Fifty Years Later, a Norwegian Finds a Different Sunset Park

Sunny Mui and Bill Olsen in front of Mui's grocery at Olsen's old address in Sunset Park (Photo by Jane Zhang for Sing Tao Daily)

Sunny Mui and Bill Olsen in front of Mui’s grocery at Olsen’s old address in Sunset Park (Photo by Jane Zhang for Sing Tao Daily)

[Sing Tao Daily recently ran three articles, all written by Jane Zhang, about Sunset Park. The first describes Sunset Park’s development after Manhattan’s Chinatown was hit hard by 9/11. The second accompanies a Norwegian American born in Sunset Park who revisited his old neighborhood for the first time in the past 50 years. The final story describes new development projects in Sunset Park. Below is a condensation and translation of the series by Rong Xiaoqing.]

 

Bill Olsen, who was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 81 years ago, never expected to see the neighborhood as it is today. Walking along Eighth Avenue in the area that used to be familiar, he was surprised. Although the century-old buildings along the street still reminded him of the neighborhood in the old days, the Chinese faces crowding the street, the shoe repair vendors along the roadside, and the predominant language which he didn’t understand all made Olsen wonder whether he was in China.

In 1934, when Olsen was born, Sunset Park was a place shared by Norwegian, Swedish and Irish immigrants. Eighth Avenue, known as Little Norway, was also called “Lapskaus Boulevard,” named after lapskaus, a homemade Norwegian meat stew with potatoes and carrots. The fact that a street had a nickname coming from a popular dish reflected the nature of the neighborhood then – a haven for mixed residents from Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Germany.

Many new immigrants from northern Europe came to New York to look for jobs on ships. Located near the harbor, Sunset Park became a settlement for many shipyard workers and their families. That was the Sunset Park where Olsen grew up. His parents ran a bakery located at 5613 Eighth Ave. from 1930 to 1949. The bakery took the first floor of a three-story building built in the 1920s and Olsen and his family lived above the shop until they moved to Long Island in the 1960s.

Bill Olsen with his parents in front of the family bakery in 1934 (Photo courtesy of Bill Olsen)

Bill Olsen with his parents in front of the family bakery in 1934 (Photo courtesy of Bill Olsen)

Every year on Norway Day in May, Olsen, his wife and their children and grandchildren, like many Norwegians living around New York, always come back to Brooklyn to attend the Norway Day Parade. The parade was held along Eighth Avenue in the 1950s to the 1960s. And then it was moved to Third Avenue in Bay Ridge.

When he turned 80, Olsen felt the urge to revisit the old house where he grew up. Last May, after the parade, he came back to the building at 5613 Eighth Ave. This, of course, is no longer a bakery but a Chinese supermarket which has been operating here for 30 years. Despite his wife’s concern about his manners, Olsen walked in and asked to see the owner. The last time he was here was more than 50 years ago.

In the past 30 years, Sunset Park along Eighth Avenue has changed dramatically. Known now as the third Chinatown, the neighborhood has the highest density of Chinese in the city, according to the 2010 Census. Chinese has become the unofficial language here. And the Norway Day Parade, which was a major activity here in the 1950s, has been replaced by the Lunar New Year Day Parade initiated by the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association 25 years ago.

“Today’s Eighth Avenue is exactly the same as East Broadway in the 1990s,” said Peter Chen, owner of the 1+1 hair salon. Chen started the business on Manhattan’s East Broadway in 1993. Thanks to the influx of Fujianese immigrants in the 1980s, the street was lined with many Fujianese community organizations, restaurants and food stands and shops. Because of these, East Broadway got the nickname “Little Fuzhou.” [Editor’s note: Fuzhou is the capital city of Fujian Province.]

But the prosperity of Chinatown was damaged by 9/11. “Chinatown has been declining,” said Chen. “Eighth Avenue is the new East Broadway.”

According to the 2010 Census, the Chinese population in Sunset Park has jumped from 19,963 to 34,218 in the previous decade, or about 71 percent. In contrast, the Chinese population in Manhattan’s Chinatown has dropped from 34,554 to 28,681, or about 17 percent.

With the exodus of Chinese immigrants to Sunset Park, the salon, which relied heavily on regular patrons, had to react. Chen opened a second shop on Eighth Avenue in 2013. Compared to East Broadway, the business on Eighth Avenue was much better. “Many of my customers live in the Eighth Avenue neighborhood,” said Chen. In 2014, he shut down the salon on East Broadway after 21 years and concentrates fully on the Eighth Avenue shop.

Now when someone comes to the Eighth Avenue area in Sunset Park, he or she may think this is a street in Fuzhou City in China. Each of the 25 blocks from 40th Street to 65th Street has more than 10 shops that only have their names written in Chinese. Even the employees in the Chase Bank here are all Chinese in ethnicity. You can find everything you need here from restaurants, laundromats, and supermarkets to computer repair shops, and even shoe repair stands that do their work manually. In recent years, almost every new shop opened in this area has a Fujianese owner.

Norwegian Day Parade (Photo courtesy of Scandinavian East Coast Museum)

Norwegian Day Parade (Photo courtesy of Scandinavian East Coast Museum)

When Olsen walked into the Chinese supermarket located at the address of his old home, holding an iPad and looking for the owner, the workers in the shop thought he was a city inspector conducting a raid. They all shook their heads and said: “No English! No English!” Olsen had to explain his intention many times to make them understand he was no harm. Eventually, he got to meet the owner Sunny Mui.

Mui, who always likes to make new friends, was impressed by Olsen’s ties to the neighborhood. The two chatted for a few hours like they were old friends. Olsen told Mui about the old Eighth Avenue and Mui updated Olsen with the changes in the neighborhood in the past 30 years.

Walking along Eighth Avenue brought back a lot of memories for Olsen. He was awed by the traffic on the street and said in the old days, there were no traffic lights within 10 blocks. “There were train tracks on the street for streetcars,” he said. There were more bars than restaurants. And there were few people on the street on normal days. “Only during the Norway Day Parade could you see so many people on the street,” he said.

In the old days, you didn’t need to speak English in this neighborhood. You had no barrier as long as you spoke Norwegian. Now Olsen found you still don’t have to speak English. But you have to speak Chinese.

Most of the 18 bars along Eighth Avenue are gone except for the Soccer Tavern, an Irish sports bar at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 60th Street. And this is the only business in this part of Eighth Avenue run by a non-Chinese. “Things changed as quickly as if it had happened overnight,” said Brendan Farley, the owner of the bar. “You didn’t need English to live here before.” He paused for a second and came up with a new thought: “That’s still the case, only with a different language.”

Mui told Olsen the rent for the shops on Eighth Avenue averages $12,000 per month. Olsen was clearly shocked by the number. “How much business do they have to do to break even?” he asked.

Olsen said the second floor of the building at 5613 Eighth Ave. had six rooms when his family rented it in 1950 to live in. “The entire floor only cost $40 per month. Can you imagine?” he said. The landlord also tried to raise the rent, to $45 at first, and then to $50. Although the increase was only $5, Olsen’s family filed a lawsuit against the landlord. “How could we pay $50 per month for an apartment like this!” he said. In the end, the tenants won the case and the rent was kept at $45 until Olsen’s family moved out in the 1960s.

Lunar Day Parade in Sunset Park (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Lunar Day Parade in Sunset Park (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Mui told Olsen what brought him to Eighth Avenue 30 years ago was the low rent here. He ran a meatpacking business on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay in 1982. The business was growing and he needed more space. But the rent in Sheepshead Bay was higher than Sunset Park. So Mui relocated his business to Eighth Avenue.

Mui said the average rent in the Avenue U area in Sheepshead Bay and 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst was $2,000 to $3,000, while the rent along Eighth Avenue was only a few hundred dollars. And the Eighth Avenue area was more convenient for transportation as well. It was only a few subway stops away from Manhattan’s Chinatown, and was not too far from the highway. Also, Mui liked the number “8,” which is considered auspicious in Chinese culture. All of this prompted him to relocate.

In 1984, Mui bought the building at 5613 Eighth Ave. for $125,000 and opened the Fung Wong supermarket. The following year, when the business needed to expand, he rented 1,000 square feet of storage next to the supermarket for $500 a month, a price that sounds like a joke today.

The potential of the real estate market in the Eighth Avenue neighborhood has been fully recognized by developers now. Many projects with big investments are either in the planning stages or have been approved. Construction sites with bulldozers and cranes are everywhere. In a few years, there will be several buildings with six floors or higher erected here, boosting expectations for the development of this neighborhood.

The first group of such buildings are the three modern-style buildings that have been under construction and are slated to be finished by 2017, including 4102 Eighth Ave., a 14,000-square-foot commercial and residential building, 5515 Eighth Ave., a six-floor commercial building with 13,000 square feet for retail shops and 42,500 square feet for a medical center, and 737 61st St. with 54,300 square feet of hotel rooms and clinics.

The proposed construction that attracts the most attention of people in the Chinese community might be the traditional Chinese arch. Most Chinatowns around the world have such an arch as their landmarks, including the Chinatowns in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, London and Liverpool. But for the Manhattan Chinatown, an arch is still a dream. The community first began to call for an arch 20 years ago. But after revising the proposed locations several times, the proposal was still turned down by the Department of Transportation for safety reasons.

The dream has been reborn on Eighth Avenue. Five years ago, when Brooklyn borough and the Chaoyang District of Beijing established a sister relationship, the possibility of an arch in Sunset Park was discussed. In 2012 Sino-America New York Brooklyn Archway Association, an ad hoc organization with the sole purpose of realizing the dream, was formed. At the end of July, the association presented its proposal for an arch to the three related community boards and at town hall meetings.

Winnie Greco, director of the association, said Chaoyang District will pay for the construction fee for the part of the arch that’s above the ground, and the Chinese community will raise money for the costs of the underground construction, including setting the foundation and altering the pipes, as well as the maintenance.

If the dream can be realized, the arch will undoubtedly become a new attraction for the Eighth Avenue neighborhood.

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