“This is just another challenge that we will be facing, that will bring us further away from recovery,” one community member said.
By Eleonora Francica, Elizabeth Maline and Evelyn Nam
The Sunset Park community is still shaken from a shooting that took place Tuesday morning on the N train at the 36th street stop, leaving 10 people shot and 19 others injured. A man fired 33 gun shots after opening two canisters that clouded the subway car with smoke.
Frank James, a 62-year-old man, was arrested Wednesday afternoon in the East Village. On Thursday, he was hit with a federal terrorism charge in Brooklyn federal court and ordered to be held without bail.
Though the community feels more at ease knowing James is in police custody, residents, business owners and faith leaders are shaken. This incident comes after two years of community suffering. Sunset Park was one of the neighborhoods most severely impacted by COVID in New York City, and its population, majority Asian and Hispanic, fell particularly vulnerable to a city-wide rise in hate crimes. The subway shooting only adds to their existing fears over safety and reignites their push for safer streets and subway stations.
Mon Yuck Yu, an Executive Vice President at the Academy of Medical and Public Health Services in Sunset Park, spent the entirety of Tuesday in lockdown at her office on Third Avenue and 53rd Street, two train stops away from the 36th street stop.
“Even though we knew this incident had happened a little bit further away, there was just this anxiety,” Yu said. “We were hearing police sirens. It was just very unsettling.”
Yu has worked in Sunset Park since 2010 and is a resident of the neighborhood, which she regards as a very diverse neighborhood, one of working class immigrants. The median household income in 2019 was $69,030, roughly two percent less than the citywide median household income, according to the NYU Furman Center. The poverty rate in Sunset Park was 18.1 percent, more than two percentage points higher than the citywide rate. In 2019, 34.8 percent of the population identified as Asian, while 35.6 identified as Hispanic, together comprising over half of the neighborhood’s population.
Sunset Park was also one of 33 neighborhoods the city’s Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity (TRIE), launched in April 2020, focused on in response to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and other health and socioeconomic disparities. At that time, those communities accounted for over 50 percent of all the city’s COVID cases. Even now,COVID cases in Sunset Park are consistently higher than the case rates in Brooklyn and the city as a whole, according to data from the city.
“Sunset Park has seen significant healing over time – people are returning to work, children are returning to school – but now we’re faced with another setback that’s leading our communities to really doubt their safety and well being in their own homes in a neighborhood that they’ve trusted for years,” Yu said. “This is just another challenge that we will be facing, that will bring us further away from recovery.”
Yu’s team members are now opting to drive their children to their schools in Manhattan or other parts of Brooklyn because they feel unsafe for them to take the train. She describes a fear of not being able to keep their children and families safe.
“I think the neighborhood is exhausted from, really, the incessant attacks that we faced,” she said. “I think it’s going to take time for the community to heal once again.”
Sunset Park has seen a rise in crime over the past two years. In year-to-date data from NYPD Comp Stats, there has been a 103.5 percent increase in crime over the past year, measuring the week between April 4 and April 10, and a 69.6 percent increase over the past two years.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty. There are a lot of questions around safety,” she said. “People are feeling anxiety that perhaps I will be next, and every single day is just unpredictable.”
But Yu has no doubt the community will rebound.
“This neighborhood is just one where you’re going to know the name of your neighbor and it’s just such a tight knit area and just to have something like this happen, it really shatters us,” she said. “We will come together stronger.”
Amid a rise in crime in New York and the killing of police officers Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, Mayor Eric Adams released a “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” in January. Among the various efforts presented in the blueprint is a section on faith leaders and their role in educating the community about the importance of public safety.
Faith leaders in Sunset Park have witnessed the spread of fear since Tuesday and have stood ready to help and guide their community.
“I was celebrating mass, a funeral, at 10 o’clock, and we locked down the church because we didn’t know if the guy was around,” said Pastor Fulgencio Gutiérrez of Saint Michael’s, a Roman Catholic Church only six blocks away from where the shooting happened.
Gutiérrez and his parish offered to support the community and hope that fear won’t stop people from going out in public spaces.
“We should not allow this incident to allow fear to handicap us to the point that we’re not able to go out and to live a normal life,” Gutiérrez said. “But rather be more aware and be more proactive working for peace and unity in the community.”
Imam Abdallah Salem of the Muslim Community Center in Sunset Park witnessed firsthand how the fear of falling victim to another attack stopped faithful from leaving their homes.
“We are in the middle of Ramadan, now, the month of worship, and almost every day, people come to the mosque, every night to pray,” he said. However, the mosque was half empty on the night of the shooting because people feared going to congregation prayers and public spaces.
The thoughts of Abdallah and the Islamic community went out to the people involved in the shooting. “We were trying to stand with those victims and pray for them,” he said.
Residents, employees, and visitors at Sunset Park are divided in terms of their feelings about an increase in policing as a response to the attack.
Omar Amari, a 21 year old who lives in Bensonhurst but was in Sunset Park on Wednesday to play basketball with a friend, is encouraged by the police presence.
“I’ve heard a lot of cops are stationed here, so I felt a little better about it,” he said.
While he has been in the city his whole life, recent incidents have made him wonder “what’s going on.” Amari added, “Every week I feel like I hear someone’s getting attacked on a train or something.”
Dream Jaeger, who lives in Sunset Park and works at PS56 as an after-school teacher, is skeptical of cops’ positive influence in the decrease in crime.
“They had a lot of policing in the MTA prior to this, and the cops don’t do nothing but harass people,” she said. “So now that there is increased police presence, what’s really the point? Like, it feels the same.”
Jaeger challenges increased policing as the answer to the rising violence. “There are better solutions, if they just reroute the budget,” she said. “If they took that money and put it towards helping marginalized communities and stuff, instead of policing harder and building more prisons, I doubt that there’d be more need for policing. The crimes will go down.”
While Danyel Johnson, a 42-year-old employee in Industry City, believes that the presence of cops wouldn’t “hurt,” she wants the community to come together. “We can’t just write off an entire city because of violence. How about we go back to the days where everybody looked out for each other?”
Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and the author of Race, Law, and American Society, said that while she understands the importance of law enforcement during a time like this, putting more cops on the street is reactive.
“We need jobs in communities. We need, yes, law enforcement, but we need to be giving programs and employment,” she said.
Browne-Marshall added that there needs to be more “proactive discussions around racial healing,” as well as media coverage of communities coming together.
“Only racial conflicts make the news,” she said. “There needs to be a public emphasis on community as much as there is on conflicts.”