If you take a look at a map of Brooklyn, you'll see that nestled between the Buttermilk Channel and Gowanus Bay, there's a funny kind of hook-shaped spur of land that protrudes off the mainland and encloses the Erie Basin. That's Red Hook, and it's a part of the city that even long-time New Yorkers may not be too familiar with, even though it offers the stunning views of Lady Liberty, and it's where Al Capone earned his famous "Scarface" moniker back in the "˜20s.
Red Hook has been an industrial area for over 200 years, full of warehouses, old factories and landmarks such as the Todd Shipyards and the Red Hook Sugar Refinery which can be seen from as far away as New Jersey and Greenwood. A lot of these buildings are crumbling, however, and signs of expired prosperity are everywhere, from worn cobblestone streets to old, hidden trolley lines. It makes one wonder - what happened to Red Hook? And, more importantly, what will happen next?
After Dutch settlers came into the Red Hook area in the 1600s, it was business as usual for quite some time. By the mid 1700s, Red Hook was a bustling, happening place and was one of the only areas of Brooklyn that was actually thriving. By 1850, the peninsula was one of the busiest ports in the whole country and already a colorful ethnic and cultural patchwork, according to David Sharps of Red Hook's Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge.
"At first, the area was populated by the workers on the waterfront - longshoremen. From 1840 to 1950, tens of thousands of people worked on the waterfront and the main groups were mostly German, Irish, Scandinavian, Italian, Filipino and African American." With the help of the Columbia Street District, Red Hook also became home to the first Puerto Rican enclave in the country. By the turn of the 20th century, the economy and the culture of Red Hook were booming.
But then, unfortunately, things started to change. In the early 1900s, the area was overrun by organized crime - including a stint by the infamous Mr. Capone - and in the mid 1950s, the area was hit with more huge problems. Shipping procedures started to change, going from bales and bulk loads to container shipping - not as many men were needed to unload the goods from the barges, and jobs were lost left and right.
Then the second blow fell. Robert Moses' Gowanus Expressway was built in 1946 and basically severed Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. Compounding the problem, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel opened in 1950 - and Red Hook suffered another cut artery. It was harder to get there, and harder to work there, so living there was pretty much out of the question for most people. Residences were abandoned along with the factories and shops in the area.
"The city was going to build a modern container port," says Sharps. "They were going to condemn numerous houses and parts of the [neighborhood], so people moved out. But then the project never happened, and [the city] had ruined what was here. Few buildings were saved, since so many were condemned already and they were left abandoned for years - so a lot of them are in bad shape and have contributed to the sort of "˜No Man's Land' nature of the neighborhood."
For a long time, Red Hook languished in its debilitated state. While other industrial parts of Brooklyn became desirable to real estate developers, Red Hook remained untouched - the only thing it developed was a reputation for being a "tough neighborhood." In the 1970s, the city approved a plan for housing implementation and discussed the viability of parks and pier development, but no action was taken, thanks to conflicts over design and the usual bureaucratic delays. This only helped make Red Hook more of the forgotten child of Brooklyn it already was.
"Since the neighborhood was cut off," says Sharps, "there were only a few streets that you could use to access Red Hook. Consequently we were kind of forgotten about," and became a no-man's land. But, Sharps stresses, "not a "˜bad land.'"
What goes up must come down, however, and vice versa. Changes in the last decade have afforded Red Hook some long-overdue attention, with the biggest changes being made by members of the Red Hook community itself - not through outside entrepreneurs or bargain-hunters.
In 1994, Community Board 6 submitted "Red Hook: Plan for Community Regeneration" to the Department of City Planning. In 1996, after much revision, the plan was accepted. This plan was one of the first to be adopted under the provisions of Section 197-a of the City Charter, and its purpose was to promote a waterfront revival, granting support to proposals for developments in housing, transportation, education and municipal entities. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani opened the Louis Valentino Jr. Park in 1996 as well - a lovely area that had been closed for 10 years that now features a 7,400-foot concrete pier off Coffey Street, a boardwalk, and a landscaped recreation area.
Despite the neighborhood's hard times, the community voice in Red Hook is still strong, and the changes that are happening in the area are largely due to the tireless efforts of such non-profit groups as The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Task Force, the Waterfront Park Coalition, the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition (NOSC) and the Regional Plan Association (RPA.) These folks are getting their hands dirty in hopes of cleaning up The Hook.
Among their proposals is the Red Hook Maritime Heritage Area and Trail, a stretch of development that would begin at the future Brooklyn Bridge Park, extend along Red Hook's warehouses and shopping areas of the East Basin and around Gowanus Canal, where investments are in the works to create even more access to parks. This $8 million project could even include a trolley line composed of vintage train cars brought out of retirement and rehabilitated. Some of the track is already there, just buried under grass and rubble. The Port Authority has already committed $2.2 million to perimeter improvement of the Red Hook Marine Terminal, to which the trolley line would be adjacent.
In 2003, the citizens of Red Hook again proved their allegiance and hope for their neighborhood when the city announced plans to make the Todd Shipyards a garbage transfer site for most of the city's garbage. It made administrative sense, since Red Hook is the third largest garbage transfer site for the city already, but residents of the neighborhood were less than enthused. After strong grassroots lobbying and with the help of The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, community opposition helped defeat the city's proposal. The locals felt they'd rather the Shipyards be turned into housing developments instead of another garbage site. This was proof that there were still people in Red Hook who had vision - and something better in mind for their home.
With all the changes the area is going through under the hand of the community, Red Hook is a neighborhood on the verge. Getting to the area is getting easier these days, too, with the NY Water Taxi (which is based in Red Hook, by the way) and has service to the Beard Street pier, and also to and from Midtown, Wall Street and Brooklyn Heights. That's good news, since lately, there's a lot to see and do in "The Hook."
The Red Hook Waterfront Arts Festival is held annually in May, and if you're looking for fun, this is where you can find it. Music, food, dance and spoken word events draw lots of people from Red Hook and beyond for a parade that includes locals and students with puppets and performances. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, who sponsors the event, also rents canoes from the spring to early fall and the paddling you can do in this area will take your breath away. The "Dance Theatre Etcetera" dance troupe is based in the neighborhood, and there are always performances going on somewhere.
Economics are beginning to look up for Red Hook, too. Independence Savings Bank recently opened up, and the Sullivan Street Hotel was turned into a successful housing project in 2000. As the land develops, more shops and businesses are on the way, to be sure.
At the moment, says Sharps, "There are apple pie makers and lots of glass workers - like glass blowers and etchers - working here. The artist community is very strong, of course, and there are many fabricators who make things for movies, like sets and robotics and so forth. There's a lot of truck traffic and buses and we have the waste transfer stations, too."
According to Chris Thomas, a broker with William B. May Company in Brooklyn, several big-time retailers have signed major leases in the area, or will be soon. "IKEA is coming," says Thomas, "and a Fresh Fields [grocer] is coming, too. I believe that will alter the character of the neighborhood dramatically, for better or worse. It will certainly increase the traffic, and the city will most likely adapt to make getting out there easier."
All these changes are good for the real estate market, of course, but some residents are as leery of the new attention their neighborhood is getting lately as they are excited about new developments.
"Now there's an IKEA coming to build in our historic shipyard," says Sharps. "I'd like to see something that would preserve the character of the area, instead. I'm very concerned about that. We're becoming a desirable destination, and now this battle is raging, dividing the community against itself. I mean, we're all looking to bring jobs to the area, but at what cost?"
Those on the real estate end see the area's development with fewer misgivings."[Red Hook] is the next big thing - it really is," says Thomas. "Like Tribeca in the late 1980s, or Hoboken in the "˜70s, or like DUMBO exploded in the last few years. You've got some really great 19th century architecture in the housing stock, and the Brooklyn waterfront in Red Hook is some of the best of all neighborhoods anywhere. There's a great deal of playground and park area in Red Hook, too, and that's a big draw for people and families, especially."
What's important to remember, however, is that economic growth and renewed interest in industrialized areas means one has to do a little more research than usual when looking to buy or rent. "The neighborhood's isolation from the rest of Brooklyn is both an attraction and a drawback, of course," says Thomas. "Really, the main reason Red Hook has been less looked at is because of the isolation that is caused by the expressway."
Because Red Hook was almost exclusively a business center for so long, zoning issues have already arisen and don't show signs of disappearing any time soon. While a few developers have proposed condo projects in the area, some residents of Red Hook are converting industrial buildings into residential buildings illegally, which obviously causes problems.
"It happens," says Thomas. "It happened in Soho, Tribeca, and DUMBO; that's part of the evolution of an area, and it's part and parcel of the live/work scenario, especially for artists. Loft space is used as living space, and that's not compliant with zoning, so there's no Certificate of Occupancy - but then that's why rent is cheaper. It's a problem for everyone, in the end. Tenants claim that they "˜improved' the space by putting in plumbing and so forth, but the landlords usually have to rip all that stuff out in the end, anyway, if they do decide to officially convert the property to a residential building. It's not a good idea, but it does happen."
In addition to that, Red Hook has had heavy truck traffic for years, due to its history and location. Marrying the community boom with the truck action is difficult. A lot of the buildings are old and the vibrations of the trucks on the old roads have caused a few of the buildings to become highly unstable. Because of the waste transfer stations, trucks use local routes to get in and around the area and this causes noise problems for residents as well. But that doesn't mean significant numbers of people aren't settling there, says Thomas, and the reason is simple: economics.
"The artist profile is most common. Generally, these people are looking at places in Williamsburg and DUMBO, which are similar to Red Hook as far as the kind of industrial area it is. Red Hook is older, though, most of the buildings being Civil War-era or before. Prices in The Hook haven't reached those in Williamsburg or DUMBO. A lot of artists are being priced out of the other two neighborhoods and Red Hook is looking more and more appealing to them."
"The housing stock is significantly less than other areas - like half the price of something in Carroll Gardens, for example," Thomas continues. "You can get a floor-through [condo unit] for around $600,000 to $750,000 and these buildings often get converted into duplexes. Commercially, one can get space for about $10 a square foot. Most of the spaces are going to give you around 2,000 square feet, so you can figure about $20,000 per year or $2,000 a month. But you're getting a whole lot of space for your money."
And as always, more space for your money is a powerful motivator for New Yorkers to push into even the most "forgotten" corners of the city. But for some, it's more than that; it's about a neighborhood's feel, the people who make it home, and what hometown conveniences it offers. For more information on Red Hook, check out the following sources online:
The South Brooklyn Network at
Between the involvement of Red Hook's old guard residents and outsiders' new interest in the neighborhood, Red Hook is heating up. As transportation to the area improves and more people move in, head on over to Brooklyn and explore all that Red Hook has to offer - you may just get hooked.