Neighborhood history: Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Written by Isabel Kaufman

Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Instagram/chandle.art

The ride to meet my friends in Sunset Park is quiet: past the warehouses, past the water, to the orderly residential streets. History is repeating: Sunset Park has long been characterized by the comings and goings of its population, and its soul determined by immigrant populations that have lived there. This is still true.

Today, people come and go from Sunset Park to visit the namesake park and try out ethnic restaurants in Brooklyn’s Chinatown (along 8th Avenue) and Little Latin America (on 5th Avenue). Located between Bay Ridge and Greenwood, the neighborhood stretches west from 9th Avenue to Upper New York Bay, between 36th and 65th Streets. The waterfront is startling in its barrenness, with the same warehouses and eerie quiet found in the Meatpacking District once you stray from the parties. The elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway stretches along the length of the neighborhood over 3rd Avenue, but the streets are quiet and residential — until you reach Chinatown, or the Latin street a few blocks away, where there’s no mistaking the neighborhood’s clearly beating heart.

Sunset Park: The Beginning

Named for the park at its heart, the neighborhood was mapped and defined in the 1960s. The park itself was developed in the 1890s, defining an area that had previously been runoff from the surrounding neighborhoods of South Brooklyn and Bay Ridge. But even without a name, the area has always had clear and visible natural boundaries. In the 15th century, the neighborhood was mainly marshland drawn and shaped by myriad creeks that ran uphill from the bay and crested at what is now 6th Avenue. Native Americans originally settled here for farming, and subsequently the English and Dutch arrived from the 1600s to the 1800s. Farmers in the area would look toward Manhattan, shipping produce to and from the shores. The skyline view from this part of town has changed drastically, as has the population that gathers to look out.

Maritime trade and the establishment of the Brooklyn waterfront coincided with industrialization and development of the area — including the factories that define the waterfront to this day — and a new rise in immigration. In the last three decades of the 19th century, the area’s population grew from 9,500 to 31,000, largely fueled by immigrants seeking work on the waterfront. The neighborhood began to develop an identity, just as the park that would later give the neighborhood its name entered planning and design stages.

The potato famine brought an influx of Irish immigrants to Sunset Park in the mid-to-late 1800s, and even greater numbers came from Poland and Norway. Shipbuilders from Norway came to the flourishing Brooklyn port to offer their craft; the neighborhood’s little Norway, called Lapskaus Boulevard by its inhabitants, formed between 45th and 60th Streets. The neighborhood’s Polish community, largely Catholic, established itself on Third Avenue and 20th street, centered around Our Lady of Czestochowa church. Notable employment sites included the Ansonia Clock factory and the nearby Greenwood cemetery.

20th-Century Sunset Park

Sunset Park flourished; Sunset Park waned. The shipbuilding community suffered as the Norwegians increasingly left. The Depression took its toll on the area, and the push toward the suburbs of the 1960s saw most of the neighborhood’s immigrant populations leaving it behind.

At that point, hollowed out by changing industry and white flight, the near-hollow Sunset Park was reborn, once again through immigration movements. After World War II, the area became home to many Puerto Rican immigrants seeking work. Between 1900 and 1930 the Puerto Rican population swelled from 500 to 45,000, creating a majority that has lasted to this day. Sunset Park residents come from many other parts of South and Central America and the Caribbean, as well, including Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.

Immigrants from China, mainly from Fujian, arrived in the 1980s, and helped build one of New York’s most vibrant and thriving Chinatowns. Winley Supermarket, the first Chinese-American grocery store, was opened on Eighth Avenue and 56th Street in 1986. Although surrounded by empty storefronts in a still-struggling area, Winley Supermarket acted as a beacon both to new Chinese immigrants and those looking to escape Manhattan’s ever-climbing rents. In some ways, this is the Sunset Park you can recognize now, as the neighborhood has only grown. The population of Sunset Park currently stands at approximately 150,000 residents, about half Latino and 40 percent Chinese or other Asian.

The neighborhood would have neither numbers nor spirit without its immigrant populations, which remain a core of neighborhood vitality. In a survey as recent as 2013, Sunset Park was one of the top ten immigrant-populated districts in New York, and one of the top five fastest-growing, with 9 percent growth since 2000. But, as gentrification progresses, Sunset Park culture is shifting in ways that New Yorkers will recognize, and not always welcome. There are some concessions to hipness in the neighborhood, mostly in new companies and cafés lurking in hollowed-out warehouses along the waterfront.

Sunset Park Today

An event at Industry City, Sunset Park waterfront. Instagram/industrycity

Several new building initiatives are worth keeping a cautionary eye on. The fashion district is making a push to move some of its Garment District businesses into the area, according to The New York Times. A multimillion-dollar real estate project promising to make the waterfront Industry City complex the “next Soho” has also made headlines, and nightlife pop-ups in those waterfront warehouses have drawn the likes of Alexander Wang and Rihanna,  The Times also reported. Per a recent real estate report, the area is poised to incur a record-high rent spike, brought about by the very development that has most recently brought the greatest number of jobs (around 6,000 since 2013). Still, for the time being, the neighborhood remains a place that people come to for living, above all, and one where the rent isn’t too high for newcomers to start a life.

Now, crucially, Sunset Park has become a hearth and home to activism and resistance against anti-immigrant sentiment. A Facebook group, Love Trumps Hate Sunset Park Brooklyn, started by local resident Shanna Castillo, sees its members hosting potluck dinners for undocumented immigrants in the neighborhood, The New York Times reported. Since November 2016, the group has gathered the neighborhood together with a focus on human rights as much as on diverse cuisine. Lawyers and community advocates also attend, offering attendees assistance and information, and childcare is offered so that parents can relax.

The immigrant experience is the heart and soul of the neighborhood, now more than ever, in cause and in effect. I think of the first ferries of produce to and from Manhattan as I wait for the Sunset Park Greenmarket to return. The best thing about visiting the market — even better than the produce — is seeing the flamenco dancers. The best thing about visiting Sunset Park is even better than its history alone: the most important pieces of its history are still alive and shaping its present, while newcomers who still need or want a life here are welcomed in.

Oh, and the noodles at Lucky Eight.

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