“The rest of the country gets her ass,” says Frank, a long-time Red Hook resident. “Red Hook is the only place you can see her face.” We’re on the recently renovated Pier 39, now a fantastic pocket park, staring directly into the green eyes of the Statue of Liberty. It’s true: except for some technicalities—like the north shore of Staten Island, which doesn’t really count—Red Hook has, by virtue of its location, a singular view of Lady Liberty. But then, for Red Hook, location has always meant everything.
Red Hook is a peninsula, surrounded by the Gowanus Bay, the Erie Basin and the Buttermilk Channel. From the 1600s, when the Dutch first settled “Roode Hoek,” until the 1960s, the waterfront was the whole of Red Hook’s economy. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, founded in 1801, launched many of America’s most famous fighting ships—the USS Monitor, the USS Maine and the USS Missouri among them. Normally an employer of about 6,000 during peacetime, the Yard boomed during WW II, putting over 70,000 Brooklynites to work. In 1840, the Atlantic Docks opened, and by the end of the 19th century more grain was shipped from there than from any other place in the world. The Grain Terminal, an incredible pile of cement, still hulks grey-black, enormous and desolate at the mouth of the Gowanus Inlet. During the first half of the 20th century, New York boasted the busiest piers in the country, and Red Hook’s were among the busiest in New York.
All this seafaring action led to a rough-hewn, violent neighborhood, filled with bars and grills like Byrnes’ Bar on Lorraine St., which sported a lovely nickname: “the Bucket of Blood.” One bar owner from that period recalled that if he came in Sunday morning and there wasn’t sawdust on the floor, soaking up Saturday night’s bodily fluids, he knew there’d been a slow night.
All this ended in the 20 years after the war. The avarice of the mafia goons who controlled the docks didn’t help, but mostly it was the new container-style shipping moving south to deeper piers in Charleston and Houston. The shuttering of the Navy Yard in 1966 dealt another serious blow to Red Hook’s working-class ranks. But those two factors alone didn’t kill the waterfront. What killed the waterfront was well-intentioned urban planning.
Looking at an MTA Subway map, the mad tangle of colored lines in downtown Manhattan gives way, just right of the East River, to a vast expanse of putty-hued blankness. It looks, in fact, as though all trains have been pushed north and east, up towards the Heights and downtown Brooklyn. The closest stop to Red Hook is Smith & 9th St., which at 91 feet above ground is the city’s highest elevated station, due to navigation rules intended to allow the now long-departed tall-mast ships to pass along Gowanus Creek under the station. From the southbound side, the view west toward Red Hook is cut off by the Gowanus Expressway (known more generally as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), which, along with the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, cuts Red Hook off from its residential, working- and middle-class neighbors. Both viaducts date to the Moses era.
The Smith & 9th stop is a good mile and change away from Red Hook. Its detachment from the city’s arteries is shared in the borough only by such “tightly-knit communities” as Mill Basin and Marine Park, which have never wanted to be invaded by the subway. But Red Hook is not a residential neighborhood; it’s a working one.
And here, again, location is key. When the neighborhood was flush with dock jobs, Navy Yard jobs and bar jobs, Red Hook residents could walk to work and walk home, or take a short trolley or bus ride. But when the jobs left, the residents who stayed had to go elsewhere for work, and were stuck with a long ride on the B77 bus down truck-choked Van Brunt St. to the F, itself one of the slowest trains in the system.
Further isolating Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn—and from a fully-functioning future—are the Red Hook Houses, East and West, which are home to the vast majority of the neighborhood’s remaining residents. Completed in 1938 as part of the first generation of government-built projects, the Houses now squat, low and wide, smack-dab in the center of the neighborhood. Their vast swathes of undifferentiated single-use housing hold mostly the dysfunctional and the disenfranchised, who are even more cut off from the life of the city than residents of the typical housing project by virtue of the neighborhood’s isolation. Mostly because of the project residents, Red Hook is one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods, with an unemployment rate of 21.6 percent, and with a 43.6 percent high school graduation rate. It’s yet another factor that discourages outsiders from coming in.
This same isolation, though, has allowed Red Hook to house many of the small industrial businesses that keep New York running, and that have been zoned and priced out of much of the city. There is a road salt distributor, a large shop that makes sets for television shows and lots of bus and trucking concerns. There are woodworking shops, metalworking shops, construction companies and a plexiglass manufacturer. You can get your fire extinguisher fixed, you can get a footbridge built, you can buy a live chicken (or a really freshly slaughtered one) and you can find the best cabinet-makers in New York, all in Red Hook.
And now, of course, you can buy a cute handbag. Yes, the space pirates have invaded Red Hook, which means white folk with white belts and oversized sunglasses and tight pants bicycling around at odd hours. Several upscale stores have opened on Van Brunt St., the neighborhood’s commercial hub, and many more have come to Columbia St., which, because it runs further north than the rest of the neighborhood’s streets, has always been more connected to Brooklyn-at-large.
The hipoisie are attracted by the cheap rents, but also by the authenticity that Red Hook has in spades. It is hard to get to, it still has lots of cobblestone streets and it is still really fucked up. It remains to be seen, though, how far gentrification can proceed without better public transportation, and given rising interest rates.
Now, as always, the location of this neighborhood, so tantalizingly close to the city, but so very far away from just about everything, is the key.