MUNICIPAL RECORDS & COMMUNITY HISTORY: PROJECT BACKGROUND
In the spring of 2017, NYC Municipal Archives staff gave a community history presentation to 11th grade students at the Sunset Park High School (SPHS). Using archival photos and documents from the agency's collection, the staff engaged students about local Sunset Park history, infrastructure, and community change.
In a civic effort to document change in Sunset Park and understand how the neighborhood has evolved, the students then set out to interview a local business owner. With help from their teacher, Sarah Crichton, the students planned questions and prepared for the interviews.
SPHS students Bryan Morales, Giovanni Ortiz, Martha Ramirez, Jacqueline Vazquez, interviewed Juan Nunez, owner of International Restaurant in Sunset Park.
"I came here in 1967. I came looking for a better life here in the United States." -Juan Nunez
COMMUNITY HISTORY: STUDENT INTERVIEW WITH LOCAL BUSINESS OWNER
Students Bryan, Giovanni, Martha, and Jacqueline interviewed Juan to learn how he thinks Sunset Park changed and learn his perspective as a local business owner.
Students: What motivated you to come to the United States? And what motivated you to open this business?
- Juan: Well, I came here in 1967. I came looking for a better life here in the United States. I worked in a Greek diner for 15 years until I found this place in '84. At that time it was a supermarket. I started working here 18 hours a day. I still work 15 hours a day. I’m 57 years old.
Students: Has your family helped you with the business?
- Juan: Yes, my wife worked with me. My sons too, even though they were studying chemical engineering, were here working with me, and my daughter studied business administration and now works for a medical office in Connecticut.
Students: What is the most popular dish people ask for?
- Juan: Mostly they order carne guisada, rice and beans, or pork chop, beef with onions, seafood.
Students: What is your favorite dish?
- Juan: Chicken. Steak I make very well. I like it with broccoli and rice.
Students: What was Sunset Park like was when you started this business?
- Juan: A lot of junkies, people using a lot of drugs and they inject them. This was a smaller place back then. Once I went to the bathroom - junkies almost never close the door - and I found one shooting up and I took him out with my bare fists outside. They were under control until one time there was a public phone, and one day a man was talking on phone and was angry with the other person, saying bad words and a lot of angry things. So I go and hang up the phone, and say go outside, and told him here this place is respected and we don’t accept people who are making scenes.
Students: Have things improved since then?
- Juan: They’ve improved quite a bit compared to those times, possibly before you were born - you were born possibly in 2000. Then it was fixed and Giuliani, who was the mayor, picked up the groups that were lined up down the block to buy drugs. And that’s how it was, but it has improved. It is not that drugs are gone, but drugs are more controlled.
Students: So, do you think all of this will continue to improve?
- Juan: I hope that, yes, it will continue to improve and be a little better.
Students: Have you enjoyed working in and owning this business?
Juan: It was always like me to have a business since I was in the Dominican Republic. At the age of nine I started selling sugar by the pound in a bodega - well, here it is called a cellar but there it’s called a jutería - it’s different, you see. I was here 9 or 10 years when I bought a business in Greenpoint and lost my whole savings in nine months. It was more than one hundred thousand dollars for a supermarket. And I started working and I've always worked. I have always worked 15 or 20 hours day thanks to God above.
The community history project in Sunset Park is continuing. A City Service Corps fellow at the Municipal Archives is working with Sunset Park High School students again and with the Center for Family Life. The stories gathered in the project will become a permanent part of the New York City Municipal Archives.