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Red Hook Catches the Wave

When the mayor tried to plant a giant garbage-transfer station there, locals just said no -- and won. But now those same activists are at war over the waterfront in one of the city's last affordable havens.


For decades, Red Hook was little more than a wasteland with a view. So it's perhaps no surprise that to Mayor Giuliani, this battered waterfront neighborhood offered what looked like the perfect site for the East Coast's largest waste-transfer station, to handle the mountains of garbage the city will have to relocate after the closing of Fresh Kills in 2001.

When he unveiled the plan in December 1998, the last thing the mayor expected was a smart, dogged, furious campaign by residents and local officials. Retired longshoremen, families from the projects, business owners, and community leaders forged a coalition with other waterfront groups fighting City Hall. They used every weapon in the activists' arsenal, from legal challenges to leafleting, lobbying, and picketing. They demonstrated by the busload.

And they won. In May, seventeen months after the plan was announced, the administration dropped it.

That's when Red Hook's latest troubles began.

In victory, Red Hook threw a big party aboard the Hudson Waterfront Museum, a converted barge that sits at the bottom of Conover Street. As the sun slid slowly behind the Statue of Liberty, setting a brilliant fire in the windows of the old redbrick warehouses all around, officials, community leaders, and local activists praised one another for their tireless campaign. People cheered, wept, embraced. Finally, the ebullient city councilman Angel Rodriguez -- one of the leading opponents of the mayor's plan -- bounded back up to the mike and began to talk about Red Hook's bright future. In particular, he talked about the future of one building: the warehouse at 480-500 Van Brunt Street. It's a spectacular, hulking place in a prime location, on the waterfront directly across from the Statue of Liberty.

The city had decided to sell it to a powerful local developer, Greg O'Connell, who plans to put a Fairway supermarket branch there. The sale has to be approved by the City Council, and Rodriguez put the crowd on notice that he would block it. "I am not against Fairway," Rodriguez said. "But the only way Red Hook can survive and prosper is by the people having access to the waterfront." Sounds simple, but not in Red Hook, where the same people who agreed on what they don't want on their waterfront -- the transfer station -- are bitterly divided about what they do want: commerce, or a mix of residential and commercial development.

"This was like a fishing village outside the law," says painter Florence Neal. "You stayed here because you wanted your freedom."

The celebratory mood that evening gave way visibly to tension; O'Connell, who was standing at the back, left soon after. With the real-estate boom tripling prices of homes on cobblestone streets and commercial ventures flocking to inspect once-worthless industrial buildings, the pressure is on what is essentially a small town of 11,000 inhabitants. It may look as though the coalition that came together to fight garbage is now divided over groceries, but the stakes are much higher. It's a battle over the future of the waterfront.

The building that residents call simply "480-500" inspires strong feelings; to many who have struggled to survive here, it represents both Red Hook's fine old times and its future potential. Along with its neighbors, 480-500 was built in the 1860s, twenty years after the Erie Basin and the Atlantic Basin began to transform a sleepy Dutch farming community into the busiest corner of the world's largest port. Rowdy and tough, the place teemed with industry through the Second World War, only to decay as, on the one hand, organized crime tore it apart (Al Capone apprenticed here) and, on the other, containerization moved the action over to New Jersey. In the sixties, the massive highway projects proposed by Robert Moses -- the Brooklyn-Queens and Gowanus expressways, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel -- cut it off from the subway, and even the rest of Brooklyn.

As one urban-renewal program after another failed, redlining blighted the area, and people began to abandon their homes. The population in the Red Hook Houses, built in the thirties, changed as the shipyard workers left and were replaced by lower-income families. Shops and markets closed. By the eighties, crack ruled the neighborhood, with addicts dealing openly in the housing projects and on street corners and shootouts in broad daylight. Red Hook's darkest hour came in 1992, when Patrick Daly, the beloved principal of P.S. 15, went searching for a truant child and was killed in the crossfire of a gun battle.

The battered warehouses survived it all. The family that owned 480-500 fell into arrears and the city took over the building in 1980, leaving one member of that family, Wally Shapiro, and his warehousing business, as the sole tenant. The city's decision to sell 480-500 to O'Connell infuriates many residents, particularly the artists and other pioneers who've come in over the past fifteen years, attracted by Red Hook's shimmering waterside light, its cobblestone streets, and, of course, its rock-bottom real-estate prices.

In 1987, under the city's Artists' Housing program, painter Florence Neal and her husband paid just $2,500 for a 150-year-old former men's haberdashery on Van Brunt Street, Red Hook's rundown shopping strip. Two years later, after the expenditure of $150,000 and much sweat equity, Neal moved in and established the Kentler International Drawing Space (named after the original store). Drug-fueled violence may have brought the community to its knees, but it didn't dull her love for the area. "This was like a fishing village outside the law," says Neal, a poised, low-key woman with a thick braid of gray hair and a slow smile. "You stayed here because you wanted your freedom." After more than a decade, Neal is happily entrenched, but like other newcomers, she wants the community to grow.

Neal and others see 480-500 as a priceless resource at the center of a rebuilt neighborhood. Three years ago, after months of work, a small group of experts presented the borough president's office and the city's Department of Housing and Preservation with a practical and, they claimed, economically viable proposal for converting the warehouse into artists' housing (known as "live/work housing" to differentiate it from more traditional arrangements). The plan had been drawn up by architect Carmi Bee and two developers, the Seavey Organization and David Judelson of the New York Coalition for Artists Housing. "The building is perfect for artists," says Judelson. "Artists can make good use of large open spaces, and the existing windows would do."

But the scheme was ignored. "Artists seem to be low on politicians' agendas," Bee says dryly. According to Janel Patterson, a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation, which is handling the sale, the city "never received adequate proposals for housing." She adds that O'Connell won the contract because his proposal for commercial development offered "a desirable combination of advantages for the community as well as the city."

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