Place of the Month
Crossing the threshold from Conover Street into Sunny's Bar, and realizing that you’ve reached the edge of the world, the seeker becomes still. After sipping a beer and soaking in strains of blues from the back room, the restless inevitably find repose. Wanderlust and homesickness take their cues to head back out of the door into the waterfront winds that dance down the street toward the bay, their wake flicking daylight through the tavern windows and off of stainless steel coffee urns, beer bottles, and pint glasses. In the evening, the sunset splashes across the bar and pastel walls where the late Sunny Balzano’s abstract canvases hang with quiet confidence over contented customers who all want to stay a while, maybe forever. In German, this would be calledgemütlichkeit; in Swedish it is gemytlig. The Dutch and Danes respectively recognize it as gezelligheid or hyggelig. Though they vary in precise meaning and context, these terms all convey something convivial, familiar. They also indicate something deeper—the intimacy of reuniting with a friend, time passed with loved ones, or the togetherness that gives people a feeling of belonging.
Like well-crafted words, prized places are evocative, idiosyncratic, precise, and untranslatable. Sunny's Bar is one of them. As seasoned musician and bartender Mara Kaye says, “you can’t fake this. You can’t build a bar that smells like this. You can’t build a bar that feels like this. This is the pay off of time.” It’s true. And Sunny’s wouldn’t make sense anywhere but Red Hook. The raw immediacy of the coastline and the vastness of the sky off of the shore together yield a unique vitality. Red Hook, as a Caribbean proverb goes, “lives on an eyelash,” a fragile ecosystem entirely exposed to the elements. Here, a sense of community is key to surviving the tacit ceasefire with nature, and Sunny's is a critical piece of that delicate peace. It is the stalwart watering hole, music venue, living room, studio, temple, confessional, and rallying point for community members near and far who value the bar and surrounding terrain for their common characteristics— scrappy and soulful; elemental and ever-evolving; textured and polished in the way that only comes from weathering many storms.
But in the last five years, the community anchor has become vulnerable to rising sea levels and waves of gentrification washing down Brooklyn from points north. During October 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the bar was severely damaged and Sunny's wife, Tone, nearly killed. Thanks to karma, Tone's can-do spirit, and massive outpouring of love from the neighbors and fan base, the bar raised $100,000 and rebuilt. But Sunny passed away in March 2016 at the age of eighty-one, and now Tone is trying to fundraise $65,000 by July 31st to beef up a down payment on the building, which is at risk of being sold out from under her.