While Sunset Park owes its name to a 25-acre hilltop park with panoramic harbor views, the neighborhood’s early history was anchored five avenues downhill, on its industrial waterfront. From the end of the nineteenth century, Sunset Park’s ports served as a docking zone for arriving cargo ships, while nearby factories produced a range of goods from military supplies to clothing. The neighborhood remains working-class and immigrant, though the faces have changed: Once known as “Finn Town” and “Little Norway,” Sunset Park is now majority Latino, with significant Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian, and Mexican communities. The second largest ethnic group is Chinese, a 30,000-plus population concentrated along Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Chinatown.
In recent years, some developers have shown an interest in “reviving” the underused waterfront. In 2013, Jamestown Properties, creators of Chelsea Market, launched Industry City, a billion-dollar retail complex housed in a converted factory on the Sunset Park waterfront. The New York City Economic Development Corporation has also announced plans to develop the waterfront into “a 21st-century model for diverse, dense, and environmentally sustainable industry,” while the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar, which would link Sunset Park to Astoria, likewise portends a major shift for the neighborhood.
Local community activists have been adamant that these changes must not displace or exploit existing communities. Sunset Park residents have lobbied for tenants’ and immigrants’ rights and for environmental justice — the recently opened Bush Terminal Piers Park on the waterfront was a big win — even as the rapid sweep of gentrification is already affecting housing markets and raising doubts about the neighborhood’s traditional manufacturing and service economies. Yet the area, for now, retains much of its unassuming warmth, its flavor, its grit.
Bush Terminal Piers Park
Tucked away on the edge of Sunset Park’s half-shuttered industrial strip, Bush Terminal Piers Park is quietly becoming a favorite spot for New York birdwatchers. Since the port-turned-park opened in 2014, more than sixty species have been spotted — only one a variety of pigeon. Sightings have included rare birds like the snowy owl and the glaucous gull, as well as a pair of ospreys being lovingly tracked by local environmentalists. The Urban Park Rangers and Brooklyn Bird Club offer introductory excursions for newcomers; other attractions include outstanding views of the Statue of Liberty, two multipurpose sports fields, and tidal pools frequented by optimistic fishermen and pebble-wielding kids. Marginal Street and 43rd Street
Sunset Park Diner & Donuts
The throwback feel of this diner is no ploy to lure in the “incredible influx of hipsters” that operator Tommy Mamounas notes Sunset Park has seen in recent years. Sunset Park Diner has been a neighborhood fixture since Tommy’s father, John Mamounas, opened it in 1981 as a single-counter coffee joint. The place was soon serving over 500 dozen donuts a day to commuters heading to Sunset Park’s once-booming industrial district, and has since seen the community through thick and thin, maintaining 24/7 hours through snowstorms, MTA strikes, and even Hurricane Sandy. “As long as we have gas and electricity, we’re open,” says Mamounas, who has a master’s in finance but chose the family business over Wall Street. “You can’t help but feel an obligation to the community when you’ve been here this long, so we keep our doors open around the clock.” Come by any time to enjoy classic diner fare and handmade donuts, and find Tommy there most daytime hours. 889 Fifth Avenue
“All those banks and fish shops down the avenue? Half of them were bars back in the Eighties,” says Brendan Farley, current proprietor of the Soccer Tavern. While most of Farley’s competition faded as Sunset Park’s Eighth Avenue transformed from “Little Norway” to its present status as Brooklyn’s Chinatown, the Soccer Tavern has held on. While the bar is still frequented by an aging sample of the neighborhood’s Scandinavian, blue-collar past, many Asians have become regulars as well: On a Tuesday night at 2 a.m., the pub’s back table is crowded with smiling Malaysian men clasping Coronas. Above the yellowing photos and beer memorabilia decorating the paneled walls, a dusty shelf is cluttered with trophies won by the Soccer Tavern’s longstanding darts teams. “You’ll see the more recent trophies all have Asian names,” Farley remarks over the crooning of Johnny Cash. Bartenders here are pleasingly hands-off, attentive to both customers and the sportscasts flickering from the pub’s several flat-screens. Drinks are no-frills, as are the prices. As Farley puts it, “We keep things simple here.” 6004 Eighth Avenue, 718-439-9336
The doors of the Melody Lanes bowling alley might be locked when you arrive, but catch the attention of a clerk and you’ll be buzzed right in. Inside, the décor is delightfully unironic, complete with faux chandeliers, burgundy-and-teal carpeting, and actual disco lights (by request). While several leagues call Melody Lanes home, there’s still room for the casual bowler and many a birthday party, making for intergenerational organized chaos. Augment your bowling experience with pitcher beer and snack bar food, or retreat to the bar proper for an existential encounter with “The Pete,” Melody Lanes’ mutton-chopped, cummerbund-clad barkeep-slash-philosopher. Toward the end of the night, a few non-bowlers may drop in for a nightcap, but The Pete says he makes sure no one gets too messy. “You better respect my table,” he says. “This is a table of honor.” 461 37th Street, 718-832-2695
New York’s ‘Freest Art School’
Amid the highly curated halls of Industry City, at least a few tenants refuse to take themselves too seriously. Across from a boutique furniture studio, a community of artists with an anarchic streak use Play-Doh to replicate Greek sculpture and reiterate their commitment to “lateralize” the art world. These are members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an art collective created in fierce opposition to “bougieness” and with an equal commitment to fun. In an effort to expand the party, the group invites anyone to join the free art classes at its self- declared university. “It’s art school without debt — and without a degree,” explains Sean J Patrick Carney, a member of the collective and sometime teacher. Past classes have included Chopped-style art challenges, “Japanese art taught in Japanese,” and a semester-long series on colors and feelings. “The idea is, artists learn the most from other artists,” Carney says. “There are no grades, so the onus is on students to show up.” And they do — at least a thousand each semester. 33 34th Street, 6th floor
Maria’s Bistro Mexicano
Among the plethora of mom-and-pop taquerias on Fifth Avenue, the main artery of Sunset Park’s large Latino district, Maria’s markets itself as a “modern take” on classic Mexican cuisine. The exposed brick and multicolored décor are inviting, as is the pleasant open patio in the back — but the drink specials are the real hook here. A daily happy hour runs from noon to 7 p.m. and offers $5 margaritas and sangria, while the regular menu offers a decent array of cocktails for under $10. Maria’s $3 tacos are also a perennial favorite, and for those hungry enough, $9 will get you a whole rotisserie chicken. Afterward, walk off your buzz with a stroll up the hill to Sunset Park’s captivating views of Manhattan. 886 Fifth Avenue, 718-438-1608
Chi Ken Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
To the uninitiated, the rows of restaurants in Sunset Park’s Chinatown can seem overwhelmingly repetitive — but some stand clearly apart. Chi Ken, in the heart of the Chinese district, broadcasts its presence with multiple billboards touting the “superb taste of homeland Taiwan.” Inside, a deli display of turnip cakes, milk buns, and octopus balls illuminates the choice of sides, while main dishes — duck neck, pork rolls, and crispy chicken heart — are prepared in the back. An ambitious choice is the “crazy jumbo squid,” served skewered and deep-fried in seasoned breading, while the more timid may opt for corn dogs, waffle fries, or mozzarella sticks. Opened less than a year ago, Chi Ken already routinely draws lines that trail down the block. Seating is limited, but as most of the fare is classic street food, take it to go and enjoy while strolling Chinatown’s always bustling sidewalks. 5401 Eighth Avenue, 718-633-8877
Sunshine Herb Company
Depending on the staff on duty, your level of Chinese vocabulary, and your skill at nonverbal communication, there’s a good chance you’ll find that homeopathic remedy you’ve been seeking here. Racks of ointments, oils, and drops promise relief for conditions ranging from asthma to impotency, while behind the shop’s long counter, oversize jars teem with dried roots, knotted leaves, and sun-bleached crustaceans. Many of the products at Sunshine claim to “restore balance,” while others promise to harness traditional detoxifying methods that well pre-date the Master Cleanse. Twelve years after it opened, Sunshine retains a mostly Chinese clientele, though that is beginning to change. “Sometimes there are non-Chinese,” says a clerk on duty. “We have products for all people.” 5213 Eighth Avenue, 718-633-6088
The first thing Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, tells you is that her organization’s offices at 166a 22nd Street are, in fact, located in Sunset Park — not “Greenwood,” as real estate agents like to claim. “Sunset Park starts at 15th Street,” she says, “and we’re holding it down.” UPROSE, founded in 1966 to support the neighborhood’s Latino community, has a long history of using grassroots organizing to defend Sunset Park against community displacement and environmental degradation. In addition to youth programs, climate justice advocacy, and educational grants for young people of color, UPROSE has recently focused more on Sunset Park’s maritime industrial zone, which has been increasingly sought out by developers. Yeampierre is no fan of those seeking to “make Sunset Park the next Williamsburg” through developments like Industry City. Instead, she says, UPROSE seeks to promote projects that prioritize environmental sustainability and long-term, well-compensated jobs for local residents. Blue-collar work forms the backbone of the community, says Yeampierre: “We don’t want to see our people become a service class for the city’s most privileged. We’re thinking about our own future.” 166a 22nd Street, 718-492-9307
Botanica San Miguel y Anaisa
Whether you’re looking for spiritual guidance or wholesale patchouli, Leonardo Hidalgo is at your service. Born in the Dominican Republic, Hidalgo has been offering “white magic” services and aura cleansings for nearly three decades. For $30, Hidalgo will read your fortune, break a curse, or connect you to one of the twenty-one saints honored at the shop. These procedures take place according to “traditional practices” using “natural and original” materials imported from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela, Hidalgo says. The shop welcomes walk-in spiritual seekers — including “white people and hipsters” as well as Catholics, Hidalgo makes clear. If you’re not quite ready to step into the botanica’s candlelit back room, the shop’s narrow shelves are well stocked with oils, throngs of icons, an arsenal of candles, and even a few stray Buddhas. Hidalgo says the quality of his products is guaranteed, but he’s quick to remind his customers: “faith is everything.” 511 46th Street #1, 718-369-6051