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The Embers of Gentrification

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Greg O’Connell is a former police detective who started buying in Red Hook in 1982; he now owns four massive waterfront buildings, including the pre–Civil War–era coffee warehouse that’s home to the Fairway grocery store. Partly out of necessity, and partly out of temperament, he’s also become a bit of an amateur urbanist; one resident described his role in the neighborhood as "part Andy Griffith, part Boss Hogg." When he arrives to meet me in his battle-scarred pickup truck, there’s a copy of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities lying among a scatter of papers on the dashboard—part of his homework, he explains, as he’s been invited to participate in a panel at the Municipal Arts Society called "The Oversuccessful City, Part One: Developers’ Realities."

O’Connell’s reality is that he’s done very well in Red Hook, thank you very much. But he’s also worked to nurture the area, offering subsidized spaces to artists and carpenters and craftspeople who live and work in the neighborhood. He’s no bleary-eyed romantic when it comes to the city’s past; he remembers patrolling boarded-up blocks on the Upper West Side in the late sixties, in neighborhoods he describes as "real buckets of blood." But even he thinks that a recession—in essence, a gentrification stop-work order—would be welcome. "It used to be that if you were from Okefenokee," he tells me, "and you were the best dancer in the world, the idea was that you could come to this city to make it. You’d live three in a room if you had to. But now the three-in-a-room places are disappearing. And you need that balance or you choke the life from the city." He worries that New York will eventually price out the people who started this cycle in the first place. "If I were a young man with a lot of money," he says, "you know where I’d go? Buffalo." He’s not kidding. He’d buy up a lot of underused waterfront property on the cheap, then sit down with the local politicians and community groups to draft a plan for attracting the creative types who reinvigorate neighborhoods, block by block.

Sipping a coffee at Baked on Van Brunt, among the street’s awkward checkerboard of hopeful new storefronts and recently shuttered old ones, Brandon Holley considers her neighborhood’s future. In the nineties, she worked as a bartender at Max Fish on Ludlow Street, so she’s seen how quickly neighborhoods can change. "I feel like maybe New York is becoming like Paris—a classic city," she says. "But then what happens is, like in Paris, the city just feels like a museum. Manhattan has already gone through that. You don’t have a lot of artists and musicians and the people who generate that energy who can live there anymore." In that sense, Red Hook is lucky to be Dead Hook: on the firebreak of super-gentrification, the neighborhood was spared, rather than consumed. And in the future, when we look back at these gold-rush years, we might remember Red Hook not as the Wild West outpost that was the last hot neighborhood to gentrify, but as more like the Alamo—the first hot neighborhood that didn’t.


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