Article and photos by Hanna Utkin
For the past half-century Sunset Park, Brooklyn, has been home to a wide range of immigrant communities, including Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian. Recently, it has seen a new migration – the American creative class or urban hipster, with its ample disposable income and a penchant for good restaurants, galleries, cafes and culture.
Property values in Sunset Park shot up by 30% in the past year alone, according to New York City government data. With some businesses booming and new companies eager to explore opportunities, Sunset Park is in the early throes of change. Whether it will become the next New York neighborhood to transform from an ethnic enclave to a classy destination spot fueled by tourism and upper middle class lifestyle habits remains to be seen.
“Business is not going well,” said Maxwell Augustus, a vendor at Smorgasburg, the traveling foodie market that last year moved to the neighborhood’s Industry City, the 200-acre warehousing, shipping and manufacturing space formerly known as Bush Terminal. “Sunset Park is off the beaten path, so I think a lot of businesses here just break even. The atmosphere here is really great, but we cover our food costs and that’s about it.”
For many food vendors, Smorgasburg is merely a marketing move – a way to get the name of their restaurants or companies out there. “I use it to understand my customers. I don’t really make enough to be here,” said Cocktail Crates entrepreneur Alex Boyd.
At Heirloom Rugs, Emma Redmond softly snickered when asked how the location is doing.
“Slow,” she said. “Not enough pedestrian traffic. Sunset Park is a little out of the way.”
Vintage wares vendor Brian Cousins agreed, saying that compared to Williamsburg and Crown Heights, which previously hosted the winter market, this has been the Brooklyn Flea’s worst location so far. ‘It’s too far from Manhattan, and it’s right by the water – so if we have a rough winter, the cold breeze will deter even the tourists. There just aren’t enough locals that come in.”
Third Avenue, between 31st Street and 39th Street, is a gritty, loud six-lane stretch underneath the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. On one side of the street sits a collage of tile and lighting stores, bodegas, sex shops, auto-body shops and pawn shops. Not a vacant window is in sight, but many stores look old and beat up, in need of renovation. On the opposite side of the road, tall white buildings with new fixtures and signs, studded with eye-catching vinyl posters, proclaim Industry City’s presence.
It holds 40 million square feet of kitchens, offices, studios, lofts and other commercial spaces. It’s a $1 billion development project run by the company Jamestown, whose vision is to revitalize the area, bring in 20,000 jobs and open retail space on another waterfront in the city. Unlike its nearby development sister projects, Brooklyn Army Terminal and Liberty View Industrial, it does not have public funds attached to its progress.
In the past year, Jamestown has managed to rent out two million square feet. Companies including Makerbot and Time magazine have offices alongside modest startups and up-and-coming businesses. In 2015, Industry City housed the craft tables of Brooklyn Flea, as well as the winter market for Smorgasbord.
Of everything in the complex, Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea have managed to attract the most life to the warehouses. On weekends, a stream of tourists and shoppers flock to the courtyard full of holiday lights. But during the week, the enormous white boxes remain sparsely populated, with only the employees of the startups and studios now situated there.
Samantha Gluxner, a sales rep for Fastinal, one of many industrial services shops on Third Avenue, described the neighborhood’s culture as “a lot of construction, a lot of manufacturing.” Third Avenue is vital to the nearby construction companies that need to able to pick up their materials all in one place, then get back on the BQE, headed for Manhattan.
Galactic Tile, for example, seems to benefit from the construction service companies nearby. Its customers are mostly homeowners, designers, architects and construction workers all looking for similar things in the same place.
The average price for a Sunset Park commercial space ranges from $3,000 to $15,000 a month, depending on location and size, according to Zaira Ramirez, a commercial real estate broker. Industry City rents start at about $10,000. The Industry City kitchens, which have been drawing a number of stylish food companies, rent for about $9,000 a month, comparable to commercial kitchen space in Manhattan. For a burgeoning food company, that’s a lot financial strain.
While the vendors at Industry City complain of the low turnouts, the bodegas and restaurants on the street say revenue is increasing, because of the increase in pedestrian traffic. At Cafe La Morina Deli, business is booming and the owner doesn’t have to worry about rent increases, because it owns the building.
For some long-term shop owners, the rising rents from development are actually a good opportunity, a long-term strategy for ousting competitors. Ciara Keddleson of Sunset Beer Distributors said that in the past year, two neighborhood competitors had been forced to move further south and one went out of business. She, for one, can’t wait to see more restaurants move in and require the company’s services.
Ryan Cohen, a sales associate at Maximum Storage, also had no complaints about development. or the neighborhood. “More restaurants,” he said, “would be nice.”
A glaring concern among of most shop owners was readily apparent with a glance at the packed streets – no parking.
“There’s no parking for blocks. I get here at 6:30 a.m. just so I can find parking by 9,” said Gary Cohen, manager of TDC Doors. “My business has slowed down quite a bit, due to the fact that there’s no parking.” Cohen said he had operated TDC Doors in Sunset Park for 16 years. His showroom on 35th used to be 8,000 square feet but when Industry City developers bought his building two years ago, he moved a few blocks south, with just 2,000 square feet. “What could I do, when the landlord tells you to move, you move,” he said with a shrug.
At the Flea, Joe Moroni, a vendor for the furniture design firm Recycle Brooklyn, understands the neighboring businesses’ frustration with the changing neighborhood, but said he thought change is inevitable.
“It’ll take a couple of years but it will get there,” Moroni said. ‘They had a ton of space and they wanted to sweeten it up and reuse it.”
Downstairs, in Industry City’s corridor, Brooklyn Rail, the nonprofit journal covering the independent culture scene, hosted an art show on gentrification. The gallery’s curator, Greg Lindquist, observed: “There’s a strange relationship between artists and real estate. At first it’s offered cheap, so the artists create performances and events and draw people to the space. But why do that? Because then people come to the events and you’re essentially showing off that real estate space to people who are willing to invest in it. Advertising. Then the original artists get displaced and pushed out further – it’s a 10-year cycle. It happened in SoHo, it happened in Williamsburg. It will happen here.”