Red Hook: It’s a Grey Area ~ Brooklyn, NY

Brooklyn – a borough filled with landmark viewing points.

From Williamsburg you can see the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Dumbo is framed by the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges as it looks onto downtown Manhattan, and Red Hook – well, from there you have the view of the Statue of Liberty as she looks towards France…

Red Hook is located in South Brooklyn; I’ve visited the neighbourhood a few times before, and always leave with an off-beat feeling.

The area is heavily industrial – containers stand stacked outside warehouses alongside row homes and newer apartment blocks; the streets are a hard to navigate maze of one way signs that always have us circling for long periods of time, trying to find a way out.

The neighbourhood’s businesses – restaurants, artisan stores, and galleries – are clustered along a main street, Van Brunt, which seems to generate car traffic in large part due to the destination supermarket, Fairway, planted at the street’s end. Housed in a pre-Civil War-era coffee warehouse on the waterfront, Fairway was the reason the neighborhood’s first traffic light was installed in 2006…

Along Van Brunt

One street away from Van Brunt

A street off of Van Brunt. The containers are full of Dell’s cherries.

On Van Brunt

The area is quiet in the daytime, but not in an eerie way; there’s a sense of community, but it lacks that neighbourhood vibe. There’s no subway that goes through here – only the B61 bus line; the side roads are cobblestoned and wonky in parts; there’s a ferry that runs between the area’s out-of-the-way IKEA and Manhattan.

“The majority of residents — more than 6,000 out of the 10,300 or so documented in the 2010 census — live in the Red Hook Houses, a pair of public housing developments with 30 residential buildings. They include the most vocal proponents of the Ikea store that opened on Beard Street in 2008, who argued that it would bring accessible jobs. Predictions from the store’s opponents that the store would also bring traffic congestion have so far proved unfounded.” (

Once a low-lying area full of tidal mill ponds created by the Dutch in the 1800s, Red Hook is undergoing a phase – or pause – in the gentrification process. It’s hard to explain: housing is scarce though homes do sell at a premium, some up to $1 million; there’s a panoramic view of Manhattan’s downtown; artisans have established businesses here. Yet the area feels isolated.

On Van Brunt

On Van Brunt

Real estate broker, Victoria Hagman described the neighbourhood’s new residents and potential buyers in a March 2012 issue of the New York Times like this,

“It’s not like, ‘Hey, we’re looking everywhere else — let’s look in Red Hook.’ It’s, ‘Hey, I want to be in Red Hook.”

She went on further to describe the area as being “crowded with day-trippers on warm weekend afternoons, but “kind of brutal” in the winter wind.”

On Van Brunt

Street Art on Van Brunt

Flowers along the main street sidewalk

Whilst researching the area, I came across a New York magazine article, The Embers of Gentrification, which I found interesting. I’ve included a (slightly lengthy) excerpt here:

“The neighborhood, a former refuge for artists in exile, had started drawing the typical next-wavers: the self-employed, the underemployed, the fresh young couples with tricked-out strollers, walking along the refurbished Valentino Pier or hanging out at the bakery Baked. In some ways, Red Hook was a Realtor’s dream, boasting Manhattan views, a salty maritime history (working piers! Brawling sailors!), and a brochure-ready name, all of which would play perfectly on some theoretical condo prospectus. Seeking waterfront living with a dusting of urban grit? Then drop your anchor in Red Hook!

More crucially, Red Hook was simply next. Because if we’ve learned anything in the last twenty years of gentrification in New York, it’s that there will always be a next. Gentrification is a wave that’s flooding the city, transforming block after block. And Red Hook was directly in its path. Resident Ivy Pochoda remembers it clearly. “That moment was there. It was definitely there. Everyone felt it at the same time. And then,” she says, “it just went away.”

For the last two years, people in Red Hook have been waiting—some hopefully, some fearfully—for that wave to crash, the hordes to come, the towers to sprout. Weirdly, though, none of that has happened. In fact, for all the heraldic attention, the neighborhood now seems to be going in reverse.”

The article was written back in 2007; to me, it reads like it was published today.

Pots on a side street

Unlucky 13?

A little history…

Q: So, what’s the background to the Red Hook name?

A: Red because of the colour of its clay soil; Hook is derived from the name the Dutch gave the area in 1636, Roode Hoek , where Hoek means ‘point’ for its peninsula that juts into Upper New York Bay.

“During the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), a fort was constructed on the hoek called Fort Defiance. It is shown on a map called a Map of the Environs of Brooklyn drawn in 1780 by a loyalist engineer named George S. Sproule.” (wikipedia)

“In 1839 the City of Brooklyn published a plan to create streets, which included filling in all of the ponds and other low-lying areas. In the 1840s entrepreneurs began to build ports; by the 1920s, they made Red Hook the busiest freight port in the world, but this ended in the 1960s with the advent of containerization.” (wikipedia)

Most freight operations moved to New Jersey; Red Hook Container Terminal still operates as the only maritime facility in Brooklyn to handle container ships. The area is also the New York-dock for Cunard’s cruise liner, Queen Mary 2. Interesting that at one time – back in 1980s – Life magazine proclaimed the neighbourhood as the “crack capital of America.”

Serendipitously, the QM2 was in port today. For a few moments, I had that giddy feeling I get before going on holiday.

“In a 1984 Times article about Park Slope, Maureen Dowd (in her pre-political-coquette-columnist days) identified three categories of residents in a gentrifying neighborhood: indigenous, pioneer, and new immigrant.

A Red Hook local described the same phenomenon to me this way: Old Red Hook (the Italian and Irish families who’ve lived here since it was a vibrant neighborhood in the fifties, and the black and Latino families in the Red Hook housing projects, the largest in the city, built in 1938), New Red Hook (the tattooed artists and furniture makers who moved in for the cheap available space during the mid-to-late nineties), and New New Red Hook (the boutique owners and homesteaders who started arriving about 2003).” (

In the vicinity of Van Brunt, food and drink operators operate businesses: there’s an artisan chocolate maker, Cocao Prieto; Van Brunt Stillhouse, that is hand-crafting New York’s first homemade rum since prohibition; and the Sixpoint Brewery.

Just as the New York magazine described sipping a coffee at Baked on the main street in 2007 amongst “an awkward checkerboard of hopeful new storefronts and shuttered old ones,” I understood the feeling – years later.

At Baked

“The (area’s) relative inaccessibility means that many residents are a proudly self-selecting group. ‘You tend to see the same faces every day,’ resident, Mr. Galeano, told the NYT. ‘To me, it seems like the closest you can get to that Manhattan-center-of-the-universe and still have a small-town feel…’ ”

His statement makes me wonder whether the full effects of gentrification have skipped a neighbourhood and whether this is a good thing; or, is Red Hook experiencing an uncertain holding pattern in the seemingly-formulaic process. Whatever the case, it’ll be interesting to watch Red Hook progress over the next few years.

Of note*:

The events depicted in the film, On the Waterfront, took place in Red Hook, starring Marlon Brando.

Spike Lee is said to be directing a film scheduled for 2012, Red Hook Summer.



34 thoughts on “Red Hook: It’s a Grey Area ~ Brooklyn, NY

  1. ANOTHER reason to come back to New York, and explore Brooklyn. I reckon’ LM might be convinced if I tell him about Beans-to-Bar Chocolate… Fascinating wee side trip, Marina. Cheers! 🙂

    • Syders! I came across the factory and thought it was a distillery – which it also is… a cocoa-based distillery! It’s an interesting area Syders – slow to grow… who knows where it will go? Thanks!

    • Thanks so much Steph. I find the area fascinating because it seems to be stagnating… It’s interesting to compare it to Williamsburg. But then, the ‘burg is on the L line.

  2. Great post, still don’t know how you manage to pack in so much information to complement your great pictures. Those of the QM2 remind me of watching such ships in the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour….

    • Yes, it does remind of Sydney! I have visited Red Hook a few times and always leave feeling like something is missing – I decided to research a little and was pretty fascinated with how gentrification has kind of skipped a beat there. The wonders and beauty of urban growth and renewal! Thanks!

  3. This is great article writing in my mind Marina. I really enjoyed the tour, the pictures are brilliant, the text is engaging, easy to read and most important of all, it’s very interesting. Really, really good stuff! 🙂

    • That’s lovely of you – thanks for commenting on the post as an article. I did curate/collate quite a bit of info from different sources as i wanted to represent the area from a few sides – an introductory look. I think that gentrification is so interesting, especially as the areas have so much history. Visiting and researching; it’s an entertaining way to learn about the roots of a city! Thanks so much 🙂

  4. MArina, great post again!. This neighborhood sounds so interesting, I wonder what it will look like in 10 or 20 years.I am starting my N.Y.Trip this weekend , but I after reading so many of your N.Y. posts I already have the feeling that my time there will be way to short !! I haven’t even left and already think for how many more trips I have to come to the Big City. Thank you for sharing such a volume of impressions.

    • It’s so interesting isn’t it Cornelia, to think of how many neighbourhoods will progress and evolve. That’s the beauty of NYC – it is always changing that every place is worthy of a visit. My advice to you would be to base your days around an area per day, to cut the commute which can set you back a few hours – even in the subway system. If you plan a visit to the Lower East side in the morning, you might consider walking over the Willimasburg Bridge in the afternoon to see Williamsburg. If you’re visiting the High Line, you’ll be near the Meatpacking District where you can spend a morning, and walk along the elevated park to 34th Street – which will lead to 34th Street Herald Square if you’re headed to Macy’s or Times Square. Walking is tiresome and it is humid in NYC – cotton and sneakers are recommended 🙂

    • I think so Lois! The closest subway is under renovation I believe (15-20 mins away), so it is all about the bus, bike, car, infrequent ferry. Or, the IKEA shuttle! Some residents prefer it this way though – it reminds them of Williamsburg before its development. It will be interesting to follow the area – I would like to do a tour of some of their food and drink factories 🙂 Thank you!

  5. More awesome shots of Brooklyn! Loving all the colors and the vibrancy – particularly the cool street art in this post today! And I want to go to Baked! That place looks amazing!

    • Hi Shira! this ‘hood intrigues me everytime I go there. Baked is cool – good Americano coffee and delicious looking treats (I was good – I held back!) 🙂 Thank you!

    • Barbara – thanks so much! It was surprising to read how long this neighbourhood has been ‘gentrifying’ but it seems stuck. If you have a morning or afternoon to visit Red Hook, I’d like to know what you think. No subway of course – just ferry or bike or car. I think you’ll have so much material for your style of photography especially with the waterfront.

  6. Brooklyn seems to be an interesting place to hang out, to me it feels like south east London, not so fancy, but up coming arty area 🙂 When I moved to Brockley in South East London, I wasn’t sure about the area after living in South West for a while – mostly white middle class public. But now I love it, it feels safe and lovely, very green lots going on, nice and quirky places to go for lunch or a pint 🙂 and as I always say, feels like a village to me and commute to Central London is great!

    Great and warm pictures, as always 🙂

    • Yes, i want to go to East London! (did you read my ‘about me’ page – it’s on my top 2 list right now!). I think we must live in a very similar area Kristina – great vibe, creative, and always interesting. I am glad you liked the photos! 🙂 Thank you!

      • I hope you can come here soon 🙂 Lot’s of people only want to go to the polished bits of London, but East London has a lot to offer, plus the Olympic site is in East London, this was intentional to develop the area 🙂 By the way how did you sister get on in London? She must be back home now 🙂

    • Thanks so much Karen! I really want to show more sides to Brooklyn – such a large borough, and I can’t rave on about Williamsburg enough 😉 That said, I do need to show Brooklyn from the Brighton beach and Coney Island side soon. The area is all about the beach in summer!

  7. Very informative and amazing pictures! I love all of them, but my favourites are the 13 gate, the gallery window and the last one. 🙂

    • Gabriele -I am so glad you like the last one! I had to include it and the end seemed the right spot. It’s very cool to read which one you resonated with the most. Thank you!

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