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Michelle Montalbano
September 10, 2019

Shipyards, dry docks, and machine shops. The place with the IKEA and the Fairway. Home of the fabled wild dogs on Beard St. and the abandoned grain elevator. Former home of the Dell's Maraschino Factory and the Snapple Factory. A Brooklyn neighborhood with a "small town" feel, cobbled streets, and limited public transit. It's possible that no other section of the borough has been so readily defined by single facets of its complex character.

A waterfront community with deep maritime and industrial roots, Red Hook—like many neighborhoods in Brooklyn—is in flux. This is vividly borne out by the median household income of the neighborhood—from $14,000 all the way up to $123,000—one of the starkest disparities in the borough. But what about Red Hook's history? How much do you know about this distinctive neighborhood? 

To start by saying Red Hook was founded by the Dutch in 1636 would be an erasure of the Lenape people who lived along the marshy waterfront before any Europeans arrived and claimed land that wasn't theirs. The Lenape called it Sassian, but the Dutch gave it a name that stuck, Roode Hoek, famously because of the color of the soil and the shape of the landmass. 

Though geographically appealing in peacetime, Manhattan and Brooklyn were exceptionally vulnerable—and valuable—during the Revolutionary War. Red Hook's Fort Defiance figured prominently during the Battle of Long Island, the first major battle after the Declaration of Independence was signed in July. In late August of 1776, the British launched a three-pronged attack on Brooklyn, with the decimation of the Continental Army in their sights. In a brave and appropriately defiant Hail Mary moment, shots fired from the Fort all but scuttled the HMS Roebuck, which was sent limping back to the British stronghold on Staten Island. 

Plan of the positions and movements of the British and American Army on the 26th & 27th of August, 1776. Brooklyn Maps collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

New York solidified its essential position in transcontinental commerce with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The Atlantic and Erie Basins opened in the 1850s, at the "offloading end" of the canal, and by the 1920s, Red Hook had become one of the busiest and most important shipping ports in New York. It was by then a fully-formed "sailortown," an urban waterfront zone that catered to the transient population of sailors coming and going in between voyages; to this day, a huge part of the neighborhood's identity. Later on in the 20th century, the once-bustling waterfront was the site of protests and labor disputes, as shipping had become largely containerized and the boom had begun to bust. By the early 2000s, Borough President Marty Markowitz had elected to turn those some of those ports into a cruise ship terminal, another example in the litany of unsentimental "open for business" decisions made during the Bloomberg era. 

Three picketers from the International Longshoremen's Association carry signs announcing strike against New York Shipping Association, 1953. Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Like much of the rest of New York City, it's impossible to talk about Red Hook without mentioning Robert Moses. A strong proponent of "slum clearance" and Corbusier-inspired public housing high rises (a practical and ethical mistake from a bygone era of urban planning), Moses was also directly responsible for isolating the city's poorest along its coastlines, a grand design that would see its culmination in the devastation of the Rockaways, Coney Island, and of course Red Hook by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

Wantonly clearing people from land for his pet projects was one of Moses's MOs, and in 1936, he did exactly that for one of his gleaming public pool complexes, the Red Hook Recreation Center, which still stands today after a renovation in the 1980s. Red Hook also has the distinction of boasting one of the first federally-funded public housing complexes: the Red Hook Houses opened in 1939, with much fanfare from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Commissioner Moses. They were built to house the burgeoning population of stevedores, longshoremen, dockworkers, and their families. With a population of over 6,000 people, it is today the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn. 

"Red Hook Houses." Brooklyn Citizen, July 5, 1939.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, one of Moses's crowning achievements and testament to his allegiance to progress, the automobile industry, and big money at the expense of the lives of everyday—especially low-income—New Yorkers, was also an instrument of destruction and isolation. Perhaps Moses's most decisive blow to Red Hook was further marginalizing the neighborhood by cutting it in half with the Gowanus Expressway in 1946. The Brooklyn-Battery tunnel came a few years later - initially planned as a bridge, Moses lost a standoff to Franklin Roosevelt and the Battery Tunnel compromise was born.

Aerial photograph of section of Red Hook and portion of East River, Lower Manhattan, and Hudson River in background; black line indicates location of Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, 1950. Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

Red Hook's isolated geography, compounded by the Gowanus Expressway to the north and low access to public transit, has meant limited economic opportunity for the lowest-income Red Hookers, a systemic issue undergirded by the legacy of racial inequity. By the 1980s, the longstanding neglect and isolation had ossified: Red Hook was in the throes of a drug epidemic, and crime rates were high. In 1992, Red Hook collectively grieved when Patrick F. Daly, the beloved principal of nearby P.S. 15, was shot dead while walking a student home from school. Economic opportunity was so severely limited that Red Hook residents did not even have access to a bank until 1997. 

"Red Hook 1995." Jamel Shabazz photograph collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

These challenges have also helped incubate some incredible community advocates, particularly in the environmental sectors. Decades of industrial waste, exacerbated by Sandy, have resulted in some of the worst brownfields in Brooklyn. Grassroots organizing efforts led by folks in the Houses have resulted in open forums with the City Council, State Assembly, and representatives from the EPA, where community voices actually helped steer decision making around mitigating these issues. Likewise, Red Hook has its own branch of the Center for Court Innovation's Community Justice Center, an alternative sentencing and restorative justice courtroom that has made a deep impact on the community. Here, a single judge hears cases that under ordinary circumstances would go to either Civil, Family, or Criminal courts, and offers sentences for nonviolent offenses that include job-readiness partnerships with the Red Hook branch of BPL.

It's a common narrative; the divide between public housing and artists looking for cheap rent. In some ways, there's very much a tale of two cities in Red Hook. The TESLA dealership sits in tension with the majority of the neighborhood, who live in NYCHA housing badly in need of repair and renovation. At the time when IKEA (2004) and Fairway (2006), moved into the neighborhood, the unemployment rate was at 20% - one of the highest in the city. Though there was much protest around big box stores moving in, they did provide a community deeply in need of it with jobs, revenue, and relief from what was otherwise a food desert--at least at first. The price point and location of Fairway excludes many in the neighborhood from doing their grocery shopping there, and of course there are only a finite number of jobs. 

Protest Postcard, 2004. Brooklyn Ephemera Collection, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Communities on the margins do often draw artists, musicians, actors, and people in search of affordable rents and larger spaces. In the 80s and 90s, folks from the Lower East Side's arts community began turning up in Red Hook. A 1998 New York Times article puts it this way: "The neglect that made the old houses dirt cheap attracted a few hardy souls. Florence Neal and Scott Pffafman, both artists, bought a three-story former haberdashery on Van Brunt Street…[and] other artists and actors trickled in...first drawn to Red Hook by the [Kentler International Drawing Space and Gallery], and then by Sonny's [sic], the old sailor's bar on Conover Street..." Sunny's and the Kentler Gallery are both still thriving.  

There is an upside to being surrounded by water and isolated by public transit and multi-lane highways: a strong sense of community identity, deep solidarity, and a fierce love for the neighborhood and one another. It's a fact. There's no place like Red Hook. 

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to public housing complexes as "Hoovervilles." In fact, Hoovervilles were Depression-era shanty towns that sprung up prior to the movement to federally fund affordable housing for a larger number of people. Squatter colonies existed in Red Hook well before that, in the nineteenth century. The 30s shanties were torn down prior to the construction of the Red Hook Houses. 

Comments / 2 comments

Thank you for this well-written short history of Red Hook. My wife and I took the opportunity to visit Brooklyn by spending a few extra days before leaving on a ship from the port. Of course we walked through Prospect Park, by the Barclays Center arena, down Flatbush Avenue and by the neighborhood brownstones showing the Halloween spirit. Roaming the rooms of Brooklyn Public was a highlight. When time came to go to the harbor from our hotel in Red Hook, we did it by foot between apartment blocks, under freeways with trolly cases in tow. We got a small dose of a down home atmosphere, something that rings true for being raised middle class. Just a thought--given its current role as a cruise ship hub, there would seem be room for more hotel/motel accommodation with the confines of Red Hook itself. Keep the historical articles coming. A fascinating place!
September 13, 2019, 2:43 pm  
I grew up in Red Hook Brooklyn during the 40s, 50s and 60s.
March 21, 2020, 11:49 am  

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