Photo: Susan Sermoneta/ CC.
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Even the Sunset Is for Sale

Sunset Park, Brooklyn: How coffee changes everything


When the coffee shops came, they came all at once — a string of them along 41st Street links the tacos on 5th Avenue to the dumplings on 8th Avenue. My wife and I had been waiting two years for a coffee shop, which is different than a place that sells coffee. Some people are concerned about the coffee shops because they think that coffee shops do not mean just coffee — and those people are right.

My wife and I support all three coffee shops. We enjoy the illusion that we have many choices, even though the coffee at each tastes good but mostly the same. The shops are different in other important ways. One has a full food menu and serves brunch all day, every day; it also recently started serving beer at night. (But, like with coffee, a bar is not just a place that serves beer. We could still use a bar.)

Another coffee shop sells freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice, and a latte with condensed milk that it calls “Vietnamese.” I always order that there. It is hard to do anything wrong with condensed milk. There is also legit Vietnamese coffee (iced or hot) at a delicious bánh mì shop a few blocks away that we visit regularly. They even use the little metal coffee drippers that sit on top of the cup.

The third coffee shop is closest to us. It has a lot of baked offerings, savory and sweet. On the weekends only, they offer fancy doughnuts, too. This is also the only coffee shop that offers a frequent-customer card. Smart. Also smart: it just linked up with Community Supported Agriculture. We signed up for the CSA immediately. I am saving fennel recipes on my New York Times cooking app. I know that one day a box filled with fennel will arrive, and I want to be prepared. There also will be freshly-churned butter. This coffee shop is across the street from our favorite place to eat enchiladas. We still order espresso con leche from the diner when we eat there but now we do not go just for coffee.

We live across the street from the park that gives the neighborhood its name. West of the park is one of the densest concentrations of Latinos in the city. Along the park, just two buildings down from our apartment, is a Hindu temple. East of the park is the city’s biggest Chinatown — and it is still growing.

We bought the apartment while the last few floors of One World Trade were being completed. Prices were still low thanks to the buying opportunity that The Great Recession presented, and I had been sitting on some stock options from the startup that employed me, which had been worthless for years. Still, I rode out the recession like it was not even happening. I was very lucky. I left a journalism career at one of the biggest news organizations in the world for a startup that nobody thought much of right before our banking system nearly collapsed again. While taxpayers bailed out billionaires, I too got raises every year. As the economy improved, and my company unveiled new digital products, those stock options finally become worth just a bit — barely enough to put us over the top. We bought where we could afford.

Photo: Barney Bishop/ CC.

Photo: Barney Bishop/ CC.

Owning an apartment was something I never thought I would accomplish, especially in New York. My early childhood was food stamps and a single mother who worked several jobs. Most of my adulthood was credit card debt and low-paying newspaper jobs that saw me live on the border of Mexico, the island of Oahu, and many small, poor towns in between until I settled in New York. As a kid and as an adult, I had never lived anywhere long enough to feel I was part of what made the place a community. I cried in the downtown Manhattan office of my real estate lawyer as the ink dried on the contract for the apartment. I stared out her window across the harbor at Brooklyn, the orange ferries making their endless runs, and felt I was a part of the city in a way I had not expected.

From our roof, my wife and I watched the windows fill out on the top of One World Trade day by day, sipping wine from plastic cups as the sun set, feeling quite satisfied with ourselves and our good timing, wishing we could finish writing our novels — and also wishing we had good coffee. Now we have the coffee and one of the novels. We wished the coffee into existence but only the most talented of us was able to will the novel into existence. We do not remember what used to be in the spaces the coffee shops exist in now. Actually, the one closest to us had been vacant since we moved to the neighborhood, so there is no way that is not an improvement.

The view from the park has improved, too, even though it was already great when we moved here. There are cranes everywhere in New York, and new buildings keep thrusting themselves into the horizon. The park claims one of the best views of the city from anywhere in the five boroughs. From our roof, it is even better even though it is only a four-story building. It took a while to appreciate Frank Gehry’s twisting, melting accomplishment that was once called the Beekman Tower. I wonder how I ever doubted it. And Fourth of July from up there is a panorama of huge, colorful explosions that extend in every direction along the water and deep into New Jersey.

We can see from Staten Island to the Statue of Liberty to One World Trade to the Empire State Building to the Chrysler Building to all the half-built skyscrapers near that rusty spaceship with grass growing on its roof that they call Barclays Center. Barclays is a prime destination for concerts, and it also brought a major sports team back to Brooklyn for the first time since the Dodgers left for the sunshine of Southern California in 1957. The arena lured the Nets from New Jersey, the way New Jersey lured all our dock jobs decades ago. From my roof, I watched the Nets build their practice facility along the river in a warehouse that had been vacant, like so many other warehouses there that had been reborn, refurbished, and rebranded as Industry City.

The river will be blotted out one day by all that industry and condos and hotels and such. That is when we will decide the neighborhood has been ruined even though a lot of people who have lived here much longer are already saying that — and the voices have grown louder since the coffee shops started shilling cappuccinos and scones.

The Brooklyn Nets practice facility is across the street from a sketchy strip club that my wife and I went to once just to see. The artist renderings on real estate websites of what that intersection will look like in a few years are quite kind to the building the strip club inhabits but the business of flesh seems complementary to the millionaires sweating across the street, bouncing and swishing balls all day long.

A half century ago, people sweated in those warehouses doing real work, toiling on the docks without the benefit of expensive sneakers designed with computers and stitched together by children in Vietnam. Strippers can survive any economic change, though. They are recession-proof. They survived even as most of the warehouses that surround them sat empty for years after all the shipping jobs sailed across the harbor. The loss of those jobs helped make Sunset Park a dangerous place to be. It earned a reputation for gangs, drugs and violence, expressed thusly: “Sunset Park where the guns spark.” Now cargo cranes line the shore in New Jersey, raising their arms in solidarity with Lady Liberty. When the cranes moved there, the Scandinavian population that helped build Sunset Park began to fade, but there are still a few Finnish and Norwegian flags flying from the co-ops near the coffee shop with the “Vietnamese” latte.

That population is so small now that an elderly Finnish woman in our building died and it took two weeks for someone to notice the smell. She had no family in the building — or the city or even the country. Her two-bedroom has been vacant for more than a year, and the co-op board has been in touch with the Finnish consulate to determine who owns it. It is a half-million-dollar mystery.

The bricks of our building were laid by Finnish hands almost a century ago, and they most certainly drank coffee while they were doing it. Per capita, Finns are some of the greatest consumers of coffee in the world. They drink twice as much as Americans and only the Netherlands drinks more.

Their obsession with coffee did not outlast them in this neighborhood, but they gave us something more important. With the co-ops they built in Sunset Park, including the one we live in, the Finns introduced cooperative housing to New York City, which is now dominated by it. Some people have negative views of co-ops and, especially, co-op boards but their real function is in the word “cooperate.” A co-op is a community inside of a community.

Until recently, most of the Finnish co-ops that surround the park required all cash to purchase, a nod to their distrust of banks that must have predated The Great Depression yet still seems intertwined with it. In fact, some of the co-ops still require all cash.

Before the markets crashed in 1929, the park had a carousel, a pond and a six-hole golf course. That changed afterward. The golf course was ripped up, the pond was filled in, and the Works Progress Administration built a community pool and recreation center. And where there had once been putting greens, people could enjoy a more egalitarian park by spreading blankets on the grass and enjoying the view of the harbor and the city without worrying about someone shanking a golf ball from a nearby tee.

It will not take much to block that egalitarian view. The first thing I measured from my roof was the waterline of the river. I pointed out to a neighbor one evening during a huge sunset — the neighborhood is properly named in purple and orange — that anything taller than the building where the Nets practice would mean we would no longer be able to track the ferries floating from the tip of one island to the tip of the other.

Since our building is on the second highest peak in Brooklyn, we can see Red Hook from the roof. Even the blue and yellow Ikea, which must be held together by more than wooden pegs and Swedish glue because the building survived the last hurricane.

A computer model recently predicted that climate change will cause water levels to rise high enough in a few years that our apartment will be on “Sunset Island.” So we are safe — and we might be sitting on beachfront property once Red Hook and the Brooklyn Nets and Industry City are part of the harbor. Think about the globe you had in class in elementary school just for a little bit and it is clear that everything is an island.

A presidential candidate who claims to care about climate change and income inequality held a rally at Industry City not too long ago. A few protesters yelled, “Sunset Park is not for sale!” which is just silly. I appreciate the sentiment. I do. I wish they were right, even at my own detriment. But our exclamations need to be smarter than that if we aim to change the truth, which is: If you do not buy in, you get left out. This is America and everything is for sale — and always has been.

That is what the American Revolution was really about. In fact, our first president fought — and lost — the first major battle of that war just a few blocks from our apartment in what is now Green-Wood Cemetery. George Washington fled from the British by boat to the narrow island of Manhattan after losing a thousand men.

Now I drink coffee on my roof and can see over the top of a bus depot into the old-growth trees that have risen from the blood of the Battle of Brooklyn. And what else should we want to drink but coffee? Only a few years prior to that battle, Americans tossed 600,000 pounds of British tea into a harbor. It has been coffee for America ever since. According to at least one cemetery tour guide, the Battle of Brooklyn is why the Statue of Liberty faces Green-Wood and not Manhattan, which I had never noticed before the guide mentioned it.

My wife and I were married in the cemetery. More than a few family members were put off by the idea even though the ceremony was not amongst the tombstones. Not that the company of those in the ground would have been bad. Those tombstones include Leonard Bernstein, a crew of Roosevelts arranged in a circle, the man who played the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, Charles Ebbets, Civil War generals, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and George Washington’s dentist. (Our first president’s teeth were not made of wood, according to the same tour guide. They were made of ivory.)

The ceremony was in a non-denominational chapel designed by the architectural firm responsible for Grand Central Terminal. The grounds of the cemetery are beautiful, too. Green-Wood preceded both Central and Prospect parks. The cemetery was nearly named Necropolis but the person who designed the original 200 acres fought for the name Green-Wood because he wanted it to be “a place of quiet repose,” according the The New York Times, “suitable for the living as well as the dead.”

The cemetery is almost full now with a population about the same as Las Vegas or Portland. But in the 1800s, when there were far fewer pieces of marble sprouting from the grass, Manhattan’s elite used to ride a ferry over the East River and stroll the paths with top hats and parasols. When the foliage on the trees is just right, we can see the top of chapel from our roof.

We try to take walks in the cemetery as often as we can. It is quiet in a way that you forget quiet can be in the city. But more often we walk through the park across the street from our apartment and enjoy the view with our coffees. The park is rarely quiet. Sit on a bench long enough and you will hear people speak Chinese, Spanish, Yiddish, Polish and Arabic but all their crying babies sound the same. I do not recall ever hearing someone speak Finnish but maybe I would not know it if I did.

Sunset park

Photo: Harry Pujols/ CC.

These days there are usually as many hijabs as yarmulkes pushing carriages down the promenade. Depending on the weather, there are carts selling agua fresca, ice cream and elote, each vendor ringing a bell. In the mornings and afternoons, Chinese men sit along a stone wall that rings the American flag that flies above the trees in the park. They always have a lot to talk about. Across the park, Chinese women dance ballroom by the playground, and there are usually a few people practicing tai chi on the grass. The basketball courts and soccer field are in constant use and the rec center offers Salsa classes and Ping-Pong tables. There are a half-dozen tables in a long row inside and I have never seen one empty. Older Chinese men and women play high-voltage games, and it is impossible to walk past them without a ball pinging or ponging off your head.

I started spending more time in the park after the job that allowed me to buy into this community left for another state, much the way those dock jobs left. My wife and I wouldn’t be able to afford to live here now had we not done so. Rents won’t stop rising and we would be at their mercy (of which they have none). I’m thankful that the park is still free.

Not long ago, I was sitting on one of the many free benches in the park, reading a story in The New York Times, and saw something I had never seen before in this neighborhood. A young man walked past me wearing tight yellow jeans, a polka dot shirt and bowler hat with a peacock feather shooting out from its band. I took a sip of my “Vietnamese” latte and went back to reading the story, which was about how this is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city for real estate. The reporter quoted a couple who bought a dilapidated building near 3rd Avenue and fixed it up. They rent part of it to a tenant to cover their mortgage. I had met the couple a few months before at a bottling party thrown by a small vodka distillery at Industry City.

The couple and I had talked about how the neighborhood was changing and how we were a part of that change, for better or worse. An older woman who was helping bottle the vodka told us she was a retired principal from a school in Sunset Park. She moved here from Puerto Rico in the 1960s and owns a brownstone nearby on a street that has several gut-renovations in progress. She said she bought hers for next to nothing four decades ago. I mentioned that there are not any brownstones left for under a million. “Yeah,” she said. “I know. But where am I going to go? This is my home.”

Not everyone who owned property in this neighborhood felt the same, so now it is also the home of the young couple, as well as me and my wife — except that The Times reporter called where the young couple lives “Sunset Park West.” That was a first. And that is how it happens, more subtly than coffee shops. Realtors have always controlled the language and shifted the boundaries of neighborhoods. It is easy to start an argument with anyone in Sunset Park just by asking what the borders of the neighborhood are — or who should be allowed to occupy its space. (A man yelled at me on the street recently while I was eating lunch at a taco truck that is so popular it stays open until 5 a.m. even in the snow. He screamed, “Go back to Park Slope!” He shook a fist in the air and appealed to the crowd on the sidewalk, “C’mon! We got to scare them the fuck outta here!” Nobody joined his cause. I finished my taco and left.)

Only zip codes stay the same. Neighborhoods in this city are always fluid. Income inequality exacerbates that fluidity. Where my wife and I live was once called Finn Town and now it is not. And unless people do something more constructive than shake a fist at the world’s many problems, it soon might be an island filled with coffee shops.

After I finished The Times article that attempted to divide my community into West and East, I started walking home from the park to watch the sunset from my roof. I tossed my coffee cup into the trash, and man on a bench was clocking me. As I passed, he said to the woman beside him: “Sunset Park has always been Mexican — and it will always be.”