Dutch settlers acquired portions of Sunset Park from the Canarsee Indians in the 1640s and began farming along the waterfront.
Irish immigrants became the first wave of new settlers to the area in the 1840s when they were fleeing the potato famine. They were joined by Polish, Norwegian and Finnish immigrants in the late 1800s when nearly all of the neighborhood’s residential construction occurred.
Sunset Park was changed forever when Irving T. Bush purchased oceanfront property and opened Bush Terminal, nicknamed “Bush’s Folly” because few thought it could compete with Manhattan’s ports. Bush’s initial warehouse, single pier, tugboat and old railroad engine paved the way for what became the largely successful 200-acre complex of piers, warehouses, display rooms and factory lofts.
Italian dock workers settled in the area for the ample work from the terminal that expanded in 1902.
The neighborhood eventually declined by the 1930s and into the 1940s though, when the Third Avenue elevated line halted during the Depression and the Gowanus Expressway split the area’s industrial section from its residential.
After World War II, many older residents moved to the suburbs and their homes were filled with Puerto Rican immigrants eager to work but corruption in the Federal Housing Administration and real-estate and banking industries led to abandonment of homes. In addition, much of the maritime industry began moving to New Jersey at the time.
Bush Terminal was renamed Industry City in the 1960s in a revitalization attempt. Then in 1969, the Lutheran Medical Center purchased an abandoned factory from the city for one dollar and spent more than $70 million renovating the property for a center that helped local nonprofit organizations renovate 500 housing units.
Sunset Park’s rebound was evident in the 1980s and 1990s when more immigrants from Latin America and Asia moved into the neighborhood. Commercial revival increased when the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which was deactivated in the 1970s, was reopened in 1987 for light industry and bodegas, restaurants and retail stores opened up along the neighborhood blocks.
How Sunset Park Got Its Name
Ah, the view.
From atop a hill in Sunset Park, there are marvelous vista of the harbor, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Manhattan skyline — and the setting sun.
This is the park, built in the 1890s, that gave its name to its surrounding neighborhood on Gowanus Bay in the west of Brooklyn, originally home to indigenous Indians who farmed the area before the Europeans came in the 1600s. Then the Dutch found the fertile soil and the waterways to their liking, acquired the land from the Canarsies and began farming along the waterfront.
It became more of an urban community after Brooklyn was made a city in 1834 and developed further with the building of horse car lines and factories in the area.
The neighborhood grew dramatically after Irving T. Bush bought oceanfront property and built Bush Terminal in 1895, a complex of piers, warehouses and factory lofts that created Brooklyn as a major port for shipping and made Sunset Park into a busy waterfront area. Later, the Brooklyn Army Terminal was constructed (1919) as a military ocean supply depot that operated through World War II.
But the building of the Gowanus Expressway, completed in 1941, virtually cut the neighborhood off from the waterfront and workers began leaving, changing the nature of Sunset Park once again.
Indeed, Sunset Park is a prime example of how Brooklyn neighborhoods change ethnically as well as geographically. It was settled by the Irish escaping the potato famine at home around 1845. Then Scandinavians settled in sections that became known as Finntown and Little Norway. Hispanics came to the neighborhood too. And now it is primarily known as the home of Brooklyn’s Chinatown.
The neighborhood has Greenwood Heights to its north, Borough Park on the east, Bay Ridge to the south, and the Upper New York Bay to the west.
Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook.
He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism.
He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.