Red Hook Catches the Wave

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.”

O’Connell, a persuasive and enterprising retired NYPD detective, has spent the past 25 years quietly buying up property in Red Hook – decrepit buildings and vacant lots that nobody wanted, both on the waterfront and in the interior (called the Back). He favors overalls and drives a pickup truck, and his voice gets thick when he talks about his feel for the place. “I can remember when I came down here, it was Cyclone fences, packs of dogs running wild, cars abandoned, garbage everywhere,” says O’Connell, an imposing man with a folksy grin. “But I saw something. I saw the spirit here.”

Banking his holdings and cultivating close ties with powerful local figures and city politicians, including Borough President Howard Golden, O’Connell has been gambling that Red Hook’s unique beauty eventually would spur a revival and that he would be in a commanding position when that revival came. He has a major ownership stake in all the big warehouses on the waterfront except for 480-500, which sits plumb in the middle of his property and directly across the street from his chief accomplishment, the Beard Street warehouses, which he lovingly restored and then filled with small businesses.

With Red Hook one of the city’s designated sites for a new high-tech wiring initiative in postindustrial neighborhoods, both 480-500 and Beard Street will be plugged in. O’Connell’s proposal for 480-500 includes space on three floors for Fairway (the store at ground level, its offices, food preparation, and a café upstairs) and a mix of high-tech media firms; nonprofit arts, education, and environmental groups (including the locally based performance company Dancing in the Streets); and artists’ studios.

For the opposition, Fairway isn’t itself the issue – many residents would love the chance to shop there – but they don’t want the store in that location, and more important, they don’t want O’Connell to control 480-500, especially if he’s planning to put it to commercial use.

O’Connell’s nemesis in this fight is John McGettrick, also a neighborhood fixture, easily recognizable by a formidable handlebar mustache and ever-present armful of files and papers. A veteran activist (the antiwar movement, working for Robert F. Kennedy and Paul O’Dwyer), McGettrick is a security consultant and has lived in Red Hook for twelve years. He intends to help get this beaten-down place back on its feet by remaking the mixed-use character that Red Hook once had, with housing and industry co-existing right down to the water.

Local real-estate agent Frank Manzione handles a constant stream of inquiries, especially for homes on the cobblestone streets. “A small frame house with a front yard and a lot of detail and charm recently sold in the 280s,” Manzione says.

“We need to bring people in, owner-occupiers who can’t find housing in surrounding communities,” he insists. “And for low-cost housing, we’ll rely on government subsidy and taxpayer money.” As new people arrive, he says, so will stores and small businesses, bringing life back into the shuttered storefronts along Van Brunt Street. McGettrick et al. would be happy to see shops and restaurants in 480-500’s ground floor (which by law cannot be residential since the building sits on a flood plain), but they see Fairway as disastrously impracticable. It’s not just the clutter and chaos caused by trucks unloading their contents. Most of the customers would be driving in from the brownstone neighborhoods of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights. Where would they park? (The developers have the answer to that one: in the ideally located empty spaces O’Connell owns around 480-500, which until recently were ugly car-impoundment lots.) And how would they get there? “You have to go through nineteen blocks of small streets to get to it,” says McGettrick. “You know, they’d never allow this in DUMBO.”

The bitter animosity between O’Connell and McGettrick originated in a change of mind that O’Connell describes as simply pragmatic but McGettrick and others call a betrayal that had lasting consequences. In 1992, O’Connell wanted to buy 28.3 acres of waterfront property, including the Beard Street warehouses. The Port Authority sold it to him at the fire-sale price of $500,000, for two reasons: Nobody else wanted them, and O’Connell’s bid was backed by the community. In return for this support, O’Connell had promised to provide a half-mile-long public esplanade on his newly acquired property, plus two acres of park and parking, and to participate in a community proposal for Red Hook’s future, the so-called 197-a plan.

Two years in the making, this heady document was the work of residents and urban planners who were trying to find ways to lift the neighborhood out of its postindustrial blight. Its guiding principle was to ease zoning regulations to bring back jobs and homes and make the waterfront accessible to all. It was imaginative and feasible. But the scheme approved by the City Planning Commission in 1996 was a pale shadow of the original. O’Connell had withdrawn his support, testifying that its emphasis on housing mixed with light commercial use wasn’t appropriate. Since then, O’Connell has held firm. He wants the waterfront to be wholly commercial.

“Say you’re a teacher,” he says. “You want to come home to a bedroom community and sleep. A small businessman has truck traffic, noise, smells, in the course of doing normal business. This can create a conflict.”

As the grand rezoning plan evaporated, Red Hook was left hanging, vulnerable to the kind of mayhem that happens in postindustrial neighborhoods. Garbage, for example. Retired teacher Sue Peebles worked with O’Connell on 197-a. “What he’s done,” says Peebles, her voice nearly choking with rage, “is to put a lot of Red Hook people in the position of forever fighting garbage.”

O’Connell also took his time making good on his end of the Beard Street deal. In 1997, he was fined $56,000 for environmental violations, including the discharge of raw sewage into New York Harbor. The people who’d poured their energies into 197-a never forgave him. And they’ve never stopped watching him. (It hasn’t gone unnoticed, for example, that he drives into Red Hook each morning from his home in tony Cobble Hill.)

It’s a complicated fight, not simply a case of smug gentrifiers vs. blue-collar locals. Both McGettrick and O’Connell have made Red Hook a better place to live. McGettrick and his fellow newcomers (in this neighborhood, you can be a newcomer indefinitely) have plunged into community life; they fought successfully for Independence Savings Bank to establish a branch here, volunteered with Easter-egg hunts and sports leagues for the kids, put up strings of Christmas lights on Van Brunt Street. They prodded the city to renovate the ball fields and a pier. They drove out fourteen illegal garbage dumps, blocked two sludge plants, and won the transfer-station war. In the process, they built bridges to the residents of the Red Hook Houses projects and to the old-timers from the waterfront days.

As for O’Connell, for years he was the only person with the desire and the ability to get things done in Red Hook. He donated mooring space to the barge, and both the annual Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition show and a new trolley museum are housed for free in the Beard Street warehouses. He’s on numerous local boards, involved with cultural and mentoring programs and kids’ activities. He’s begun to convert one of his buildings in the Back into affordable housing for residents of the overcrowded projects and to deliver on the promise of waterfront access.

Partly as a result of all these improvements, partly because of the real-estate squeeze in surrounding neighborhoods, Red Hook is looking a lot more desirable as a place to live. Frank Manzione, the local real-estate agent, grew up in the neighborhood and has witnessed its convulsive changes. Now he handles a constant stream of inquiries, especially for homes on the cobblestone streets. Brick and wood-frame houses that sold for $50,000 in the eighties now go for $200,000 and up. “A small frame house with a front yard and a lot of detail and charm recently sold in the 280s,” says Manzione.

Businesses are also beginning to find Red Hook attractive. The California-based Valencia movie studio wanted to buy the old Revere sugar works, only to be outbid. The Park Slope Brewing Company brought its beer-making operation from Park Slope to Van Dyke Street in 1997 and set up, in the words of owner Stephen Deptula, a “bona fide regional craft brewery,” supplying specialty beers made in Red Hook to the five boroughs. Deptula is planning to open a taproom and food-service establishment with a brick oven for thin-crust pizza.

“I think Fairway would be a fabulous thing,” says Deptula. “Thousands of people in the neighborhood would get jobs.”

O’Connell’s supporters feel he speaks their language. Emma Broughton, a redoubtable woman who raised her children in the Red Hook Houses and toiled for years to keep the projects’ residents safe and productive, would happily shop at the Fairway instead of the lackluster Big R. But more important, she says, “I would like to see that building be commercial. It brings jobs in, and we need jobs.”

Fairway will provide more than 200 union jobs, O’Connell says, in addition to training local labor (as the owners have done in their hugely successful West Side Highway branch in Harlem). The high-tech outfits also intend to provide opportunities, particularly for local kids.

David Sneddon of Fairway describes his project in glowing terms. He says that in addition to training neighborhood people, his Harlem business packages family meals for people on food stamps, organizes transport for the elderly, and donates to organizations such as City Harvest. He thinks 480-500 is the perfect location. “I love the quaintness of the building,” he says, “and I love what you can do there.”

O’Connell’s opponents remain skeptical. Where’s the promised park? Everything takes time on the waterfront, O’Connell insists, because everything involves multiple agencies, multiple permits. After so many years in Red Hook, why doesn’t he have more local people working at the businesses on his properties? “With employing local people, you have to go step by step,” he says. Why has he been so slow to build housing on all those lots he owns? He explains in detail the problems of funding and construction in Red Hook, and then, if you give him a minute, he waxes eloquent about all the grand plans he’s hatching – for a public fishing jetty, a boardwalk, extending the trolley tracks.

When it was a question of fighting for the community’s very survival, all these issues could be put aside. Now they’re inescapable. Wally Bazemore, a Vietnam veteran and community activist who lives in the Red Hook Houses, speaks for many when he says, shaking his head, “Greg and John have been going at each other for years. Two titans swinging at each other. It’s a waste of energy. They are both an asset to the community.” Maybe, but nobody’s talking compromise.

“Fairway’s going in there,” O’Connell insists. But his proposal has to be publicly reviewed by Community Board 6 and then by the City Council. This means going up against Rodriguez, who has made it clear that he can – and will – block any vote in favor of the sale. “It’s just not going to happen,” Rodriguez counters. “To me, 480-500 is not the issue. The issue is Red Hook’s future.”

When he looks at that future, the councilman sees ferries linking it to Governors Island, which is just a narrow stretch of water away, and for which the state has just announced plans to build a mix of public and private works, including hotels and cultural facilities. And he sees housing in 480-500 as the key to it all: “If people lived in it, the mind-set would change.” Although he’s sympathetic to the artists, Rodriguez wants mixed housing in there. He knows that would be more costly (nonartists usually want their space divided up into rooms, each of which is required to have adequate light and air, and that means constructing interior air shafts or courtyards), but he’s undeterred. “Quite a few developers have told me that it can work,” he says.

A very ambitious politician who’s currently popular with constituents for his aggressive stance against the garbage, Rodriguez has staked his future on the principle of public access to the Red Hook waterfront. “It’s a political fight for me,” he says. “Greg is powerful politically. But he still has to learn to share.”

Rodriguez recently told Fairway that another site was available with better parking and access, minimal environmental impact, and no community opposition. (The site, which Rodriguez didn’t specify at the time, is leased by the Big R supermarket, across from the Red Hook Houses.) Sneddon turned him down without asking for particulars, and admits he’s not interested in another site. “If the community doesn’t want us, we won’t buy there.” That attitude infuriates Rodriguez. “Now I am extremely upset,” says Rodriguez. “It was never about Red Hook. It was always about acquiring a piece of real estate.”

Red Hook is attracting lots of attention these days from would-be homeowners, aspiring entrepreneurs looking for space, and assorted urban planners mulling the future of the waterfront. With the garbage war won, the troubles of peacetime have begun. No one person or entity can control this place anymore – whether it be the mob, the city planners, or a wealthy developer. Says Neal, “We don’t have one guy who rules. It’s time for other people to step up and make this the community it can be.”

Red Hook Catches the Wave