“The SUNSET PARK NEIGHBORHOOD, south of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street, is inhabited by a large number of Scandinavians and Finns. Local enterprises including small businesses of every type are bound together in the nationally known Finnish Co-operative Association. The apartment house at 816 Forty-third Street, opened in 1916, is supposedly the first co-operative dwelling established in New York City. Within the locality are several Finnish steam baths; the restaurants feature Finnish dishes: keittokirja (cabbage soup), liha pullia (meat balls), silli perunat (herring and potatoes); the homeland’s culture is kept alive by Finnish societies; and folk dances are held occasionally at which the women wear the gay peasant costumes of their native land. The bluff of Sunset Park, Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, affords a thrilling view of the harbor.”
– New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis
(Works Progress Administration, 1939)
The article below is one of a series of Field Trips on Urban Omnibus that revisit sites documented in the New York City edition of the Federal Writers’ Project’s (FWP) American Guide Series. The Guides were a Depression-era, Works Progress Administration (WPA) project to create travel guides to the 48 states (of the time) plus Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC, as well as 1,200 additional books and pamphlets recording American cities, roadways, folklore, and oral histories.
The Guides are not only one of the most comprehensive accounts of the United States at a specific historical moment, but they also provide a particularly interesting lens through which to view our present. This series of UO field trips is inspired by an online project called The American Guide, which encourages and collects similar documentation of contemporary America using the original FWP publications as a springboard. Previously in this series, Jonathan Tarleton went camping in Floyd Bennett Field, visited the former company town home to Steinway & Sons piano factory in Astoria, Queens, and crossed the Triborough Bridge to examine the planning decisions that created its particular character. Here, Tarleton investigates the history of demographic change in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park by pairing census data with a sampling of its present day foodstuffs.
In New York, changes in local demographics are discussed as often as subway woes or rental prices. But while recent shifts often provoke hand wringing about displacement or inequality, the broader story of a neighborhood like Sunset Park reveals as much about how we have historically classified distinct demographic groups as it does about how its community identity has evolved over the course of the 20th century. From the Little Scandinavia described in the New York City Guide to its contemporary juxtaposition of Little Latin America and Brooklyn’s Chinatown, Sunset Park stoked my curiosity. It eventually led me to embark on two concurrent field trips — one through the actual neighborhood to investigate the remnants of its past and to sample the foodstuffs that replaced the cabbage soup, meatballs, and herring of its Little Scandinavian days, the other a winding trail through census data.
• • •
In 1940, the year after the Guide was published, the Census Bureau split the nation’s races into four categories: White-Native Born, White-Foreign Born, Negro, or Other Race. At the time, the census only collected ancestry information for the foreign-born population by documenting their country of origin. A full 30% of the White-Foreign-Born population (33% of the total neighborhood population) of Sunset Park hailed from Denmark, Sweden, or Norway, accounting for 35% of Brooklyn’s entire Scandinavian-born population. At the time, no Asian ethnicities were counted, and the foreign-born population from Latin America was negligible. The 1950 census questionnaire stuck to the same format and the breakdown of Sunset Park remained similarly static: 34% of Brooklyn’s Scandinavian population still resided in Sunset Park.
In 1960, we see a neighborhood beginning to change. The census expanded its questionnaire to count persons of “Foreign Stock” — those born abroad or born to non-native parents — and only 18% of the total Foreign Stock of Sunset Park was made up of Scandinavians, though the neighborhood still laid claim to 30% of the borough’s share. Residents of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, in a steep and rapid increase from the 1% of the population they made up in 1950, now made up 7% of the total population.
• • •
When I heard about a Viking Festival taking place in Owl’s Head Park, just south of Sunset Park in neighboring Bay Ridge, I decided to see what Scandinavian offerings remained in the area. Despite repeated remarks from other attendees that my strong jaw and dirty blonde hair gave me a Scandinavian air, I quickly found my presence at the festival to be surprisingly conspicuous. I clearly did not represent one of three main contingents in attendance: an aged crowd all familiar with one another; folks between 25 and 50 dressed in faux-Viking attire weaving tapestries, sword-fighting, and carving designs into stone; or the few families particularly enamored with the role-playing bunch. Apparently, 20-something Brooklynites do not normally attend the Viking Festival.
This proved a serious boon. I wandered among the tents, observing battle-hungry kids demand more duels from the chainmail-clad fighters and wondering by what mode of transport the Leif Ericson replica boat had arrived from Philadelphia. I then settled in to hear the Lista Trekkspillklubb, an accordion band from Norway. Soon after, a spry older man sporting a Viking horn and golden braid cap, American flag pants, and a Norwegian flag shirt, chatted me up, largely curious as to what brought me to the festival. My curiosity proved endearing to Bob. I was treated to self-deprecating Norwegian jokes and a bowl of lapskaus, a stew of beef, carrots, and potatoes.
Beyond the imported music, much of the representation of Scandinavian culture at the festival — as one might expect given its billing — was distilled down to the stereotype of the Viking. Having satiated my desire for “creative anachronism,” I headed a few blocks east to Nordic Delicacies, a specialty import shop proudly flying Norwegian colors from their awning and sidewalk flag pole. I came away with some serina cookies, opting against the tube of spreadable herring and avoiding the temptation of a quart of lingonberry preserves.
• • •
The 1970 census shows a dramatic uptick in Sunset Park residents of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, or other Latino stock as they rose to 27% of the neighborhood population. This jumped again in 1980 (with 50% of the population of “Spanish Origin”) and peaked in 1990 (with 54% of the population of “Hispanic Origin”), before declining to 46% in 2010.
Meanwhile, the Scandinavian population plummeted to 2% in 1970. But, on that year’s census form, the only Scandinavian country of origin specified as an option was “Swedish.” Norwegians had always made up the bulk of this slice of the community, so the fact that residents of Norwegian origin were not counted as Scandinavian skews the numbers. In 1980, however, when people of Norwegian descent were combined with the Swedes once again, residents of Sunset Park with Scandinavian ancestry only amounted to 3% of the population and would fall from there to 1% in 2010. Little Scandinavia was gone. Little Latin America had arrived.
• • •
Crossing back into Sunset Park, the sprinklings of the neighborhood’s Scandinavian past that I’d found in Bay Ridge were nowhere to be found. I biked to the tip of the Brooklyn Army Terminal’s pier, which provided views to the north and south of the working waterfront that had initially brought the seafaring Scandinavians to the neighborhood. The industrial area, which stretches from 3rd Avenue west to the waterfront, has seen a small manufacturing revival in the past few years with growing activity at the former Bush Terminal, now dubbed Industry City, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
The commercial and residential areas of the neighborhood lie east of 3rd Avenue, the strip that had been the heart of the community before its destruction by Robert Moses’ Gowanus Expressway in 1941. What had once housed seven movie theaters, restaurants, and Mom-and-Pop stores in the dappled light of an elevated train became home to a major truck thoroughfare sheltered by an opaque six-lane slab of concrete overhead. Every building on one side of the avenue from 39th to 63rd Streets was demolished, displacing 1,300 families and hundreds of stores in the process. The deterioration in the neighborhood that followed and the 1970s fiscal crisis are credited with the shift of the neighborhood’s population away from Scandinavians and toward poorer Latin American and Puerto Rican immigrants. Panaderías, taquerías, and zapaterías line 5th Avenue as it extends below the eponymous neighborhood park. The majority of residents of this section of the neighborhood, designated by the City as Sunset Park East, are of Hispanic origin: in the 2010 census, 65.4% of individuals identified as such. Keen to follow up my lapskaus and cookie sampling with contemporary cuisine of the area, I stopped into Tacos Matamoros for what I had been told are some of the best tacos in Brooklyn. Once again a conspicuous element of the crowd — a single non-Latino among the many Latino families enjoying lunch — I scarfed down tacos filled with carne asada, carnitas, lengua, and chorizo, bypassing the cow’s head this time around. Despite the commonality of accordion, the mariachi music piping through the restaurant proved a bit peppier than the Norwegian headliners at Owl’s Head Park.
• • •
1980 also saw the first census documentation of the Asian population in Sunset Park with the addition of Asian as a racial category to the questionnaire. 5% of population identified as Asian, and 3% further specified Chinese heritage. Every ten years since 1980, the Asian community in Sunset Park has increased its share of the neighborhood population by 10%. In 2010, 35% of Sunset Park residents were Asian, 32% further identifying as Chinese. Little Latin America and Brooklyn’s Chinatown now occupied the same neighborhood.
• • •
I headed to the park that gives the neighborhood its name to digest. Sunset Park shifts from predominantly Latino to predominantly Chinese between 5th and 8th Avenues, and the users of the park – which runs from 5th to 7th Avenue – reflected this shift as I walked east, taking in the views from Brooklyn’s highest point. I exited at the park’s southeast corner, passing by the row houses that mark the neighborhood as one of the southernmost points of “Brownstone Brooklyn” and immediately recognized the mainstays of Chinatown as I neared 8th Avenue: plastic tubs of fish and spiky fruits laid out on the street. To my untrained eye, each block of Brooklyn’s only, and New York City’s largest, Chinatown seemed similar to the next. A more informed observer may have noticed the competition between shop owners speaking Cantonese, which traditionally dominated New York’s Chinatowns, and more recent immigrants speaking Mandarin.
Thanks to the descriptive name, I knew the region from which my noodles hailed when I stopped into the small storefront of Yun Nan Flavour Snack right off the avenue on 49th Street. The rice noodles with spicy meat sauce certainly warmed me up on the rainy day. As I walked back to my bike, I saw one of the vans that ferries passengers between the Chinatowns of Sunset Park, Manhattan, and Flushing, another indicator that the predominantly East Asian part of Sunset Park is more connected to neighborhoods in other boroughs than Little Latin America just three blocks away.
Regardless of the various populations that have predominated at various times in Sunset Park’s history, what seems to have endured is a unique neighborhood character, one that I hope will remain as the neighborhood continues to change and adapt. If the attractiveness of the housing stock, delicious food offerings, and small-batch industrial revival are any indication, the future conversation of demographic change in the neighborhood may well take a form all too common across Brooklyn today.
Infographic and all photographs by the author.
 Robert A. Caro (1975), The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Vintage, pp 520-525.
All Census data sourced from decennial censuses conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau from 1940 to 2010. Data from 1940 to 1970 were accessed in print copy at the Bureau’s New York Region Office. The 1980 and 1990 data were accessed via the Internet Archive of the Library of Congress. Data from the 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses are available on the Census Fact Finder.