YOU SHOULD WALK THIS NORTH TO SOUTH, starting at, say, 25th Street, after gazing at the Gothic spires of Green-Wood Cemetery, Sunset Park’s monk parakeet neighborhood.
Alongside the cemetery, 5th Avenue stays flat as the rail bed it was until 1940. The low-rise business blocks across the avenue, with a few scattered houses, still look like what you might see under an elevated train. But south of 36th Street, the old 5th Avenue El split like a pitchfork, with one tine bending west and then down 3rd Avenue, and the other skewing east toward Borough Park. Straight ahead, from here to Bay Ridge, 5th Avenue has always climbed in the sunlight.
Even without the El, though, Sunset Park divides here. A green panhandle, Green-Wood’s maintenance yard, drops sharply from the west side of the avenue, you’re suddenly crossing a gorge, then you’re looking down on your right at a rail yard and up, on your left, at the MTA’s Jackie Gleason Bus Depot. (Its Ralph Kramden statue has left the station.) By 40th Street, the road is rising, then leveling to a mesa as the commercial strip of what’s really a different neighborhood, bright with Mexican orange and green.
PUERTO RICO BECAME A U.S. TERRITORY after the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Jones Act of 1917 gave U.S. citizenship to residents of Puerto Rico. Some people from there moved to New York, along with everyone else in the world.
In 1924 the U.S. Congress passed the National Origins Quota Act, effectively ending immigration from eastern and southern Europe and all of Asia. From the mid-20s, demand for labor in greater New York struggled with this loss of supply. Much of the need was filled by African-Americans from the South, and newer Americans from Puerto Rico.
Sunset Park in the 1920s—Irish-Italian-Scandinavian Sunset Park—did not feel this as one more of its great migrations, just a gradual thing. Look at the NYC Municipal Archives’ 1924 photos of children enjoying a “snow day” on 5th Avenue at 51st Street: these could be stills from Hal Roach’s new and popular Our Gang silent movies, tacked up there outside the Sunset and Park Theaters. What could change?
The Depression depressed. Bush Terminal, the engine of the neighborhood, stopped growing. Fewer new jobs, fewer new people seeking jobs. Robert Moses pushed an expressway down 3rd Avenue. Maybe more people were going than coming. The older European populations kept dwindling.
Turn the page, and World War II put the waterfront back in business. Nationalized, the piers and warehouses and factories created thousands of jobs. The work brought thousands from Puerto Rico to Sunset Park, and through the 1940s and 50s, transformed the western side of the ridge into a Spanish-speaking community.
JUST BY GEOGRAPHY, this mile of 5th Avenue was fated to be someone’s main drag. Look back from 40th Street and see how high you’ve climbed: the view stretches north to the Williamsburgh Savings Bank and the new skyscrapers of downtown Brooklyn.
Here are no skyscrapers. The feeling is low-rise and intimate, the avenue a snug two lanes wide, bus and truck drivers picking their way around the double-parking. Most of this construction, or something very much like it, was here a hundred years ago. In many of the historical photos, your best guess at a date will come from the cars. Storefronts still look mostly like family businesses, with just a few smallish chain outlets. Don’t worry, you can buy a phone and an international calling card on every block.
The side streets, too, were built up before any of us walked here. Wood-frame homes “evolved,” builder by builder, fire by fire, termite by termite, into attached row houses with facades of brownstone or Ridgewood yellow brick. (Especially in the northern parts of the neighborhood, that “evolution” goes on, but in modern architectural styles.)
The people being served here still mostly speak Spanish, or spoke it first. It’s the nations that have changed, and multiplied. You see it not only in the green-orange awnings and signage—Productos Mexicanos, Antojitos Mexicanos—but in the little visual hints along the way of Peru, El Salvador, Ecuador… Productos Tropicales could come from anywhere.
When the signs are bi-lingual, the second language is as likely to be Chinese now as English. There are some Chinese restaurants, too, as you walk farther south, and some Chinese-Latino places, and even one pioneer offering Japanese baked goods and Thai ice cream.
So who, you might reasonably ask, are all these other people? I don’t want to overplay what Tarry Hum, Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College, calls “a global immigrant neighborhood” (and she grew up here). But many of the people walking 5th Avenue from 40th to 60th Street, on a cold, slushy, Saturday morning, probably don’t come from the countries I’ve just mentioned. And I don’t think people from all over Brooklyn are traveling here to shop.
So I’m left to conclude that they live here. A lot of elderly people, maybe second or third generation European, traces of Old Brooklyn. Some African-American people, some West Indian accents. Younger people with Eastern European accents. India, Pakistan, the Middle East. Not forgetting—although how do you add it up?—the random humanity that finds its way into every neighborhood of this city. Okay, global.
A PUERTO RICAN COMMUNITY, and a Dominican one, are still here, too, multi-generational, Sunset Park-rooted as deep as many of the Old Ones. They still have their own businesses here. They endured the economic troubles of the neighborhood after the waterfront declined, the 50s, 60s, 70s. They have continued to work in the factories and warehouses and contracting businesses that have survived, and even rebounded, down on 3rd Avenue and west. Just this week, Mayor de Blasio has committed to building a new manufacturing “campus” at Bush Terminal, with the intention that working people here will benefit. Other jobs to follow.
There may be hints of West Side Story in Sunset Park, but no epic clash of races. Nobody tore up the middle of it to build Lincoln Center. (3rd Avenue, well…) What happened here from the 1940s to the present happened slowly, and in the context of a Spanish-speaking community. Puerto Rican people faced and overcame the obstacles and discrimination that any newcomers face, and then some. They opened a door to a Latino population here. If they have moved away, they have gone somewhere by choice, much as any Sunset Park community has. The suburbs always beckon to some of us. Anyone who tried NYC “Mexican” food in the 70s and 80s can attest that there was little or no Mexican population here. The lovely Old Mexico restaurant in Brooklyn Heights topped its enchiladas with mozzarella, for lack of the right queso. The arrival of people from Mexico seems mainly a product of the City’s economic revival in the 90s and beyond.
THE WALK STARTS TO CLIMB AGAIN toward its southern end, in the middle 50s, becoming a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, atop what was once locally known as Irish Hill. The signs on the railings outside are in Spanish now. The church’s altar boys have included Kevin “Chuck” Connors, athlete turned western actor, who as a 28 year-old rookie in 1949 had one (1) at-bat for the Dodgers (grounder, DP). Had he but hit, he would have plaques outside his family’s Sunset Park residences, souvenirs in the bodegas, maybe a park. Leif Ericson gets a park.
Across 60th Street, 5th Avenue quickly descends to the expressway, and you know you’re changing neighborhoods. The Basilica, striking and immense, gazes west to the harbor and the Church of St. Michael at 4th and 42nd, Sunset Park’s other great monument. They watch each other as they watch over 5th Avenue. But now so do you, standing in front of OLPH, once again looking back the way you’ve come. The “global” shopping street reveals itself: small, circumscribed, un-monumental, fragile, just a mile along a narrow shelf, balanced among all the houses. The people make it.
Tarry Hum, Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park (Temple 2014).
R & N to 25th or 59th Streets.
B63 to 5th Avenue.