Red Hook tour
Brooklyn's storied, eerie waterfront neighborhood, with a compelling if troubled history, now known for art, Superstorm Sandy recovery, and new ventures
Once the moniker for a good chunk of South Brooklyn, today's Red Hook was cut off from Brownstone Brooklyn by the construction of the Battery Tunnel, highway, and a large public housing complex.
Warehouses and other industrial buildings served a declining shipping industry. Red Hook's isolation--no subway goes there; a bus ride, ferry, or long walk is needed--delayed new residents and new investment.
Its rugged feel and mixed-use character finally made Red Hook something of a destination, as well as a perpetual entry in the "next neighborhood" discussion, despite irregular streets and sidewalks, and in some cases lots of trucks. There's a huge cruise terminal now.
The main drag, Van Brunt Street, has become home to "new Brooklyn" businesses, including restaurants and a few galleries--plus, nearby, a giant art space carved out of an old factory. An "old Brooklyn" business like Sunny's Bar has become an icon, even the subject of a book.
The giant Ikea arrived, not without controversy, as did the Fairway Market, now Food Bazaar. Both today provide fantastic outdoor waterfront space, including a park that memorializes Red Hook's maritime past. Developers have floated big, often unresolved plans for remaining parcels of land. A community farm involves local youth, as does the Center for Court Innovation.
But Superstorm Sandy hit the neighborhood, especially the Red Hook Houses, the 1930s housing project that contains the majority of the neighborhood's population, prompting ongoing discussions about how to best recover, and the environmentally just way to rebuild. Unlikely: a hugely ambitious plan, announced in September 2016, to build as many as 45,000 new apartments and add three subway stops.
Also troubling: new giant "last-mile" warehouse and delivery facilities, serving New Yorkers' voracious appetite for retail but leading to the demolition of historic structures and contributing to air pollution. (See this Guardian article and map.) Meanwhile, the pandemic has closed some longstanding businesses, or forced them to adapt.
They still make things in Red Hook, from architectural glass to furniture, and also consumables: a chocolate maker, an ice cream factory, a winery, a couple of distillers, and three craft breweries. There's a great bakery and an even better key lime pie shop. Oddities abound, including an under-the-radar factory making a unique foodstuff, a "robotic church," an art storage facility, and a metal sculpture park.
The neighborhood had gained attention for the "Red Hook vendors," Latin American food purveyors who initially served soccer players, and became a "foodie" destination, but a lingering environmental cleanup has limited their scope. Red Hook has inspired films by Spike Lee and Matty Rich, as well as a novel by native son James McBride.
The single most compelling thing about Red Hook is simply a visit to the waterfront, with views of Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan, Jersey City, and the Verrazano Bridge. It's even better with a taste of that key lime pie.
Distance from Midtown Manhattan: 25-45+ minutes by subway, also accessible by ferry from Lower Manhattan
Basic tour length: 2-2.5 hours (see fees)
Starting place: Typically off B61 bus, or near ferry stop (NYC Ferry or Ikea Ferry)
Ending place: Waterfront/Ikea, or a place to drink
Highlights: History, architecture, shopping, urban planning, views
Option before/during/after tour: Many places to snack/eat, including sweets (key lime pie, chocolate, bakery, ice cream)
Potential tour extensions with me: Atlantic Avenue, Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens, Park Slope
Why I like leading this tour: Even locals don't know much about Red Hook, since it's far from the subway. Fantastic views, hidden corners, complex history.