The Woman Next Door

 Location Sunnyside Gardens (Queens)
Price $164,500 in 1997
Square feet 1,000 (two-story 1920s house)
Occupants Irma Rodriguez (associate director, Forest Hills Community House); Angel Rodriguez (retired electrician); Vivienne Michele Miranda (Irma's goddaughter)

How did it begin? [Irma] I was walking home one night just after my father moved in. He was in his chair. I could see him through the window. I saw Sophie through the window in the same spot next door. I said, Dad, you should ask Sophie to tea sometime. [Angel] I was alone here. She was alone there.

Do you see her every day? [Angel] Well, almost. [Irma] When he first moved here, they used to go to Phipps Garden, the building down the street. They hold hands. Sophie moved to Sunnyside during World War II. Her husband died some years back. [Angel] She's got a piano.

Irma and Angel look on the Sunnyside.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Irma and Angel look on the Sunnyside.

How did you and your father end up roommates? [Irma] I'd been living in Forest Hills for 23 years, two-bedroom apartment, $850. It was 1997. I said, I could be paying a mortgage. This is nuts. My father had a condo in Parkchester that he had bought about 16 years ago. He's 92 now. I know what happens with aging parents. I'm working in a senior center. A lot end up living with their children when they become ill. I thought it was important to do it before. Without the catastrophe. [Angel] Right off, it cost me about $30,000. With that, she closed.

Weren't you excited to move here? [Angel] Not really. Before, I was foot-free. I still went to play golf with the gang, Van Cortlandt Park. [Irma] He says I'm bossy. I'm an only child, not by choice. My mother died when I was 19, during an operation. I'm 53. I got raised around a lot of first cousins, West Side, 139th. Dad came to the States when he was 16 from Puerto Rico. [Angel] The year that Lindbergh flew to Paris, 1927.

Why 1920s Sunnyside? [Irma] It had been a dream of mine for a long, long time. I didn't want a suburban-house house. I knew about Sunnyside because of my work. The house is now worth close to $300,000. Some people make a connection right away when they come here. Others don't get it. The houses are tiny, 17 l/2 feet wide.

It looks as if the architects were very sober when they designed it—"Oh, let's just use a simple pencil." Two-story houses, pale red brick. Though it's based on the idea of the 19th-century English garden community—low density with the perfect balance between personal and collective space—there isn't the affectation of Anglo architecture as in Forest Hills. [Irma] It's sweet and peaceful.

Sunnyside was designed by three of the biggest names in utopian housing—architects Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, and developer Alexander Bing. Architecture critic Lewis Mumford lived here. [Irma] There are fights today between the preservationists and the do-what-I-please people. See, the houses aren't landmarked, just the neighborhood. In the '70s, when they got the national and city designation, people had the option to take back their garden. Some put up fences so there were no more central courtyards. My idea is to re-create the courtyards, give owners a monetary incentive to take down their fences.

Is your home life impacted by the war? [Irma] The only thing that really affects us is that my dad's a Republican. [Angel] We got different opinions. Once in a while if I say something, she snaps at me.

How does Sophie feel? [Angel] Sophie's also very liberal, the whole slew of them here, on down the block, with the exception of those Hungarians. [Irma] Romanians.

 
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