The Embers of Gentrification

Photo: Lori Nix

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?

Red Hook, R.I.P.: the 360 restaurant in 2003, left, and in 2007, right. Photo: From left: Noah Kalina, Jessica Backhaus

Gentrification in New York has gone from an implausible economic rejuvenation to an unstoppable social juggernaut to a widely held article of faith. We’ve come to assume, based on all available evidence, that we’re in the midst of a continuous viral cycle, passed from neighborhood to neighborhood like a flu, and by now we know the symptoms very well. What once seemed unthinkable (a luxury hotel on the Bowery?) now seems inevitable, and the only thing that surprises us is how unsurprising it’s all become. Hell’s Kitchen rising from the ashes? Well, duh. Hipsters colonizing Bushwick? Those plucky pioneers! A million-five for a rowhouse in Red Hook? What took so long?

This wave has proved so irresistible that urbanists are looking for a new word to describe it. “The old, modest kind of gentrification is no longer happening in the same way, on the same scale,” says Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The Cultures of Cities. “Some people are now calling it super-gentrification: rich people replacing slightly less rich people.” Of course, you might say that the current housing-market crisis and the layoffs on Wall Street are all about to bring this to a juddering halt—or you might say that now’s the perfect time to get in! After all, in 2001, the financial district suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack and the market dipped only for a moment; now, six years later, André Balazs is selling it as the forward thinker’s Soho. Do you really think a few failed mortgages and a couple of thousand jettisoned bankers are going to hobble this robust market? This isn’t a downturn! It’s an opportunity.

Just look at the past. There have been hiccups before. Remember Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side in the mid-eighties? It was supposed to be the new Madison Avenue. Stores flocked there, and rents shot up—and then everything started to close. They even whispered that nasty word: degentrification. But look what happened. What store wouldn’t want to be on Columbus now?

Or consider “Manhattan Valley,” the small Upper West Side neighborhood that was poised to boom in the late eighties, then fizzled. If you dig up the clips, you can read about one frantic gentleman trying to unload his apartment with Central Park views at 96th and Broadway. He was asking $330,000 but found no takers. Reading about it now, you wonder if he ever managed to sell the place and, if so, he also managed not to jump off a bridge in the ensuing ten years. “As the dust settles, we can see that the areas that underwent dramatic turnarounds had severe limitations,” an urban-planning professor told the Times in 1991. “Rich people are simply not going to live next to public housing.” Hello, professor? This is hindsight speaking. Guess what: Rich people are, in fact, going to live next to public housing. And they’re going to pay a million dollars to do it.

“Red Hook was changing so quickly. I saw these two girls mincing down Pioneer Street in tapered jeans and flats, and I thought, ‘I’m done.’ ”

Because gentrification, as we all know, is a self-sustaining cycle that by its nature will never peter out—it only grows stronger. It creates its own spores. Scruffy bohemians land in some far-off neighborhood, plant a few cool bars and alluring galleries, make the neighborhood safe for the coming army of strollers, then, priced out, politely pack up and move on to start the whole cycle again. As for the local residents who preceded this invasion, they usually meet one of two fates: If they’re owners, they cash in, their long-held properties converted into winning lottery tickets. If they’re renters, they’re chased out, exiled to some even bleaker border town to await the coming of the spores once again. (Hey, East New York! Don’t unpack your bags!)

This cycle has transformed Soho and Williamsburg and Bushwick and, who knows, may one day swallow Crown Heights and Canarsie. The only reason it hasn’t been going on since time immemorial, spreading the boundaries of New York City all the way to Plattsburgh in the north and Scranton, Pennsylvania, to the west, is that the city went through that pesky period of lawlessness and chaos and blackouts and bankruptcy in the seventies. And that’s not going to happen again, right? I mean, can you imagine punk-rock squatters taking over the Richard Meier condos in the Village? Or crack dealers running the bankers and celebrities out of the blue-glass tower on Astor Place?

Of course not.

But imagine this instead.

What if gentrification isn’t self-sustaining after all? What if, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: a self-extinguishing phenomenon? What if it’s less a flood than a forest fire—wild, yes, out of control, absolutely, but destined to consume itself by burning through the fuel it needs to survive?

Red Hook R.I.P.: the Pioneer beer hall and barbecue joint in 2004, left, and in 2007, right. Photo: From left: Noah Kalina, Jessica Backhaus

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.

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.

The seeders are drawn to a neighborhood like Red Hook precisely because it’s not Carroll Gardens or Boerum Hill or whatever Williamsburg has become. They like the idea of a new frontier. The irony of gentrification, though, is that while the seeders drive the cycle, they plant the seeds of their own obsolescence. They arrive to be eventually driven out. The couple who opened the Good Fork, for example, love Red Hook just as it is—that’s what drew them there—but places like the Good Fork are exactly what draws the next wave of people, the harvesters, who are attracted to what Red Hook might become.

Because the harvesters take the opposite view: They’re looking for the next Park Slope or Carroll Gardens. They’re older, and more affluent, and they don’t care so much about character and hipness and quirky beauty; they want safety and lovely housing stock and good schools. They’re seeking bargains, sure, so they’ve traditionally been willing to buy in on the front end of a neighborhood in hopes that those amenities will appear, or improve.

In Red Hook, though, that cycle broke down. Maybe the harvesters decided that the suddenly sky-high housing prices just weren’t worth the arduous commute. Or that with retail landlords asking $3,500 a month, you might as well open a storefront in Prospect Heights instead. Or maybe it’s simply that unlike, say, Williamsburg, where gentrification was driven by low cost and proximity to transportation and not by some preexisting local charm, Red Hook tended to draw a particularly hardy pioneer, lured by precisely the qualities—isolation, the nearby hum of waterfront industry—that would repulse the next wave. “A lot of developers in Red Hook have gotten ahead of themselves by charging gentrified prices without providing any of the services that gentrifiers expect,”says Winifred Curran, a geography professor at DePaul who wrote her thesis on the transformation of Williamsburg. “People who can afford to spend a million dollars on an apartment want to be able to get to work in less than an hour and a half. They want a supermarket. They want a bank. And in my opinion, a lot of the redevelopment in Red Hook is not actually very nice.”

There are three ways gentrification can burn itself out. One, an economic downturn douses people’s ability or willingness to relocate—the equivalent of dousing a forest fire in retardant foam. Two, the seeders, in search of cheap new space, get driven out of the city entirely—which means the kindling that keeps the fire going has been consumed. Three, the gap between what the seeders seek out and what the harvesters will accept becomes too wide for the cycle to continue—like digging a ditch around a fire that the flames can’t jump across.

By now, the last of the logical neighborhoods has long since been gentrified: the ones with brownstone blocks and nearby subways and a high density of housing and attractive amenities. If you walk down any block in Fort Greene, you feel the rebirth there makes sense, no matter how downtrodden or dangerous that block may once have been. But if Fort Greene was once thought of by harvesters as an ersatz West Village, now you’re looking at Sunset Park as an ersatz Fort Greene. Or Bushwick as an ersatz Greenpoint. Or Ditmas Park as an ersatz—where? Long Island? Or Red Hook, which isn’t really like anywhere else in New York at all.

Of course, a gentrification slowdown doesn’t mean that no one will ever open another restaurant, or buy another fixer-upper, or seek out another distant corner of a borough, chasing that elusive sense of authenticity. It’s hard to imagine, no matter what economic disaster looms, that New York could slide back into the Abe Beame days of bankrupt coffers and broken neighborhoods. If you bought a $2.5 million house in Cobble Hill, or a million-dollar condo on Avenue D, you’re not going to ditch it at the first sign of trouble; if anything, you’ll hang on, wait it out, hope for the next upswing. And as our dollar shrivels, and the euro and pound and Korean won rise, there may well be an endless stream of foreign investors to fatten up our condo towers and snap up our now slightly less insanely overpriced brownstones.

So the prospect of degentrification doesn’t mean we’re facing down a crisis. In fact, we may be averting one. Because the real apocalyptic forecast is not that gentrification slows down, but that it doesn’t—and that its expanding edge drives out the working-class people and immigrants and artists entirely, sending them to Philadelphia or Baltimore or beyond. This is what the author John Strausbaugh described, somewhat contentiously, as the “benign ethnic cleansing” of the cultural community, at a recent panel on the city’s future. “The way it’s going, New York will turn into a city of rich people and absentee landlords,” says Sharon Zukin. “And the creative advantages of the city will be destroyed.”

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.

The fire next time? Forget Brooklyn. Forget all of New York City.

Baltimore, MD

Buffalo, NY

Philadelphia, PA

(Photo: From top, Steve Ruark/The New York Times/Redux; David Duprey/AP; Ryan Donnell/The New York Times/Redux)

The Embers of Gentrification