Open City: Blogging Urban Change
3/11/11: AAFE and UPROSE Sunset Park Walking Tour
By Peggy Lee


Today was a nice day for walking. After a whole lot of rain, wind, and gray gloom the other day, Murad and I walked happily in the sunshine equipped with our coffee towards 35th and 4th to meet Douglas Le and the AAFE crew made up of interns and college fellows for a Sunset Park walking tour. Our point A was Sunset Park High School, a school that opened in fall of 2009; it was the result of more than three decades of advocacy and pressure to get a school in the community where a little over 40% of its population is made up of young people under 18. The week before, Douglas Le, Community Development Manager at Asian Americans for Equality contacted UPROSE to collaborate on this walking tour. The tour incorporated the work of both organizations.

Asian Americans for Equality was established in 1974 and has since evolved into a nationally recognized affordable housing developer and social service provider. Their services include housing legal services, community education, and citizenship preparation. They have offices in Chinatown (Manhattan), Flushing, and in August 2010 opened a Small Business Loans and Counseling office in Sunset Park on 8th Avenue.

Founded in 1966, UPROSE is Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization. We’re an environmental and social justice organization that’s dedicated to the sustainable development of Southwest Brooklyn and activism around a host of environmental justice (EJ) issues. In December 2010, I came on board as the Youth Justice Organizer. I was excited to work for the community I’ve called home since August of 2009. My co-worker, Murad Awawdeh, the Environmental Justice Organizer, grew up in Sunset Park and has organized with UPROSE for over a decade. Our conversations and his intimate knowledge about our community have been formidable in my understanding of Sunset Park as an EJ community. Also, he’s like a walking local yellow book, knowing things like where to get kick-ass Halal food or stores you can get snow boots for a mad good deal.

From Sunset Park High School, we walked along 4th Avenue past St. Michael’s Church and paused in front of the Gowanus Expressway off-ramp. We noticed the street conditions of 4th Avenue, a 6 lane, flat, speed-inducing Avenue that has caused many pedestrian related accidents and fatalities. We stared at the elevated Expressway, a Robert Moses idea, where hundreds of thousands of cars pass daily and cut through Sunset Park on 3rd Avenue. It is responsible for not only the sound pollution I fall asleep to in my apartment, but high asthma rates among residents. However in Bay Ridge, a more affluent and whiter neighboring community, the Gowanus Expressway suddenly goes underground and 4th Avenue turns into four lanes with lights changing more frequently.

We walked up to 5th Avenue, a B.I.D. (Business Improvement District), and mainly Latino business corridor. 99 cent stores, produce stands, butcher shops, bakeries, clothing stores, restaurants, dot the vibrant avenue. It reflects the pulse of a mainly walk-to-work immigrant community not yet deterred by the impinging Rite-Aid, KFC, or other corporate franchises. With the changing storefronts, Murad reminisced how Foot Locker used to be a Woolworth, a place where “while your mom is buying knitting equipment, you can buy a hamster.” Papa John’s now twice located on the avenue, threatens the many mom and pop pizza shops with its coupons and deals, but not really, “because everyone’s got their favorite place.”

NYC Wildlife Sight: While climbing up the steps to the park, right on the lawn, we witnessed a gigantic hawk strangle a pigeon whose wing flimsily failed to lift itself out of its talons. A circle of people, including ourselves, took a picture with our cell phones.

After admiring the view from the second highest point in Brooklyn (first is on Battle Hill in Greenwood Cemetery), we climbed onward towards 8th Avenue, aka. Brooklyn Chinatown. Douglas shared how Sunset Park is in a tricky situation, housing wise. Between 2000 and 2009, the certificates of occupancy issued, among the city districts, moved from rank 43 to 16. But the rental vacancy rate decreased, moving from rank 41 in 2000 to 50 in 2009, in comparison to all the city districts. In short, Sunset Park has a crowding issue. As we passed 7th Avenue, we stopped at a monster of a condominium a result of 2009’s passed rezoning that stuck out among the brownstones. It was really tall and reminded me of a white dragon with a large silver tube-tail sticking out in the back. Though the rezoning was a fluffy attempt to address the residential crowding issue, the movement toward rezoning a few sectors of Sunset Park while insidiously maintaining the overall “charisma” of the historic neighborhood rings a little Park Slope to me.

When we reached the AAFE office, we had a chance to talk to Christine and Jennifer who work with small Chinese businesses and entrepreneurs in Brooklyn. They shared that many of their clients prefer operating their businesses by cash flow rather than credit. And especially in Chinatowns, where the exchange of desired objects and money is fast paced among the crowded, tight sidewalks, it makes sense. Jennifer stated that the ways Chinatowns run, economically and socially, are another world, very insular. Douglas asked how their clients’ businesses are faring in the face of the economic down turn. They responded that they are doing well, very stable.

I departed from the group shortly afterward back to the UPROSE office. I made a stop at Prosperity Dumpling for a much needed lunch. This part of 8th Avenue is barer probably due to its proximity to the more industrial 39th Street. I munched on pork and leek dumplings, and had to agree with a sentiment recently stated by the Mayor: Sunset Park does encompass a little bit of each borough in one community. I held onto the corners, storefronts, homes, restaurants, people I saw and felt today, while pondering the next 10 years.

One Response to 3/11/11: AAFE and UPROSE Sunset Park Walking Tour

  1. Juhyung says:

    AAFE’s controversial role in support of the recent rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side should not be disregarded:

    In fairness, here’s AAFE’s take:

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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Featured Profile
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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Community Announcements
Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
Monday, May 2 at 6:30 pm -- Rutgers Community Center, Gymnasium - 200 Madison Street (btwn Rutgers & Pike Sts)

Brooklyn CB7, Land Use/Landmarks Committee Regular meeting
Continued discussion on potential 8th Avenue rezoning

Manhattan CB3 Economic Development Committee Tuesday, May 3 at 6:30pm -- Community Board 3 Office - 59 East 4th Street (btwn 2nd Ave & Bowery)

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