Sunset Park: once married to industry, now seeking a life of its own

For more than a century, the fortunes of Sunset Park have been tied to industry along the waterfront. In this way, its relationship is similar to that of Wallabout with the Navy Yard: as the commercial Yard boomed to a peak of 70,000 employees during WWII and fell to complete disuse in the 1970s, Wallabout came along for the ride.

1977 land-use chart comparing Sunset Park with other areas. “Sunset Park” here is between Prospect Expy, 65 St, 8 Av, and the water. (From New York Department of City Planning report 77-02; coloring is my own)

Along New York Harbor is the former Bush Terminal complex, which was a hub of commercial and industrial activity for Brooklyn between the 1890s and the Second World War. At its peak, it covered nearly two miles of waterfront and 200 acres. Neighboring Sunset Park served as a home for many of its 25,000 workers.

The neighborhood is named for the park bounded by 5th and 7th Avenues between 41st and 44th Streets. In 1891, Brooklyn Parks Commissioner George Brower purchased the land from prominent property-owners at cut-rate prices; in theory, the value of the owners’ other properties would increase due to having a green space nearby. The park, situated on one of Brooklyn’s highest points, was named for its commanding western view. It was expanded to its current size in 1903.

1923 postcard showing Sunset Park, looking west. (From BPL’s Brooklyn Collection)

For many decades in the 1800s, Sunset Park was frontier territory. (Some still refer to the area as “South Brooklyn”.) An 1834 plan called for streets through 60th Street to be added to the grid, but this failed to come to fruition until after the Civil War.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s famous Wild West spectacle came to town in 1894, staying from May 12 through early October. The show set up a 20,000-seat complex in Ambrose Park, built for the occasion on the waterfront. The space fell into disrepair after the tour’s exit, and was later consumed by Bush Terminal as part of the complex’s expansion efforts in WWI.

Advertisement for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. (From The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 1, 1894)

The neighborhood has long been a melting-pot of various cultures. Originally Dutch (and later British) farmland, the area saw an influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s due to the potato famine. With the opening of Bush Terminal in the 1890s, Greeks, Italians, and Poles moved in to work at the piers.

In the first half of the 20th century, the area was dominated by Scandinavians. There were once large areas known as “Little Norway” and “Finntown”, and 40th Street has been known as Finlandia Street since 1991. There was even a Finnish-language newspaper, New Yorkin Uutiset, which ceased publication in 1996. In another example of white flight, most of these people had vacated the neighborhood by the 1980s.

Aerial view from the Frederic R. Harris, Inc., Report on Piers and Industrial Property of the Bush Terminal Company. Image c. 1920. (From The Library of Congress)

With the end of WWII, Bush Terminal saw a rapid decline, dragging Sunset Park with it. A second blow to the neighborhood was the building of the Gowanus Expressway over 3rd Avenue in the 1950s. The Expressway replaced the 3rd Avenue el, which had been discontinued during the Depression. It choked off the western part of Sunset Park like the BQE did to Wallabout.

The city eventually decided to step in to help the fading area, commissioning a report in January 1977 with proposals for the neighborhood. One grand plan was to revitalize the waterfront and to connect it to the mainland using a dedicated rail route. The “Sunset Park Restoration Committee” took matters into its own hands, publishing a pamphlet designed to attract new residents, complete with testimonials from recent transplants. (I particularly enjoyed reading this one.)

Ask your friendly Brooklyn Collection librarian for this. It’s under 917.4723 S.

Perhaps the campaign worked: Sunset Park has seen a rebound over the past few decades. The Hispanic population, already the largest group in the 1970s, has continued to grow, and there is now a Chinatown on 8th Avenue. (A major perk of living in Sunset Park’s Chinatown is its direct connection with Manhattan’s Chinatown via the N train.) The neighborhood has several parades each year celebrating the various heritages of its residents.

Like the Navy Yard, Bush Terminal has seen a renaissance in recent years, rebranding 40 acres of its site “Industry City” and leasing the space to various groups, including, like the Navy Yard, a distillery — except this one handles vodka instead of whiskey. I’ll get more into Bush Terminal’s history and conversion when I draw Industry City from the hat.

Bound sources:

Sunset Park waterfront study by Buckhurst, Fish, Hutton, Katz, Inc. (self-published, 1991).

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Sunset Park by the New York Department of City Planning (self-published, 1977).

Sunset Park … Sunset Park! by the Sunset Park Restoration Committee (self-published, 1980).

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2 Responses to Sunset Park: once married to industry, now seeking a life of its own

  1. H nemzer says:

    The Bush Terminal was also a magnet for street racing which I observed first hand in 1968 and 1969. Detroit was building very fast cars with poor brakes and handling, and the kids raced them on First Ave (AKA Marginal Street) near the docks, and Third Ave under the Expressway.
    Racers met at Mitchells Drive In at 86th Street and 7th Avenue in nearby Bay Ridge before and after the action. The big money races were scheduled between 11:45 PM and 12:15 AM because police shift changes left it wide open. Then they would return, turn on the hydrants to wet down the street and write many “defective” equipment tickets.
    The sun has set on street racing…

    • Keith says:

      Harley,

      This is so good! And pertinent, as I’ll be writing about the waterfront in the coming week or two. Thanks for sharing, and for the direction.

      Keith

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