Amongst Brooklyn’s famed bars, Sunny’s has achieved almost mythic status: a magical den of bluegrass and whisky, hidden down by the harbor in Red Hook, where long nights roll into pink-hued mornings looking over cobblestone streets, as the last of the musicians leave for the night, their instruments tucked under their arm and a skip in their step.
But while many of the bar’s disciples recognize its charismatic namesake—the late Antonio “Sunny” Balzano, with his curly grey hair and mischievous smile—fewer know the petite blonde woman sitting at the bar most nights, with piercing blue eyes and a knowing gaze. That would be Tone Balzano Johansen—pronounced “Tuna, like the fish,” she says—a Norwegian artist and Sunny’s widow, who has been the one presence standing in the way of this beloved slice of Brooklyn history being bought out and redeveloped.
Before his death last March, Sunny was the heart and soul of the bar, the whisky-drinking, cigarette-smoking charming adventurer with stories to tell; but it was Johansen, his wife of 20 years and mother to their daughter, Oda, who diligently ran the business behind the scenes—and it largely fell on her shoulders when, in 2012, a dozen or so Balzano heirs decided it was time to sell up.
This January, however, after a three-year long battle in the New York Supreme Court, Johansen signed a contract to buy the property back from the family, securing its future. The caveat? She has six months to raise $2.6 million.
Despite that intimidatingly large figure, Johansen is more than optimistic—she is fiercely determined. “I’ve had to fight through every obstacle, a million hard and testing decisions, and you can’t believe you’re going to spend that kind of crazy money, but it needs to be done,” she says in her singsong Norwegian accent. We are sitting in a corner booth of the bar, which is quiet and empty by day, yet humming with the musical and imbibing ghosts that unfold come nightfall. “I feel this is the challenge of my life. You come to the point where you don’t have a choice; I’m going to fight this until the bitter end.”
In many ways, she says, this is a test she has been preparing for her whole life.
Johansen’s grew up on a remote island to a Pentecostal family, baking their own bread and going to church every day. Frivolities like dancing and make up and most contact with the outside world were forbidden. They did, however, have music, and her family would gather with the community to sing and play, which she likens to the bluegrass jams at Sunny’s. “I can sing the harmony on anything,” she says. “It’s nice when you can make a good connection with your past, because it was very difficult.”
She began to question her religion at 13 years old, when she prayed to speak in tongues, and her prayers remained unanswered. At 16 she escaped by going to a religious high school in the nearest town of Trondheim—the same age she saw her first movie—and soon after she rebelled, gratefully joining a “group of misfits” to become a punk.
Her art career was almost accidental. A friend had a spare application for art school, and even though she’d never painted before she decided to apply. “I painted like a madwoman,” she says. “If nothing else I’m going to show them that I have willpower and I’m not afraid,” she recounted of her preparation for the interview. “If action needs to be taken, I take action,” she says, laughing, a piece of the puzzle of her life falling into place. “That’s where I am right now, too. That’s why this place is still here.”
Johansen arrived in New York at 30 years old on an arts grant for PS1, and immediately felt at home. “People say diversity, but they don’t now what it’s about until they’ve lived in New York,” she says. “It made total sense to me, especially once I moved to Red Hook and met Sunny and we just…” She makes a motion as if to say the rest is history. With almost a 30-year age gap, that history wasn’t all plain sailing. In one breath Johansen says how they connected in so many ways and how they fought constantly at first. “He was a black sheep, too,” she explains, adding: “We really did have a beautiful time together, although not traditional.”
Under Tone’s influence the bar—which had been in Sunny’s family for four generations—transformed from a speakeasy with customer chits for drinks to a legally-run business with a shiny new sign and a liquor license. The back room once used by the mob became an art gallery and a stage for the weekly jam. Some regulars were disgruntled by the changes, but it brought in new custom.
When Sandy hit in 2012, it tore through the bar and Johansen barely escaped from the basement in time. The next ten months were spent on stop and start renovations, with Sunny and Tone camped out in the basement without electricity.
That was when a contingent of the 18 heirs began pushing to sell—all except two Balzano sisters and a brother who supported Sunny and Tone’s bid to keep the bar, and also lived in an apartment upstairs. But the case couldn’t be settled without complete agreement. Cue a five-year bitter estate battle, during which time Tone’s father passed away, followed by Sunny at the age of 81. The struggle has brought Johansen to the brink many times. “It broke me,” she says, her voice searingly honest and defiant. “At one point I could only listen to birdsong … I know how people go crazy now.”
I ask why she didn’t give up, like so many would have, to the inevitable march of gentrification? “I could have got a job somewhere else,” she says. “But the creative energy of New York, who is protecting that? Who is taking care of that? I feel like that is my job here.”
During our interview, deliveries and workmen need dealing with; friends pass through; and somebody is upstairs valuing the building ahead of Tone’s meeting with the bank. She hopes to borrow most of the $2.6million needed to secure the deed and fundraise for the rest. She is also looking for someone to organize a crowdfunding campaign.
Before I leave, Johansen offers to play a song on her guitar. She cuts a lone figure on the empty stage singing a melodic Norwegian folksong whose words I can’t understand but its sentiment is melancholic. She tells me the guitar is the same one she had throughout her childhood, and she recalls when she was a little girl on that remote Norwegian island, holding it tight to her chest as if in an embrace. “This guitar got me through a lot of hard moments,” she says, her arms wrapped again around its middle.
Photos by Julie Goldstone Koch