Saturday, May 12, 2007

The multiple personalities of Sunset Park

This picture shows my very first tour group in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, all the way back in 2000, during my first tour season! I guess I was on to something....

And today I led the Sunset Park tour again, lucky to have the type of idyllic spring weather that sometimes blesses us in May! I had 10 heimische folks, including several members of a family from Montana. (They found me on the Internet.) They ooh'ed and ah'ed at all the exotica we saw on Eighth Avenue, the heart of Chinese Sunset Park. It was busy indeed, but nothing co,pared to the frantic crowds of the Chinatowns of Flushing and Manhattan - much more manageable for folks from out of town. It doesn't seem to have grown so much in the past year. In fact, the most significant change to me was that the old Edward Halvorsen Funeral Home near 53rd Street is now a Chinese funeral home, so the last vestige of the Norwegians of Sunset Park is all but gone. The changeover seems very recent: the canopy had just been covered with Chinese characters, but a plaque from the earlier home is still up. I wonder whether that will stay.

Just before we started, I ran into Hong Kong Supermarket and bought a package of chopsticks that people can keep. Then we bought some noodles at a sidewalk stand - chow fun with pork and beef. It was a tasty and spicy start. The Montanans were practicing holding the chopsticks and an elderly Chinese woman stood by watching us and smiling. We asked her to help, and she obliged. (Ach, no camera today!) It was a lovely moment, though.

As always, we visited the Birlik Market near 59th Street. That whole block of stores (and a restaurant around the corner) is owned by Turks, but I don't know if it's one family or an investment consortium. The building also houses a mosque, which opened in 1980. The folks there have always been friendly and have welcomed us inside - we've been allowed to visit the huge prayer area as well. It's spectacular, with original tiles from Turkey, a plush new carpet and a space that is truly mystical and sacred. Today I noticed that the balcony area, where women sit, had two flat-screen TVs on either end. This same space was once an Irish-Norwegian dance hall, I learned during a previous visit. (I always take my Sunset Park tours to see the mosque.) Sometimes I try to imagine the neighborhoods in their earlier incarnations, and I tried to picture the couples coming here to dance in the 1950s. It's somewhat easier in Sunset Park to have these reveries than in other neighborhoods because the architecture hasn't changed much, even if the retail facades have.

At 48th Street, we made our usual turn-off to see a house whose Guatemalan owner has a installed a wonderful birdhouse that he constantly rebuilds and remodels. It's quite large and is set at eye-level beside the stoop. One year I knocked on the door and he answered and explained that he uses architectural catalogs for inspiration and remodels the house each year. One year it even had its own satellite dish and a miniature birdhouse. This year it looked more like a split-level Levittown house - not satellite dish - but lots of miniature dogs and cats walking around it. (Wait - did Levittown have split-level houses, or did that come later?) I wonder if any birds actually use the birdhouse, or are the common charges too high?

Sunset Park itself is more beautiful than ever. I noticed a lot more gardening within the park, including, now, a small Chinese-inspired garden, with a miniature bridge and pagoda that reminds me of Suzhou, where my daughter was born. The day was crystal-clear, and the bview of the Harbor and Manhattan was spectacular. I still remember being able to see the Twin Towers from this location, and a photo I took for Issue #2 of NoshNews (1999) has an image of the towers in it. We had a picnic of dishes we bought at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant on 8th Ave. and 54th St. It's been there for years, and is dependable and reasonable. We'd bought beverages from Podlasie, one of two Polish markets on 8th Ave.

After the picnic, we visited Gran Via Bakery on 5th Ave. near 46th St.. It's noisy and friendly and always crowded. One man helped translate our orders without being asked. Others were curious about who we were. The owner's daughter, who manages it now, remembered me from two or three years ago, when I visited with another group, including Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters. They were celebrating their 25th anniversary at the time and serving free cake on the sidewalk. I got two Gran Via T-shirts which I wear from time to time. You can get a strong shot of espresso for just 75 Cents or a "cortadito" - a small cafe con leche - for 85 cents. I'm temporarily swearing off pastries and other sweets (trying to lose weight slowly for my daughter's Bat Mitzvah in December 2008), but the folks on my tour indulged in flan, bread pudding, guava pastries and other wonderful goodies. I learned that the owner (whose name I plan to get next time) also owns the building the bakery occupies, so tenancy is not a problem. But Gran Via needs more space: It's the type of place where folks should be able to sit down, but I bet if the doubled the space, they'd just have double the customers and be as busy as ever. The daughter told me that the tenants on either side of the bakery (which occupy two different, small buildings) don't want to move because this section of Fifth Avenue is very desirable. At the corner, Pollo Compero (or something like that), a Guatemalan chicken chain, lasted less than a year - they couldn't pay the rent. But Tacos Matamoros, which used to be across the street, has moved into a larger, more attractive space. (But watch out: the woman at Gran Via says that the new space is "jinxed" - no one seems to be able to last there! We'll see.)

I regret that my Sunset Park tour just touches on the Latin American area of Sunset Park, so I'm going to return and explore Fifth Avenue some more - and Fourth and Sixth - and consider creating a Sunset Park tour that will focus just on that area, just as I've split my Astoria and Jackson Heights tours into two sections. I would start up at 60th Street, as I do with the current tour, and include Generoso's Italian bakery (yummy pignoli cookies) and the possibly a visit to the church on 6th Avenue, and we would weave our way through the stores and have a Mexican/Peruvian/Ecuadorian picnic in the park. What fun!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Back to Belmont

I love shopping in Belmont, Bronx, (aka "Little Italy of the Bronx" or simply "Arthur Avenue") and have recently begun going there from time to time during the week late in the afternoon. I like to stop in at Joe's Deli on East 187th Street, where his son, Nick, who says he was "born" in the store (or at least raised there) is always extra helpful. Those quiet afternoons are a wonderful time to shop: You don't get the hectic energy of the weekend crowds, and you do have the delightful opportunity to buy what you want at Teitel's, or anywhere else, for that matter, without waiting on line.

Terranova Bakery sells its bread at a discount late in the day, which is nice to know, but Madonia doesn't, at least during the week. About 10 years ago, I had taken my daughter to the Bronx Zoo (she was in a stroller then), and we then headed to Belmont. It was a Saturday, also around 5 PM. Madonia was selling off a lot of its bread for half-price, so I indulged!

It seems like more cafes and delis are opening in Belmont, including a new Bistro owned by Roberto Paciello, who operates the famous Roberto's on Crescent Street (actually, it hasn't quite opened yet, but will soon), and Umberto's Clam House has already opened an outpost here. I wonder whether more of Manhattan's Little Italy places (not that there are too many left...) will similarly come to the Bronx.

But what is utterly striking is that you don't have to stray far from the immediate neighborhood to see how Belmont is almost an "alien presence" in the Bronx. I know my way around the many buses to Belmont and I sometimes like to take a different side street either to Fordham Road or Southern Boulevard when I'm heading home. It's one of those New York experiences: turn the corner and you're in a different neighborhood. It's almost eerie, but it underscores the extent to which Belmont is NOT residentially Italian at all (with a few older hangers-on; but even many of the older proprietors now live in Westchester, Long Island, or further north in the Bronx).

At one time Belmont's Italian center was considered fragile. The Bronx was in decline; neighborhoods were not safe; mass transit was unpleasant; the retail market was not fully occupied and not in good shape. Things began to change in the early 80s when community developers and business owners decided to go all out and make Belmont a destination, and they have succeeded wildly: the market was renovated (but still has a somewhat seedy air), and folks crowd in on the weekend. (It helps that Fordham University is across the street...). And the gourmet craze has helped enormously.

But this afternoon, as the stores closed and the "real" Belmont emerged, I wondered whether it is in fact a fragile neighborhood. The surrounding housing is nothing to shout about, unlike some neighborhoods (take almost all of Harelm for example!) that have beautiful housing stock.

So I shopped, schmoozed with a few market owners I know, and had a delicious slice of eggplant pizza at Giovanni's (whose owner is Albanian, like many places in Belmont).

(Here's a photo of the owner of Giovanni's - George - making a pizza.)

I bought two big cartons of strawberries for $1 each - wow - cannoli shells and cannoli cream at Egidio's, and mozzarella at Joe's Deli, which has become a favorite place ever since I got to know Nick, Joe's son, who's just a great guy. (He let me watch the mozzarella being prepared.) Of course I went to Borgatti's and got some fresh ravioli for my daughter. Then I turned the corner and was back in "the Bronx" and headed for the bus (actually two buses and a subway) to get home.