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The Embers of Gentrification

For the better part of two decades, the powerful force of affluence has swept across the city like wildfire, transforming neighborhoods in ways that have come to seem inevitable. But what happens when the fire goes out?


What the hell is happening in Red Hook? Ivy Pochoda remembers having that thought, and she remembers she wasn’t alone. It was about a year ago, Brooklyn was booming, a Fairway grocery store had just opened in Red Hook, and Pochoda was thinking about moving away. She wasn’t sure to where. Maybe Baltimore.

At the time, Pochoda, now 30, a onetime world-ranked squash player who’s just written a novel, had been living in Red Hook for about a year and a half. She’d been drawn, like most recent transplants to Red Hook, by the unlikely charms of the neighborhood: the cheap rent, yes, but also the oddly comforting isolation, the blunt beauty of the derelict buildings near the piers, the slant of the light on the Upper New York Bay. She grew up in Cobble Hill and could remember a time there before the SUVs and the French nannies and the bistros-run-amok, back when it was still a mixed neighborhood where kids would play in the street until dark and Smith Street was still too sketchy to walk home on alone. She rediscovered that feeling, or something like it, in Red Hook. But now she figured it was time to leave. She’d outrun gentrification for a while, but now it seemed to have caught up with her.

"Red Hook was changing so quickly. There was a new pretty face every day. I saw these two girls mincing down Pioneer Street in tapered jeans and flats, and I thought, I’m done. And it wasn’t just me. Everyone was talking about leaving. People were saying this is changing, that’s changing. They’re closing the Pioneer bar. The Fairway had opened. Ikea was coming. There was even a rumor they were opening a Marriott hotel."

You might remember having a similar moment yourself, albeit from afar, the moment you thought, What the hell is happening in Red Hook? (You may have simultaneously been thinking, Wait, where the hell is Red Hook again?) Maybe it was back in April 2005, when the Times announced that Barbara Corcoran—former president of Corcoran Real Estate, whose name adorns the innumerable black banners and come-hither for sale signs that flutter at the city’s frontiers—had bought a three-story building on Van Brunt for $1.075 million. Or maybe it was a year later, while reading the newspaper article about the cheery family that had just relocated from Manhattan to Red Hook, with the headline “An Unlikely Paradise, Right Around the Corner.” Or maybe it was the "Red Hook Has Arrived" Time Out New York cover last year that promised "27 Reasons to Go Now."

Red Hook certainly has all the familiar ingredients of a neighborhood on the verge: quirky local favorites such as Sunny’s (the waterfront bar with bluegrass bands, open three nights a week or at the owner’s whim) and LeNell’s (the bourbon-mecca liquor store with the hand-painted sign reading wine + likker) as well as charming start-ups like 360 (a beloved French bistro) and the Good Fork (a beloved Korean-influenced restaurant). 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. (I declared it a year ago in this very magazine: Back then, it was Jersey City, and it was already too late to get in.) Gentrification is a wave that’s flooding the city, transforming block after block. And Red Hook was directly in its path.

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 Pioneer bar has shut down. So has the bistro 360 and, just recently, the live-music venue the Hook. Buildings put on the market for $2.5 million have stayed empty and unsold. Landlords hoping to get $2,500 a month for a Van Brunt storefront—the rent that Barbara Corcoran was asking—have found no takers. In fact, Corcoran’s spot sat unrented for over two years, until a local business took the space at the cut rate of $1,800 a month. The perception of the neighborhood got bad enough that in August the Post ran a story headlined "Call It ‘Dead’ Hook." Somehow the neighborhood went from "undiscovered paradise" to Dead Hook in just over a year.

So what the hell is happening in Red Hook?


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