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The Embers of Gentrification

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Red Hook R.I.P.: the Pioneer beer hall and barbecue joint in 2004, left, and in 2007, right.   

And moreover, what if that’s happening right now?

If you don’t believe me, look for the smoke signals, the smoldering signs of the fire dying out. You can see them, over the water, off to the southwest. They’re coming from Red Hook.

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).

All three Red Hooks mingled recently at a benefit for the Red Hook Initiative, a local program for underserved youth, which was hosted at the home of Brandon Holley, the 40-year-old former editor of Jane magazine. Holley’s house, which she bought with her husband in late 2004, then gut-renovated for a year, sits on a typical Red Hook block, by which I mean a dark, unremarkable stretch of three-story, vinyl-sided rowhouses along a cracked and wobbly street. When I first arrived, I have to admit I thought I’d written down the wrong address. But walking through her open door, I entered a totally different world: an artfully reimagined loftlike space with a sunken central room, concrete floors, and a large manicured backyard. Inside, the assembled guests enjoyed a "Taste of Red Hook," displayed on long tables with white tablecloths: gumbo from the Good Fork, sweets from Baked, and greasy, delicious huaraches from one of the vendors who work weekends at the Red Hook ball fields.

At an adjacent table, Erin Norris, an animated woman with short bleached-blonde hair and a bunch of grapes tattooed on one arm, mixed cocktails for the assembled guests. She’s the manager of the Red Hook Bait & Tackle bar, a Van Brunt Street hangout that serves as a local social hub; it’s overstuffed with taxidermied animals and unkempt patrons who look like you’ve caught them at the midway point of a beard-growing competition. The regulars all have nicknames, like Whiskey Dave or Canadian Chris, and if you’re a recent transplant who happens to look like one of these fellows, you’re referred to as a "practice person"; for example, a guy who looks like Whiskey Dave is now nicknamed "Practice Whiskey."

That night, Erin arrived at the benefit with a newspaper clipping and a story. Just a few days before, she and her bartender had foiled an armed robber who’d twice hit bars in the neighborhood. (The cops caught the guy a few blocks away, hiding under a parked car and pinned down by barking dogs.) "We still like to think of this as a Wild West town," Erin said, "with vigilante justice and tumbleweed and packs of wild dogs roaming around."

“People say, ‘I want to list my house at $1.5 million, but I’m willing to accept $1 million.’ Which is fine. It just means I have people standing in front of my window saying that prices are absurd.”

In fact, "frontier town" and "Wild West" and "run-down fishing village" are all phrases you encounter again and again while talking to people in Red Hook. Ben Schneider, who runs the Good Fork with his wife, Sohui Kim, described falling in love with the neighborhood while visiting a friend several years ago. "I just loved this mix of light industry, quiet streets, and vacant lots," he said. I pointed out to him that "vacant lots" is not an amenity you often hear counted as a neighborhood attraction. "It’s true," he said, then smiles. "It’s definitely not for everyone."

This is why Red Hook has seemed uniquely immunized against gentrification. It’s an isolated neighborhood, roughly one square mile in size, and it’s very difficult to commute to, except by car. Brokers and boosters like to describe Van Brunt as a "twenty-minute walk from the subway," but they don’t often tell you what this journey entails: From the Smith Street–Ninth Street F-train stop, you travel by foot over, under, and around the tangle of the BQE and the entrance to the Battery Tunnel, then cross an uninviting wasteland of warehouses and Dumpster-storage yards guarded by barbed wire and the occasional unfriendly dog. There’s a bus, the B61, that’s famous in local lore for its sporadic appearances and circuitous route. Did I mention that the Smith Street–Ninth Street subway station is scheduled to close for repairs in 2010? For about a year? At least?

And transportation’s not the only obstacle. The housing stock is in short supply, and what does come up for sale is unsightly or, in the blunt words of one resident, "shit." Also, there’s a really bad termite problem. Oh, and the basements routinely flood. And the part of Red Hook that people talk about when they talk about gentrification—basically, a few square blocks around Van Brunt, traditionally called "the Back"—abuts the sprawling Red Hook housing projects ("the Front"), home to roughly 8,000 of the 11,000 or so residents in the neighborhood. The area was once so rough that a local elementary school was renamed for Patrick Daly, a principal who was shot to death in 1992 by drug dealers in the projects.


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