The best party of the year almost didn’t happen. Bike Kill, the Black Label Bike Club’s annual debauch that’s sort of like Halloween meets Mad Max, but with more mutant bikes and random explosions, started as planned on Saturday in an industrial lot in Bushwick.
But just ninety minutes into the day-into-night festivities, the NYPD rolled up in force and abruptly shut the whole thing down, citing lack of permits, potential alcohol consumption, and fears of the neighborhood being “overrun.” Even though the party was on private property. And had been held in this exact space two years ago without incident.
But Bike Kill refused to die! After milling around the area en masse, Black Label Bike Club set up their jousting arena in the dead end behind the Home Depot in Bed-Stuy, site of the first ten Bike Kills, and much mayhem ensued. And despite frequent fireworks and much general mayhem, it took the NYPD more than two hours to show up at this second location, sending everyone off into the night. As is the custom, Black Label Bike Club cleaned up the site before leaving.
There are places so dense that they seem to contract into themselves to save room. Harlem is one of them, like a black hole of great and flexible darkness hiding mass unseen. Come winter, the effect is magnified so that even the most flamboyant parts are directed to intimate interiors: The yelling of schoolboys in suit and tie is silenced by a burrowed shuffle; the boombox echo of “God Bless the Child” down Lenox Avenue fades into wind-blown memory; Black Hebrew Israelites, defensively guarding their soapbox crier in leather praetorian skirts, hustle inside after a frustrated season. Emergency food lines stretch out into the bitter cold. Living here is an exercise in waiting, waiting for it to pull you in with force, or to implode without.
This place isn’t the ruin it used to be. Decayed basement churches, sidewalk shooting memorials, and stinking litter underfoot, though resilient, are no longer the vermin-invaded mazes of old. Streets are no longer illuminated by trashcan fires, and there are not limp bodies or deals in the unlit corners. Casual violence is no longer ubiquitous.
Still, there remains a dynamic menace here, much unchanged since the days of Harlem’s infested, exploited, overcrowded repute as “the very bowels of the city,” as Ralph Ellison wrote in 1948. That menace is the thief within one’s mind, a robber of composure and enfranchisement, keeper of the memory that the people we came from once had chains on their ankles and scars on their backs. Ellison himself untangled his sinister depravity, never vanquished him. Here that crook has more success eluding you because there are so many places to hide.
Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth. — Ralph Ellison, “Harlem Is Nowhere“
I first came to Harlem with my broker. I was raised in wealthy, white American suburbs where my father was maybe the only black man around for miles, which might as well have been worlds. I did not yet understand the distances between them, the shallow pragmatisms of their boundaries, the unlikelihood of my father’s crossing of one. I supposed that early, subtle discomfort was needless now that I’d finally made it to New York, where I’d seen my future life play in such sharp definition across the ceilings of otherwise plain girlhood bedrooms.
Everyone everywhere had already told me that it wasn’t really New York anymore, that nothing was as good as it used to be and that it wouldn’t ever be again. That all the magnetism and perfect ugliness had been sucked then squeezed out through over-tapped, collapsed veins, which were, in a slow panic, injected instead with money and inhumanity. They said it was a cannibal, eating itself. A middle-aged man actually said to me that “a woman’s constitution is no good for New York.” But there was no place else.
It seemed that living in it, at the center of the northern Afro-American experience, might fortify me. Harlem is where my great-grandparents first stayed after passing through Ellis Island, and my grandfather went from homelessness to Columbia, where Aunt Pearl attended Abyssinian and Cousin Lil once bit off a man’s finger in El Barrio. I considered it a possibility that Harlem could connect me with my forebears, draw me into those worlds we came from, where I’d be familiar at last. Ellison was my lynchpin before Harlem, key to my estranged psyche. It was when I picked up Invisible Man that I understood something about my family that I’d never articulated before: My father’s and his father’s entire lives are a response to the color of their skin. Mine would not be.
A kind of guilt — inherited from the distance between me and them — drove me to Harlem. Unlike my father, or his father before him, the color of my skin is not “the first thing people see, and the last they forget,” as he once told me. The family line itself comes from an interracial affair, this jagged branch sticking sharply out from another family’s tree, and my West Indian great-grandmother, born of a black woman and a light-skinned married man, is at its twisted root.
So I move between worlds like a kind of quicksilver, reflecting whatever version of themselves people want to see. Most people, black or white or whatever, want to see white. It’s only after some extended conversation, a longer look at the crane of my neck and glint in my eye (I’m not really sure what gives me away), that I am recognized as some middling thing. White people ask “what” I am; what creature, what thing, what threat. So they demand my roots, as if theirs to unearth, and I satisfy them coyly with an answer like “Philly.”
But the Senegalese vendor at 117th Street, and my real estate broker, and the women putting in cornrows four blocks from my apartment — black people — ask “where.” “Where” were your parents during the Movement? “Where” did your grandparents originate, south? “Where” were your ancestors running from; “where” were their ancestors kept like raisins; and “where” still were their ancestors tilling some land when they were taken up and bought and sold and shipped in the hold?
Where? My father’s grandparents were free blacks. A not-too-distant history of sugarcane and riots nipping at their boundless ankles, they’d arrived in their new world having conquered a darkling ocean. Now I treaded the same passage, miles of time and circumstance between us. Occasionally, that distance haunts me; I cannot know them. What I do know is that their first passage through Ellis Island had come in January 1914, two persons among the 860,000 who arrived in one of the peak years of the American migration. In 1930 they returned briefly to Saint Kitts after the birth of their first child, re-entering through Ellis Island.
When I first found the ship’s manifest, a strange thunder ran through me with a shocking sense of familiarity, as if I had myself recorded the names, ages, callings, and occupations of my relatives and those they shared a boat with. Printed in a column after Able To, Nationality, Race or People, Place of Birth, Address, and Final Destination, their nearest relative and friend in the U.S. is listed, an Afro-Caribbean man called Percy Edmead. The manifest shows they stayed with him, in a brownstone at 138 West 131st Street, ten blocks from my own apartment.
To live in Harlem as an outsider who sees her grandfather in a man missing the bus or the woman behind the register, who passes the places of a convoluted family history, is to occupy a strange spot in a chaotic scene. This building where my grandparents landed is one of many that have now seen migrants of varied class and skin scuttle against their walls, colliding in succession before their elevated stoops.
These slim houses have been busted up and boarded in abandon, made useful for grisly violence and self-abnegation by a uniquely urban corruption that rendered their front steps and broken glass a ghetto playground, and their peoples alien, for decades. In these square blocks are a fogged-up, choked-up pluralism and a potential born of the irony of the black American existence, both the resentment of the land of one’s birth and the need to identify with it.
That — a split constitution — is the conflict within any descendant of America’s sordid oppression, but in Harlem this fantastic complexity is manifest in sharp relief. A man at 116th can sometimes be found screaming that he knows the smell of blood. A barbershop man called Morris Bone, perpetually unable to pay rent for all his sixty-plus years, is regarded by his grandchildren through the lens of their high degrees in social science. Women shrouded in black cloth but for their gated eyes, meeting yours, float by in groups of three and four. Loud colors cloak women in African fashion ambling at bus stops and sitting at booths, selling distilled oils and scents; long-legged girls masquerade past, hustling along the dictates of necessity.
As double-decker tour buses scan the wide avenues — named for black heroes — stopping for gospel reveries and at sites of black contribution, they ignore the place of Odessa Simms’s random death, the halfway houses and crowded hospital corridors, tending instead to a myth of black culture that is, upon closer inspection, quickly disproved on these streets. No, these monuments are not proof that black Americans have triumphed en masse. Harlem — this vortex — is more than ever that scene and symbol of the black American’s persistent and even inherent estrangement from his own country.
“When Negroes are barred from participating in the main institutional life of society,” Ellison wrote in 1948, “they lose far more than economic privileges or the satisfaction of saluting the flag with unmixed emotions. They lose one of the bulwarks which men place between themselves and the constant threat of chaos.” Now, after all that was won by the civil rights movement, the hard-fought campaign for dignity and enfranchisement, the bulwark still falters. By law now the black man is guaranteed equality. It’s all there in black and white, they say, you are equal. Then why, he asks, am I still outside?
The experience of the black American is inevitably from a crouched position, the physical rendering of an awareness and expectation that the world could again turn in on you, lock you up and call you beast. The most startling effect of such an expectation is a lack of sight, a short line between you and the ground, an inability to articulate what you are capable of or what you want to be capable of. This is the shame of America. The more established one becomes in the strata of his country, the straighter the knees get. But even when you’ve managed an upright posture, even when that posture is clothed in a fine suit and set against a white house, your direct contrast from those like you remains a reminder of what you know to be true about the world: that it would rather bind you up for its glory than see your humanity.
In so short a span of time, a stitched-up eighty years, the destitution of my relatives, their bald struggle and pain, has been transformed into physicians, law degrees, the upper middle class; literacy, homeownership, and mercurial great-grandchildren. So recently were institutional rights attained that my father was born before his could be federally guaranteed; that most parents will recall the era of segregation if asked; and that the president’s overarching campaign promise, to “make America great again,” can be read simply as a call for a return for it.
It is a new realization — that even after the Harlem Renaissance, Ellison and Baldwin, the Movement and President Obama — that we are not any more assured in our freedom. In Harlem, you are reminded of that. Harlem is evidence of the confused irony of pride and disenfranchisement, ascension and self-loathing, composure and shame inherent to black America.
A neighbor is looking into gun sales because a friend of his was surrounded in her car by three men screaming “nigger” at her at a red light in Delaware and another had hot coffee thrown in her face; a teenager on the train at 110th raps about the rope his mother gave him for the garden being used to hang him; Bill Saxton, a well-known jazzman with a spot on old Swing Street, enters a regular Saturday-night performance visibly shaking after an interaction with the police. “They’re just looking for a reason to shoot, so you gotta stay still,” he tells the audience. Then he plays.
In this country, of advantaged and disadvantaged skin, I am advantaged despite my personal history. No one knows I’m black. Tribalism is inseparable from the structure of power and society here, unique to this embattled land, and so will not be readily forgone; here, the color of our skin is currency. That is precisely the reason for the strength of my identification with my blackness, vulnerable not only to the attacks from without it, but also to that loitering crook, and his mnemonic shadow, within. The necessity to overcome our American dilemma is not inhibited by my identity. It is strengthened.
Odors of orange-flowers, and spice,
Reached them from time to time,
Like airs that breathe from Paradise
Upon a world of crime.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,”The Quadroon Girl“
Longfellow’s poem about the sale of a slave takes its title from a dated designation for the number of full-blooded African relatives running in one’s veins: quadroon. You’ll notice an emphasis on the quantitative least. That is the word they had for me, for people like me, a quarter. They came out with it at auction, the stake, and at birth. They meant it of course as a mark on a scrub, a soiling of the soul, a taint, but I sometimes quietly claim it as mine when confronted with the venom of people. I grab at it in its correlative opposite instead, its quantitative most, fingering it like a key, a jagged reminder of the reversals of things, of fortunes.
New York City’s five boroughs consist of 303 neighborhoods, according to the official designations of the Department of City Planning, from Allerton in the east Bronx to Yorkville in Manhattan. But when it comes to neighborhoods, officialness is beside the point. You also have your realtor-coined areas (BoCoCa, ProCro, the Piano District), your long-obsolete historical monikers (Bloomingdale, Fresh Pond), and, of course, your boundary disputes: If anyone knows where Homecrest ends and Sheepshead Bay begins, they’re not telling.
All of these places are rooted in city history and lore — and all are constantly changing. When you think of Bensonhurst, does it bring to mind the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever, or the panoply of Asian shops that line 86th Street today? Does Bed-Stuy conjure images of rehabbed brownstones, or of Billy Joel being afraid to walk there alone? It likely depends on when and where you were raised and your knowledge of history — plenty of 21st-century New Yorkers, after all, see ghosts of the Five Points every time they walk through Manhattan’s Foley Square, thanks to Luc Sante’s Low Life and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
Together, New York’s neighborhoods are a measure both of the city’s richness — in ethnic diversity, in culture, in foodstuffs that can allow you, as Parkchester’s Nilka Martell says, to travel the world within a few blocks — and of its fragility, with old-timers and immigrants and new “urban pioneers” living cheek to jowl under the constant specter of gentrification. Getting to know the nooks and crannies of your surroundings is the lifetime mission of every true New Yorker; and learning how to be a responsible visitor in your hometown, respecting your neighbors while drinking deep of all they have to offer, is the first step toward making the most of our city.
(As told to Max Rivlin-Nadler)
Larry Liedy, owner of Liedy’s Shore Inn
Jody Hagerty’s place, an Irish pub called Jody’s Club Forest (372 Forest Avenue). A really outstanding place. Entrées are like $14 to $16. Jody just passed away. I used to tend bar there. It’s the elite Irish pub on Staten Island. We used to have many Irish here, a lot of pubs, but now they’re all gone. They all died out, and no more are coming. All the drinking and the smoking, I can tell you, it didn’t help in terms of health. But the smoking ban didn’t help either. A lot of guys, truckers, would come into the neighborhood bars and have a beer and a cigarette. Now that you gotta smoke outside, the truckers just have a cigarette. They skip the beer. That’s where you lose the money.
Best steakhouse on Staten Island, hands down, is Ruddy and Dean (44 Richmond Terrace). The reason why it’s called Ruddy and Dean is it’s the owner’s grandmothers’ maiden names. Grade A steakhouse, as good as any in Manhattan. People come over from Manhattan for the bargain, because the prices are that great. The wheel is going to be right over in front of their place, so they’ll do good business. Question is whether people will keep walking past that and check out other parts of Staten Island.
One of the things that people really should know about is the Snug Harbor Cultural Center (1000 Richmond Terrace). It used to be where all the retired sailors would end up, built by Robert Randall, a very wealthy guy during Revolutionary times. He gave his estate to the sailors, because these guys lived on the water for the first forty years of their life, but then they had nowhere to go once they got off their boats. They’d come from Snug Harbor over to our bar, just down the street, or I’d deliver whiskey right to their rooms. These guys would be drinking morning, afternoon, and night. Beers were five cents. But now it’s this beautiful place, they got shows, a garden, just incredibly peaceful. Very different than what it was, I’ll tell you that much.
The first brewery on Staten Island in 75 years, called the Flagship Brewery (40 Minthorne Street). These breweries are the new thing now. It’s in an old car dealership, used to sell Buicks there. Now they make beer. Right off the train tracks. They got a goldmine there. Lot of young people, very different scene. Great beer. You gotta see this. They get a lot of grants from the government, which is great, but I can’t get shit. These neighborhood bars, it’s a lot of stress. Every day in my life I wonder how long I’m going to keep doing this. Oldest bar in Staten Island. Closing it is a decision I hope I never have to make, but I got to be a realist.
When you walk through the streets of Melrose, you’ll be hard-pressed to find signs of the urban decay most of the world thinks of when they hear the words “South Bronx.”
Founded in the 1850s and largely settled by German immigrants fleeing the ever-more-crowded conditions on the Lower East Side, the Village of Melrose was carved out of farmland belonging to the descendants of U.S. Constitution preamble author Gouverneur Morris. By the time the Bronx was fully annexed to New York City in 1895 — three years before Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island joined the party — Melrose had already grown into an important gateway to the borough, connected to Manhattan by several bridges and rail lines. Once the subway was extended into the Bronx, in the early twentieth century, office buildings (and even an opera house) began sprouting along 149th Street, a nexus which would become known as the Hub, the Times Square of the Bronx.
The golden years lasted for decades, as Italian and Irish immigrants, and eventually African Americans and Puerto Ricans, settled in. But then things began to change: Federal redlining rules, following the National Housing Act of 1934, led banks to refuse to provide loans to any property owners once a person of color moved in on a block. The result was white flight, as homeowners unable to obtain mortgages for necessary upkeep abandoned their properties, some even committing arson to collect insurance and cut their losses.
By the end of the 1970s, the Bronx had lost over 300,000 residents during the decade, and Melrose was filled with abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn lots. But life continued: Community gardens created by residents overtook vacant space, and the stage was set for one of the nation’s most successful examples of urban renewal. Today, little vacant land is left, and what remains is slated for development. More than 5,000 new units of housing have been constructed since 2000, much of it affordable to low-income residents, and streets once vacant for blocks on end are now tree-lined strips of townhouses. Melrose is now home to 25,000 residents, up from just 3,000 in 1980, among them Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Mexicans, West Africans, and Dominicans.
Old Bronx Borough Courthouse
Completed in 1914, the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse is where the Bronx was born as the 62nd and last county of New York State. (Before then, the borough was part of New York County, along with Manhattan.) The four-story Beaux-Arts building is an imposing structure at 161st Street and Third Avenue, with a statue of Lady Justice holding her sword but absent the traditional blindfold. (Locals like to joke that in the Bronx, justice isn’t blind.) It later found fame as the location of the first part of the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping trial. But with the exponential population growth in the Bronx, which added one million residents between 1900 and 1930 owing to the newly expanded subway and elevated lines into the borough, the small courthouse was already obsolete by the time it was built, and was eventually replaced by the much larger Bronx County Courthouse, just outside Melrose on the Grand Concourse at 161st Street. Closed in 1977, the old courthouse sat empty until Mayor Giuliani had the property auctioned to developers — twice, most recently to Henry Weinstein and Benjamin Klein for $300,000 in 1998. While Weinstein works on restoring the exterior, the structure has been used for a three-month residency for the art organization No Longer Empty, and is now being considered as a possible site for a hip-hop museum. 513 East 161st Street
Delicioso Coco Helado
Across from the Bronx Borough Courthouse is the home base of Delicioso Coco Helado, the maker of traditional Latin American icies, or “coquitos” as they’re known locally. Although there are several different companies that make and sell these treats, Delicioso Coco is truly an institution that gives back to its community. Two years ago founder and owner Alfredo Thiebaud died in a freak accident with a gate at the site, but his family continues to run the business with the passion of their late patriarch. Best secret: You can score a half-gallon of your favorite flavor for just five bucks and take it home with you. 849 St. Ann’s Avenue
Youngland Children’s Department Store
The shopping district known as the Hub — named for the six-pointed intersection where East 149th Street, Third Avenue, and Willis and Melrose Avenues all converge — is the city’s busiest intersection outside of Times Square, with over 200,000 pedestrians traveling through each day. Once known as Vaudeville North, for its many theaters and its opera house (now a luxury boutique hotel) where George Burns and the Marx Brothers performed, the area transformed into the premier shopping center of the borough. Today, most of the old department stores — Sachs, McCrorey’s Five and Dime, Alexander’s — are ghosts, but Youngland Children’s Department Store survives, with its unmissable pastel exterior and mural by local graffiti artist King Bee that depicts families and children riding the subway to the Hub. It’s been in business for more than sixty years and is one of the places parents flock to purchase affordable children’s toys, clothes, and school uniforms. 2922 Third Avenue
The Bronx Documentary Center
Founded in 2011 in the area’s last remaining Victorian mansion, the Bronx Documentary Center quickly became an epicenter for documentary journalism and photography. Featuring world-class exhibitions of photography and multimedia that connect the Bronx to the world, the space has become a critically important haven for many photographers of color. The center is home to the Bronx Photo League and the Bronx Junior Photo League, where kids from sixth to twelfth grades learn photography, journalism, and storytelling. It’s also inspiring to see so many volunteers from Melrose and the Bronx at large take ownership of the space and help it to run smoothly. 614 Courtlandt Avenue
One of the area’s most popular dining destinations is Xochimilco, a family-run and -operated Mexican restaurant that is both a gathering place for the local Mexican population and a popular destination for many area residents and workers. Its food is phenomenal — try the carnitas tacos, or the vegetarian ones made with pumpkin blossoms — and you’re treated as if you’re walking into someone’s home for a meal where everything’s made from scratch. The Mata family opened the restaurant after moving to the Bronx from Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, three decades ago, and lives just one block over — something relatively common in Melrose. 653 Melrose Avenue
Bronx General Post Office
Once the main post office for the Bronx, the Melrose location is a work of art, from its exterior to its interior lobby graced with thirteen Ben Shahn murals that depict the American worker. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” they were painted by Works Progress Administration artists in the 1930s and intended to encourage civic pride (and promote support for FDR’s New Deal). When the post office was sold three years ago to developer Youngwoo & Associates, locals successfully fought to obtain landmark status for the lobby and the murals. Earlier this year, preservationists completed the arduous process of restoring these important works of art; once the old building is reopened later this year as a Chelsea Market–type space with offices on the upper floors and a rooftop restaurant, an even wider audience will be able to enjoy the murals. 558 Grand Concourse
The DreamYard Project
On the border of Melrose and Morrisania, the DreamYard Project brings together families, schools, and youths for diverse programming options that give local children the tools for, and a voice in, their journey toward higher ed. The Project exemplifies the importance of the arts, especially in underserved areas where such school programs have been severely cut back — or eliminated completely.
1085 Washington Avenue
Kim’s Fish Market
In business for over 35 years, Kim’s has adapted to the changing neighborhood. Either purchase your fresh catch and cook it at home, as patrons have for years, or, now, make your selection and have it steamed or fried with a side of vegetables (or french fries, since that’s what you really want anyway). It’s the best of both worlds, and a model for continued thriving. 555 Morris Avenue
Centro Cultural Rincón Criollo
One day in the mid-Seventies, fed-up Melrose resident José Manuel “Chema” Soto began to clean up the garbage that the city had allowed to collect in one particular lot he frequently walked by. By the end of the day fifty other residents had joined him, and eventually they turned the plot into a thriving community garden. Since relocated to Brook Avenue and E. 157th Street, Rincón Criollo — known locally as “La Casita de Chema,” for the small wooden house at its center — is one of the borough’s most important centers of Puerto Rican culture, and hosts live traditional bomba y plena music on weekends. Chema passed away unexpectedly in 2015, leaving a huge void, but his legacy continues throughout the seventeen community gardens that call Melrose their home — one of the highest concentrations of such spaces in the city. Although they all have varying hours of operation, if you pass one by and see someone, feel free to visit, as the garden-keepers love to share their space and histories. Brook Avenue at East 157th Street
In the early 1990s, a Melrose resident by the name of Yolanda García became aware of a city plan for urban renewal for the neighborhood: The Department of City Planning intended to raze a large swath of land and create middle- and upper-middle-class housing right in the heart of the poorest congressional district in the nation.
García, whose family owned a carpet store on Third Avenue, organized residents into a coalition called Nos Quedamos — “we stay.” By disrupting “community meetings,” they ultimately forced the city to scrap their plans and bring those who had endured Melrose’s burning years into the planning process. As a result, over 4,000 new units of housing in dozens of new buildings, townhouses, condos, and co-ops have been constructed, including in Melrose Commons, a district in the northwest section of the neighborhood that is now a global symbol of community-led urban renewal.
Today, Nos Quedamos is housed at 754 Melrose Avenue in one of the many buildings it helped bring about, working with developers in the area while also organizing tenants to remain vigilant as gentrification once again knocks on their doors.
(As told to Sarah Weldon.)
Nilka Martell, Founder of G.I.V.E. (Getting Involved, Virginia Avenue Efforts)
NY1 called me the “Mayor of Parkchester.” I’ve been there for decades. I love the diversity. And I’m a single mom, so it was really important to know that if something happened on the block, there would be neighbors there to help with my kids. When you’re in a community like that and you form those relationships, there’s no reason to leave.
Ellie’s Diner (58 Metropolitan Oval) is one of my favorite places. It’s a local diner and everyone kind of knows everybody. Then you have Step In (1309 Metropolitan Avenue) restaurant, and a Mexican restaurant not too far away called Taqueria Tlaxcalli (2103 Starling Avenue) that’s yummy. THAI NO. 1 (1509 White Plains Road) is amazing Thai food that has these $6 deals. It’s this real small place, so we keep it hush-hush. Within two blocks we have a dozen food options like Spanish food, Chinese food — it’s just great. People travel to eat these kinds of foods on the other side of the world, and I’m like, “I’ll go down the block!”
The last five years Parkchester has gotten gentrified. There was a store called Nu Look where we went to get our earrings and bracelets in the Eighties when Madonna had her rubber bracelets. They raised the rents, so they left. We used to have three movie theaters and eventually we had one and that one closed in 2013. I am a lifetime consumer at Metro Optics (1332 Metropolitan Avenue) — they’ve been in Parkchester for forty years. We want to support those mom-and-pop businesses and it’s kind of screwed up. Where that Fantasia Fountain (Metropolitan Oval) is, people sit and have conversations and kids play. All these buildings have these terra-cotta sculptures and I’m fascinated by them. Throughout Parkchester, there’s like five hundred of them — when you look up you have all these different sculptures. They have one that’s a firefighter, one that’s a guy that looks like he’s sledding, a guy playing an accordion. It’s all different, the little characters.
I spend a lot of time at Hugh J. Grant Circle and Virginia Park (Virginia Avenue), and they’re not parks the way we think of parks. They’re fenced off. So I create events and we get the community to pull out weeds or take care of the trees or plant daffodil bulbs. The past five years my nonprofit, G.I.V.E., has really been activating those two green spaces on Virginia Avenue. I look at parks like an opportunity to get people in the community together.
The only bad thing about living in Parkchester is the parking! Parkchester wasn’t constructed in a way that it promoted vehicle traffic. It was made so that you can actually get to a store without crossing a major street. There’s only two major streets in Parkchester, Metropolitan Avenue and Unionport, and they cross like an x and in the middle of the x is the fountain. So I’m fascinated with how it was designed and all these little shortcuts, like alleyways behind buildings. You’d play tag through all these tunnels and people couldn’t catch you; it was magical. I don’t know if my kids have that same experience, but I hope they do.
While Sunset Park owes its name to a 25-acre hilltop park with panoramic harbor views, the neighborhood’s early history was anchored five avenues downhill, on its industrial waterfront. From the end of the nineteenth century, Sunset Park’s ports served as a docking zone for arriving cargo ships, while nearby factories produced a range of goods from military supplies to clothing. The neighborhood remains working-class and immigrant, though the faces have changed: Once known as “Finn Town” and “Little Norway,” Sunset Park is now majority Latino, with significant Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian, and Mexican communities. The second largest ethnic group is Chinese, a 30,000-plus population concentrated along Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Chinatown.
In recent years, some developers have shown an interest in “reviving” the underused waterfront. In 2013, Jamestown Properties, creators of Chelsea Market, launched Industry City, a billion-dollar retail complex housed in a converted factory on the Sunset Park waterfront. The New York City Economic Development Corporation has also announced plans to develop the waterfront into “a 21st-century model for diverse, dense, and environmentally sustainable industry,” while the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar, which would link Sunset Park to Astoria, likewise portends a major shift for the neighborhood.
Local community activists have been adamant that these changes must not displace or exploit existing communities. Sunset Park residents have lobbied for tenants’ and immigrants’ rights and for environmental justice — the recently opened Bush Terminal Piers Park on the waterfront was a big win — even as the rapid sweep of gentrification is already affecting housing markets and raising doubts about the neighborhood’s traditional manufacturing and service economies. Yet the area, for now, retains much of its unassuming warmth, its flavor, its grit.
Bush Terminal Piers Park
Tucked away on the edge of Sunset Park’s half-shuttered industrial strip, Bush Terminal Piers Park is quietly becoming a favorite spot for New York birdwatchers. Since the port-turned-park opened in 2014, more than sixty species have been spotted — only one a variety of pigeon. Sightings have included rare birds like the snowy owl and the glaucous gull, as well as a pair of ospreys being lovingly tracked by local environmentalists. The Urban Park Rangers and Brooklyn Bird Club offer introductory excursions for newcomers; other attractions include outstanding views of the Statue of Liberty, two multipurpose sports fields, and tidal pools frequented by optimistic fishermen and pebble-wielding kids. Marginal Street and 43rd Street
Sunset Park Diner & Donuts
The throwback feel of this diner is no ploy to lure in the “incredible influx of hipsters” that operator Tommy Mamounas notes Sunset Park has seen in recent years. Sunset Park Diner has been a neighborhood fixture since Tommy’s father, John Mamounas, opened it in 1981 as a single-counter coffee joint. The place was soon serving over 500 dozen donuts a day to commuters heading to Sunset Park’s once-booming industrial district, and has since seen the community through thick and thin, maintaining 24/7 hours through snowstorms, MTA strikes, and even Hurricane Sandy. “As long as we have gas and electricity, we’re open,” says Mamounas, who has a master’s in finance but chose the family business over Wall Street. “You can’t help but feel an obligation to the community when you’ve been here this long, so we keep our doors open around the clock.” Come by any time to enjoy classic diner fare and handmade donuts, and find Tommy there most daytime hours. 889 Fifth Avenue
“All those banks and fish shops down the avenue? Half of them were bars back in the Eighties,” says Brendan Farley, current proprietor of the Soccer Tavern. While most of Farley’s competition faded as Sunset Park’s Eighth Avenue transformed from “Little Norway” to its present status as Brooklyn’s Chinatown, the Soccer Tavern has held on. While the bar is still frequented by an aging sample of the neighborhood’s Scandinavian, blue-collar past, many Asians have become regulars as well: On a Tuesday night at 2 a.m., the pub’s back table is crowded with smiling Malaysian men clasping Coronas. Above the yellowing photos and beer memorabilia decorating the paneled walls, a dusty shelf is cluttered with trophies won by the Soccer Tavern’s longstanding darts teams. “You’ll see the more recent trophies all have Asian names,” Farley remarks over the crooning of Johnny Cash. Bartenders here are pleasingly hands-off, attentive to both customers and the sportscasts flickering from the pub’s several flat-screens. Drinks are no-frills, as are the prices. As Farley puts it, “We keep things simple here.” 6004 Eighth Avenue, 718-439-9336
The doors of the Melody Lanes bowling alley might be locked when you arrive, but catch the attention of a clerk and you’ll be buzzed right in. Inside, the décor is delightfully unironic, complete with faux chandeliers, burgundy-and-teal carpeting, and actual disco lights (by request). While several leagues call Melody Lanes home, there’s still room for the casual bowler and many a birthday party, making for intergenerational organized chaos. Augment your bowling experience with pitcher beer and snack bar food, or retreat to the bar proper for an existential encounter with “The Pete,” Melody Lanes’ mutton-chopped, cummerbund-clad barkeep-slash-philosopher. Toward the end of the night, a few non-bowlers may drop in for a nightcap, but The Pete says he makes sure no one gets too messy. “You better respect my table,” he says. “This is a table of honor.” 461 37th Street, 718-832-2695
New York’s ‘Freest Art School’
Amid the highly curated halls of Industry City, at least a few tenants refuse to take themselves too seriously. Across from a boutique furniture studio, a community of artists with an anarchic streak use Play-Doh to replicate Greek sculpture and reiterate their commitment to “lateralize” the art world. These are members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an art collective created in fierce opposition to “bougieness” and with an equal commitment to fun. In an effort to expand the party, the group invites anyone to join the free art classes at its self- declared university. “It’s art school without debt — and without a degree,” explains Sean J Patrick Carney, a member of the collective and sometime teacher. Past classes have included Chopped-style art challenges, “Japanese art taught in Japanese,” and a semester-long series on colors and feelings. “The idea is, artists learn the most from other artists,” Carney says. “There are no grades, so the onus is on students to show up.” And they do — at least a thousand each semester. 33 34th Street, 6th floor
Maria’s Bistro Mexicano
Among the plethora of mom-and-pop taquerias on Fifth Avenue, the main artery of Sunset Park’s large Latino district, Maria’s markets itself as a “modern take” on classic Mexican cuisine. The exposed brick and multicolored décor are inviting, as is the pleasant open patio in the back — but the drink specials are the real hook here. A daily happy hour runs from noon to 7 p.m. and offers $5 margaritas and sangria, while the regular menu offers a decent array of cocktails for under $10. Maria’s $3 tacos are also a perennial favorite, and for those hungry enough, $9 will get you a whole rotisserie chicken. Afterward, walk off your buzz with a stroll up the hill to Sunset Park’s captivating views of Manhattan. 886 Fifth Avenue, 718-438-1608
Chi Ken Taiwanese Popcorn Chicken
To the uninitiated, the rows of restaurants in Sunset Park’s Chinatown can seem overwhelmingly repetitive — but some stand clearly apart. Chi Ken, in the heart of the Chinese district, broadcasts its presence with multiple billboards touting the “superb taste of homeland Taiwan.” Inside, a deli display of turnip cakes, milk buns, and octopus balls illuminates the choice of sides, while main dishes — duck neck, pork rolls, and crispy chicken heart — are prepared in the back. An ambitious choice is the “crazy jumbo squid,” served skewered and deep-fried in seasoned breading, while the more timid may opt for corn dogs, waffle fries, or mozzarella sticks. Opened less than a year ago, Chi Ken already routinely draws lines that trail down the block. Seating is limited, but as most of the fare is classic street food, take it to go and enjoy while strolling Chinatown’s always bustling sidewalks. 5401 Eighth Avenue, 718-633-8877
Sunshine Herb Company
Depending on the staff on duty, your level of Chinese vocabulary, and your skill at nonverbal communication, there’s a good chance you’ll find that homeopathic remedy you’ve been seeking here. Racks of ointments, oils, and drops promise relief for conditions ranging from asthma to impotency, while behind the shop’s long counter, oversize jars teem with dried roots, knotted leaves, and sun-bleached crustaceans. Many of the products at Sunshine claim to “restore balance,” while others promise to harness traditional detoxifying methods that well pre-date the Master Cleanse. Twelve years after it opened, Sunshine retains a mostly Chinese clientele, though that is beginning to change. “Sometimes there are non-Chinese,” says a clerk on duty. “We have products for all people.” 5213 Eighth Avenue, 718-633-6088
The first thing Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, tells you is that her organization’s offices at 166a 22nd Street are, in fact, located in Sunset Park — not “Greenwood,” as real estate agents like to claim. “Sunset Park starts at 15th Street,” she says, “and we’re holding it down.” UPROSE, founded in 1966 to support the neighborhood’s Latino community, has a long history of using grassroots organizing to defend Sunset Park against community displacement and environmental degradation. In addition to youth programs, climate justice advocacy, and educational grants for young people of color, UPROSE has recently focused more on Sunset Park’s maritime industrial zone, which has been increasingly sought out by developers. Yeampierre is no fan of those seeking to “make Sunset Park the next Williamsburg” through developments like Industry City. Instead, she says, UPROSE seeks to promote projects that prioritize environmental sustainability and long-term, well-compensated jobs for local residents. Blue-collar work forms the backbone of the community, says Yeampierre: “We don’t want to see our people become a service class for the city’s most privileged. We’re thinking about our own future.” 166a 22nd Street, 718-492-9307
Botanica San Miguel y Anaisa
Whether you’re looking for spiritual guidance or wholesale patchouli, Leonardo Hidalgo is at your service. Born in the Dominican Republic, Hidalgo has been offering “white magic” services and aura cleansings for nearly three decades. For $30, Hidalgo will read your fortune, break a curse, or connect you to one of the twenty-one saints honored at the shop. These procedures take place according to “traditional practices” using “natural and original” materials imported from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela, Hidalgo says. The shop welcomes walk-in spiritual seekers — including “white people and hipsters” as well as Catholics, Hidalgo makes clear. If you’re not quite ready to step into the botanica’s candlelit back room, the shop’s narrow shelves are well stocked with oils, throngs of icons, an arsenal of candles, and even a few stray Buddhas. Hidalgo says the quality of his products is guaranteed, but he’s quick to remind his customers: “faith is everything.” 511 46th Street #1, 718-369-6051