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Neighborhoods New York: Sunset Park, Brooklyn

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Sunset Park is a neighborhood of people who are really just trying to go about their lives.  It’s not necessarily got any “landmarks” as such, save for people trying to hit up some of the cheap restaurants – taco places on 5th Avenue or banh mi on 8th – or the park that gives the neighborhood its name.  But for the most part it’s just people trying to be there.

The neighborhood’s cheap rent has been drawing Asian and Latino residents for years, and the neighborhood now has two different “main drags” – 5th Avenue is home base for the Mexican and Dominican residents, with signs all in Spanish and lots of signs in windows hawking calling cards.  Every other block has a tiny café selling tacos, and a few storefront churches and even fewer botanicas are tucked amid the shops alongside the cellphone stores.  A few blocks east, 8th Avenue is where you’ll find Brooklyn’s answer to Chinatown, with banh mi or dumpling houses replacing the taco stands.

I visited on a winter Sunday, and both streets were packed – mothers shepherding kids into and out of stores, young couples on dates, a few people heading up the hill towards Sunset Park with sleds in hand.  Small knots of crowds stood outside both of the big churches on 4th Avenue, and outside the big dim sum palaces on 8th Avenue – I was tempted to venture in, but suspected I’d be waiting an hour for a table and kept walking.  I did brave the crowds at Fei Long – a huge Asian supermarket I’ve been shopping at for a couple years now, stopping in every couple months to stock up on the harder-to-find ingredients for when I want to cook Japanese or Southeast Asian dishes.  Lots of New York supermarkets have their little shelf of Asian ingredients – Fei Long has an entire aisle just devoted to noodles.

At some point the crowds on 8th had me so claustrophobic I ducked over to 9th Avenue for a few blocks just to escape.  The side streets and smaller avenues are almost empty, but it’s also where you see the most “ordinary” stuff – lawn ornaments flanking stoops, decorative decals in windows, conversations between neighbors.  A couple of the buildings I passed still had red-and-gold banners framing the doors, holdovers from the Chinese New Year.  On another block I passed a building whose owner had an obvious love of cows – there were cow figurines in the windows, cow lawn sculptures in the little front garden, and two mailboxes festooned with cow heads and black spots.  On another block, a car pulled out of its parking spot as I passed, and a young couple suddenly burst out of the neighboring building, the man sprinting further down the street and the woman dashing to hold the vacated spot until her husband could move their car closer.

The crowds actually kept me away from Sunset Park itself.  I did walk past at one point, smiling at the crowds of people on sleds and inner tubes coasting down the park’s huge hill – the park boasts one of the highest points in Brooklyn, and crowds of people were heading there after a late winter snow, ready to hit the slopes.  A few too many people for my taste, though.  But I’d heard instead about another new park along the waterfront; I ventured there instead.

At first that felt like a huge mistake.  I had to cross underneath  the BQE overpass to get there, racing to beat a couple of streetlights both ways.  The last couple blocks before the water were nothing but warehouses, nondescript big blocky buildings sporting signs with names like “Global InterNation Imports” or “Fong & Sanchez Wood Ltd.”  There were no windows, no doors, and no people.  And no upkeep on the sidewalks, unfortunately –  every few feet there was either a huge patch of icy unmelted snow, and a few feet beyond that were big sloppy puddles of slush and water, ankle-deep.  Sometimes you’d find a spare board thrown over one puddle for people who wanted to pick their way across.  The walking was still bad enough that I head into the street in a couple spots, glad of the abandoned roads.

The park was tucked within the old Bush Terminal complex – an abandoned industrial park with warehouses and factories and shipping terminals nestled on the waterfront.  The park is part of a major renovation and overhaul, with the city working to make over the factories and warehouses into arts spaces and lofts, with a few small businesses already having moved in.   I passed by an old cafeteria building on my way through the complex, one sign listing the hours of operation and a sign right beside it declaring it closed.  An awning over the door bore a single word in Greek.  Next to that was the old terminal headquarters, now home to the park’s office – the headquarters still bore a statue of the terminal’s founder, one Irving Bush; as I passed, a husband and wife were taking pictures of the sculpture as their son occasionally pelted them with snowballs.

And just past that was the park proper – and near-total silence.  A jogging and bike path ran along one side of the park, a straight in-and-out loop; but a far more interesting path skirted the water’s edge, leading out along a pier stretching into the harbor and then up a hill perched on another spit of land.  Flocks of seagulls and terns huddled in the bay between the two, picking at whatever cracks they could find between the huge ice floes finally breaking up after the winter’s cold.  I walked to the very end of the pier first – the wind off the harbor was cold and strong enough that it felt like my own breath was involuntarily sucked out of me.  But at the very end of the pier was a bracingly clear view of southern Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, and I lingered as long as I could stand the wind before heading back in to scale the hill, hoping to get an even better view.

And it would have been a fine one if I’d been able to get to the very edge of the landspit.  But the very tip was given over to a nature preserve, a big chain-link fence protecting a plot of land dotted with trees and brush, and the occasional bird rustling in the undergrowth.  I kept following the path anyway, heading back down the hill towards another path along another tidal pool where a flock of seagulls were all fishing in the thawed surf; in the bushes just to my left a sandpiper followed alongside me, stopping every so often to watch me.

And at some point I realized that the wind was the only thing I could hear.  There was no car noise – the streets were nearly abandoned – and I couldn’t even hear the sound of the nearby trains.  The freighters in the harbor were also strangely silent.  Aside from the occasional faint shouts from a group of boys playing in the ballfield across the park, it was nothing but me, the gulls, and the wind.

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