Before leaving the city for a few weeks (hiatus from the internet during my travels) I was able to get into contact with Melissa del Valle Ortiz, a reader of the Open City blog and a long-time resident of Sunset Park. She was one of the first organizers at Neighbors Helping Neighbors (a grassroots nonprofit in Sunset Park that organizes around affordable housing issues, and an organization that was profiled on the blog), and made her way to the lively Brooklyn neighborhood from Seoul, South Korea.
In order to prep for an interview with Melissa (taking place next week), I sent her a list of questions, spanning from her work with Neighbors Helping Neighbors, to why Sunset Park remains to be where she makes her home.
Here are her answers, which touch upon some of the themes surrounding gentrification that our blog has explored this past year:
(1) Hi Melissa. You stated that you have lived in SP for twenty years. In these past two decades, how has the neighborhood changed during these years?
I can’t say that the race/ethnicity has changed while I have been here, but more that it has become increasingly over-populated. . .Before the influx of Latinos and Asians in the mid 70’s I heard it had a large Polish and Italian community, which you can see in signs of old store fronts. Income-wise, I could only expect that high incomes and class has grown because many people have acquired a higher education, and grew up being bilingual, so they are no longer stuck in low paying jobs.
(2) You stated in your recent comment on the blog that you are still mystified by the Asian American/Chinese community, which dominates 7th-8th avenues in Sunset Park. Can you explain this distance? Is it a matter of cultural differences? Language barriers? Seemingly inflexible ethnic enclaves?
. . . For me the barrier has more to do with language limitations on both sides. I can learn the culture and make my way around easier if signage were in both languages. . .
(3) Very recently, Sunset Park has been going through various renovations and redevelopment, and many of these include projects on the waterfront (such as artist collectives, which purcahsed real estate in the Navy Yard). What do you think about these renovations?
I haven’t seen much of any development on the waterfront which I identify as 3rd avenue down to the water. I see a lot of hotels going up which are quickly turning into hot sheet hotels for 3-6 hour rentals. A few years back an art gallery was put up in the 20’s thereabout and the new ambulatory clinic by Lutheran on 3rd. I haven’t seen any affordable housing development in twenty years, along our waterfront or anywhere in the community except for Lutherans Senior Center on 43rd and 4th. Housing overall, is mostly expensive condo/coops and the evacuation of long time rent stabilized tenants by new buyers. I see many brownstones and limestone houses getting gutted out and “mini malls” or laundry mats being put into the ground floors or towering apt building squeezing into what was once a shared driveway between two, three family homes. I think it looks horrible and takes away from the community character and history. Additionally, our community is not available to meet the high demand of this population explosion. Our schools, hospitals, and parking alone are so limited that providing housing without first addressing community capacity is irresponsible.
(4) Are there particular spots in Sunset Park that resonates with you?
. . .I enjoy the garden on 64th Street, although it’s literally under the BQE you tend not to notice as the garden itself is so serene; most everyone there is very friendly and open minded. The park itself is best enjoyed in the morning, but by the afternoon is simply over-crowded, and I feel the urban intent of providing a quiet place to enjoy nature gets lost, when you have crowds of people on top of each other cooking, selling or playing music that’s way too loud. Food wise, Sunset Bagels or Dunkin’ is great when I want to sit, and meet up with friends over coffee, I don’t care if Starbucks ever makes it here they’re just too pricey. I haven’t found too many eateries or hang outs that cater to diversity though and find that I occasionally make my way into Park Slope for Los Pollitos or Bogata on 5th and Douglass or to 86 Noodles in Bay Ridge on 4th and 86th. I enjoy Eclipse, a more modern Mexican restaurant with a backyard outdoor seating area on 4th Avenue (owned by a Japanese woman) and Castillo de Yaque a Dominican Restaurant on 5th. I like to try different local restaurants and they have pretty much been “eeh”. . .
(5) During the time that you’ve lived in Sunset Park, how has gentrification changed this neighborhood?
Gentrification has changed Sunset Park in that along with the rents going up, I have noticed there are less check cashing store fronts and more banks catering to people who can afford to save and borrow. I have also noticed Mom and Pop pharmacies and hardware stores closing down since Duane Read, CVS, Lowes and Home Depot have opened. Five and dime stores like Woolworths and Dee and Dee’s have also left Sunset Park. Grocery stores have now catered to their diverse clients and have lots of organic, Mexican and Asian products. Shoe repair shops are almost non-existent with “cheap” being an option like Payless or Fabco. Our community has also lost federal funding for community service programs that cater to what was once a high low income population forcing non profit organizations to reduce and cut back necessary services that once catered to low income families like head start, afterschool and job training programs.
(6) What are the aspects of Sunset Park that you value the most?
I love Sunset Park for all the reasons it is being gentrified. Proximity to the city and to the shore of Coney Island during the Summer months. I enjoy riding my bike to Prospect Park and small pockets of communities that exist here.
(7) Out of curiosity, what made you move to Sunset Park, an interesting move from Seoul, South Korea?
After moving around with my parents from Bushwick to Canarsie, Fort Green and Bedstuy I joined the military, ergo my stay in Seoul. Upon my return I was in Clinton Hills with my father. I moved here out of necessity as a mother with two kids and being accepted into Project Based Section 8 housing. With no job and only receiving public assistance it awarded me an opportunity to provide my children, then 3 and 4, with their own room while paying $124 in rent. It was also next door to what became their elementary school, down the block from the super market and up the block from the library and their pediatrician. Frankly, it was a single mother’s dream come true. A real door of opportunity which I kicked in after finding part time employment in the community from 10-3 allowing me to work around my kids school hours.
(8) <a href=”http://www.nhnhome.org/”>Neighbors Helping Neighbors: I was interested in your role as one of the first organizers with NHN (one of the first interviews I did was with an organizer at NHN). Were you one of the founders?Were there particular patterns you faced, in terms of the politics dealing with rent control and real estate development, while working as an organizer?
I was not an NHN founder, but shortly after it moved from Park Slope to 5th and 54th above what is now Health Max pharmacy, I was their first community organizer. Funded by Neighborworks and the Americorps organization. They moved from Park Slope because they found that the people who needed to buy homes lived in Sunset NOT Park Slope. They then acquired funding to do tenant organizing which I played a role in. My role there began with integrating community involvement as a home owner, into their first time home owner program. It ended with me starting a How to Start a Block Association manual, helping residents to form the 64th Street Community Garden and acquiring funding for the very first Groundswell Community Mural in Sunset Park on the wall of Citi Bank at 54th and 5th.