Call me naive, but growing up Chinese-American, I always assumed Sunset Park was just the predominantly Chinese section of Brooklyn. As a kid, it was the only area in Brooklyn outside of my home neighborhood of Bay Ridge that I visited frequently with my parents. On the weekends, I took the B9 bus with the folks from Bay Ridge to Eighth Avenue and 60th Street on the weekends for either groceries or a hair cut. Over the years, I realized that Sunset Park was more than just the Asian enclave–that there was also another Latino part of the neighborhood, especially along Fifth Avenue between the 30s and 50s, which I didn’t really know much about.
Though culturally apart, the Latinos and Chinese in Sunset Park share many things: they’re mostly working-class immigrant families and many own businesses that cater to their respective communities. Especially on the weekends, the streets are always teeming with families taking a stroll or dining out, while vendors hawk their wares. By my own personal observation, Sunset Park appears much less affected by major gentrification than other Brooklyn neighborhoods.
According to Community Board 7’s website, Sunset Park was initially a haven for immigrants from Scandinavia, Ireland and Italy up to the 1950s. In the next decade, the neighborhood became dominated by Latinos from Puerto Rico, followed by immigrants from Central and South America and China. (“The community holds the largest Federal Historic Housing District and has some of the oldest cooperative apartments in the country,” it said). As of the 2010 census, the population of Sunset Park is over 126,000 people–45.5 percent of them are Hispanic, followed by 26.4 percent Asian, and 23.3 percent white.
So not surprisingly, the thing that stands out about the neighborhood is its diversity. Tony Giordano has lived in Sunset Park for 55 years–his grandparents first settled there when Italian immigrants arrived to an already Scandinavian neighborhood. “Many things have kept me in Sunset Park,” he says. “Number one is the location. It allows me to access all the best features of New York City in just a short drive or subway ride. The people are also an important ingredient…they lend a wonderful diversity to the area.”
For photographer Vanessa Velez DeGarcia, it was love that brought her to the neighborhood where she has now lived for 15 years: she moved to Sunset Park after marrying her husband, who was born in the area. To her, Sunset Park’s distinguishable characteristics are the view of the Manhattan skyline from the large park (also named Sunset Park, which runs from 41st to 44th streets between Fifth and Seventh avenues) and the friendliness of the people. “The “Greenway” [bicycle] path leads right into the manufacturing warehouses in the neighborhood and sits across the street from the recycling centers,” she says. “It is an interesting bike ride. I enjoy it like visual poetry and see people quietly pushing shopping carts stacked high with bottles and cans. Broomsticks poking out with plastic bags waving in the breeze remind me of ships slowly wading through narrow waterways.”
Prior to moving to Sunset Park five years ago with her drummer-husband Adam Gold, singer-songwriter-keyboardist Greta Gertler of The Universal Thump had only vaguely heard about the neighborhood, particularly the Chinese part of it. “The diversity of culture is what stands out here,” she says. “This is largely a community of immigrants from around the world starting and raising families. That makes quiet streets filled with good food.”
In contrast, photographer Clay Williams and his wife are relative newbies to the area after living in Bedford-Stuyvesant for years. “Sunset Park wasn’t familiar to either of us,” he says, “but I loved the idea of learning a whole new (to me) New York. Honestly, the food was probably the first selling point, to me. The idea of eating tacos and banh mi sandwiches and dumplings pretty much whenever I feel like it endeared the area to me immediately.” He further adds: “I’m fascinated by all the activity out on the streets and in the parks. There are cultures here I don’t know anything about and all I have to do is wander out my door to see and hopefully learn more about them.”