On the Waterfront

In Red Hook, One Building Is a Tipping Point

On the topic of "Fairway means jobs for the projects"—the 1930s Red Hook Houses that hold about 70 percent of the neighborhood's population—former teacher Sue Peebles, who owns a small house in Red Hook, screamed, "Three hundred $6-an-hour jobs are not what we need!" To which project-born Ray Hall, head of the Red Hook Rise youth group and O'Connell's security guard at the Beard Street pier, snapped, "I started working for $6 an hour. Don't tell people what's good for them." Then Lou Sones, actor and activist, and John McGettrick, the private detective with the curling mustache, who is also a longtime activist, accused O'Connell's people of casting the business in a racial light: "In other words, if you are against the Fairway, you are against people in the projects, of which the population is primarily people of color." Yet the controversy was never clear-cut, for people of different races and cultural and economic concerns were on different sides of the many issues. Sones is head of Red Hook's Groups Against Garbage Sites. The GAGS office on Van Brunt, with its flurry of paper, looks like the inside of a friendly garbage can. In the last two decades, Red Hook has fought off at least two sludge plants and something like 17 out of 21 garbage transfer stations—"fights that almost killed me," Sones says. "Cities tend to dump the noxious, the unwanted, on low-income waterfronts of color." McGettrick co-chairs the Red Hook Civic Association, which has been a major presence in Red Hook's climb—getting its first bank, new fishing pier, model community court. He has a list of grievances against "the politically connected" O'Connell (his consultant is former borough president adviser Harvey Schultz). They include O'Connell's "not keeping his promise to provide a half-mile-long public esplanade after the community backed him in his purchase of 28.3 acres of waterfront property, including the Civil War-era, 330,000-square-foot Beard Street warehouse from the Port Authority for a bargain price of $500,000." (O'Connell says it is taking forever to get the permits.) Both Sones and McGettrick, though pleased with the inclusion of housing in the warehouse, have "environmental issues with the size of the Fairway and the traffic impact. And we are considering filing suit."

It was the proposal's zoning change—turning the warehouse area from manufacturing to "special mixed use" (both residential and manufacturing)—that caused the most commotion, says Armer. Red Hook is like a Santa's workshop, with all the making and/or packing of maraschino cherries, smoked fish, tea bags, light bulbs, chocolate, glass, key lime pies—several hundred businesses. O'Connell, who says he is "pro commercial, pro manufacturing waterfront," says the change was to accommodate others' demand for housing in the warehouse. Many fear even a little bit of residential zoning will turn Red Hook into a yuppie slum of pricey condos and drive small manufacturers to New Jersey. "And then we'll only have fancy-schmancy housing," says Cacace. Is the artist-loft phenomenon of Williamsburg likely? No. There are not as many multi-story warehouses as in Williamsburg, and most Red Hook artists—not that many yet—own or rent parts of the brick row or tiny wooden houses. But there are the massive old New York Dock Company buildings, which make some people shudder at the thought of all that potential gentrification. Then, of course, there are all the vacant lots.

Red Hook has a lot of dreamers. Cut off so long, having so little, it is a perfect place to project longings. Most are about transportation—ferries, trolleys, barges—probably because Red Hook does not have any transportation. There is no nearby subway. Whether a person gets to the Jay Street stop in Brooklyn depends on the poky B61 bus. Those B61 bus drivers have more power in Red Hook than O'Connell. Fingers are crossed for a New York 25-stop ferry run, which would include Red Hook, and a trolley line that would go into downtown Brooklyn. Then there is the planned bicycle route straight from the Brooklyn Bridge and talk of turning the Gowanus Expressway into a tunnel, which could take 15 years to build but would gentrify Red Hook in about a day.

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.

The future looks rosy for some. Yet there is great sadness too, for the romantics—certainly less important than the thousands who need jobs and housing, but a noble group. Because for those who love the ghosts of the waterfront—the little boys who have been playing slingshot for 150 years, the Norwegian sailors who jumped ship, the women who worked the docks, swinging their purses—the ghosts will be evaporated, pushed out, by modern noise and all those trees planned for the Fairway parking lot. Even Pop's Spaghetti Shop (I'm not sure what that was, but a souvenir book says it was on Van Brunt)—that blurry image will be gone. The desolate landscape that calls up the immeasurable and the incalculable, creating astonishment and terror and the Edmund Burkian notion of the sublime, is going to go, go to the sound of a woman yelling at a child, "Don't you dare touch that lobster tail!"

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