•    The History of Sunset Park   

    “Over the centuries, Sunset Park has been a waterfront community. From Indian settlement to modern-day urban neighborhood, accessibility to the harbor has been a key factor in the life of Sunset Park.”   -The People of Brooklyn: A History of Two Neighborhoods

    Today, Sunset Park is the area of Brooklyn bounded by 17th Street to the north, 64th street to the south, the Upper New York bay to the west, and 8th avenue to the east. The name “Sunset Park” was taken from a park in the area that was developed in the 1890s, but was not applied to the entire neighborhood until the 1960s. Prior to this naming, the northern part was referred to as “South Brooklyn” and the southern part was included in Bay Ridge.

    In the late 1400s, the area was marshy and contained many creeks that flowed into the bay. The land sloped upwards from the bay to a crest at today’s 6th avenue.

    Early Settlers

    Native Americans inhabited the old area in the 1600s and established a settlement there. The natives sold maize, peaches, venison, and oysters to the incoming Dutch settlers. Soon, more European settlers began to flock to Sunset Park because of fertile soil for farming opportunities, and proximity to the river for trade. They used slave labor to manage their new farms.The neighborhood flourished due to the Dutch settlement and New Netherland became a prosperous location.

    English settlers took over New Netherland in 1664, but not much change came to Sunset Park. The Dutch still made up the majority of the residents. Due to the English population, however, small battles occurred in and around Sunset Park during the American Revolution.

    Development of a City

    During the first half of the 19th century, Sunset Park remained a highly agricultural area where farmers would sell produce in the town of Brooklyn or ferry it across to Manhattan. In 1825, the first traces of urbanization took hold in Sunset, with a coach line being established through the area. The slaves used to farm the land were granted legal freedom in 1827, shortly after a transition in language from Dutch to English took place.

    1834 saw the establishment of Brooklyn as a city and an urban planning project took place. Sunset Park changed swiftly from farmland to an urban community due to its central location. Urbanization continued into the 1850s with horse car lines and factories being built all across the area.

    Irish Immigration

    Irish immigration began to occur around this time as a result of the potato famine. The Irish contributed much to the construction of homes, factories, and expanding a trade canal.They also became firemen, policemen, sanitation workers, politicians, and real estate agents. In 1846, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn established churches in the area such as the famous and still standing Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

    Further Development

    In the late 1800s, New York began developing elevated steam railroad systems, which triggered the further development of the city of Brooklyn. In 1891, the city purchased several plots of lands on which they planned to build parks. One was to be called Sunset Park, as it offered glorious views of the harbor at sunset. Eventually, the neighborhood surrounding this park would come to take the same name.

    A combination of industry, residential development, excellent transportation, and desirable land plots spurred population growth. Between 1870 and 1890, the population of the area increased from 9,500 to 31,000. Two groups that now flocked to Sunset were composed of immigrants from Poland and Norway.

    Polish and Norwegian Immigrants

    The Polish community in Sunset Park developed rapidly. The immigrants found jobs in factories, and most commonly, as groundskeepers of the famous Green-Wood Cemetery. Polish women were often employed as housekeepers and cleaning staff in new offices in Lower Manhattan. The majority of Poles in the Sunset area were Roman Catholic and thus, built schools and churches to remain culturally connected. The Polish community was exceptionally lively, full of social clubs, singing and dancing groups, and cultural organizations that kept their heritage alive. The northeastern corner of the Sunset region was largely Polish until the 1940s.

    The Norwegian immigration to the Sunset Park area in the 1880s was set-off by the development of steam ships. The residents of Norway’s coast who had been building ships by hand for centuries were out of work, and shifted to America in search of something new. They filtered through Brooklyn and settled on the area between 45th-60th streets, right near the Sunset Park. The majority of Norwegians were Lutheran, Reformed, or Methodist in faith and they developed numerous churches and groups. The Norwegians were among the first to establish hospitals and health care systems in the city, which employed women and men. Men also worked in shipbuilding and harbor trades. This population continued to be strong well into the 20th century.

    The Progressive Era in Sunset Park

    In the early 19th century, Sunset Park began to take form as a truly urban neighborhood.  The population had grown to over 52,000- an increase of forty percent in about ten years. Industry reigned on the harbor, businesses popped up all along 3rd avenue, and farther east, farmers still cultivated land. As plans for a new subway system came into play, residential housing was built in block sections. Soon, a sect of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built at the southern end of Sunset Park and acted as an industrial transportation line throughout the city and nation. This expanding industry once again prompted job seekers and their families to move to the area.

    Finnish and Italian Immigration

    A small Finnish population, consisting of mostly families, also settled in Sunset Park in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This small group, about 1,000 strong by 1910, worked as skilled craftsman, tailors, mechanics, and owned small businesses. They settled northeast of the Park and established a “Finntown” in an area where farmers kept livestock. This group of immigrants focused heavily on developing their own communal organizations such as the Finnish Aid Society called Imatra, named after a famous waterfall in Finland. The Finnish Building Corporation worked to obtain housing for Finnish carpenters and builders in the area. There were many womens’ organizations as well. The Finns were the first to bring the idea of a “cooperative apartment” to the city of Brooklyn.

    There was also a bout of Italian immigration to the Sunset Park region near the turn of the century. This group consisted mainly of male workers who were contracted to work in America on the shipyards and hoped to bring over their families after saving money. These men fought for better working conditions on the docks and sought alternate jobs in construction. By the 1920s, Italian immigration to the greater city area dropped due to changes in immigration quota laws.

    20th Century Sunset Park

    Sunset Park as bustling and productive in the 20s, but once the Great Depression struck, the neighborhood saw a rapid decline in economic stability. Jobs decreased and many families took in boarders to make ends meet. Overcrowded and poor living conditions were the norm. In the late 1930s, the Gowanus Expressway, named after a creek, was built in the northern end of Sunset Park. This project contributed greatly to the physical decline of the neighborhood because it disconnected the area and was a cumbersome and detrimental to the previously existing structures. The once bustling and pleasant neighborhood was gone.

    In World War II, a surge of employment came to Sunset Park and the Brooklyn Army Terminal where materials and supplies were manufactured and shipped. Unfortunately, when the war ended, so did the jobs. People also began moving out of Sunset Park and farther away from the Metropolitan area with the increasing availability of cars for commuting. When the Verrazano Bridge was completed in 1964, many Sunset Park residents shifted to Staten Island. The 1960s marked the beginning of a cultural change in Sunset Park.

    Click here to view a multimedia picture history of Sunset Park!

    Or read on to find out about The Latinos of Sunset Park and The Asians of Sunset Park !


    Ment, David, and Mary S. Donovan. The People of Brooklyn: a History of Two Neighborhoods. [Brooklyn]: Brooklyn Educational & Cultural Alliance, 1980. Print.