Brooklyn is not what it once was. In the last 20 years (and especially in the last ten) it has shed most of its dangerous, dilapidated neighbourhoods in favour of bustling businesses, exclusive boutiques and shiny glass condos (that now sit mostly vacant, spectres of the boom). The downtown area is a robust mini-metropolis, the third-largest business district in the city. Artists have taken over the disused industrial spaces in Williamsburg and Bushwick; writers have moved into the garrets of Fort Greene and Cobble Hill; and young parents in search of a place to stuff their kids are littered throughout. Despite some recent softening, Manhattan's housing prices remain exorbitant. Living in Brooklyn has become a source of pride.
Sunset Park, however, is something of a relic. This is not a fashionable place to live, or even to visit. In a city where streets host relentless reincarnations, Sunset Park's stasis, its imperviousness to gentrification, is the source of its charm. An archetypal immigrant community, this area is seemingly immune to the changes that have swept through much of the borough, despite its proximity to Park Slope, its grandly transformed posh neighbour.
In south-west Brooklyn, stretching from 35th Street to 65th Street, Sunset Park is now primarily a Latino enclave. (The park itself—its namesake—has a fairly modest footprint, spanning a couple of blocks and two avenues.) The main thoroughfare, 5th Avenue, is like a Latin American conveyor belt, showcasing an array of ethnic restaurants and storefronts from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, among others. Street vendors sell empanadas and mango smoothies and Spanish is the lingua franca. Just a few blocks over, on 8th Avenue, a vibrant Chinatown covers over 20 blocks. The area's East Asian immigrants predate those from Latin America, and make for one of the city's largest Chinese communities.
"I don't think I could leave," says Ezekiel Cordoba, a 40-year resident, and occasional goalie at the football pitch on Sundays. "Where else can you have lunch at a Dominican restaurant and then run errands in Chinatown three blocks away? Sometimes change can be good. But not when you have something special, and I think that's what Sunset Park is."
Cordoba is one of the head chefs at Los Tres Potrillos, a restaurant on the corner of 39th Street and 4th Avenue, where they serve authentic chips and salsa as soon as you sit down. He spotted me as a newcomer to Sunset, but he invited me to eat chilaquiles like a Mexicano verdadero all the same, as soft mariachi boleros played from the jukebox. The restaurant's camaraderie was inclusive, with room even for the hipsters making the trek from Park Slope. Cordoba playfully welcomed his gringo amigos to a plate of old Mexico.
With residents like Cordoba, Sunset Park has a knack for making its locals feel at home and its visitors like travellers, adventure-seekers. In New York City, neighbourhoods like Sunset are a dying breed.
~ JAMES RODRIGUEZ