SUNSET PARK'S CHINATOWN has one crucial bit of infrastructure, and you might walk right by it: the 8th Avenue (at 62nd Street) subway station, a low-slung, washed-out, pigeon roost that could pass for an old bathhouse at a city beach but for the yellow-circled “N” out front. It sits on a slight overpass above the wide railroad cut of the former Sea Beach Line, but “elevated” is not the word. It’s fronting for a trench.
Those in search of Brooklyn geography will find some here. The train tracks follow a gap in the ridge, running east-west, between Irish Hill (5th Avenue and 60th Street) on the north and Owl’s Head Park to the southwest, below 65th Street. The gap, and the hill due south, also account for the death-defying split of the Gowanus Expressway and Belt Parkway at this spot above 3rd Avenue. Even without all the construction, there would be a physical boundary here between Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.
For the Chinese people coming to this neighborhood, beginning in the early 1970s, that 8th Avenue station was the focus, the reason to be here, a direct, reliable, even speedy route to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where the work was. Sunset Park housing went for much less than Chinatown’s (and it’s often beautiful). The people who came here didn’t speak or read English or any western language. In Manhattan, the subway stations along Canal Street had signs in Chinese characters. 8th Avenue out here, no. So people had to figure out, and communicate, how to know when to get off the train. The N, subterranean through western Brooklyn, hooks left after 59th Street, ducks under 4th Avenue, and emerges, reluctantly, into daylight as you approach 8th Avenue. Chinese residents would tell the newcomers, “Look for the blue sky.”
I'M SITTING in an appealing 4th Avenue café with Tarry Hum, Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her recent book, Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, has run through this series of posts on the neighborhood, and today she is sharing her own stories.
Her family arrived in 1970, via Montreal and Park Slope’s Garfield Place, from Toishan in southeast China, near the great river port city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton. Not near enough, perhaps: Tarry’s father jokes that they are “hillbilly Cantonese.” Both her parents worked in Chinatown garment factories and travelled the Blue-Sky Line. Her father found their Sunset Park house, a few blocks from the station, with the help of a Chinese-American realtor, and Tarry’s book emphasizes the role such agents have played in assembling this community. (In real estate, some things must be naturally cross-cultural: the agent told Tarry’s father that the house was in Bay Ridge, which it isn’t. This does recall the joyous whirl of NYC apartment hunting in those years, when a listing for “Brooklyn Heights vicinity” could be anywhere from Gowanus to Oz.)
THERE HAD BEEN almost no Asian people moving to the U.S. since the 1920s. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, removed most of the restrictions of the National Origins Quota Act. As Tarry writes, the new law “had a transformative impact by unleashing a massive human in-migration from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.” She uses the term “pluricultural” to describe the impact on New York City, where “no single immigrant group dominates or constitutes a majority of the city’s foreign-born population.” For Tarry, Sunset Park is a laboratory of pluriculture, and home.
THE HUMS joined the first Chinese settlers in the neighborhood, but their neighbors were mainly Irish and Italian families. Eighth Avenue through the 50s still looked like Little Scandinavia, with such institutions as Otto’s Bakery and the Atlantic restaurant, but not for much longer. As on the 5th Avenue shopping strip, the change has been more cultural than architectural. The buildings are mostly the same buildings from the Municipal Archives’ 1940s and 1980s tax photos, with a new life. In 2017 there are, lingering, a Turkish mosque, and a “soccer tavern” flying the Irish flag.
Change in Sunset Park, as we’ve seen, can be subtle, and here it lacks even the distinctive (but much like the Irish) colors of Mexican 5th Avenue. The incoming Chinese population for years now has come overwhelmingly from Fujian province, up the coast from Guangzhou, across the strait from Taiwan. The spread of the Chinese community has been chiefly northward on an 8th Avenue through-line, as denoted by the move of the Reverend Samuel Wong’s Chinese Promise Baptist Church to newer quarters up on 41st Street, in what was Finn Town. The latest “melting pot” zone, where populations intermingle, is mainly-residential 9th Avenue; one block further east, Fort Hamilton Parkway is predominantly Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic now. The Cantonese population, like others before it, has chosen to move away, and a booming economy in Guangzhou has encouraged many potential emigrants to stay there. Some New York Cantonese people have even chosen to move back, as some of western Brooklyn’s newer Irish population did during the “Celtic Tiger” years of plenty.
Change throughout the city also means the G word—gentrification—which figures prominently in Tarry Hum’s book, and I must thank her for helping me understand (finally) how it works in Sunset Park. Yes, housing prices have gone up, and yes, there are new high-rises on the way, not just along the waterfront, but down in the “border region” in the 60s, some backed by Chinese venture capital. Unlike other parts of the city, however, where gentrification has often meant one racial group replacing another, here it has been characterized by new people from the same group, but with more money. Tarry says this is even more evident in the Chinese (and pan-Asian) community of Flushing and farther-eastern Queens, a land of single-family homes with driveways, more dependent on the Long Island Railroad than on the MTA. Through it all, Sunset Park’s Chinese area has, somehow, remained a neighborhood of workers, travelling each day to the same garment-industry and service-industry jobs as the earlier generation along 8th Avenue. Maybe, with the City’s newly-renewed commitment to manufacturing in Bush Terminal/Industry City, some of these people will soon “commute” only a few stops on the N train to 4th Avenue stations, or, like the thousands and thousands before them, just walk down the hill to work.
LIKE SO MANY OF US, Tarry Hum has left the old neighborhood. Even if you stay, sometimes the old neighborhood leaves you. Her father still lives in the Sunset Park house he bought 43 years ago, surrounded now by Chinese people. The Irish and Italian families are few, the Norwegian community fading to a memory. But his neighbors are Fujianese who speak Mandarin, which Tarry’s father does not. He feels, once again, like a minority.
Along 8th Avenue on Presidents’ Day, however, the minority is myself, walking up and down, trying to figure out how the blue sky thing works at night.
Tarry Hum, Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park (Temple University Press, 2014.)
B70 along 8th Avenue.
Bike 7th or 9th Avenues, be careful (or better, walk) on 8th.