Setting Foot in Sunset Park
Coming off the R line, Sunset Park was a lively shopping street lined with herbal medicine shops, Chinese bakeries, open markets, street vendors, and mini malls. The streets were littered with flyers being given out at every other corner and there was a hum of people and cars. Every mother seemed to have a child in one hand and red grocery bags in the other. Amongst the Chinese advertisements, hand-pulled noodle shops, and the lingering odor of the fish and vegetable markets, the Soccer Tavern greeted us with the American and Irish flags and the presence of white people at the entrance. To understand the cultural importance of this Irish-owned Bar in the heart of Brooklyn’s Chinatown, we need to dig into the history of Sunset Park’s 8th Ave
The Soccer Tavern
The Soccer Tavern was as cozy as any bar can get; reddish-dark lighting, TV screens obviously showing a soccer game, and wooden wall panels. The Irish flag hung from the walls proudly. The only thing that seemed to distinguish the bar from any other was the diverse crowd in a very mono-ethnic neighborhood. There were Asians, Whites, and Hispanics drinking and nodding at the same TV screen. The owner of this friendly neighborhood establishment was Brendan Farley.
Brendan arrived in America from Ireland in 1986 and started working at the Soccer Tavern around the same time. The bar was originally established by Norwegian owners in 1932 who moved back and sold the bar to Brendan. It’s pretty hard to imagine Sunset Park as anything besides “Little Fuzhou” but the neighborhood used to be primarily Scandinavian according to Brendan. People started moving back to Norway when an influx of Chinese immigrants appeared in the 1990’s, changing the neighborhood into “Chinatown almost overnight”.
Now, the bar’s business consists of “60% Asian- there are many Malaysians, Chinese, and people from Hong Kong”, but Brendan also sees old timers and an Irish crowd. I mentioned my surprise at the diverse crowd I saw when I walked in and he replied that walking into his bar sometimes was like “walking into the United Nations”. The bar itself only has four employees, including Brendan. Sometimes his wife and his daughter helps out, making their tavern their “family business”. The bar will fortunately last for a little while longer as his family decides what to do with it and if his kids want to sell it or keep it.
“I would have never guess I would have so many friends from so many countries.”
– Brendan Farley
Brendan Farley’s bar is a remnant of what used to be a primarily Scandinavian ethic enclave deep in Brooklyn. Looking around in present day 8th Ave, very little of the Scandinavian presence remains. According to the 2010 census, Sunset Park as a whole was 88.7% Chinese (not including Taiwanese), allowing the community to be Brooklyn’s first Chinatown. Below is a map featuring the concentration of the Asian population in 2014. The darkest parts indicate that areas in Sunset Park had over 95% Asians living in the area.
According to the census, data showed that the area’s Irish population fell by half, to about 1,347, from 1980 to 2009, while the number of Chinese grew more than tenfold, to over 26,000.
The Scandinavians originally settled in the Sunset Park and Bay Ridge area by “following the water” according to an interview with Victoria Hofma, a life-long Bay Ridge resident with a Norwegian background and the founder of the East Coast Scandinavian Museum. The Scandinavians were known for working on the water as engineers and ship captains. The Scandinavian population started in Manhattan, moved to downtown Brooklyn, ultimately to Bay Ridge- which Sunset Park was considered a part of until the 70’s. After the shipping industry moved out of Brooklyn and to New Jersey, many jobs were lost. In addition, the building of the Gowanus parkway caused the loss of over 2000 homes.
There are a few reasons for the sudden shift in demographics in Sunset Park. Many of the immigrants from China during the late 1980’s to 1990’s came from the Guangdong or Fujian province, relatively wealthier areas in southeast China. The immigration of Chinese was fueled by the same factors for almost any other group of immigrants: economic. In addition to the influx of immigrants from China, Chinese immigrants from Manhattan’s Chinatown flocked to Sunset Park. Due to increasing gentrification and overcrowding in Manhattan, many Mandarin speaking originators, including Fuzhouese, began moving into Sunset Park in the 1990’s. According to a New York Times article, many move from the congested Manhattan Chinatown for “less stress, less competition and lower rents.” This supplanted many Cantonese immigrants which originally settled in the area. Grocery markets, herbal shops, clothing stores, and bakeries now line the streets of 8th Ave.
All pictures taken by me, unless stated otherwise