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The rise of Sunset Park: A diverse nabe with many draws sees revitalization

New Yorkers sit in Sunset Park overlooking the

New Yorkers sit in Sunset Park overlooking the New York City skyline. (Jeremy Bales) Credit: New Yorkers sit in Sunset Park overlooking the New York City skyline. (Jeremy Bales)

Since the 1800s, when thousands of people went to work on Sunset Park’s bustling waterfront, the area has been a magnet for immigrants.

First came the Finns, the Norwegians and Swedes, then the Irish, Polish and Italians, the Puerto Ricans during the ’70s and most recently the Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Mexicans and Chinese, according to local experts.

Jeremy Laufer, District Manager of Community Board 7, laughs when he says “our most recent immigrants are from Manhattan.”

“Just don’t call Sunset Park ‘newly discovered,’” warns Laufer. “It’s been a solid neighborhood for 150 years!”

Rovika Rajkishun, who moved from the Upper West Side to 31st Street in Sunset Park 11 years ago, is exactly the kind of “immigrant” that Laufer is talking about.

Rajkishun looked to buy in “brownstone Brooklyn,” but was priced out. In Sunset Park she found exactly what she wanted: a two-story brick house with a backyard and a drive-in garage. “I adore this neighborhood. I never want to live anywhere else,” she said.

What’s the lure? According to both newcomers and people who grew up in Sunset Park, there are many: the vibrant mix of cultures (50% of residents were born outside the U.S., according to CB7), the existing open public spaces, the soon-to-be open public spaces, the good schools, easy transportation access, the beautiful homes, the historic Green-Wood Cemetery, and the re-purposing of 100-year-old terminal buildings to accommodate artist studios and small businesses.

Part of what was once Bush Terminal, the largest multitenant property in the U.S., located along the Sunset Park waterfront, has been re-imagined by its developers as Industry City. It is now marketed as a commercial space, incubator and studio space.

In short, Sunset Park is massive. You’ll need more than a day to walk it and take in all its surprising diversity by foot. We suggest two days by foot or either a bike or car. On Fourth Avenue, a heavily trafficked two-way street that is both residential and commercial (auto parts to tacos to tattoos), you’ll find most of the schools, senior housing, the library, the fire station and the police precinct.

Fifth Avenue borders two impressive green spaces — Green-Wood Cemetery and Sunset Park — and from 38th to 64th streets it is home to a mind-boggling array of 500 mostly Latino-owned businesses that are part of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District.

Between Fifth and Eighth avenues the neighborhood is mostly residential, with neat rows of modest homes and low-rise apartment buildings. Turn the corner onto Eighth Avenue, and you’re about as close as you can get to visiting Asia without the jet lag. The avenue vibrates with activity 24/7.

FIND IT
Here’s a classic case of shifting New York boundaries. According to the ny.gov website, Sunset Park stretches from 24th Street to 64th Street, Upper New York Bay to Eighth Avenue. But, longtime resident Renee Giordano says that in the ’70s “for the people who lived here it started at 16th Street. Now some people call 24th street down ‘South Slope’ but I stick to the old boundaries.” So do we, here.

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THE BASICS

TRANSPORTATION:
One of the big attractions of Sunset Park is its access to public transportation. A subway trip from Fourth Avenue to Grand Central or Columbus Circle will take about 45 minutes, to Union Square, about 30. There are three subway lines, the N and D express and the R local, and several bus lines, the 9, 11, 35, 37, 63 and 70. Residents who have a car have easy access to the BQE, the Belt and parking.

POST OFFICES:
There are two to choose from: The Bay Ridge Branch at 5501 Seventh Ave. (because that part of Sunset Park used to be Bay Ridge), and the Bush Terminal branch at 900 Third Ave.

SAFETY:
The 72nd Precinct at 830 Fourth Ave. serves Sunset Park and its neighbor Windsor Terrace. The community and precinct have a good rapport and crime stats reflect the claim by many residents that this is a safe area. Statistically speaking, murders are down 75% from 20 years ago, with two reported so far this year.

LIBRARY:
The original Sunset Branch was built in 1905 but demolished in 1970. It was rebuilt at 5108 Fourth Ave. in 1972 and got a new glass-brick facade in 1998. Books in Chinese and Spanish are available at the branch.

LOCAL SCHOOLS:
PS 1, 309 47th St.
PS 10, 511 Seventh Ave.
PS 24, 427 38th St.
PS 94, 5010 Sixth Ave.
PS 169, 4305 Seventh Ave.
PS 172, 825 Fourth Ave.
PS 295, 330 18th St.
PS 371, 355 37th St.
JHS 88, 544 Seventh Ave.
IS 136, 4004 Fourth Ave.
Sunset Park Prep, 4004 Fourth Ave.
Sunset Park HS, 153 35th St.

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TO EAT

When finding your way around the restaurants, bars and shops of Sunset Park, note that along the avenues, the first two numbers of the address indicate the nearby street.

Zona Sur, 4314 Fourth Ave.
The vibe at Zona Sur is New American and reflects Italian, Central and South American influences — “we serve all the dishes that we love to cook.” The most popular dishes so far are the huevos rancheros and chicken torta. 718-788-1606.

Tacos Matamoros, 4508 Fifth Ave. Step into this large, spotless space and you’re in Mexico. But it’s the food that makes it so popular. Oven- roasted goat, at $13, is the most expensive entree. 718-871-7627.

Dragon Bay Bakery, 5711 and 5910 Eighth Ave. Crowded with locals sipping tea and socializing, this is Eight Avenue’s anti-Starbucks. Get it to go and enjoy a picnic a few blocks away in Sunset Park. 718-853-9888.

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TO SHOP

La Gran Via Bakery, 4516 Fifth Ave. Before you go in, take a few minutes to marvel at the cakes in the window of this Cuban bakery that has been here since 1978, “making dreams come true one cake at a time.” Once inside, buy a delicious cup of cafe con leche, a pastry or a sandwich cubano. 718-853-8021.

Party Fair, 5003 Fifth Ave. This is pinata central with lots of choices. Besides paper plates and wrapping paper and all the usual, the store has bins and bins of the kinds of things you need to decorate a cake or make a centerpiece. 718-871-1300.

New York Mart, 6013 Eighth Ave. Want to shop in a supermarket that’s filled with hard-to-find foreign foods? This is the place to go. The prices are low, the variety is awesome and there’s also free parking in the lot in front of the store. 718-853-8887.

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TO PARTY

Irish Haven, 5721 Fourth Ave. Pints for $5 and a jukebox in this Sunset Park version of the Irish Bar. At least that’s what the makers of the movie “The Departed” thought when the bar was needed for a scene in the film. 718-439-9893.

Brooklyn’s Tiki Bar, 885 Fourth Ave. The name is a bit of an overstatement since there are others in the borough and this one isn’t all that tiki-ish, but there are some powerful tropical drinks. A DJ and an outdoor space make it popular with locals. 718-768-2797.

Greenwood Park, 555 Seventh Ave. This 13,000-square-foot beer garden features 60 beers on tap, a seasonal menu, a bocce court and special events including pig roasts. 718-499-7999.

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TO DO

Green-Wood Cemetery, 500 25th St. This popular tourist attraction celebrated its 175th birthday on April 18. Green-Wood is more than just a cemetery. Historian Jim Mackin, who conducts walking tours around the city, calls its 478 acres “a treasure of nature with champion trees, four ponds, the highest point in Brooklyn and a large colony of monk parakeets that live in the spires of its entrance gates.” Check green-wood.com for info.

Sunset Park, 41st to 44th Street, between Fifth and Seventh avenues. The park that gave the neighborhood its name is a perfect place (especially at sunset) for a swim or a picnic with a knockout view of the waterfront. It also had a recent face-lift.

Melody Lanes, 461 37th St. There was a time, long, long ago when Brooklyn was full of bowling alleys. Now only a few remain and this one, in the same spot since 1958, is the real thing. Steve Buscemi stopped by last month and if you go, you can get a pitcher of Bud for $10 at the old school bar. 718-832-BOWL.

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BUZZ

The Waterfront: In the mid ’90s, the community board, elected officials, residents and businesses formulated a plan to utilize and revitalize the entire Sunset Park waterfront, proposing a sustainable mixed-use neighborhood from 15th to 65th streets.
For the first time in the nabe’s history, Sunset Park residents will have access to a waterfront park when 11 acres, the first phase, of the project are completed and open this fall.

Liberty View Industrial Plaza, once a Navy munitions building, is being restored with 85% of thestructure to be used for manufacturing and the rest for retail businesses. Its roof will be used as a hydroponic farm.

In addition, a new recycling plant, the Sunset Park Materials Recycling Facility, is being built on the waterfront.

Preservation: Some residents worry about losing the historical look and feel of the area’s hundred-year-old row houses that make up the largest Federal Historic District in the Northeast.

They feel that the only way to guarantee the preservation of the home’s facades is to have them landmarked. The residents organized a Sunset Park Landmark Committee, which offers tours of the neighborhood. The next tour will be held on Saturday. Visit preservesunsetpark.org for info.

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Q&A with Renee Giordano: On why she moved and stayed there

Renee Giordano, Executive Director of the Sunset Park BID, raised her five children in the neighborhood and now one of her daughters has decided to raise her son there too.

How long have you lived in Sunset Park?
I moved here in 1974 when I got married. … In 1978, we bought a house built in 1907 — one of the houses that is part of the Federal Historic District.

How did you get involved with the BID?
At the end of the ’90s my husband was asked to help put a BID together for Fifth Avenue. We had had a plant store on the avenue and knew all of the merchants. In those early days, Fifth Avenue had more vacant stores than occupied stores. It looked pretty awful — graffiti and litter everywhere. After three or four directors came and went, I was asked to “watch the BID for a few weeks.” That was in 1997 and I’m still here. Now, the avenue has a 4% vacancy rate. ... We’re particularly proud of ... making our BID a free Wi-Fi hotspot. And we did it all ourselves.

What will Sunset Park be like in five or 10 years?
I definitely think it will continue to attract young families and the same kind of variety of ethnicities that it always has. We are the 10th most diverse neighborhood in New York City, you know. There will be changes, there always are. ... Sometimes we do feel a bit left out or forgotten by the rest of the city but that’s OK ... we know how to step up to the plate when something needs to be done.
 

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