Sunset Park may be best known for being the largest Chinese ethnic enclave in the city, but just fifty-odd years ago, it was a bustling Little Norway.
The main street of Brooklyn’s Chinatown is 8th Avenue but back in the day it went by the name Lapskaus Avenue, after a type of Norwegian beef stew.
Today, that typical Scandinavian dish, along with lutefisk and sytlelabb, are long gone, replaced on restaurant menus by stinky tofu, bok choy and tea-flavored eggs.
Even the local Lutheran churches, whose services used to be in Norwegian, now post invitations in Chinese and Spanish.
The large population of Finns, Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians in Sunset Park harkens back to more than 300 years ago when the area was a key shipping port. The Scandinavian community was at its height as late as the 1960s.
Already, however, the new wave of Puerto Rican, Mexican and other South American immigrants had started moving into the area. Beginning in the 1980s, Chinese immigrants began to concentrate right in the 8th Ave area that was the heart of the Scandinavian community.
A New York Times article from 1991 picked up on the Scandinavian population’s decline. “There is sadness that the area’s Norwegian community is on the verge of extinction,” it said, but noted that there were still a few Norwegian venues and businesses—in particular a special Norwegian eatery on 8th Ave called the Atlantic. But even that holdout changed hands—and ethnicity—a few years later.
The remaining Norwegian residents put out a strong lament to the new Chinese owner, who, in a gesture of cross-cultural appeasement, reinvented the Atlantic as a one-of-a-kind “Chinese-Norwegian-American” restaurant named Wee Kee.
“It was an experience. People were laughing, ‘Chinese-Norwegian, are you crazy?’” said Reidun Thompson, who witnessed firsthand the neighborhood’s evolution into a full-fledged Chinatown. Thompson, who is from Norway, came to Sunset Park in 1962 and worked as a waitress at the Atlantic for 25 years. When it was remade into Wee Kee, it became Thompson’s job to keep the Norwegian part of the new restaurant going.
“It became very popular. All the Norwegian customers came back, of course,” Thompson said. She said she served entrees such as lamb and cabbage, beef stew and fish pudding made from scratch, all taken from the original Norwegian menu of the Atlantic. “By the time I left,” she says, “all the Chinese knew how to cook Norwegian food.”
That curious cross-cultural experiment lasted about a decade. Reidun meanwhile had already moved on to become a manager at the Danish Athletic Club, a 118-year-old private sports organization and social club.
Now, Thompson finds herself once again holding up a last marker of the Scandinavian community. The club is increasingly finding that Scandinavians, let alone Danes, are few and far between.
At the height of its Nordic glory, club membership was between 700 and 750 members. Both the dining room and the bar were as busy as could be, and the dancing often went on until four in the morning, remembers John Petersen. A Danish-American, he started coming to the club when he was a seven-year-old boy and now serves as its president.
Petersen’s description of the club’s heyday is a far cry from what it looks like now. At 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday, there are only three patrons in the dining room other than the president and his wife, all men with white hair.
“The club is dwindling down,” says Petersen. “People move away and people die, so now our membership has dwindled down to below 50 and it’s hard. It’s hard to keep the club open when we’re down so low. We kind of hold on to any parties to give us financials to the club. We’re only open five days a week. You can’t be difficult.”
As Petersen talks, the quick four-time of mariachi music is blaring loudly from an adjacent room. The club has rented the space out for the night, and a lively Mexican baby shower is in full swing, which makes the aging Viking boat decorations and framed photos of Danish royalty on the club’s red dining room walls seem even more out of place.
A closer look around the club reveals items any antiques hunter would love to stumble upon. An old 50s-style jukebox sits beyond a row of empty bar chairs. Tucked in the corner of the disused game room is a dusty but still functioning cigarette dispenser with stickers that show it used to sell Salems for $3.00 a box. If anyone fancies a game of shuffleboard, there’s that too.
Where did all the Scandinavians go? Many of them returned to Northern Europe just as they’d always planned, while most of those who remained in the U.S. moved away to other neighborhoods and other cities throughout the region.
They do come back to visit once a year for the national holiday, and that’s good business for the Danish club. “Seventeenth of May, when it’s a Scandinavian holiday for us, we get a packed house at that time,” Petersen said. “People come from all over—Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. We got three different rooms here and it’s a full house, but you can’t just rely on one day.”
With such meager revenue streams, the club may not see 2012. “It’s a shame that we have to give the club up to whoever wants to buy it. I don’t know, because financially we’re having troubles,” Petersen admits.
For better or worse, it’s evident that Sunset Park has moved on from its time as a Little Scandinavia. “It’s like any neighborhood,” says Petersen. “People move away, different people come in, but that’s the way it goes. That’s progress I guess.”