On the Waterfront

In Red Hook, One Building Is a Tipping Point

The man with the long gray curls was almost in tears about how his street is a "blitz about to explode." The zoning genius snapped at the private detective with the two-foot-long tightly curled mustache. Then that woke up the man who makes key lime pies. The tension was just too much for everyone. They were packed into a City Council committee room expressing themselves on the future of a crumbling, five-story, 230,000-square-foot, Civil War-era brick warehouse that sits on the edge of the earth on Red Hook's South Brooklyn shore. What happens to the building, city planners say, affects not only the future of Red Hook but the revitalization of the whole waterfront. "What happens inside is about keeping the balance between survival of industry and recreation and quality of life," says Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance's Carter Craft.

The building was like the Maltese Falcon. Everybody wanted it, though no one was murdered. Last week, after years of meetings, submeetings, and plotting on the telephone, the City Council committee decided unanimously in favor of the man who wants to put in a huge, 52,000-square-foot Fairway grocery along with at least 45 units of housing—a last-minute compromise in deference to local councilman Angel Rodriguez, whose eyes get lightning in them on the subject of housing shortages. With artists' studios and not-for-profit offices, the building is planned to be a real economic and cultural World of Tomorrow for a neighborhood that has been fighting its way out of decades of drugs, poverty, a population drop from about 21,000 to 12,000 since the decline of shipping in the late 1950s, and a high unemployment rate. To hear some talk, one would think the coming of this center is going to be the greatest miracle since the building of the Erie Canal. Others are troubled and considering a lawsuit.

The warehouse at 480-500 Van Brunt Street should be called the Temple of the Donkey. It dates from Red Hook's heyday in the 1800s, when New York was the world's biggest port—a time of clinking masts, thousands of men from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Syria, working piers stacked with cashews, tea, and mahogany. Grain was charging in from the Erie Canal. Ships were tapping their feet waiting to take it to England. Warehouses like Red Hook's were for storage. "This one had donkeys on the top floor that were whipped and pulled to work the pulley system that brought up the 100-pound bags of coffee," says Fairway co-owner Harold Seybert. "We will be using an elevator."

Watch this space: The Civil War-era ware-house at 480-500 Van Brunt Street that Red Hook has been fighting over.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Watch this space: The Civil War-era ware-house at 480-500 Van Brunt Street that Red Hook has been fighting over.

For years, the building was mostly empty. The wind whipped through; the iron doors creaked. The family that owned it went into arrears, and the city took it over in 1980. So in order to purchase the building—the city's Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is handling the $1.7 million sale—the buyer had to agree to do economic good for the community. Because the Fairway proposal involved disposition of city-owned property and rezoning, to be approved it had to go through ULURP (the Uniform Land Use Review Process), which sounds like a dog slurping water, but includes an environmental review so costly and a public review process so arduous (including the community board, the borough president's office, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council) that, for a developer, it is not unlike wrestling a tiger bare-handed in a stadium while everyone watches. Which is what six-foot-five former police detective Greg O'Connell had to do.

They say all stories begin when someone comes to town or someone leaves. In this case, it started in the '70s when O'Connell drove in from Cobble Hill, where he lives, and fell head over heels for Red Hook's industrial ruins. They are in cop shows all the time, so, of course, he would feel at home. Almost immediately, he started buying buildings. But it was as if a mermaid had risen out of the Buttermilk Channel and put him under a spell, because he bought at least 30.

Eighty-two-year-old classical violinist and Bargemusic founder Olga Bloom thinks Red Hook is "enchanted." On some days, it is so quiet you can hear a pin drop. The water sparkles, there is light—Vermeer light, artists say—and there is hope. There is one main street that leads straight to the sea—where all journeys begin. Red Hook, which used to include the neighborhood now called Carroll Gardens, was tragically severed by Robert Moses's Gowanus Expressway in the 1940s. Red Hook proper, the toe, is on the east or the water side of the highway. The toe is a pip-squeak of a neighborhood compared to Williamsburg, less than a square mile, but it looks like a giant lives there. The cone on the old silver sugar factory is his funnel. The water, his swimming pool. The old paddleboat, his water toy. They say giants are the symbols of feasts, agricultural fairs, abundance, and unlimited consumption. So perhaps it's only fitting that Red Hood will have a giant grocery store.

Red Hook felt small for a long time. Once the shipping industry left, the expressway demolished homes, urban renewal plans failed, and a sewer project brought Columbia Street to its knees, leaving trenches, rats, and tumbling buildings, Red Hook became a dark and smoky place full of fire and crack and murder. "I think the guy next door ate my cat," says artist Naaz Hosseini, who lived there in 1980. "You'd see people on drugs on the streets in slow motion, sinking to their knees, collapsing. There were gangs with bats, people squatting in houses, no plumbing, doing everything in a hole in the floor."

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