Why We Love Red Hook, Brooklyn: The Salt, The Light, The Void


You don’t accidentally end up in Red Hook. It’s not a neighborhood you pass through on your way to somewhere else. Unless you take a wrong turn exiting the Manhattan tunnel, this is not a place you are likely to stumble upon. It is a destination. A choice. Or sometimes a fate, depending on where you live in the neighborhood.

Despite its proximity to Manhattan, Red Hook — an enclave of Brooklyn jutting into Upper New York Bay where it connects to the East River just across Wall Street — can feel like an industrial beach town forgotten by the weather. The weather is different. There is salt in the air. The thunderstorms are stronger, the rain stronger, the winter harder. During quiet hours, the horn of the Staten Island Ferry carries low-rise townhouses, warehouses, and homes, as NYCHA Red Hook homes are locally called.

Every few weeks, at least before the pandemic, the Queen Mary 2 would dock at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, its enormous silhouette — 200 feet tall and over 1,100 feet long — visible at every intersection for six blocks, as an eerie backdrop for a retro theater show about city sailors.

Red hook can to be a sort of backdrop for the many who profess to love him. In the five years I’ve lived there, I’ve often found that the people who sing his praises the loudest almost always come from another part of town. And what they probably meant was that they spent an afternoon there. When in a hurry, they would probably describe spending the day at Ikea; browse the handful of shops on Van Brunt; see a performance at Pioneer Works; get a whiskey at the local distillery. Or they loved Sunny’s, the famous dive bar that’s been around for over a century, an ever-popular Red Hook haunt.

Perhaps they had arrived by ferry. Or take a long bike ride along the water, with its cinematic view of the Lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty, marveling at the fishermen perched at the end of the Valentino Pier. It’s a different world.

For those who live here, the love may be more tempered, though the appeal is similar.

“You need a car” is probably the first thing people who have bought homes will say if you inquire about moving here. It’s too far and too isolating, otherwise. There is no subway in Red Hook, just the bus. Life here is a compromise for those who want to get away from the city without really leaving it.

And yet, the isolation and the feeling of emptiness are part of the magic.

It was the emptiness that first attracted photographer Jade Doskow to the area in 2003. Then working as a bicycle courier, she was fascinated by the ghostly warehouses along the waterfront. “I wanted to photograph everything,” she says now.

What’s striking about many of the photos Ms Doskow took during her 13 years at Red Hook (she left in 2016) is how difficult it can be to pin them to a timeline. Without notes, it’s hard to do before-and-after shots here. From many angles, Red Hook in 1986 looks like Red Hook in 2006 and Red Hook in 2016. A 1980s-looking white sedan in front of a 19th-century townhouse may have been taken during the Reagan administration or yesterday. (Turns out it was taken in 2011.) The two-story red house with brick siding and a closed front window? It sounds so familiar; you might feel like you walked that block yesterday. The photo is from 2009.

As New York continues to evolve into a city inaccessible to all but the wealthiest, the retrograde nature of Red Hook may make New York still feel possible, even if soaring real estate prices belie that. impression. The lack of visual progress also helps support the belief that the neighborhood is somehow detached from the history of the rest of the city, and instead is perpetually uncovered.

Indeed, over the years, Red Hook has lent itself to that favorite American phrase “It’s like the Wild West.” As with most places where the term is applied, it functions largely as a description of erasure, perhaps saying more about our inability to recognize the people who were there than their absence.

And there have always been people in Red Hook. Called Ihepetonga by the Lenape natives and Roode Hoek (red dot) by the Dutch, it was, in the second half of the 19th century, a bustling port, home to dockworkers of various nationalities and backgrounds. Many townhouses still standing date from this time. In the 20th century, along with the demise of manufacturing, Red Hook suffered a fate similar to other parts of the city: Jobs left and Robert Moses arrived.

In the 1930s, Moses, then commissioner of city parks and still under the watchful eye of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, included Red Hook in the list of neighborhoods where water complexes would be built with money from the Works Progress Administration. . The Sol Goodman Pool, as it was later named (after a New York real estate mogul; is there anything more New York than that?), opened in 1936 , replacing a landfill locally called Tin Can Mountain, which at the time of its demolition was also a Hooverville and housed 400 families.

The pool remains in use in the summer, attracting swimmers from neighborhoods across the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. (Last updated in the mid-1980s, the leisure center could finally benefit from delayed upgrades.) At the start of the Covid pandemic, the huge center was converted into one of the first test sites for mass in Brooklyn.

Initially, the pool was surrounded by parks and football pitches, some of which remain and are being detoxified after decades of disrepair. The long-term plan had been to convert the area into a much larger recreation site, at least until 1938 when New York’s Public Housing Authority took possession of the land to the north – this time displacing 300 families – with the intention to construct public buildings. lodging.

The Red Hook Houses, which opened in 1939, were one of New York’s first housing projects, as well as the largest (they remain the largest in Brooklyn). At the time of construction, they were envisioned as a safe, clean and modern place to live, free from the unhealthy conditions that plagued the buildings. The first group of highly vetted residents – the “deserving poor” – were mainly local Italian and Irish dockers. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Houses in 1940; the great social realist Marion Greenwood painted a mural for one of the lobbies titled “Blueprint for Living”.

In 1942, Red Hook’s fate as a remote enclave across the tracks was solidified when the Gowanus Highway was pushed through, demolishing a strip of established neighborhoods. Eight years later, the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel was opened. Red Hook, once an integral part of the Brooklyn map, was now isolated, isolated.

After Brooklyn’s working waterfront began an inexorable decline from the 1960s, it deteriorated further. The coda of Hubert Selby Jr.’s brutal novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, titled “Landsend”, is about people living lives of violent desperation in homes.

In 1970, The New York Times reported on rising crime and the failure of the “crash” repair program the city had undertaken to remedy the living situation in the houses. If New York in the 70s and 80s was dead, Red Hook was dead and forget it.

In the 1990s, when more young Manhattanites began to venture down the river in search of affordable space to live and work (a story as old as the city), some fell on Red Hook and found much of it abandoned. Those who arrived in the early years will tell tales of packs of wild dogs roaming the streets. Although it housed one of the largest social housing developments in the country, it was sorely lacking in basic resources.

Ms Doskow and her boyfriend regularly shopped at the Upper East Side Gristedes near her work before returning to the lofts where they had made their home. “You had to be very ingenious,” she says. In some ways, it was reminiscent of the emergence of SoHo in the 1970s, when artists moved into empty buildings and reshaped the neighborhood. But SoHo had subways. Red Hook’s isolation proved a persistent challenge, and the familiar story of promised regeneration was slow to materialize. It didn’t take hold until the opening of Fairway – a foodie grocery warehouse – in 2006, followed by Ikea in 2008 and the arrival of the ferry service.

Adaptability and resilience remain common attributes of those who live here. In the aftermath of Sandy, which hit much of New York but devastated Red Hook, many residents were without power for months. Neighbors shared generators and other resources. In the houses, which were flooded by six feet, 6,000 residents were left without heating but also without fresh water. The flooding eventually led to dangerous mold – a problem that persisted for years after the rest of the neighborhood rebounded.

It’s partly the challenges that Red Hook faces that make it feel like a small town. There is an active and vital Facebook group that operates partly as a classifieds and partly as a community board. There is an annual alumni day for residents of the Houses. A year after the storm, the Barnacle Parade sprung up to commemorate the resilience of the Red Hook Superstorm; Every October, handmade floats of pirate ships and sea monsters circle the streets of Red Hook, making stops at local businesses, which hand out candy bars (type of food and alcohol depending on your age and your persuasion).

Ms. Doskow’s most distinctive before and after photos from the set also tell viewers what they need to know about Red Hook’s future. Where a former sugar refinery used to be, Amazon is building a “last mile” warehouse. Under cover of darkness, several 19th-century buildings on the waterfront opposite Valentino Pier were demolished to make way for a UPS distribution center. Traffic along the narrow streets is increasingly smothered by delivery trucks. In a neighborhood long defined by its inaccessibility, getting in and out is arguably more difficult now than it was when few people came here.

And yet the light remains. Along Valentino Pier, fishermen bring in their catch, some of which is now edible. And on the small beach next door, the local dogs rush into the waves to retrieve their poles. Red Hook’s sunsets remain the most spectacular in town, and the Statue of Liberty stands firm and visible in the harbor.


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