Emily Myers/Brick Underground
To get to Red Hook in Brooklyn, first you have to venture past the red brick warehouses, storage depots, garbage facilities, and auto repair garages along Hamilton Avenue. Don't be surprised if, upon entering the neighborhood, you find yourself on a street made of cobblestone. In 1980, the neighborhood "looked and smelled like somebody dropped a bomb on it," late neighborhood barkeep Sunny Balzano told the New York Times. Once home to a busy shipyard, Red Hook emptied out over the latter half of the 20th century as maritime industry wound down. In its place, artists gradually moved to the neighborhood to take advantage of low rents in disused warehouses. More recently, tech firms and small businesses have followed, in search of affordable commercial space.
Throughout this process, the neighborhood has been home to the Red Hook Houses, one of the largest public housing developments in the city. The recent waves of investment are most visible on the waterfront, where an IKEA store opened on the site of the defunct shipyard in 2008, and a Civil-War Era dock building became a Fairway supermarket with high-end rental apartments upstairs in 2006. The stores, apartments, and waterfront parks running along them have spectacular views of the harbor.
Development has been slower to come to Red Hook than to Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, because, for all Red Hook's mystique, taking the subway there means a trek of a mile or more from the nearest F station, or a grueling local bus ride. Last summer, the city added ferry service to Wall Street from the western edge of the neighborhood, but unless you live near that still-industrial area and work downtown, the commuting options are fairly grim.
Nevertheless, the announcements of high-end new developments and offices keep coming, and prices remain high for the neighborhood's limited offerings. For more of an idea of what it's like to live in Red Hook, we talked to some locals and real estate professionals.
Red Hook is cut off from Brooklyn by the Gowanus Expressway and the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel entrance, which make a diagonal slash along the northeast side of the neighborhood. Along the south side, the putrid, industrial Gowanus Canal empties out into the Gowanus Bay and the harbor beyond, and to the west, it's all water.
What it costs to live there
Apart from the Red Hook Houses, a handful of small prewar apartment buildings, and some lofts, the housing stock in Red Hook is almost entirely two-to-four-story townhouses, single and multi-family, some with ground-floor retail.
Red Hook’s sales inventory is too small to even generate a reliable median sales price for last year. The available data shows a median sale price of $2 million, according to StreetEasy, but that's not particularly descriptive.
Tamara Abir, a broker at Compass explains, “These are mostly multi-family buildings and townhouses. There are very few apartments for sale and very few sales altogether, so a few large sales drastically affects the median sales price. The recent completion and sale of 22 luxury townhomes on King and Sullivan streets is a huge part of this figure.”
Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood is $2,500 a month.
How to get there
“It really feels like a small town in Brooklyn. The only downside is that transport isn’t exactly feasible, ” says William Kyle, 21, who grew up in the neighborhood.
The B57 and B61 bus lines connect Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn. The nearest subway station is Smith-Ninth Street, which is a far walk from most parts of Red Hook. And though there’s been talk of extending a subway to Red Hook (the idea was touted by Governor Cuomo in his State of the State speech just last month) no one is holding their breath.
“It’s something that would drastically change the real estate landscape,” Abir says. The current state of the subway, and its chronic budget shortfalls, suggest that the prospect of a new subway is very far off, if it's even possible.
Kyle says, “A better option would be to bring back the trolley cars. The rails are right here under the asphalt.”
The city Department of Transportation looked into bringing back the old streetcars in the late '90s and late 2000s, but opted to hold off both times after some preliminary work. Now, the de Blasio administration is looking at the idea once more, as part of the mayor's proposed developer-funded waterfront streetcar line connecting Brooklyn and Queens. It's still not clear that what's being called the BQX streetcar will actually happen.
A high point of the past year has been the new ferry service linking Red Hook to Brooklyn Bridge Park, Dumbo, and Wall Street. Similarly, when the Citi Bike program came to Red Hook in 2016, it created another much-needed transportation option. Victoria Hagman, a Realty Collective broker who lives and works in Red Hook says these two factors have made the neighborhood much more accessible.
Relishing the remoteness
Many residents say they like the relative isolation of the neighborhood.
Kate, who moved to Red Hook from Crown Heights two years ago with her husband and works in Manhattan, says, “It’s a good fit for us. We love the open skies, and there are great little spots to walk the dog.”
Superstorm Sandy hit Red Hook hard in 2012, exposing the neighborhood's vulnerability to flooding. The main drag of Van Brunt Street turned into a raging river and nearly every block was flooded. The Red Hook Houses were especially hard hit: the development lost access to power and clean water for weeks, and was left with mold after the water receded. But despite that risk, areas in Red Hook hit hard by the storm have seen tremendous development since. Of the 27 new residential building built since the storm, 25 are located in flood zones.
Wary of change
Sharae has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years but says her life takes place elsewhere.
“I work in the city, my friends are in the city," she says. "I’m here because I have a huge apartment at a good price.”
Some residents are concerned about promoting Red Hook as a place to live and encouraging the hordes that would make yet another neighborhood unaffordable. Just last month, one of the community’s old haunts, the bar Red Hook Bait and Tackle, closed for good. Still, change is part of the landscape. Bulldozers are lined up along the waterfront between IKEA and Fairway, ready to build what developers at Thor Equities are calling a “campus” of retail, restaurant, and office space. And some residents are resigned to it.
"What are you going to do? You take the good with the bad,” says a woman named Khalia, whose family has moved away to Jersey City.
Sean has been in the neighborhood for two years and used to work in the building on Van Brunt that now houses a new Tesla showroom.
“It’s kinda cool," he says. "Change is the narrative of Red Hook. It’s part of the story.”
Good eats and things to do
For now the main retail area is along Van Brunt Street, which consists of a mix of boutiques, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. On the weekend, Hometown Bar-B-Que is one of the most popular dining options.
Sarah Reynolds moved to Red Hook with her family last year and says the restaurant owners know all the locals.
“They make an effort to get to know the people who live in Red Hook, and that’s really nice,” Reynolds says.
Erin Norris is the owner of the restaurant Grindhaus. She signed her lease on April Fools' Day 10 years ago. She describes Red Hook as “this weird little pocket. You can go to the water and breathe it in and see Governors Island and the city and the planes taking off from Newark, but you don’t have to feel you are in an oppressive urban jungle. There’s a sunny side of the street all the time.”
Reynolds and Norris are both dog owners. Reynolds walks her little Havenese, Mary, on the waterfront.
“Everyone talks to each other down there, walking the dog," she says. "They always say hello and get chatting.”
Pier 44 is home to the Waterfront Museum on board a 1914 Lehigh Valley Barge. Valentino Pier has one of the best views of the Statue of Liberty anywhere in the city. Another gem is Erie Basin Park, owned and operated by IKEA, where piers jut out into the water and shipyard artifacts remind visitors of the area’s industrial past.
Emily Myers is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has worked for the BBC in London and in arts education in San Francisco.
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