A community history pilot project by
Sunset Park High School & the NYC Department of Records and Information Services
municipal records & Community History:
In the spring of 2017, the NYC Municipal Archives, a division of the Department of Records and Information Services, gave a community history presentation for 11th grade United States History students from Sunset Park High School (SPHS). Using archival photos and documents from the agency's collection, Municipal Archives 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 over time, the students then set out to interview a local business owner in the community. With help from their teacher, Sarah Crichton, and staff from the NYC Municipal Archives, the students planned their questions and prepared for the interviews.
SPHS students Shams Alsahqani, Paola Escobar, Samira Rabah, and Brittney Sutton, accompanied by staff from the Municipal Archives, interviewed Marty Frankel, owner of Frankel's shoe store in Sunset Park.
student interview with local business owner
Students Shams, Paola, Samira, and Brittney interviewed Marty to learn about how Sunset Park has changed over time and find out his perspective as a local business owner.
Students: Can you tell you tell us about the history of Frankel’s?
- Marty: My grandfather opened Frankel's in 1890. This is not our original store, our original store was the middle of the block over here. Then we moved here. I came on in 1963 and the waterfront was bustling back then the ships came in from all over the world, there were movie theaters, bowling alleys, two sides of the street. All those buildings that you see there were in the middle of the block they knocked them down to build the Gowanus Expressway. I came out of the army in 1963, and the highway was already built. They closed the piers down because back then everything was done by hand. So you needed a lot of people, it was a lot of work. But when the containers came out, they could just put the containers on a truck and bring it anywhere. The problem was that there were no freight trains coming into New York. It didn’t pay to take a container off a ship put it on a truck then bring it to New Jersey, then put it on a train. It made sense to bring the ship right to Jersey, unload the container and put it on the freight. So that closed down the Brooklyn waterfront.
Students: How has the Gowanus Expressway affected the business?
- Marty: My cousin designed the Gowanus expressway, Jerry White. I said "Jerry, why did you do such a lousy job?" He said, "If I did a good job, there would be no work! Look at all the work I caused!" It just changed the neighborhood, so it’s not the same any more. It was residential. In 1974 we had two major riots. People were burning down the neighborhood. Everyone was looting 5th Avenue, and bringing it down to 3rd Avenue. The only reason I saved my store was because I was down here. My store was full of Nike back then.
Students: How have the goods sold in the store changed over time?
- Marty: It was different back when my grandfather opened, you had shoe and clothing stores on every block, and it was very competitive. We used to sell a lot of toothpaste - it wasn’t regular toothpaste, it was in a can - it was tooth powder. You wet it, put it on your toothbrush, then you brush your teeth. Toothpaste was a later invention. It tasted terrible, tasted like chalk. The internet has changed things, it’s over. About 70-80% of my business is online now. The internet. There are many department stores that are going out of business. Amazon is the monster of the industry. I sometimes have people that come in my store, they scan the boxes, and then order it online [from a different business]. I mean it’s hard to compete, you work for almost nothing online. The internet really affects me big time, but I do alright. What’s nice is that I don’t have a mortgage, or rent. If I had to pay for that I’d probably wouldn't be able to stay here. I’m leaving Brooklyn and we are moving to Westfield, New Jersey. I’ll be able to do more online there.
Students: In the past, did you have a lot of customers who worked on the docks?
- Marty: It was mostly longshoremen, a lot of dock workers, all Norwegian, all the dockworkers. The joke was, if you belonged to Sons of Norway, your father couldn’t join unless your father was missing at least one or two fingers. Because all the iron workers, all the dock workers, were always missing one or two fingers. So the joke was, if you have all ten fingers, you can’t join the Sons of Norway. And this was an Irish neighborhood, Italian, some Greeks...a few Spanish people around here but mostly Irish and Italian. If you saw the movie, A Bronx Tale? It really was exactly what this neighborhood was like.