Their Brooklyn neighborhood felt like a safe haven in a big city. Tuesday’s subway attack changed that

Brooklyn, New York CNN  — 

John Acevedo woke up to a commotion outside.

Not so strange for a New Yorker, perhaps, but unheard of in his neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, far off the tourist path. The 20-year-old could make out the sounds of sirens on the street, helicopters overhead. When he stepped outside his front door, he found himself in the middle of chaos.

Acevedo lives across the street from the 36th Street subway station where, just hours earlier, a gunman opened two smoke grenades and fired at least 33 shots at commuters, striking 10 people.

“It’s really surreal for us,” Acevedo told CNN of his neighborhood in the southwest part of Brooklyn. “This whole neighborhood, it’s a community, crime isn’t what you expect here. I’m speechless.”

In the aftermath, neighbors held each others’ hands across the fences that separate their homes. Others sat in shock on their stoops. This kind of violence is something the more than 135,000 residents of this tightknit community – about a third of whom are Asian and a third Hispanic, according to US Census data – are used to hearing about in other neighborhoods. Not here, not so close to their haven where they call everyone “family.”

Like Acevedo, Nicholas Sciammarella and his partner, Anthony Valentino, realized something was amiss as the sound of sirens flooded their home during breakfast.

The couple live a block away from the station, and Valentino went out to see what was happening there.

“I saw two people holding up a man who was all bloodied, blood all over his hands, and he was in shock, walking like a zombie before sitting to the floor,” Valentino said. He stayed, offering water, phone calls and help to those leaving the station.

Sciammarella said they also called down their list of neighbors, “checking one by one and making sure everyone is OK.”

Nicholas Sciammarella, left, and Anthony Valentino, residents of Sunset Park

At the L&E Deli Grocery, just two blocks from the station, manager Elia Tapia, 38, was processing it all. She has lived in Sunset Park for 20 years.

“Never in my life could I have thought this would happen to our home,” she said. “This is a huge surprise for us, this neighborhood is so nice and quiet, nothing happens. We are a family here, we all know and take care of each other.”

Ask a Sunset Park local to describe their neighborhood, and they’ll likely tell you it’s a calm, friendly place, the type of neighborhood to raise a family in. The neighborhood has emerged as part of Brooklyn’s Chinatown, thanks to a growing population of immigrants from China’s Fujian province.

It’s only a short subway ride from Manhattan but still far enough to feel like a different city altogether. Situated on the waterfront, Sunset Park offers green space and views of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and even New Jersey, on a clear day.

Tapia has lost that feeling of safety she had always adored about her neighborhood.

“I used to be able to walk here, late at night, 2 in the morning to the train, but now I could never,” she told CNN. “We can feel the difference (in violence) in the city, but still we could have never expected this to happen to us.”

Members of the New York Police Department are seen patrolling the streets after the mass shooting.

The shooting at 36th Street subway station comes amid a surge in violence across New York City. More than 360 people have been shot this year in 322 shooting incidents, according to figures released by the New York Police Department on Sunday. That’s an 8.4% increase in shooting incidents over this time last year.

General crime on the transit system has spiked even more – 68% over last year, the NYPD reports.

Crime in the 72nd Precinct, which includes Sunset Park, has rapidly risen as well, NYPD data shows.

Overall crime is up more than 103% so far this year through Sunday compared to this time in 2021 and up 70% from 2020, with the highest increases seen in burglary, grand larceny and auto theft. There had been one shooting incident in the precinct this year as of Sunday, the same number as this time last year.

For Lilea Ng, too, Tuesday felt like her home was under attack, she told CNN. A Chinese American born in Panama, Ng moved to the city 20 years ago, eager to find the American dream.

Now, that dream is turning into a nightmare, she said.

Even before Tuesday’s violence, Ng avoided riding the subway or any public transportation, she said, noting the rising violence towards Asian Americans during the pandemic.

“I’ve never felt this unsafe before,” Ng said. “Even after 9/11 I felt safe. But the feeling I have now, it’s different. I’m never on the subway or any public transportation anymore.”

Leaving New York was never on the table before – but now, the thought lingers in the back of her mind.

At Sunset Park’s Minnie’s Bar, a local favorite, neighbors gathered to discuss similar sentiments. Inside the dimly lit bar, the energy was still comforting – proof that despite the fears, heartache and confusion, this community is in it together.

That’s how 30-year resident Guillermo Tejeta described it, sitting at the bar with his newborn baby on his lap. Tejeta was driving home after dropping his son at day care when the commotion unfolded around him: Police officers flooded into the street, halting traffic and making space for first responders.

“People were talking about shootings and explosions and I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” Tejeta said. But when he got home, he went online and realized what was happening.

“Only yesterday, my girlfriend’s mother called us, telling us, ‘You guys need to leave New York.’ And I was like, ‘Hell no, I’ve lived my whole life here, I’m not going anywhere.’ But this hit close to home.”

Tejeta is often at Minnie’s but especially felt the need to be there Tuesday to talk over what had happened with friends and family, he said.

“This is our train stop. This is what we use to go into work, to go into the city, so it’s scary, really scary,” he added.

He paused to kiss his baby’s head. “We gotta make you New York strong, OK?”

CNN’s Alaa Elassar reported and wrote from Brooklyn; Theresa Waldrop wrote from Atlanta; and Priya Krishnakumar contributed to this report.