Sunny’s Bar faces West, near the waterfront. (talk about how to get there, passing through carol gardens, IKEA the grocery center) Cash only. There’s an ATM in the back hallway, between the petite bathrooms, smaller than a single stall and the back patio where strangers welcome you with a head nod or a frim handshake, followed by a drink and an existential question. Facing West near the waterfront Nestled in the New York Harbor of Red Hook remains Sunny’s Bar. Originally known as John’s Restaurant and Bar, this acclaimed dive is operating under its 19th owner, Tone Johansen. Named after Tone’s late husband Sunny Balzano, Sunny’s as a place and a people is determined to preserve old practices and nurture the spirits of everyone who steps inside.
This area of ‘Old Brooklyn’ was severely damaged after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and nearly taken over by developers. After three years of negotiating within the Brooklyn Supreme Court and many months of restoration to keep the bar in the family, Tone won the case. A piece of Red Hook history a hundred years in the making, harboring more heartbreak than most can manage in a lifetime, was reclaimed.
I sat down with Tone on my third or fourth visit to Conover Street. We gathered in the front room where the summer sun bursts through windows; painting everyone and everything in gold just before sunset. She spoke of loss and turmoil in the wake of her husband passing, “knowing the landscape at the bottom.” When tribulation seemed eternal her impetus to persevere was the product of a vision. Tone fought to instill an everlasting belief; that the life and love existing within a space cannot be stripped from those who deeply care for it, long after its innovators have gone.
With unyielding support and deep admiration from regulars and newcomers alike, Tone is working every day to keep the doors open for each one of us to sing, dance and just be.
Produced for Photo Workshop New York/Spazio Labo, the residents of Red Hook and regulars at Sunny’s.