat. It could be challenging to find help, even though there was a great deal of enthusiasm. But HDC was always there to help; any time there was a question, I knew I could pick up the phone and get really thoughtful, expert advice. They were like the volunteer who never slept or took a vacation, ever-present and the most dependable of all. And we are eternally grateful. HDC has been a wonderful tutor, mentor, and companion. In 2007, HDC gave us the Grassroots Preservation Award, and that year, the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District was designated by LPC.
What have been the biggest changes in your neighborhood? Since we were designated, we have noticed that we attract homeowners who really want to live in an historic district and are committed to historic preservation. We are seeing more appropriate architectural alterations to our houses, and we don’t have to politick every week or persuade each resident that it important to save the neighborhood. Nevertheless, beyond our historic district status, zoning and preservation issues continue, so it is a constant relief to have the resources of HDC to help.
Advice for other neighborhoods interested in an historic district? I tell people all the time, not just when I have been on preservation panels, that I recommend as a first step they speak to HDC. Read the book, Creating an Historic District, and they can guide you as they did us. Also, if you live outside of Manhattan, Mayor Bloomberg did instruct LPC Chairman Robert Tierney to look to the outer boroughs for new historic districts, so that situation is getting better.
Updates: In 2011, we presented HDC with the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Award for its 40 years of service. To learn more about the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, see: http://www.sunnysidegardens.us/index.html