Sunset Park takes steps toward healing at ‘Day of Unity’ and prayer vigil days after subway attack

flowers on fence outside 36th street subway station in sunset park
Sunset Park residents hung flowers around the entrance to the 36th Street subway station at a vigil one week after a gunman injured 29 people at the station. The community is gathering together to take its first steps forward after the attack disrupted the close-knit neighborhood.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

Sunset Park elected officials, community members, and faith leaders are leading an effort for healing in the community after last week’s horrific subway shooting, gathering to share mental health resources, honor those injured in the attack, and call for an end to violence.

“I think it’s really important to first acknowledge we are sitting with trauma and trauma manifests in people very differently,” said Councilmember Alexa Avilés, who helped to organize a “Day of Unity” on Saturday afternoon. “It is important for our community to understand that there is no stigma in the fact we are holding and sitting with trauma and there are resources for them.” 

Avilés was joined by her state counterpart Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes and several community groups including South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, and Mixteca.

“So many community organizations and residents just really agreed that this was so needed,” Avilés said.

Frank James was arrested last week after he allegedly opened fire on a northbound N train on the morning of April 12, injuring 29 people and causing a horrific scene at the 36th Street subway station, as passengers funneled out of the train with smoke pouring out behind them after James detonated a smoke grenade in the car. He was later arraigned on terrorism charges in federal court.

Food and drinks at Sunset Park Day of Unity
Volunteers hand out free food and drinks to support community members at Sunset Park’s “Day of Unity” on April 16. The event sought to begin the process of healing after last week’s horrific attacks. Photo by Caroline Ourso

Most of the Sunset Park-based organizations offered their own activity whether it be arts and crafts, spiritual healings or food to help heal the body and souls of their fellow residents. Neighbors made and flew kites with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, enjoyed sound baths with Ciara Ward, and sewed lavender aromatherapy bags with Mixteca.

“Everyone immediately recognized they just wanted to be together so within two days pretty much every community-based organization in the district said ‘yes, we want to support and we will bring a table of things we think will be helpful and additive,'” Avilés said. “So there was just so much variation around the different ways that people grieve and engage. I was just really proud, I felt there was really a lot for everyone there.” 

On Monday evening, about 100 people gathered outside the 36th Street station on Fourth Avenue with faith leaders and electeds to pray for the victims and for the neighborhood.

“We have so much going on in our city, this is unacceptable,” said District 51 district leader Arelis Martinez. “Gun violence, our subway station attacks every day and then taking to the next level, a mass shooting in our district. We don’t feel safe anymore.”

woman speaking at vigil in sunset park
District Leader Arelis Martinez speaks at a community vigil outside the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park. Community members gathered to pray and call for an end to gun violence after last week’s shooting. Photo by Paul Frangipane

Since the attack, New Yorkers have had to worry about taking their daily subway ride to and from work and school, Martinez said. She urged city and state officials to take steps to curb crime.

“We are in panic, the whole city is in panic,” Martinez said. “We need to save more life and the only way we can do this is doing prevention and intervention.”

Mitaynes said speaking openly about issues with mental health — which can stem from violent events or lead to such violence — is critical to healing and prevention.

“The most important thing for us is just acknowledging what happened and just starting to talk about it so we can begin to heal,” she said. “It became apparent to a lot of people who came to support to really understand and see how vulnerable this working-class community is. Mental health isn’t a very big topic so just the fact that we are talking about it and acknowledging it is a huge step in the right direction, and figuring out how we begin to feel as individuals and as a community.” 

Hundreds gathered in Sunset Park to celebrate the neighborhood and its resiliency on April 16.Photo by Caroline Ourso
Marcela Alatorre, a volunteer for Mixteca, gives a spiritual blessing. Photo by Caroline Ourso

She said Saturday’s event also aimed to connect residents with mental health resources that already exist in Sunset Park for the community to utilize.

“[Mental health] is something we don’t talk about enough and that’s going to start changing,” Mitaynes said, “[We want] to provide resources and be able to connect people with services that already exist here.” 

Beside the 36th Street station on Monday, Wai Yee Chan, executive director of local nonprofit Homecrest Community Services, recalled a harrowing day for a friend of hers, who was trapped in the subway car as shots rang out. 

“A quiet morning soon became a war zone,” Chan said. “He only lost his glasses and was able to make it home and unite with his family … however, this trip became the worst pain of his entire life.” 

Community members leave flowers around the 36th Street subway station. Residents gathered to pray and call for an end to gun violence after a shooting in the station on April 12. Photo by Paul Frangipane.

Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said she and her fellow lawmakers are focused on preventing the flow of illegal firearms into New York City.

“As an [Assembly] we’ve been working really, really hard making sure that we pass anti-gun laws that will prevent illegal guns from coming into our community,” she said at Monday’s vigil. “It’s been a hard time for us here in our neighborhoods across the city of New York, across the state of New York and across the United States as we see shootings rising. It’s a crime, it’s a disease and we are standing together to pray and fight and combat against gun violence.”

On her way into the city one week after the attack, Mitaynes said the flowers placed at the station are beautiful symbol of what Sunset Park stands for.

“It’s just a beautiful display of flowers and it communicates so much without having to say anything,” Mitaynes said. “It’s a reminder what happened, it’s a reminder that we are going through something, it’s a reminder that we are doing this together.”  

Additional reporting by Kirstyn Brendlen