Where does a freelance writer go when her South Slope rent is rising faster than her income? Sunset Park. A decade ago, I invested my life savings in a co-op apartment on the corner of 47th Street and 7th Avenue. I didn’t realize it at the time, but for $68,000, I inherited a small share of New York City’s Scandinavian history.
In 1989, when I moved in, my 16-unit building harbored eight opinionated widows-four Swedish, four Norwegian. When the regular mailman took a day off, his replacements couldn’t cope: Two mailboxes were designated, Swedish-style, “Anderson,” another two were labeled with the Norwegian and Danish version, “Andersen.” The ladies, as they were known collectively, had been here for decades; five had raised families within the building and acted as courtesy aunts to each other’s children.
After my first few months there, I accepted my first co-op responsibility: collecting maintenance fees. The younger owners would slip a check under my door. But the ladies all had “rent books,” a carryover from an era when shareholders made payments in cash. Whoever collected maintenance would sign each owner’s rent book for verification. This ritual required a personal visit and, almost invariably, a libation.
I started on the first floor with Hanne. Our routine was to wash down a plate of home-baked cookies with Jack Daniels or aquavit, a potent Nordic mash flavored with caraway seed. A billy club, suspended by its leather thong, dangled from the door of the liquor cabinet; I guess her husband had been a cop.
Jenny, on the second floor, had straight soda for me. She never got used to the fact that I was left-handed. “Tsk, tsk, they didn’t switch you,” she would mutter, shaking her head. Melancholy Clara, next door, would meet me with supper on a tray. Her pastel-colored apartment was filled with photographs of her only son, who had died in Vietnam.
“Bah! He flew his plane into a mountain twenty years ago,” said Elisabeth whenever I expressed concern about Clara. Elisabeth, owner of the third floor flat right below mine, would settle me on the green velvet couch in her perfectly arranged living room, pour a glass of liqueur and pass me three rent books. The first was her own, the second belonged to her younger sister Signe, who lived below her, and the third was for Asta, the second-floor recluse.
Fourth floor. I would find Selma and Hulda in the latter’s apartment, watching television. “Have something hot,” Hulda would urge, bringing me a cup of tea liberally seasoned with vodka. Her furniture was a jumble of discards that were propped up, pieced together or simply covered with an afghan. Her husband had been a sailor, so her proudest possessions were his bosun’s whistle, the flag that had draped his casket, and his gallstones, rattling in an old pill bottle.
To Manhattanites, Sunset Park is the low-rent district between Park Slope and Bay Ridge. If the exact borders are debatable, its diversity isn’t. But 80 years ago, much of the neighborhood spoke with Nordic accents.
The Scandinavian influence lingers in the names of local institutions: the Marien Heim retirement home, Finlandia Street, Lutheran hospital. This legacy also includes some of New York’s oldest worker-built cooperative apartment houses such as mine, the Bay View Home Association. These are among the very few places left in the neighborhood where you can still encounter living Scandinavians.
I should exercise caution when mixing “Scandinavians.” They would. Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and Danes may appear culturally interchangeable, but they keep their distinct identities; a few centuries back, their countries were invading each other.
Those conflicts were quite apparent in Sunset Park in the teens and twenties, when Finnish immigrants erected a series of sturdy four-story apartment buildings, a couple dozen in all. Before groundbreaking, each family agreed to kick in several hundred dollars and monthly payments, as well as lots of sweat equity. In return, they enjoyed home ownership, a rare privilege for stevedores and tradesmen and the cooks and seamstresses they married.
Peace reigned until shareholders tried to sell apartments to non-Finns. For example, Bay View Home was originally part of Victory Home Association, a two-building co-op. Shortly after its construction around 1916, Victory split in half. One building-no one remembers which-decided to admit Swedish-speaking people from Finland, a clear broach of the tacit Nordic apartheid. Over the years, the buildings gradually diversified to include full-blown Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, even non-northerners like me. But the old fault lines occasionally reappear.
During my first year, Clara, who had a hip problem, had fallen and I was summoned to help her get up. She was too uncomfortable to move, so I called an ambulance instead.
“Do you want some water? A cup of tea?” I asked.
“Ne tak.” Clearly, this was “No thanks,” but I wanted her to keep speaking in English, in case her symptoms worsened before the paramedics arrived. “I don’t understand Swedish,” I reminded her.
“NORWEGIAN!” she barked.
Another time, 85-year-old Selma was celebrating her admission to the local Swedish Club. Why hadn’t she joined earlier? “Well, her husband was Danish,” said Hanne, a fellow Swede.
By the time I moved into the neighborhood, these old arguments were more warmed over than heated. The 8th Avenue Chinatown was engulfing the dwindling Scandinavian community. One of the last Nordic businesses, the Atlantic Diner, became a Chinese restaurant in the early 1990s. Still, so many people-many of them Jewish, Italian, Irish or Puerto Rican-still requested meatballs, pot roast and prune compote that the proprietor added them to the menu, transforming the Wee Kee into a Norwegian-Chinese eatery.
Even though half of the Atlantic’s Nordic patrons may have come from my building, I didn’t need to make the trip. My stove wasn’t connected when I moved in, so everyone fed me, especially Selma, whose cheerfully cluttered apartment stood cater-cornered from mine. I inhaled tiny meat balls in gravy, delicately fried fish, open-faced sandwiches that were almost too pretty to eat. Waffles still warm from the iron, or cold, topped with jelly. Freshly baked goods that seemed to be made with more butter than flour.
More hazardous fare was dished out by my next-door neighbor, Hulda, who liquefied anything that could stimulate digestion. “You sit around all day, I figured you might need help,” she told me, after I’d gulped down a cabbage-prune frappe. I learned to sip her offerings with a great display of enthusiasm and then, once her back was turned, pour them down the sink.
It gives me no pleasure to report that I haven’t had to cope with Hulda’s cocktails for several years. She grew too frail and, like Clara and Asta before her, moved into a nursing home. A decade, I have come to realize, is a long time. Jenny and Hanne died in their nineties. Someone else collects the maintenance these days. But it’s the rare week when I don’t get a treat from Elisabeth, Signe or Selma. Indeed, I don’t know how I’d live without them.
I plan to pass them off as my grandmothers at my wedding next spring.