Van Dyke and Conover Streets, 2012
One of the things I like about cities like New York is that they’re so big that there’s always a new neighborhood to explore. I suspect, though, that most visitors to New York never get off the island of Manhattan except to go to the airport. They’re missing a lot when they do this.
Last week I had a chance to spend a few minutes taking pictures in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which those of us of a certain age will remember as the place where Marlon Brando bemoaned that he "could have been a contender” in On The Waterfront.
Prior to this visit, I’d only known Red Hook as the place you went through to get to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. So I was surprised to learn that Red Hook is one of the oldest neighborhoods of New York, having been settled by the Dutch in the 1600s. It’s location just inside the Verrazano Narrows, made Red Hook one of the most important shipping depots in New York, especially during the mid-1800s when Red Hook was the terminus of a vast inland shipping network that included the Erie Canal. Even into the 1920s Red Hook was said to be one of the world’s busiest ports.
Red Hook’s had its ups and downs since then. It’s a damp, low-lying area, exposed to the cold winds off upper New York Bay. It’s never had the status of neighborhoods located a little further uphill. During the Great Depression Red Hook was known for its sprawling “Hooverville” shantytown. In the 1990s Red Hook was called the “crack capital of America.”
Those who study the life of cities know that circumstances that make a place undesirable to some spell opportunity for others. Today Red Hook is home to a growing number of artists, writers and others who don’t mind trading sparse subway service for affordable real estate. Van Brunt Avenue is home to a growing number of hip shops and bars, including Baked.
A giant Ikea store sits by the waterfront adjacent to the Erie Basin. The Queen Mary II, too big to use the cruise ship piers on the Hudson River in Manhattan, now calls at Red Hook. MTV’s Real World Brooklyn season was filmed in a converted warehouse in Red Hook.
The Real World and the Queen Mary II aren’t the things that will draw me back to Red Hook, though. Rather, I’ll want to go find those last remnants of the old industrial port that gave Red Hook its color. Maybe I’ll have more than five minutes to look around next time.