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Sunny's, Third-Generation Red Hook Bar, Aims To Rebuild After Sandy's Devastation

Red Hook bar owner Sunny Balzano with his wife Tone Johansen Balzano. Photo by Lore Croghan

For Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The Balzano family's Red Hook bar survived Prohibition and the Great Depression. So current owner Sunny Balzano will be damned if he's going to let Superstorm Sandy kill off the historic watering hole that's been shut down since the deadly hurricane.

"It's not in my nature to ask people for money – or anything," said Balzano, 77, who is campaigning to raise $65,000 on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to rebuild the basement of the historic bar his grandpa Antonio Balzano from Naples opened in 1890.

"What makes it a little bit palatable is I don't regard the place as being mine. I think of it as 'ours,'" said the third-generation saloon owner.

"Everyone who comes here to the bar, I treat them as if they are coming home; even if they are from far away, they're home."

Supporters of shuttered Sunny's Bar at 253 Conover St. have already donated more than $30,000 to a Kickstarter online money-raising campaign that paid for a new boiler and hot-water heater.
They dished out an additional $12,000 at a May 2 benefit concert at Bell House in Gowanus. They contributed uncounted hours of volunteer labor that put the ground floor of the quaint bar back in shape.

But until there's enough cash to pay for new beams, piles and a concrete slab foundation for the storm-flooded basement, Sunny's can't reopen. And the clock is ticking on the Indiegogo campaign to raise the needed funds; with a month left, only about $3,600 has been raised.

"We're not a corporation with big insurance," said his wife and bar co-owner Tone Johansen Balzano, 47. "We're a mom-and-pop store; we have to fend for ourselves."

The bar didn't get a dime in insurance payments after the devastating storm, and was turned down for a Small Business Administration loan.

"So much paperwork I did for nothing," she said.

"It is like walking up an escalator the wrong way. You have to have the stamina to keep walking up."

Two grants from a neighborhood storm relief group totaling $8,000 were lifesavers, she said. So is a friend, Melissa Cicetti, who volunteered her services as an architect.

Balzano, who helped his uncle John and dad Ralph in the bar as a schoolboy during World War II, remembered how busy the beloved watering hole was back then.

"There were 40 bars in the neighborhood – but we were closest to the docks," he recalled. "This place was packed."

As a kid at now-defunct neighborhood school P.S. 30, Balzano could hear the wailing siren that signaled it was time for the dock workers' lunch break – which was the same siren that sounded during air-raid drills.

After a two-decade absence from Red Hook, Balzano returned to the neighborhood after his dad fell ill with cancer and had been working in the bar ever since.

Balzano, who's a painter, turned the bar into a magnet for music lovers who play or listen to bluegrass, jazz and folk music and staged art shows. But he kept the place down-to-earth and caused a stir when he banned the 2009 cast of reality show "The Real World" when it was filmed in Red Hook.

The storm surge from Sandy flooded Sunny's basement and covered the first-floor bar with two feet of water.

The next morning, when he saw furniture and bottles of booze strewn all over the place, "you could feel the chaos," he recalled. "At that moment, it seemed irreparable."

He and his wife haven't finished repairing their row house next door to the bar, where they and their 11-year-old daughter are relegated to living on an upper floor. A house on Dikeman St. that Balzano used as a painting studio was also flooded and is in need of repairs. Those projects must wait until the bar is rebuilt and back in business again.

"We've got to have an income, you know," Tone said.
* * *

To donate to help rebuild a storm-damaged Sunny’s Bar (253 Conover St., Red Hook), visit the Indiegogo fundraising appeal: www.sunnysredhook.com or contact Tone Johansen Balzano at sunnysbar@earthlink.net or 718-624-2932

May 17, 2013 - 6:09am


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