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The Embers of Gentrification


Still, for each of these impediments, you can easily point to anoth- er long-gentrified neighborhood that was once hidden behind similar barricades. Smack up against housing projects? So are Boerum Hill and Fort Greene. A history of violent crime? Plenty of now-desirable New York neighborhoods have had worse. Tough commute? The 45-minute subway trek to Ditmas Park once seemed insurmountable. Hideous housing stock? Have you been to Williamsburg and Greenpoint?

If there’s such a thing as a New New New Red Hook, it’s embodied by Rachel Shapiro, a 23-year-old real-estate agent (she’s not yet a fully licensed broker) who displays for me proudly the brand-new storefront for Red Hook Realty on Van Brunt. "What do you think of the dollhouse?" she asks, pointing to a wooden toy house in the window with local listings displayed inside on cards. Shapiro’s mother, Robin, is a broker in Rockaway, where Rachel grew up. Rachel first visited Red Hook last summer after reading Time Out’s "27 Reasons to Go Now." She admits that when she arrived, she took a look down Van Brunt Street and thought to herself, So where are they?

But encouraged by two friends, she moved into an apartment on Van Brunt, and encouraged by her mother, she started handling real-estate listings on the side. Business, she says, has been good. This past February, she quit her job teaching eighth-grade English in the Bronx to pursue real estate full-time. But she concedes that Red Hook is not for everyone. "I get people from outside the neighborhood who don’t quite know what Red Hook is," she says. "They’ve seen all this press, so when they get here they say, 'It’s so quiet, it’s dead.' So I try to show them what it is. But it’s not like crazy Smith Street. And if you don’t like that, you’re not going to fit in." She tells the story of one investor—"really corporate, a young banker type from the city who’d heard about Red Hook and was really hot on it"—who came for a visit with some pals. He saw a sign on Coffey Street that read starbucks coffey coming soon and said to his companions, "Did you guys see that? It really is happening!" Shapiro had to tell him that the sign was a joke, painted by local artists to mock interlopers like him.

"There are definitely people who moved here because they were looking for that next new neighborhood," Pochoda says. "But they came, tried it out, and left. They didn’t like the inconvenience, or it’s too small, or there’s not enough amenities. You also sacrifice seeing your friends. My friends will not come down here. And if they do, they find it’s sort of … " She pauses. "Lawless."

The "Call It ‘Dead’ Hook" article left people in Red Hook—Old, New, and New New alike—with mixed feelings. After all, no one was hoping for the kind of transformative changes they’d witnessed elsewhere; the Fairway is nice, but they can live without an American Apparel. (As Holley says, "One thing I love about Brooklyn is that it still has mom-and-pop stores and old-man bars. But if I’m in an old-man bar, I don’t want to see too many people like me.") At the same time, people can’t help but be defensive: The commute’s not so bad, they say; the views are breathtaking; and the Good Fork is still packed every night. But there’s a definite sense that Red Hook got ahead of itself, and now maybe the coming wave isn’t coming after all.

As we left Shapiro’s storefront, a guy standing at her window was checking out the listings in the dollhouse while talking on his cell phone; he looked at one and sputtered, "That’s absurd!" When I asked her about it, Shapiro just shrugged. "I have people come and say, ‘I want to list my house at $1.5 million, but I’m willing to accept $1 million,’" she says. "I’ll say, ‘Then you should list it at 1.1, not 1.5.’ But they say, ‘Let’s try it.’ Which is fine. I’m not in a position to turn down a listing. It just means I have people standing in front of my window saying that prices are absurd."

Even so, are you willing to bet against an eventual boom in Red Hook? Even with the bad publicity, the empty storefronts, and the waning hype? To the contrary, it’s hard not to feel that Red Hook, with its Statue of Liberty vistas and just–minutes–to–Wall Street water taxi, is only one gleaming condo complex away from becoming Hoboken East, or Park Slope South South South.

But that’s because we tend to think of gentrification as a continuous cycle, in which each successive wave of newcomers works in tandem to achieve the same goal. It’s more useful, perhaps, to think of gentrifiers not as first-wavers and second-wavers, or as pioneers and new immigrants, but as seeders and harvesters. One precedes and sows; the other follows and reaps. What we forget, though, is that their goals and aspirations are not complementary—they’re diametrically opposed.


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