In his annual State of the City address last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $136 million plan to renovate two warehouses along the water in Sunset Park to create a “Made in New York” campus for the garment, food, and television/film production industries. The renovation—scheduled to be finished by 2020—will create 200,000 square feet for manufacturing and an additional 100,000 square-foot television/film production facility.
It’s the kind of investment that many communities would practically kill for. “Good paying jobs are the bedrock of a strong city,” the mayor said in a speech in Sunset Park, the day after his February 13 State of the City address. “We will continue to invest in the ‘Made In New York’ brand and in New Yorkers. This is still your city, today and tomorrow.”
Yet while the project is expected to bring more than 2,000 permanent and good-paying jobs to Sunset Park, some residents and small business owners are feeling uneasy about the pace of change that is coming to this diverse, blue-collar neighborhood in the southwest corner of Brooklyn.
“We don’t want people to change the neighborhood,” said Renee Giordano, who serves as executive director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District. “We don’t want this to become somewhere that it isn’t. People here already feel left out and not part of the neighborhood.”
What some residents fear is an acceleration of gentrification. According to Giordano, it is the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity that people like about Sunset Park. As one walks down Fifth Avenue, English is rarely spoken or heard. Spanish is the primary language spoken and heard on this busy thoroughfare. According to the United States Census Bureau, 42 percent of Sunset Park’s population is Hispanic. Small shops, many owned by immigrants, line Fifth Avenue.
While Giordano is encouraged by people moving to Sunset Park and acknowledged that Mayor de Blasio’s jobs project is exciting and positive, she wants new jobs to be available to the local community first. “But we don’t want businesses just parked here from other parts of the city and bringing people here just for business,” said Giordano.
Along with Mayor de Blasio’s jobs project, what Giordano is specifically referring to is the arrival of big corporate restaurants and stores along Fifth Avenue. Fast food eateries like Burger King, KFC, and Subway line the heavily crowded Fifth Avenue. The presence of these chain restaurants and stores has some residents and business owners concerned.
John Miniaci, owner of Johnny’s Pizzeria, knows Sunset Park well. His pizza shop has been around for almost 50 years on Fifth Avenue, and he has seen the economic changes which have come to the neighborhood. “Mom and Pop stores ran Sunset Park for years,” Miniaci said. “A lot of those stores have closed or changed their hours. Now it’s a lot of big stores along Fifth Avenue.”
Right next door to Johnny’s Pizzeria, in fact, is a Papa John’s. That hasn’t helped, Miniaci said.
“It was a struggle,” Miniaci said. “But fortunately the neighborhood stood by us. We have customers who know us well and who we know well.” Rents for small businesses along Fifth Avenue have nearly doubled, from $3,500 to $7,000 in some cases, Miniaci said.
As executive director of the Business Improvement District, Giordano’s job is to represent the interests of local businesses in Sunset Park, especially those along Fifth Avenue. One of these businesses is La Vida, a local shoe store.
Opened in 1978, La Vida is a staple on Fifth Avenue. But its small-store style can easily be overlooked in the shadow of big corporations like Payless ShoeSource and New York & Company. Like Johnny’s Pizzeria, La Vida is worried about the pace of change. “It’s more affordable here, so it’s bringing in a whole new crowd from Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn to the neighborhood,” said Jen Kwan, general manager at La Vida. “There are a lot of new developments in the neighborhood, so it’s definitely changing.”
But according to Kwan, La Vida has one big advantage over its competitors. “We really try to be a community store,” Kwan said. “A store like ours is dependent upon the local community, and locals know to come here because we know them.”
From the late 19th century through World War II, Sunset Park’s economy was built upon the booming shipping industry. But the Great Depression, the increase in truck-based freight delivery, and the movement of the shipping industry to New Jersey and other port cities made many of its warehouses vacant and obsolete.
“We have some of the largest industrial areas in New York City,” said Jeffrey Laufer, who serves as district manager of Community Board 7 in Brooklyn. “It has a lot of potential to brings new jobs and businesses here.”
Laufer said that there are ways to make sure the local community is engaged and connected with new businesses in Sunset Park. “We want to make sure that our high schools and non-profits work closely with the fashion and television and film industries,” Laufer said. “We want businesses to be able to come here and be part of the community.”
Laufer specifically cited the opportunity to integrate students who are interested in visual and performing arts with the television and film production crews that will begin calling Sunset Park their home.
Like Giordano, Laufer also wants to make sure that these local businesses are taken care of. “We have to be advocates for the businesses that are already here so that they don’t get left behind,” Laufer said.
Miniaci acknowledged that the Sunset Park community will never completely agree on changes in the neighborhood. “There are people who want these new businesses and others who don’t,” said Miniaci. “But you lose the heart of the neighborhood when these big corporations come in.”