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Explore Brooklyn History with a Tour of Sunset Park


Some of Brooklyn's most interesting historical sites are located in modest Sunset Park, a largely immigrant neighborhood adjacent to both a large waterfront area, and the huge swath of parkland that is Green-wood Cemetery. Sunset Park's identity is defined by its proximity to a historic waterfront, just as Park Slope is defined relative to Prospect Park, and Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan.

So, hop on a bike, or get in a car and explore historic Sunset Park.

And, if you can, visit in February for the annual celebration of Chinese New Year!


Starting point: Green-Wood Cemetery

Ending point: Bush Terminal Market (alternatively, Costco)

Route details: Below
More about Sunset Park History

1. Green-Wood Cemetery

Fabulous Green-Wood Cemetery is a peaceful, 478 acres of rolling parklike hills. It recently has made a name for itself (and generated income) by hosting concerts and creative cultural events. But in its core, it's filled with Victorian mausoleums, obelisks, sculpture, and wonderful inscriptions offer an unrivaled look at the history of old New York.

The elite of New York nineteenth-and early-twentieth century society are buried here. You can visit the graves, for instance, of:

  • William Colgate of soap-and-toothpaste fame
  • Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall
  • abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, and
  • entrepreneur-philanthropist Peter Cooper, among  others.

Who is buried in Green-wood Cemetery?

Guided tours of Green-wood Cemetery

2. Seashells in the Sidewalk

A Brooklyn Historical Society walking tour for schoolchildren points out the seashells mixed in with the concrete at 37th Street and 4th Avenue. The booklet explains that the shells are left over from the days when oysters were one of the biggest boom trades in this part of Brooklyn. You may have to look very, very hard to find them. But the notion that shellfish and oysters were that essential—and commonplace—is beyond quaint.

Learn more about the history of shellfish in New York Harbor and Brooklyn.

3. Sunset Park and WPA Era Sunset Park Pool and Recreation Center

Don't miss Sunset Park itself, with its beautiful views of New York Harbor. The NYC Parks Department describes it as one of New York's "hidden treasures."

Inside Sunset Park is the enormous 1936 WPA-era Sunset Park Pool and Recreation Center. It's a fine example of many such buildings in New York City (including the Brooklyn Central Library and other Brooklyn public pools) that were federally-financed construction projects created to lift the US economy out of the Great Depression. It was quite an investment: decades later, the pool and athletic center are still very much in use.  

(Note: Sunset Park is sited on the top of a natural rise overlooking the harbor. Walkers and young bikers should expect to encounter a hill from harbor to park.)

4. 18th Police Precinct Station House

Although it's a ruin today, this  eye-popping building looks like a medieval fortress, but it was originally a police station. This New York City landmark was designed by police department architect George Ingram in 1890.

5. Bush Terminal and Brooklyn Army Terminal

Located on the waterfront, Bush Terminal was an early industrial park. It was first opened to development in 1890; Wild West shows were held here. It was the site of an oil business, and later an important port and center for shipbuilding.Bush Terminal remained an active port until the 1970s. It became a hazardous environmental "brownfield" due to unauthorized commercial dumping. A multi-million dollar clean-up by NY City and State has led to a 21st-century vision of Bush Terminal as home to industry, and, eventually, a Greenway.

Nearby, the 1918 Brooklyn Army Terminal, originally named the New York Port of Embarkation and Army Supply Base, was the place from which many American military personnel shipped out to Europe in World War II.

6. Tour Route

This route is about 3 miles, excluding touring inside Green-Wood Cemetery.

Stop 1:  Greenwood Cemetery, Fifth Avenue and 25th Street

Stop 2:  Seashells and Maritime History in Sunset Park, 4th Avenue and 37th Street

Stop 3:  Sunset Park and Recreation Center, 41st to 44th Streets, between 5th and 7th Avenues.

Stop 4:  18th Police Precinct Station House, 4th Avenue and 43rd Street

Stop 5:  Bush Terminal, Model Industrial Park, First Avenue to the waterfront between 28th and 65th Streets.

During the week, visitors cannot enter the Bush Terminal, which is a commercial park. However, the area is open for biking during weekends, making for a wonderful summer expedition for aficionados of urban landscapes.

7. Snacks, Restrooms, What's Nearby

Sunset Park has two commercial avenues, along Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue. If you need to stop for a snack, there are many fast food and affordable ethnic restaurants on Fifth Avenue that cater to a largely Latino community. Along Eighth Avenue, you will find Asian, primarily Chinese, establishments.

The commercial strip under the Gowanus Expressway, near to Bush Terminal, along Fourth and Third Avenues, has the occasional bodega and restaurant.

For those who choose to drive (and need to shop for food), note that Brooklyn's Costco discount store is nearby, at 37th Street and Third Avenue.

Happy exploring!

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