Sunset Park tour
Rich immigrant history, Latin American diversity, a transforming waterfront, great views, the city's largest Chinatown--and ongoing debates about change
Sunset Park represents one of the best opportunities to learn of Brooklyn's rich history and complex, multi-ethnic present, with its Chinese- and Latin-American populations. While the neighborhood's namesake park, with its WPA-era pool and recreation center, dates back to the 19th century, the neighborhood of Sunset Park, until the 1960s, was divided into South Brooklyn (mostly) and Bay Ridge.
It initially grew with immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Norway, and Finland, leading to institutions like the massive Our Lady of Perpetual Help basilica, the Lutheran Medical Center, and the country's first co-operative apartments.
Sunset Park supported the city's pre-eminent port, but the post-World War II decline in shipping, as well as the Gowanus Expressway ushered in by Robert Moses, led to deterioration and decay. As older white ethnic populations left, Puerto Ricans came for the factory work, followed by other Spanish speakers from Central and South America.
Thanks to community organizing, continued immigration, government-supported housing rehabilitation, and better policing, Sunset Park began to revive, with in influx of newcomers and new investment.
In the 1980s, the city's third major Chinatown developed, centered around the N train stop at 8th Avenue and the lagging Scandinavian shopping strip. Just recently Brooklyn's Chinese community--centered in Sunset Park but spreading south and east--was assessed as the city's most populous.
With its large complement of row houses (and new--as of 2019--historic districts), Sunset Park has long been seen as a gentrification frontier. At the same time, it is one of New York City's most crowded neighborhoods, as rising rents force struggling families to double up. That also means crowded schools, a deficit in park space, and environmental justice struggles.
Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park has a largely Latino flavor, while Eighth Avenue is mostly Chinese. Both are worth seeing, along with the Fourth Avenue corridor, the park, and more. While this tour is not billed as an eating tour, there are a number of opportunities for snacks, from sidewalk vendors, dumpling houses, taquerias, and bakeries.
We typically also (briefly) visit massive Industry City, to the west of the highway, takes in a vast complex undergoing renovation (including the practice facility for the Brooklyn Nets, which opened early 2016). Industry City too has proceeded with both praise and controversy.
Distance from Midtown Manhattan: 30-40 minutes by subway
Basic tour length: 2.5 hours (see fees)
Starting place: Varies, but typically near Sunset Park High School at 35th Street/Fouth Avenue, near D/N/R subway station
Ending place: Varies, but either 8th Avenue stop on N or 53rd Street stop on R
Highlights: Ethnic diversity, industrial development, architecture, new development, parks
Before tour: Lunch/snack in neighborhood
After tour: Lunch/snack in neighborhood
Potential tour extensions with me: Within tour, go to Industry City; continue to nearby Green-Wood Cemetery; Bay Ridge; Borough Park
Why I like leading this tour: Sunset Park is a microcosm for some of the struggles, triumphs, and tensions in Brooklyn, and a gateway for generations of immigrants and migrants.