Sunset Park

50 Favorite Places #21
This is about Sunset Park – the actual park, not the neighborhood of the same name (though I love the neighborhood as well). In general, I rank parks according to the quantity, variety and novelty of the birds I’ve seen or aspire to see within their boundaries. Sunset Park is an exception. Not so with Sunset Park. While you can see birds there – Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Crows of both the American and Fish persuasions, as well as the ubiquitous pigeons, House Sparrows and starlings, other common backyard birds, and the occasional weary migrant – it’s no one’s idea of a birding hot spot. The fact that I love it so much despite its failure to contribute a single species to my life list attests to its other charms.

Chief among these are culture, history and views. Sunset Park isn’t about high culture. It’s about the culture – or cultures – of the neighborhood and the city. It’s about ballroom dancing and gracefully slow group exercises to a tinny Chinese soundtrack – while a hundred yards or so away, a separate group works out to salsa music. It’s about sports – basketball, soccer and running killer hill workouts – and sitting on benches eating Italian ice or mangonadas or tacos or tamales or banh mi or dumplings or sesame pancakes or Yemeni honeycomb cake.

A pre-pandemic photo – today, everyone would be masked

The immediately surrounding blocks are some of the prettiest in the neighborhood, with 44th St, along the park’s southern edge, designated as a historic district. In general, “pretty” and “historic” in real estate terms skew “rich” . . . homes built by and for rich people and now inhabited by a new generation of rich people, with a few tough decades in between, and just enough holdovers from the bad years to lend grit and authenticity and all that. But the solid brick and stone rowhouses adjacent to the park were never intended for rich people. They were built in the 1890s – around the same time as the park – to house the Irish and Scandinavian immigrants who worked the Brooklyn waterfront, including within the sprawling Bush Terminal (Favorite Place #3). And while Sunset Park isn’t untouched by gentrification – show me the New York neighborhood that is! – it retains its immigrant, working class character. It’s just that the immigrants come from different countries, and work in different types of jobs.

Manhattan, seen from Sunset Park, seems distant and unreal (photo credit: Eric Brooks)

Now, about those views. The name “Sunset Park” refers to the park’s location – on the top of a rise that faces west, toward the harbor and the setting sun. At any time of day, the view from the slope above busy Fifth Av is spectacular. It takes in the streetscape below, the phallic spire of St. Michael’s church, the waterfront warehouses and factories that fueled the neighborhood’s development, the harbor – and beyond all that, shimmering like a mirage, the distant island of Manhattan.

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Confessions and apologies: WordPress has installed a fancy new editor, which I’m still learning . . . so if this post looks even more awkward than usual (graphic design is not now and never will be my strong suit), that’s why.

It’s also clear that the pandemic’s limitations on travel (including, in those terrible early months, travel within Brooklyn), combined with its impact on this blogger’s focus and motivation, have made profiling “50 Favorite Places” an unachievable goal for 2020. But I hope you’ll stick around to see how far I get.

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