President of Finland visits Sunset Park, former Finnish stronghold

September 24, 2021 Jaime DeJesus
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During a recent visit to New York, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö took a tour of the area in Sunset Park that was known once known as Finntown.

According to Finnish Consul General Mika Koskinen, Finntown, which was located in northern Sunset Park, was populated by Finns from the early 1900 to the 1960s. “At best there were about 20,000 Finns living in the area,” he tweeted.

The Finns in Sunset Park, who had a tradition of cooperative living in Finland, were pioneers in the development of co-op apartment buildings, and estimates of the numbers of these buildings range from about 25 to about 50. 

Long after the departure of most of the Finnish-Americans, one can still see Finnish names carved into stone on the entrances. Many are still considered desirable places to live — for example, a two-bedroom unit in one of them sold in 2020 for $630,000, according to published reports.

Robert Alan Saasto, president of the  Finnish American Lawyers’ Association, accompanied Niinistö on the tour at Koskinen’s request. “It was indeed an honor not only for me to conduct this tour, but an honor that the president of Finland visited Finntown and recognized the achievements of the Finnish immigrants, who left a legacy worthy to be proud of,” said Saasto, whose law office is in Woodbury, Long Island.

The Riverview Homes,  673 41st Street ,was completed in 1924. 

The president originally requested the tour while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting last year. The 30-minute tour, conducted last Monday, took him to several several buildings that shared Finnish significance, including visited the Alku and Alku Toinen apartment buildings, 816–826 43rd St. Built in 1916, they were the first not-for-profit cooperative apartment buildings in New York State.

“Alku was built by and for Finnish immigrants living in Sunset Park and stands as an example of progressive housing for working-class people,” a plaque outside the building reads. “The building, whose name translates to New Beginning, is the first of two buildings belonging to Finnish Home Building Association.”

Saasto added that 21 plaques are scheduled to be installed in October 2021 on the walls at the entrances of the former Finnish co-ops.

While riding with Niinistö, Saasto gave the president background information about Finntown as it once existed, while pointing out the numerous Finnish co-op buildings there.

The plaque outside the Alku building on 43rd Street, considered the first non-profit co-op building in New York State.

They briefly stopped at 40th Street and Seventh Avenue to view a sign saying “Finlandia Street.” Saasto secured the street name in 1992, when Imatra Hall, a nearby building that served as a center for the Finnish community, celebrated its 100th year of existence. The building is now occupied by a church.

“The president commented on several occasions throughout the tour that the buildings, including the Imatra Hall, being over 100 years old, were good examples of the skills and good workmanship of the Finns, a trait that we know extends to the present day,” Saasto said.

As for the Finnish American Lawyers Association, according to its website, it has members all over the country, but the greatest number are in New York State.

  • Additional material by Raanan Geberer, Brooklyn Eagle

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