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Not All Neighborhoods Are Made Equal—a Tour of a Toxic Community

Thursday afternoon I took part in perhaps the most unique tour available in New York City.

It did not include a visit to the Statue of Liberty, a stroll through Central Park, or a climb to the Top of the Rock. No, this was a tour of the other side of New York, the dirtier underbelly.

It was called the Toxicity Tour.

Led by environmental justice activist Murad Awawdeh from the organization UPROSE, the Toxicity Tour took me on a journey through a neighborhood saddled with environmental burdens and sadly segregated from one of the area’s finest natural offerings—its waterfront.

Perhaps you’ve been there. Most likely, you have not. So before you watch the tour highlights in the video above, let me give you a brief postcolonial history of the rise and fall of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

It starts, ironically, on its shoreline.

Though its name and borders have changed over the years, Sunset Park today is roughly bounded by 15th Street to the north, 64th Street to the south, Eighth Avenue to the east, and in the west by the Upper New York Bay.

In the 1600s Dutch settlers came to Sunset Park for the fertile soil and economic benefits that its proximity to the river offered. Even after the English took over New York and the city really began to develop, Sunset Park long remained a highly agricultural Dutch community where farmers would grow produce to sell locally or across the water in Manhattan.

The neighborhood began to urbanize in the early 1800s with the establishment first of a coach line and soon thereafter of the city of Brooklyn.

Then came the factories. Many factories.

As industry boomed in the area, Sunset Park exploded with Irish, Polish, and Norwegian immigrants, causing the neighborhood’s population to balloon from 9,500 to 31,000 in just two decades, between 1870 and 1890.

Soon a subway line extended to the neighborhood and a section of the Pennsylvania Railroad spliced through its south end, connecting it to the rest of the country. This prompted even more immigration, from Finnish and Italian immigrants, and sealed Sunset Park’s role as an industrial hub.

But the 1930s and 1940s hit Sunset Park hard.

The neighborhood experienced a rapid economic decline during the Great Depression, and its housing stock deteriorated as homes became crowded with people living together to help make ends meet.

But even more significant was the construction of the Gowanus Expressway—an elevated 6.1-mile section of I-278 that power broker Robert Moses deposited directly above Third Avenue, the neighborhood’s main drag, in 1941.

Originally four lanes, the expressway was quickly expanded to six. Below, Third Avenue was widened from four lanes to ten to accommodate truck traffic.

Businesses that weren’t razed during construction choked amidst the noise and congestion, many eventually suffocating. And one need only look at a map of the area to see how this development all but tore the community from its waterfront.

View My Saved Places in a larger map

Today Sunset Park is home to vibrant Chinese and Latino communities, among others. But as wealthier nearby areas have flourished and beautified in recent years, Sunset Park is still deeply marred by its earlier developmental history.

Don’t just take my word for it. See it for yourself in the video above as Awawdeh leads the Toxicity Tour through Sunset Park to witness some of the effects of these developments, the environmental burdens the community deals with each day, as well as the inspiring work that UPROSE and other community groups are doing to help continue the restoration of the neighborhood’s once vibrant areas.