The Lincoln Continental was inspired by Edsel Ford’s frequent travels, and the insights he uncovered helped shape his perception of world-class design. He found inspiration in unexpected places. In that spirit, we partnered with The Atlantic to create The Outposts, a two-part series that celebrates the historic, evolving neighborhoods that prove a city’s identity is built on its frontiers. In Part I: Sunset Park, we explore a Brooklyn neighborhood about a half-hour drive from downtown Manhattan, where New York City’s best tacos, dim sum, and views come together. Sunset Park takes influences from its rich, international legacy and builds upon them. The result is an atmosphere that doesn’t live anywhere else in the city, as told through its geography, history, people, and places.
The city of New York underwent dramatic changes throughout the 19th century, taking step after step towards the multifaceted and bustling character we know today. Rapid industrialization was transitioning the outer boroughs from farmland to residential and commercial neighborhoods. Ethnic enclaves created concentrated pockets of food, art, religion, and more in the boroughs where new arrivals to the country could afford to live.
The Puerto Rican population exploded from 500 to 45,000 between 1900 and 1930; today, the neighborhood is still almost 50 percent Latino, mostly due to the Puerto Rican community continuing to grow into the end of the century. Immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, and other countries, are also part of the mosaic.
Another 40 percent of the neighborhood is Asian—the largest segment of that population is Chinese, many of whom moved into the neighborhood in the 1980s and ‘90s and have since established a Chinatown on the south side of Sunset Park that rivals that of Manhattan. Eighth Avenue and below are populated by dim sum houses, Chinese grocery stores, and Mandarin-speaking churches.
This is one of New York’s most heterogeneous neighborhoods, where Scandinavian vestiges meet Puerto Rican social clubs and entire blocks of dim sum restaurants. The various populations of Sunset Park overlap, but they’re all being affected by growing attention—from Manhattanites looking to relocate somewhere more affordable; from real-estate companies taking note of the emergence of art spaces, public parks, and renovated homes; from restaurateurs eager to join a robust, historic culinary scene. Drawn to that cultural growth, a new and rising wave of people are moving in, and some notable locales are beginning to emerge. Between 17th and 64th Streets, and 8th Avenue and the bay, Sunset Park is starting to step out from under Manhattan’s shadow. “Sunset Park is a gem,” says Johnny Miniaci Jr., whose pizzeria has been a standard of the neighborhood for 40 years, “And it’s starting to sparkle.”
AROUND THE CORNER
Irwin Seow grew up a few blocks from Sunset Park, and spent his teen years “getting into trouble” there, often thinking of the neighborhood as his backyard. His family has long owned businesses in the area, and today Irwin manages their 8th Avenue cafe, Parlay.
At Parlay, Irwin is bringing together the old and the new, quietly adding to the fabric of Sunset Park without taking away from its cultural history—an approach that has earned Parlay a reputation as “the coffee shop that Sunset Park has been waiting for.”
THE CENTER OF IT ALL
Bounded by 5th and 7th Avenues and 41st and 44th Street, the park that lent this neighborhood its name is the highest point in all of Brooklyn. Walking through the park is experiencing a microcosm of New York’s cheerful, controlled chaos. Teenagers play volleyball in one corner while spectators barbecue pork in another and an elderly group practices tai chi across the way. Young families perch on the benches that line the park’s hills, watching as the sun sinks into the Manhattan skyline.
It’s one of the neighborhood places where the mosaic of Sunset Park is really evident: People of every ethnicity, every culture, and every age frequent the park at all times of the day. As residents and businesses come and go, the park remains the heart of the neighborhood.
A STUDIO WITH A VIEW
Industry City, the sweeping, 30-acre warehouse complex along Sunset Park’s waterfront, came to the neighborhood in 2009, heralding a new tide of interest in the neighborhood. The complex is now home to artist studios, innovation labs, retail spaces, dining, and more.
Bri Andersen came to Industry City in hopes of turning a lifelong passion into a new career. Bri learned woodworking from her father, but put the hobby aside in college. A few years ago she started making pieces in her apartment. When it got to be too much, she rented a studio at SPark, a collective creative space in Industry City that was founded by Gary Oshust, a former IT employee who left his career to become a full-time sculptor.
IN WITH THE TIDES
Sunset Park’s setting on New York Harbor tends to anticipate the changes coming to the neighborhood. Since 1895, when it began as six warehouses and one pier known as Bush Terminal, the waterfront has seen the coming and going of war supplies, waves of immigration, and economic changes. It survived as the area’s economy shifted from agriculture to industry and withstood stagnant periods to reach today’s revitalization.
The warehouse and dock infrastructure along the shore have supplied the vast majority of jobs to the neighborhood for more than a century. Sixteen of its warehouses comprise Industry City, the sprawling creative/commercial space where everything from tech startups to furniture makers have collaborative, working, and retail space. Bush Terminal Piers Park, a pristine collection of athletic fields opened to the public in 2014, offers an unparalleled view of the bay.
The jobs being created by new businesses in the neighborhood and along the shore today aren’t branches of chain brands but independent, entrepreneurial efforts, and despite the anxiety that often comes with growth, longtime residents of Sunset Park are hopeful that the neighborhood can accommodate the old as well as the new.
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