first person

My Neighborhood, After the Shooting

In texts and calls, my neighbors and I checked in on one another, wondering, Why Sunset Park?

Children playing on a jungle gym in Sunset Park. Photo: Michael Nagle/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Children playing on a jungle gym in Sunset Park. Photo: Michael Nagle/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images
Children playing on a jungle gym in Sunset Park. Photo: Michael Nagle/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

At 9:45 a.m. Tuesday, the first of what would be dozens of messages reached me:

“Girl I read about the shooting at the sunset park subway station … hope you and fam are home and stay safe.”

I fumbled with my phone. With mounting horror, I read about what had unfolded at the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park, close to where I live. The headlines updated throughout the day: Five injured. Ten. At least 23 and counting. On their way to school and work at rush hour, New Yorkers were shot, wounded, fell, suffered from panic attacks and smoke inhalation. The gunman had donned a construction-worker vest and boarded the N train at 59th Street. In the minutes the subway traveled express from 59th Street to 36th, witnesses saw him drop his hatchet. He set off smoke grenades then pulled out a gun and fired at those closest to him.

At home, I watched the graphic videos captured on cell phones. They showed smoke filling the platform, people fleeing and pressing their masks to their faces, a staggering, dazed man held up by another.

In another video, EMTs surround a young Asian American man, his eyes open yet unfocused, body askew on the ground.

From my desk, I heard fire trucks blare and helicopters whir, insistent. I wept. I felt anguish and devastation, sorrow, rage, despair. I wept for my city, my neighborhood, my home, the victims, this senseless act.

When I moved from Queens to the border of Sunset Park seven years ago, south Brooklyn was unfamiliar to me. But compared with other neighborhoods in New York City, I saw I could afford the rent here. Plus I was used to living on the fringes of a borough. My husband and I rented a 450-square-foot studio apartment in a six-floor complex. I got to know my neighbors. One man, who used to be a guard at Rikers, lived with his husband. Fran, one half of an elderly couple living down the hall, would bake me lasagna from time to time. The longer we lived here, the more deeply we fell in love with the neighborhood.

The diversity of Sunset Park’s food scene reminds me of Elmhurst, where my family lived after my parents immigrated. I view the myriad small businesses as a reflection of its inhabitants. Walking along Third Avenue, I come across Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Dominican restaurants. On Fifth Avenue, I find Turkish, Yemeni, and Palestinian ones. On Eighth Avenue are dim sum spots, bubble-tea shops, and Fei Long Supermarket.

Sunset Park is where my husband and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary at Big Alice Brewing on 34th Street; our friends commuted via subway from the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens to celebrate. Sunset Park is where I had upcoming plans to meet another writer, new to the city, for coffee at Slimak. There are still so many places I want to go.

But when news of the shooting broke, I stayed inside my apartment. I was too fearful to leave with a gunman still at large. I monitored the news. More texts came through. “Everyone okay??” my downstairs neighbor texted. “This is very scary,” my upstairs neighbor replied. “I’m at work, I’m ok, and everyone in the company is accounted for … we’re in the thick of it we’re at 34th Street and 3rd Ave.”

“Checking in to make sure you and T. are safe after today’s subway attacks by Sunset Park …”

“Are you two OK? There was a shooting or explosion at the 36th Street station in Sunset Park …”

“Daphne!!! Hope you and yours are safe and okay amid the chaos today.”

“It is so horrible to feel unsafe in the place you call home,” another friend lamented.

On the news, I saw an image of a child’s poster. The students and teachers at schools in the area had sheltered in place. The poster, tacked to a window, read, “Have Hope NYC.”

As a native New Yorker, born and raised in Queens, I have ridden the subway alone since I was 13. But for the first time, I felt fear in a way I had not known.

These past two years, we have become intimate with fear — an everyday kind you simply carry with you. I will never forget the desperation and powerlessness I felt in March 2020, furloughed from my two jobs and stuck in lockdown while my mother and brother reported to work as nurses at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, “the epicenter of the epicenter.” Each day, I wondered if I would lose them.

I didn’t ride the subway for six and a half months. I returned in fall 2020, when I needed to resume commuting to one of my jobs on the Upper West Side. At that time, the world, the subways — if you are a New Yorker, they are one in the same — felt, to me, safe enough. For months, I and other New Yorkers rode the subways unvaccinated because we needed to get to work, pay our bills.

But as hate crimes against Asian Americans continued to rise, several of my friends — women, immigrant daughters, lifelong New Yorkers like me — stopped taking the subway. One friend traveled only within biking distance of her Chelsea apartment; her teaching job was nearby. Another friend, a lawyer and author, called Lyfts to and from her home in Brooklyn Heights.

Of course, most people couldn’t avoid the subway, for financial or other practical reasons. I continued to take the subway primarily out of stubbornness — I did not want to live in fear. I reasoned that, statistically, I would be fine. I would be vigilant too; I wouldn’t ride late at night or stand close to the platform edge. I began carrying pepper spray. I took my first self-defense classes through the Asian American Federation, which were sobering and empowering.

Tuesday’s shooting adds an additional layer to the fear I have carried and previously refused to name. Privately, I thought that if I didn’t name it — my fear and the real danger of these situations — I could live my life and get through the day. If I didn’t name it, I wouldn’t have to see myself as weak; I’d remain a “tough” New Yorker. If I continued to repress the fear, I wouldn’t be forced to reckon with the fact that my home city is different from the one I’d once known, a city changed not necessarily for the better.

“I remember thinking, Why? Why Sunset Park? Such a weird location,” my friend Arturo told me. A lifelong Sunset Park resident, his Puerto Rican family has lived here for two generations. “I had this terrible thought: I hope it wasn’t an Asian thing.”

But the motive of the suspected gunman, Frank James, remains unknown. And the fact is that communities of color, specifically Asian American ones, have been disproportionately affected by harassment and assaults these past two years.

The day after the incident, “everything was surprisingly normal surprisingly fast,” Arturo said. “It was impressive how many local people went about their business.” He mourned how a single gunman could have such an impact and traumatize millions of New Yorkers, though. Tuesday’s shooting reminded him of past traumas the city has collectively faced — 9/11, Hurricane Sandy — and eventually rebounded from. I wonder now about this resilience New Yorkers are said to possess. Is it resilience, or is it the fact that this is our home, our lives, and we simply have no other choice but to carry on?

At 9:45 on the morning of the shooting, I called and texted my husband. He had commuted from home to his office on West 34th Street. Each minute he did not respond felt like an hour. I prayed to a God, one I had once believed, in my late teens, was good and powerful. These days, I am not so sure.

My phone lit up. “Sorry,” my husband said. “I was in a meeting.” A sentence I had never been happier to hear. He had left earlier than usual to prepare for a workshop. He had missed the shooting by a hair’s breadth.

That evening, he took the ferry back. When he reached home, we held each other in our apartment’s narrow entryway.

At dusk, we went out for a walk around our neighborhood. The night was 60 degrees, the sweet scent of magnolia trees filled the air, and nature at least seemed calm. When I stepped out of my apartment, what had I expected to find? A ghost town, people sobbing in the streets, protests? Instead, I saw other New Yorkers like me, taking strolls, walking their dogs. People seemed serene, content to enjoy the first spring evening, having survived another day. “Take care and hold your loved ones close,” one friend had written. I saw a parent carrying his child down the sidewalk.

I wonder, too, if and how we will carry each other.

Daphne Palasi Andreades is the author of the novel Brown Girls.

My Neighborhood, After the Shooting