Red Hook, Brooklyn: City Living on the edge?

September 23, 2008 at 1:22 am Leave a comment

The cobblestone streets, turn-of-the-century row houses, and industrial buildings that characterize Red Hook, which has been shaped by years of relative isolation from the rest of Brooklyn, often surprise first-time visitors.

It’s this well-preserved historical character, as well as a low population density, views of the waterfront and access to public parks that attract artists, craftspeople, families and others seeking open space in a crowded, busy city.

Early Dutch settlers referred to the marshy peninsula as “Roode Hoek,” which translates to “Red Corner” — not “Red Hook” — and does not refer to the shape of the Breakwater Terminal, which hooks around the Erie Basin like a giant claw.

Rather, “Roode Hoek” refers to the shape of the land itself and the rich color of the soil.
For years, Red Hook flourished as one of America’s busiest shipping hubs, where boats from all over the world would stop to load and unload. Numerous pubs, flophouses, and ship repair shops sprung up to accommodate the burgeoning industry.

Ships were still docking in the 1930s when Red Hook became known as a gritty section of Brooklyn populated by Puerto Ricans and Italian Americans, among them Al Capone, who got his start as a criminal there.

“Red Hook’s negative reputation came from its rough dockyard days,” said former resident Maureen McNeil, author of Red Hook Stories. “It was also known as a Mafia dumping ground.”

The advent of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the mid-sixties diminished Red Hook’s accessibility, forcing it to develop at a different pace from the rest of the borough.

A precipitous decline in the population and quality of life followed, as residents fled the area, crime increased and historical buildings fell into disrepair.

But during the 1970s, painters and sculptors began buying up Red Hook’s cheap row houses with the help of special subsidies from the city.

“A lot of artists were drawn to the hauntingly beautiful place that came to be when the shipyard industry died,” said Martha Bowers, founder of Red Hook’s Dance Theatre Etcetera.

But settling into a decaying, forsaken area wasn’t always easy for the new residents.

“The place was overrun by packs of wild stray dogs,” said David Sharps, who runs the Waterfront Museum. “I had three different cats that were eaten by wild dogs.”

He added, “We were the true pioneers back then.”

McNeil remembers this transitional period differently.

“The neighborhood was labeled dangerous when in fact it was quiet, provided cheap housing, big backyards, salty air and an integrated community with close proximity to Manhattan,” she said.

C.J. Martyn, who grew up in Red Hook, claims that in those days the neighborhood was particularly close-knit.

“This used to be a big place for family. Everyone had block parties together, looked after each other. My backyard was your backyard.”

Change became more evident when Greg O’Connell, Red Hook’s foremost developer, began buying up the area.

“O’Connell has been around since the 1980s,” said McNeil. “He had a vision, and access to big bucks to buy up the neighborhood and renovate the warehouses.”
Added Bowers, “O’Connell was able to work with the artist community, which in turn worked in tandem with the area’s urban renewal.”

Today, Red Hook has shed its earlier reputation and now attracts droves of urban explorers and casual visitors.

“The best thing that has happened to Red Hook in the last decade is that its stigma is gone,” said McNeil. “Like all prejudice, it was unwarranted. I see the Red Hook community today enjoying what we enjoyed: access to the water, a big sky, a strong community.”

“But more than that, I see young people living an alternative NYC dream.”
Find It
Red Hook is defined by the Gowanus Expressway and Hamilton Avenue to the north, the Gowanus Canal to the east, the Erie Basin to the south and the Buttermilk Channel to the west.



Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Go Coastal. Tags: , .

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