Sunnyside's Up

In his latest novel, Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem leaves Brooklyn for a planned community in Queens that remains one of the great curiosities of 20th century urban planning. 

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It is conventional wisdom that Jonathan Lethem is a Brooklyn author — or was one, until the publication of Dissident Gardens. His most famous novels, after all — Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude — were set in the County of Kings. Not so for Queens-bound Dissident Gardens, which Lethem wrote from California, where he has lived for about the last half-decade. The result is his finest novel yet — and, as I write in a guest review for The New Republic, the year's best novel thus far.

However, for readers outside New York City, of which it is easy to assume there will be many, some explication of the novel's setting is needed.

In the novel, Lethem calls the Queens development where the lonely matriarch Rose Zimmer Angrush lives "the official Socialist Utopian Village of the outer boroughs.”

Sunnyside Gardens — not to be confused with the Sunnyside neighborhood, to which it belongs — is in fact one of the most charming little pockets of New York, even if it abuts a large rail yard. With its modest, near-identical two-and-a-half-story brick houses and leafy courts, it almost evokes an English village.

More important to Lethem, however, is the neighborhood legacy of leftist politics, for Dissident Gardens is the masterful saga, almost Faulknerian in scope, of the Zimmer/Angrush family — and, to some extent, an elegy for postwar liberalism, especially the Jewish kind.

In fact, liberalism was always central to Sunnyside Gardens, build in the second half of the 1920s as a "garden community," notes urbanist Julia Vitullo-Martin in the now defunct New York Sun, calling the 16-block neighborhood "one of the first home-ownership projects in the nation to target low- and middle-income families" — a sort of progressive dream of comity that, in Dissident Gardens, eventually shatters.

One of the development's most famous early residents was the urbanist Lewis Mumford, who said of Sunnyside Gardens that it is “an exceptional community laid out by people who were deeply human and who gave the place a permanent expression of that humanness.” That quite different from the Brooklyn in which Lethem himself grew up, with Dean St. coming to serve as palimpsest on which battles over race and class would be waged in his novels.

Not that Sunnyside hasn't waged battles of its own: The development received landmark status in 2007, but only against the opposition of old-timers who objected to the designation as potentially stifling future home improvements. The battle pitted old against new, money against memory, urban grit versus suburban comfort. It's not in Dissident Gardens, but it easily could have been.

Photos: Fishburd via Wikimedia Commons; Google Maps.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.