Sunset Park teaches us, in case we forgot, that we all are passing through. The Lenape-Algonquian people, of whom the Canarsee were an ethnic neighborhood, lived here from the Middle Ages. They left no infrastructure except for some gigantic mounds of seashells out in the harbor. They moved with the seasons, up the Hudson and down the Delaware. They fought among themselves, they caught European diseases. In the 1640s, the Canarsee “sold” Brooklyn to the Dutch, apparently with no idea what that meant, but hung around anyway. As family groups dwindled, they merged with other tribes, and faded. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac for 1912 lists 19 local chapters of the “Improved Order of Red Men”—a fraternal body descended from the Sons of Liberty and not Native American at all— who took names including Leni Lenape, Montauk, and Syosset, but not Canarsee. (Also listed: a Brooklyn chapter of the Order of Owls, Nest No. 1419, at 696 5th Avenue. They, too, have flown.) Do the Canarsee survive in any way? At least one born-here Brooklynite has taken one of those home DNA tests, which revealed an alleged two-percent Native American ancestry. Canarsie, re-spelled, survives in Brooklyn miles away, as a different ethnic neighborhood.
Present in New York harbor as sailors perhaps even before Henry Hudson in 1609, Dutchmen began to “buy” land and farm on western Long Island from the mid-1630s. The Dutch West India Company presumed to issue charters—“patents”—from 1646 for six townships, five Dutch and one (Gravesend) English. Jan ter Bosch, ancestor of Irving T. Bush, arrived in 1662. An informal north-south divide—more or less the route of the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway—separated the “interests” of the Dutch and the English on Long Island. There was no Dutch-English war here, but in Europe the Dutch lost, and in 1664 New Netherland and New Amsterdam became… well, you know. The Dutch farmers, their names, and their descendants remained in southern “Breuckelen” and throughout the region, and are with us today, but not as a community. Even once-common expressions such as “in Dutch,” “Dutch treat,” and “Dutch courage” are fading, which is fine with the Dutch, who find them offensive.
Enslaved Africans worked Dutch farms in Sunset Park from the 1640s, and some of them had rights under the Dutch government that other New World slaves did not. But also here, perhaps as early as 1625, were free African men working as whalers and merchant sailors, a few of whom stayed to form a small free African community in New Amsterdam. In other words, they were here before almost any white Europeans. Before and after emancipation, African-Americans formed communities in Brooklyn, but not (in any big way) in Sunset Park.
Of course they were here, they owned the place, after 1664. It’s suggestive, though, that as of 1912, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (still there, on 4th Avenue at 50th Street) was the only Anglican congregation in Sunset Park, unless you stretch the neighborhood’s northern edge to include 5th Avenue at 17th Street. Of course, people could live in one neighborhood and worship in another, even in the horse and buggy era, but when Sunset Park’s rebirth as a residential neighborhood really got going, in the 1840s, most of the new people coming in were Catholic and
And the neighborhood stayed that way, for decades, defined by its Irishness. In a sense, though, it’s misleading to describe Sunset Park as particularly Irish, because almost all of developed western Brooklyn, from Vinegar Hill to Bay Ridge, became an “Irish neighborhood” in those years. So much of what we see today in and around Sunset Park—streets, highways, railroads, tunnels, the Gowanus Canal, the vast Bush Terminal complex, houses upon houses—was built largely by Irish labor, men who walked to work. And then they were gone, mostly, up and out, even before the wrenching changes to the waterfront in the mid-20th. Not gone from the city, necessarily, or even from Brooklyn, but gone from here, leaving behind the aptly named Irish Haven at 4th Avenue and 58th Street, where much more recent arrivals from Ireland can raise a glass to what was.
My first visit to Sunset Park, 30-something years ago, followed a show-me demand to a friend, who claimed there was a Norwegian-Chinese restaurant, and he wasn’t kidding: the Atlantic, on 8th Avenue at 54th Street, what was once nicknamed Lapskaus Boulevard, the main drag of Little Norway. (Lapskaus is a beef stew that has yet to really catch on in Brooklyn.) The menu had Norwegian dishes on one side and Chinese on the other. I studied both, and had Chinese food. The Norwegians were later 19th century arrivals, Lutherans, ship hands and workers for Irving Bush et al., and for a while they may have been the largest ethnic group in Sunset Park, after a period of rubbing (sharp) elbows with the Catholic Irish. I’m including here the Danes (ahem) and Swedes, who didn’t necessarily like one another too much back in Scandinavia, but in Brooklyn they were all paisan. They were the big losers in the neighborhood-dismembering Gowanus Expressway project mid-century, and the commercial collapse of the waterfront gave many the big push, but they were a presence here through the 1970s. More recently, the Atlantic hung on for a while after my meal, the Chinese owner changed the name to Wee Kee, kept the menu, but finally gave up. Now the Lutheran churches serve mainly Latino parishioners; Nordic Delicacies on 3rd Avenue in Bay Ridge is also closed; the Scandinavian East Coast Museum is “virtual,” i.e., a website. The Danish Athletic Club lives, though, across from Leif Erickson Park, on a precarious commercial stretch of 65th Street, next door to the Swedish Football Club. Out front, one recent Saturday morning, sat a delivery car painted like a Mexican flag. I had to hurry and snap my photos because I was standing in the path of a Chinese New Year parade.
Same Saturday morning: outside Our Lady of Czestochowa & St. Casimir R.C. Church, on 24th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues, just as a funeral service is letting out. Down the hill, to the west, the Gowanus overpass frames a view of the Statue of Liberty. The people leaving, a big group, three generations, know each other, they’re talking, they’re holding on, they’re fussing over the children, they may all very well be of Polish descent. The church and its buildings, here and on the next block, make a sort of campus. Imagine a loop from here to 5th Avenue and 18th Street, the site of the recently-closed Eagle Provisions (once the White Eagle Market), run for many years by the Zawisny family as a sort of Polish Sahadi’s, and you have the outline of a former “Little Poland” in the northwest corner of Sunset Park. Today, however, this is a Latino community, fast, busy avenues, new housing on the side streets. The Polish people arrived here with the Scandinavians, and mostly left with them, for the same reasons, but many have stayed, and newcomers from Poland have joined them. People think of Greenpoint as Polish Brooklyn, but it’s here, too.
By now it’s Saturday afternoon, we’re on the other, eastward slope of the Sunset Park ridge, and the sun that was shining on Our Lady of C has given way to a snow squall. The northeastern corner of the neighborhood—7th to 9th Avenues, say, between 45th Street and Green-Wood Cemetery—was, yes, Finn Town. The Finns came with the other Scandinavians, in service to Bush Terminal, but kept apart: Finnish comes from a different language group than Norwegian/Swedish/Danish, making it harder to communicate, and they went about things differently. Most dramatically, the Finns formed cooperative housing and business relationships, starting here, on 43d Street between 8th and 9th: the first of what would be 30 or more non-profit housing “co-ops,” the first of their kind in Brooklyn, which came to define their community. The first building was called “Alku”—Finnish for something like “Beginning”—and its next-door neighbor—you can still read the name over the entrance—was “Alku Toinen,” “Second Beginning.” Surely there are some Finnish-Americans still about, but on this day, the people out and walking are Latino, Chinese, and most notably, Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic, who are the biggest new presence in Sunset Park where it meets/overlaps Borough Park. And on this particular day of new experiences, this is where Chinese New Year meets Shabbat.
Last arriving among these groups, but far from least in impact, the Italians have mostly moved away, too, now. The 5th Avenue commercial corridor that was their “main street” in Sunset Park is melting-pot Latino today, and if an Italian presence lingers more than, say, a Norwegian one, it’s mainly due to the enduring popularity of pizza over herring. As with the Irish, though, it must be noted that the “neighborhood” was not just here, it was all of “South Brooklyn,” from Atlantic Avenue down to Bay Ridge, before the expressway and the Battery Tunnel carved it up. Italian longshoremen loaded and unloaded ships up and down the Brooklyn waterfront, “shaping up” for work crews each morning as Latino men do today outside the Home Depot on Hamilton Avenue. The Italian dockworker’s family in Arthur Miller’s classic play “A View from the Bridge” lives in what’s now called Carroll Gardens, which retains some Italian character even as more and more families sell their brownstones and go elsewhere. Here in Sunset Park, you have to look hard for any surviving Italian landmarks. Following the trail of William B. Helmreich’s valuable and entertaining new book, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, I did find Tony’s Park Barber Shop on 5th Avenue at 44th Street—now with a Latino clientele—but Frank’s Shoe Repair in the next block has already vanished, marking time as an empty storefront under renovation, awaiting whatever comes next.
Kenneth T. Jackson et al, The Encyclopedia of New York City, Yale 1995.
William B. Helmreich, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, Princeton 2016.
R to 25th, 36th, 45th, 53rd, 59th Streets (4th Avenue)
N to 8th Avenue (62nd Street)
B37 (3rd Avenue)
B63 (5th Avenue)
B70 (8th Avenue)
All with crosstown connections