Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
New York City is a big, exciting place, but what truly makes the Big Apple special for the people who live here isn’t the granduer of the skyline or the neon lights of Times Square. Rather, it’s the little neighborhood places where each of us finds a community to call our own. This city takes all kinds, and while it can be scary, especially for newcomers, those who stick it out here almost always find a spot where our like-minded comrades gather. For Hemispheres’ Editor in Chief, it’s the West Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis. For me, it’s a place called Sunny’s Bar.
The first thing any visitor to Sunny’s will remark on is its remoteness. The bar is on a quiet cobblestone street at the far west end of Red Hook, a peninsular Brooklyn neighborhood that has no subway station and is cut off from the rest of the borough by the hulking Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. (Walk from the bar down to the end of the block and you’ll find views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.) Red Hook was once home to a freight port, and Sunny’s originally opened more than 100 years ago as a bar and sandwich shop to serve the longshoremen who worked there. The docks closed and those workers left long ago, and before Ikea opened in 2008, most New Yorkers surely would have told you there wasn’t much reason to venture to Red Hook.
Not much reason, that is, except for Sunny’s. My initial foray into Red Hook came before I lived in New York, sometime around 2009. I was in Brooklyn visiting my uncle, a music lover and amateur mandolinist, and he offered to take me to see some live bluegrass. We made the short drive—remember, no subway station—from his house near Prospect Park, crossing under the BQE and through the looming Red Hook Houses and parking across the street from the bar. The only storefront on the dark block was Sunny’s, stashed in the ground floor of a squat brick building, emitting light from a yellow and red “BAR” sign above the door and a neon anchor in the front window.
Walking through the front door, I felt as if I could’ve been catching the end of a postwar stevedore crew’s happy hour. The hardwood floor was worn to the point of chipping, the barstools rickety. I ordered a couple of Budweiser bottles—there were no beers on tap—and soaked in the nauticalia (the anchor, a model clipper ship on a high mantel) and other bric-a-brac that burst from the walls. Weirdest and most notable was the row of a dozen or so foot-tall wax sculptures on a shelf behind the bar, among them Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, and, I would later learn, the bar’s owner, Sunny Balzano. (On any given night, you’ll likely find a couple of people trying to name all of the figures.)
I could tell I was in a unique spot, but it didn’t feel magical until my uncle and I, beers secured, passed through to the backroom. A low stage was tucked into one corner, and a few musicians stood on it, while others spilled out among the chairs and tables on the floor. There were a dozen of them, at least, and they were playing a music I only knew, at that point, from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (I remember one of the first songs I heard that night was “Angel Band,” which comes on during the film’s final scene.) There were guitars, mandolins, fiddles, banjos, an upright bass, and they came together to form a joyful orchestra that enchanted me instantly. We snagged a table and spent a few hours kicking back Buds and listening. I’d never seen anything like it.
A year or so later I ended up moving from San Francisco to Brooklyn, landing at JFK with little more than a backpack full of clothes and a guitar. My uncle started taking me around to some other jams he attended, and a friend at one of those, who was also a regular at Sunny’s, told me I should try playing there. I was intimidated, and rightfully so—I was nowhere near good enough to get on that stage. But I’ve always been longer on courage than talent, so I took his advice. I gradually made friends as Sunny’s, and I had renewed motivation to practice. (I’d been an inconstant guitarist for years.) Soon I became a regular at Sunny’s, where my new friends helped me learn all sorts of songs. Stan, the one who first hustled me up onto the stage, and who I refer to as my surrogate father (in part because he and my dad have the same name), taught me “Goodnight Irene.” Lenny, who passed away in 2014, showed me “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Izzy and Brenda, an adorable older couple who sing harmonies that’d make Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris jealous, gave me “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn.” Then there’s Timmy, who taught me that you can play “This Land Is Your Land” in a minor key (and also gave me many a 4 a.m. post-jam lift home). And there’s Steven Skollar, a mandolin player and talented artist who has drawn portraits of many of the musicians in the Brooklyn folk scene, including me, as part of an ongoing project.
There are many more musician friends I could shout out here. All of them, and of course the bar crew, made me feel like I’d found a home. Unfortunately, the rest of my first year in New York didn’t go so well. I couldn’t get a job. My best friend died after a prolonged illness. It all brought me down so bad that I didn’t think I was going to survive, so I moved back to San Francisco. But then, as the months went by on the West Coast, I found myself yearning more and more for New York. Some of that was a desire not to let the big city beat me that easily, but I’d say at least 50 percent of it was missing Sunny’s. So I headed east again. That was more than seven years ago, and in that time, if you’ve been to Sunny’s on a Saturday night, you’ve probably heard me among the musicians singing and playing songs in that backroom.
The bar itself has overcome its share of hard times, too. Hurricane Sandy devastated much of Red Hook, including Sunny’s, and the building needed tens of thousands of dollars and months of repairs to reopen. And in 2016 Sunny Balzano, the bar’s deeply beloved owner, died at 81. While I’d only met him a handful of times, I attended the funeral, at a Catholic Church in Red Hook, and then joined a second line procession through the neighborhood that ended—where else?—at the bar. Never again will I hear “I Fly Away” without thinking of Sunny.
Between the storm and Sunny’s death, it’s something of a miracle the bar hasn’t gone under. That’s a credit to one miracle worker in particular: Tone Johansen, Sunny’s widow, who has been running the day-to-day operation for years now and has repeatedly done whatever it takes to keep the place open. She recognizes how special the bar is, why Anthony Bourdain would come here during the last episode of “No Reservations,” why someone would write a book about it, why I would go and get that neon anchor tattooed on my arm:
Tone knows that the bar, for some of us, is a spiritual place. Sunny’s is our “drinkin’ church.”
Sadly, not even Tone’s charm and resolve are a match for a pandemic. Sunny’s, like so many other independent bars and restaurants around the world, is shuttered to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But while the faithful wait for our Saturday services to resume, there are a couple of ways you can help. First, go to the website and buy a T-shirt or a gift certificate.
Then there’s the matter of the musicians. While I’m fortunate enough to still be employed through this, a number of the people in the Sunny’s circle are working musicians who have lost all their gigs. If you’re interested in helping some of them out, there’s a fundraiser you can donate to here. And a local organization called Porch Stomp is streaming shows and music lessons performed and taught by some of the musicians I’ve gotten to know over the years. Want to give bluegrass a try yourself? Now’s your chance. And when the world gets back to normal, come on out for a Saturday night. We can sing a song together.