Keep Sunset Park Working Class, Says Professor

Tarry Hum (Photo by Qunchao Hong via World Journal)

Tarry Hum (Photo by Mike Hong via World Journal)

After 10 years of research, CUNY Professor Tarry Hum recently had her academic book “Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park” published. The book focuses on the influx of immigrants to Sunset Park in the recent half-century and the transformation and issues these new settlers brought to the local economy, finance, politics and community development. Hum, who grew up in Sunset Park and works at Queens College, said the changes in Sunset Park mirror the changes in New York City.

Hum was born in Canada to an immigrant family from Canton, China. She moved to Sunset Park in Brooklyn with her parents when she was 13 years old. She said in 1974 her parents bought a place located at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 55th Street, which the family calls home up to now. Growing up on Eighth Avenue, Hum still frequently visits the neighborhood where her father remains. Among the earliest Chinese immigrants who settled on Eighth Avenue, the family witnessed the later waves of Latino immigrants and then Chinese immigrants, and the changes Sunset Park has been undergoing.

Hum said other than her personal connection to the neighborhood, what motivated her to spend a decade studying and documenting the historical transformation of Sunset Park were the parallels between the changes in the neighborhood economy, politics, planning, and demography and those in the whole city. The influx of Chinese immigrants, the investments flowing in from China, the development of real estate projects and the following gentrification that put working families under pressure in the neighborhood are also challenges the city faces.

In Hum’s view, gentrification brought on by the robust real estate market is the biggest problem Sunset Park is facing. It has started to squeeze out the Latino and Chinese working families who cannot afford to rent in the neighborhood, let alone buy a home. Small businesses are also moving out because of quickly increasing property taxes and commercial rents. “It is similar to what’s happening in Manhattan’s Chinatown,” she said.

Hum has concerns about the scorching real estate market in recent years, especially the projects launched by Chinese developers. She said the high-rise buildings and sprawling projects will turn Sunset Park into another Flushing, and they don’t fit in the working class-dominated neighborhood.  “Rezoning for real estate developers to build high-rise buildings will further boost prices. It may be a good thing for business people. But for the working families living here, it means losing another neighborhood they call home. Neighborhoods that are affordable for the working class are fewer and fewer in the city,” said Hum.

Also, with more people applying for the EB-5 investment green cards, Sunset Park has become a target for Chinese investors. Hum said foreign investments mainly focus on their own returns and seldom consider the interest of local people, and they are not a good choice for the future of Sunset Park. (Translator’s note: EB-5 is an immigration program offered by the U.S. to foreign investors. By investing $500,000 to $1 million in approved development projects, foreigners can get green cards for themselves and their family members. Several real estate projects in Sunset Park in recent years solicited investments from Chinese EB-5 applicants.)

Hum said the Chinese community should work together with the Latino community to find solutions for these challenges and to fight for the rights of the working class. And the cooperation should not be limited only to community development but should also extend to economic and political fields.

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