Decades of Crimes of Passion, Protests, Bank Robberies, and Other Mayhem in Sunnyside, Queens

Thursday, July 2, 2009

September 27, 1976 - Elderly Chinese Couple Dies in Cash-burning Fire

In September 1976, tragedy befell the Leo family of Sunnyside, an elderly Chinese-American couple and their daughter. Smoke from a bucket of $75,000 in burning cash (placed in a bucket in their apartment hallway at 43-09 39th Place) quickly overcame the trio. They began to panic and mistakenly used the wrong window to escape (their fire escape was outside another window). All three fell to the ground. Only the daughter, Fee Hong Leo, survived.

The Times speculated that the family had burned the money as part of an "Oriental custom when one was ill assure entry into heaven in case of death." Mr. Leo had been ill, and the family had recently sold their small hand laundry; after years of hard work, they had saved over $100,000, some of which made its way into the bucket. The neighbors rarely saw the Leos, who left early in the morning and returned late at night, and noted, "It's a tragic thing - a terrible way to leave this world. It's a shame they didn't live to enjoy their money."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sunnyside Depression Foreclosure Protests - 1935

Sunnyside, like the rest of the United States, was roiled by foreclosures in the 1930s, as the economy continued to contract due to the Great Depression. Although the neighborhood was only heavily developed within the decade, Sunnyside Gardens residents felt strong ties to their threatened homes and the greater neighborhood. They took their protests direct to the lenders, painting them as villains - garnering press from the Times along the way. In the middle of November 1935, dozens of residents that recently lost their homes picketed the offices of Merchants Fire Insurance Company (at 45 John Street in Manhattan), carrying signs reading "Rockefeller puts families out of homes." The article notes that John D. Rockefeller was a director of the company at the time. Children held placards reading, "We were born in Sunnyside and we want to stay there."

Protests continued in December at the Long Island City County Courthouse, with Sunnyside Gardens women in full costume ("gingham dresses and bonnets" notes the newspaper) carrying brooms (to sweep away the foreclosures). The women performed a protest song and folk dance against the auction of three Gardens homes occurring that day (December 20, 1935) at the courthouse.

The song (to the tune of "John Brown's Body") went like this:

Sunnyside is on a mortgage holiday.
Sweeping 6 percent philanthropy away.
Second mortgages can't make these houses pay.
Although their sales go on.

The chorus, according to the Times:

Glory for the six-per-centers.
Who are out to make us renters.
What a pity we're dissenters.
We'll stay in Sunnyside.

An accompanying photo reveals residents again carrying signs, this time that read "Sunnyside Homeowners Will Fight Evictions" and "End the Foreclosure Racket." One sign, presumably from an evicted resident, read simply (in all caps), "FORECLOSED."

Monday, April 13, 2009

September 22, 1948 - Communist Leader Beaten, Stabbed Near Sunnyside Home

Sixty-one years ago, anti-Communist hysteria was at its peak in the United States. The Soviet Union was expanding its sphere of influence, perhaps even into America - Communists could very well have been your neighbor, your priest, your child's teacher - anyone was a potential threat to American security. Robert Thompson (then 33 years old according to the Times), chairman of the New York State Communist Party and Sunnyside resident, had already been indicted for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. On September 22, 1948 he was stabbed and beaten by three unknown assailants near his Sunnyside home (at 39-40 46th Street).

His colleague, John Gates, editor of the Daily Worker (official NYS Communist newspaper) and Sunnyside resident, characterized it a "political attack" according to the Times, as no effort was made to rob the Communist leader. Mr. Thompson staggered to the nearby home of William Norman, another Communist Party member, at 39-77 46th Street, where he collapsed. The Times noted that Thompson and Norman reported the crime to the 108th Precinct, but the NYPD said no such crime report was received.

Of note, of course, is that Sunnyside appeared to be the political center of Communism in New York State in the late 1940s, with the chairman, an editor, and at least one additional Communist figure residents of the neighborhood. A few additional interesting items about Mr. Thompson: according to the Political Graveyard, he was a 1946 candidate for NYS Comptroller, which the Times failed to mention (he lost to the Republican incumbent Frank C. Moore). While Thompson survived his injuries, in less than a year he would be sentenced to three years in prison for violating the Smith Act, a Federal statute still on the books that makes it a crime to: "knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise or teach the duty, necessity, desirability or propriety of overthrowing the Government of the United States or of any State by force or violence..."

According to his obituary (dated October 17, 1965), Thompson fled after this conviction (and three-year sentence), and was on the lam for two years before being captured in the Sierra Mountains of California. After his capture, he was placed in Alcatraz to begin serving his sentence for violating the Smith Act. More physical pain would strike the Communist leader in October 1953, when his skull was cracked by a Yugoslavian inmate awaiting deportation while waiting in line for lunch at Manhattan's West Street Detention Center. After this recovery, Thompson was sentenced to another four years detention for his earlier escape. He would serve his sentence until 1960 when he was released for good behavior, and would die of a heart attack at the age of 50 just three years later (then a resident of Riverside Drive in Manhattan).

Monday, April 6, 2009

January 8, 1961 - Murder on Queens Boulevard!

From the January 8, 1961 New York Times - Hyman Medwedowsky, 39 years old, was shot to death on Queens Boulevard at 43rd Street, just a block from his home (he lived at 48-05 42nd Street). Mr. Medwedowsky owned the Abel Construction Company of 29th Street in Long Island City. His assailant, Gordon Rogers of Manhattan (51 years old and a possible "associate" of Mr. Medwedowsky) was last seen fleeing in a 1961 Oldsmobile convertible. Revolver and vehicle were quickly located, "one shell discharged".

From a 1961 issue of The Utica Observer (NY) - Mr. Medwedowsky was no saint, according to the newspaper: he was accused of operating a chimney repair racket just a year before his murder! According to the police, he was also known as Nick Morey (an alias, the plot thickens!). He would make his way through the neighborhood, telling residents that their chimneys were in danger of collapse and had to be repaired (he would then charge them exorbitant fees to fix the teetering towers). Lack of evidence saved his hide from a grand-larceny conviction, the Observer reported, but perhaps jail would have kept him alive longer - the twisted hands of fate - escape jail but falling into the arms of death. Nice fella.

More details on the assailant also came to light: he was flashily dressed and appeared to assist Mr. Medwedowsky down the stairs of an apartment house, only to appear alone moments later. A resident of said apartment house later heard moaning coming from the stairwell - John Carley then leaped from the window to help the stricken huckster (who he thought was suffering from a heart attack not a gunshot wound to the chest). Carley recalled Medwedowsky begging, "I need air, I can't breathe!" right before he fell unconscious.

A mysterious woman was later taken into custody at Mr. Medwedowsky's home. Who was this woman? If I can dig anything up, I will let you know - otherwise, she might have disappeared into history.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sunnyside - Welcome to Queens Gothic

Sunnyside, in the borough of Queens, is a diverse, well-tended neighborhood. Several supermarkets line its streets, and commerce is bustling. Greenpoint Avenue, despite being slightly shabby, remains vibrant. Queens Boulevard slices through, on either side are charming businesses, fast food joints, even a Starbucks. Its architecture is heavy on deco, no surprise since Sunnyside was developed in the 1910s onward, after the 7 subway line was constructed. However, under its idyllic facade lies mafia murder, bank robberies, random crime, drugs, overdoses, a violence seething underneath. These tales of crime and passion are culled primarily from the New York Times archives, and offer another dimension to this proud Queens neighborhood.