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Winter 1991
City Journal Winter 1991.
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  U rbanities

Letter From Sunset Park
Louis Winnick
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In 1968, a few years after Congress changed the nation’s immigration policy, a wave of foreign immigration began to roll over New York. On its southward sweep through Brooklyn, the wave rolled over Sunset Park. But as in most of the city, the wave brought not devastation but refreshment and renewal; a reenactment of the City’s most persistent historical drama, and a reaffirmation of its most hallowed myths. A neighborhood built by immigrants but which had seemed a perfect picture of urban blight a decade ago has been revived by new New Yorkers, though this time not from Europe but Latin America and Asia.

Sunset Park, a modest neighborhood of mostly two- and three-family homes in South Brooklyn, lies nestled between gentrified Park Slope to the north and the affluent Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge to the south. The low houses are punctuated only here and there by a church steeple, or a four-story apartment building. Sunset Park is Brooklyn’s big-sky country.

The area takes its name from Sunset Park, or “Goat Hill” as it was known to the early Scandinavian settlers who grazed their livestock on its steep slopes, rising in the heart of the community. From its heights, one can see a magnificent 180-degree panorama: past the graceful limestones surrounding the park, over the row after row of narrow frame houses painted watermelon red or lime green, or covered with identical gray faux-stone siding, down to the gritty remnants of the industrial zone, to the waterfront and the harbor, to where lower Manhattan rises, like Emerald City, from an absurd distance.

As a formally designated community, Sunset Park was not born until 1966, when the idea of the neighborhood became a leitmotif in national policy, and a prerequisite for a myriad of federal, state, and municipal grants and loans. But though official status was new, the neighborhood has a long history.

From the time of its first settlements, Sunset Park has always depended on a stream of newly landed immigrants. First came the Irish of the hungry years; then the Swedes and Norwegians, whose merchant seamen had become familiar with Brooklyn’s waterfront. Next came the Finns, followed by a wave of Italians and Poles. By 1910, 1,000 Finns had colonized “Finn Town,” whose hub was Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street. In 1916, a second wave of Finns, of socialist-labor inclinations, erected New York’s first working-class housing cooperative, soon followed by a score of others, With picturesque names like The Old Maid’s Home and Drop of Sweat. The Finns abhorred debt; the co-ops were financed entirely out of savings. Finn Town remains one of Sunset Park’s better sections. Even today, no co-op buyer (Finn or not) is permitted to borrow against stock shares.

Sunset Park retains other signs of its Scandinavian heritage. Most of the veritable forest of churches planted by the early Scandinavians are now Hispanic and Asian, but New Yorkin Uutiset, the Finnish-language newspaper, still publishes on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street. Olsen’s on Eighth Avenue is still the spot for Scandinavian bread and cakes, and local Finns can still buy herring and lingonberries at specially stocked superettes. There are still Italians in Sunset Park, especially clustered around St. Rocco’s on 27th and Fifth, a dwindling Polish Town, and a sprinkling of stubborn Irish parishioners in the vicinity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Brooklyn’s largest Roman Catholic church.

Between 1950 and 1980, Brooklyn’s population declined by a half-million, from 2.7 million to 2.2 million. Sunset Park’s population fell from a prewar level of nearly 104,000 to 87,000 in 1960, and despite a huge influx of Puerto Ricans, to even less in 1970. Between 1970 and 1980, the neighborhood lost another 9 percent of its people.

Poverty and public-assistance rates climbed, with nearly 30 percent of the residents below the poverty level by 1980. The neighborhood had grown smaller, poorer, and considerably more Hispanic. Retail trade, already weakened by competition from shopping malls, declined further. Vacancies appeared in all the commercial avenues, even on Fifth. The housing stock deteriorated and Sunset Park settled into what promised to be a long twilight.

The government, including City Hall, played a large role in the neighborhood’s decline. The first blow was the Gowanus Expressway, a 10-lane user-unfriendly highway which, built in several stages between 1940 and 1960, slashed across the neighborhood. Its dark, rumbling presence still divides Sunset Park in half, separating the revived residential market above Fourth Avenue from both the faded industrial zone and the waterfront area.

The next blow was the 1961 Zoning Resolution, in which the city reserved the blocks west of the Gowanus Expressway almost exclusively for manufacturing. Call it a lesson in the perils of industrial policy: The city, dismayed by chronic hemorrhages in manufacturing and longshoreman jobs, was resolutely determined to bolster manufacturing in Brooklyn. Instead, the demand for manufacturing space dwindled. The 1961 Zoning Resolution cast some 2,000 Sunset Park residences, containing an estimated 10,000 people, into nonconforming status. Overnight, mortgage lenders cut off loans to property owners within the rezoned area; title and casualty insurance became hard to get. A huge chunk of Sunset Park’s housing market collapsed.

Ironically, another government act, this time a federal program designed to make home mortgages available to the poor, only made matters worse. The program, known as Section 235, did the opposite of “redlining”: It provided more mortgage money to the poor than the poor could beneficially absorb. Typically, speculators purchased a house from a distressed owner for $5,000 or less. After cosmetic touch-ups, the property was sold for $20,000, financed by an FHA-approved mortgage. The buyers of these overpriced houses were usually new Puerto Rican immigrants, unwary families who lacked the means to meet monthly expenses. Many of these properties went into default; nearly 100 were boarded up, becoming the prey of vandals, drug dealers, and weather. Much time and political capital would be expended before FHA could be coaxed back into Sunset Park’s stricken areas.

Right up to 1980, Sunset Park appeared a dying neighborhood, another sad victim of urban blight. More than 200 small properties and 40 apartment buildings were abandoned. The blocks below (and often above) Fourth Avenue were defaced by the stigmata of dereliction—boarded-up houses, shuttered industrial plants, the carcasses of junked cars.

Yet underneath the surface scars, Sunset Park’s revival had already begun. The effects of the new immigration were slow and silent, but steady. In the 1970s, new people began to move into Sunset Park, rebuilding the decaying residential blocks and injecting new life into once-dead commercial strips. By the early 1980s, the population decline had been reversed. By the mid-Eighties, the stream had become a flood, and Sunset Park was nestled securely in the curl of a rebounding wave. You can see the influence of the immigrants in any number of statistical indicators: rising real income, retail activity, soaring real estate prices, and rents. Between 1977 and 1987, prices of typical two- and three-family brick houses increased five-fold.

You can see it too, walking up Fifth Avenue, where a vivacious medley of businesses compete for the new consumers’ attention. In Sunset Park a dozen ethnic communities commingle without losing their distinctive flavors. Yong’s Gifts is down the street from Stavenhagen’s check-cashing (“Serving Brooklyn since 1878”). Morisi’s Macaroni Store offers red-white-and-blue gift-wrapped pasta, while Sikorski and Winski’s specializes in fresh hot babka and heavy links of kielbasa. Behind the chartreuse sign advertising Baba West Indian, Indo-Pak Shopping Center, you can get your VCR repaired, and rent tapes with names like “Prem Geet” or “Dharma,” featuring full-lipped princesses and bare-chested men heaving attack pickaxes. You can choose between cans of corned mutton from Australia, or pick up a pound of Bashri flour (“Ingredient: Bashri,” the label dutifully but mysteriously informs). Tiger balm is available, and bottles of Dewitt’s Worm Syrup, for whatever ails you. Along the walls, glossy decoupage plaques of blue goddesses emit a faint, but unmistakable resemblance to paint-on-velvet Jesuses. Outside, a huge banner festooned across Fifth Avenue proclaims an upcoming Grecian festival.

There are still some signs of hard times in Sunset Park: occasional peeling paint, a few boarded-up upper windows, the complete absence of any sign of Häagen-Dazs. But today (according to a recent poll) some 70 percent of Sunset Park’s residents consider it a fair to excellent community. From an ugly duckling, Sunset Park has become, if not a swan, at least a fat, healthy goose.

One of the most interesting things about Sunset Park’s revival is that it can not, in any meaningful sense, be called “gentrification.” Many of Brooklyn’s better known neighborhoods have grown by taking in the overflow from Manhattan’s trendy neighborhoods. Some young professionals, pushed out of pricier neighborhoods, have settled in the neighborhood, but their numbers are small, and their impact negligible. Sunset Park, perhaps because of its modest housing stock, has not become part of “Brownstone Brooklyn.” In 1980, for example, only 10 percent of Sunset Park’s jobholders were managers or professionals, compared to 36 percent in Brooklyn Heights, the quintessential brownstone neighborhood, or 32 percent in nearby Park Slope. Only 13 percent of Sunset Park’s residents age 25 or older have some college education, compared to almost 34 percent of Park Slope’s residents. And in Sunset Park, unlike the gentrified neighborhoods, the steady exodus of European-Americans continues.

The people who rebuilt Sunset Park are not the Yuppies, but the New Immigrants. Since 1980, the bulk of Sunset Park’s new residents have been Hispanic and. Asian. In fact, during the Eighties revival, the proportion of Hispanics in Sunset Park increased; however, Sunset Park’s Hispanicism has become more diverse. Puerto Ricans who settled there in the Sixties and Seventies are being replaced, to some extent, by other Hispanic immigrants. About half of these new Hispanics are Dominicans. There is also a medley of other Hispanics: Colombians and Ecuadorans, Salvadorans and Hondurans, Cubans and Mexicans.

Asian immigration has also increased. Of Sunset Park’s new Asians, nearly two-thirds are Chinese, mostly from the mainland and Hong Kong. There are only a handful of Taiwanese, who tend to favor Flushing. Other Asians include Fast Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Cambodians.

The Asian presence will continue to grow. The quick subway connection to Canal Street is one reason. For Chinese garment workers with limited English, Sunset Park’s subway stop is reassuringly known as the “blue-sky station,” the first stop above ground this side of Chinatown. Sunset Park now boasts two private schools for Asian kids. And here, Asians have become homeowners quickly. Asians in New York City as a whole have a homeownership rate only slightly below that of whites. In 1986-87, nearly a third of Sunset Park home buyers were Asians.

To Sunset Park, these new immigrants have brought not just their numbers and aspirations, but their skills as well. The average schooling levels of all foreign-born Asian groups (except rural Vietnamese) exceed the average for non-Hispanic whites. Third World physicians dominate Sunset Park’s Lutheran Medical Center, as they do many New York hospitals. The most recent Hispanic arrivals from Latin America have extraordinarily high employment rates: 93 percent for men and 89 percent for women.

In Sunset Park’s business community, the impact of the New Immigrants is obvious. Of the nearly 800 establishments whose owners’ ethnicity could be identified in Roger Waldinger’s study of Sunset Park’s retailers, more than 60 percent were Hispanics, Middle Easterners, and Asians. Immigrants with their pronounced tendency toward entrepreneurship are bringing the once-moribund Eighth Avenue to life: Three-fourths of the 240 stores from 39th to 65th Streets are owned by immigrants, 60 by Chinese.

Sunset Park’s waterfront is still dead, hostage to the city’s refusal to rezone the area for residential development. At Sunset Park’s last hiring hall on 60th Street, a thousand longshoremen “badge in” each day, but there are no jobs. The gesture is pure theater, acting out a script hammered out years ago in an extraordinary agreement between the dock unions and maritime employers, in which the union accepted labor-saving container ships in exchange for a guaranteed lifetime income for their workers. In contrast to the waterfront, Sunset Park’s manufacturing sector shows new signs of life. During a decade in which New York City lost 120,000 manufacturing jobs, Sunset Park’s industrial zone actually gained 12,000 jobs.

Fortunately, the wave of immigration that resuscitated Sunset Park shows no signs of subsiding. In 1986, nearly two million prequalified foreigners were waiting their turn for entry into the U.S.; in 1980, the number was only about one million. Prospective legislation to expand admissions would swell the ranks not only of the Irish, but also Indians, Pakistanis, and a host of other groups. Under Gorbachev, visas from the Soviet Union have risen to more than 10,000 a month, another plus for New York. Soon immigration may easily reach as high as 110,000 per year. By the year 2000, if current demographic trends continue, more than 40 percent of New Yorkers will be foreign-born, surpassing the historic peak of 1910. In that case, Sunset Park’s population should grow by another 20 percent or more. With the prospect of at least 15,000 new Chinese, Sunset Park will clinch its title as New York’s third Chinatown.

Whatever happens, Sunset Park in the year 2000 will not be Yuppieville. At its newsstands, foreign-language papers are likely to sell as briskly as the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. Nor will it be, despite the concentrations of Hispanics and Asians, an ethnic ghetto. There is too much pluralism for that. It will simply be another of New York’s typical “backbone” neighborhoods, neither excessively rich nor poor, inviting but not trendy.

Sunset Park will be, though in different guises, what historically it had been, a neighborhood sustained by those who journeyed to America for a second chance, who in seeking to advance themselves also advance neighborhood, city, and nation. In the Sixties and Seventies, Sunset Park came very close to losing that historic character. It was rescued, not so much by housing subsidies and community action as by the 1965 act of Congress that reopened the nation’s gates to aspiring Americans. Without the new immigrants, as Thomas Muller has pointed out, New York City’s population would have shrunk to less than six million. Sunset Park would resemble a deserted village. Instead, a robust economy and the new immigration produced a remarkable revitalization, injecting new life into this and a hundred other old neighborhoods.

New immigrants brought a clash of cultures and new burdens for the schools. But, by and large, they also brought their labor and productivity and a faith that their tomorrows will be brighter than their todays, as much as their todays are from their yesterdays. Immigration may turn out to be the most effective urban renewal program New York City has yet discovered.

 

 


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