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!

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