Location Red Hook, Brooklyn
Rent $1400/mo. (market)
Square feet 1300
Occupants Olivia Barry (industrial designer); Kiersten Armstrong (video producer, Thinking Pictures; artist)
So here we are in your apartment, formerly Jerry’s Bar, and you just showed me Jerry’s old business card, which has a 1950s drawing of a man and a woman dancing inside a martini glass. Oh, Jerry’s—the days of ships coming in, longshoremen walking over the river when it turned to ice, maraschino cherries floating in whiskey, the Platters on the jukebox singing, “I watched the harbor lights. How could I help if tears were starting? Goodbye to tender nights, beside the silv’ry sea.” Then there are the sounds of a few ships’ bells and four foghorns. [Olivia] I found Jerry’s card in the wall after the fire in February. There was an accident when they installed a new boiler. The kitchen looked like a bomb exploded inside. The landlord repaired everything and it’s better than new. He’s owned the building five years. He has a body shop nearby.
Your apartment looks like an artist’s studio in the old sense, like 1950s Hamptons. Everything is painted white, kitchen door open to the backyard, and look at this slate-gray daybed with the persimmon pillows. It’s George Nelson. I wanted a couch I can make out on with my boyfriend. Kiersten and I came from the same art school in Detroit. She just became a roommate in April. I’ve lived in New York six years—seven neighborhoods, the last was Williamsburg. I’d read an article about the nice community gardens here.
Five in the Columbia Waterfront District alone! I saw the one called “Amazing” on the way over. They have potluck barbecues, Christmas tree shredding. The excitement! We have our own garden in the back. We put in lilacs, fig trees. I want it to be like a jungle. We found weird stuff there—crack vials, dice. There’s a lot of Jesus weed. It breaks through the concrete.
Let’s reminisce about the walk we took around your block when we saw Julio Villafane, who lives next door. He came with his parents from Puerto Rico in 1959—his father was a foreman for a food-coloring factory nearby, and they lived in the 1936 Red Hook projects that were built for the dockworkers. Julio can’t wait to finish renovating his latest building—he’s owned eight—to welcome the new body of renters. His friend Frances D’Angelo, who calls herself “the oldest on the block, 78,” says, “Everybody in the neighborhood used to be Italian longshoremen.” That’s before the shipping industry stopped needing men to hoist bales in nets—now it’s all containers in New Jersey. Frances says, “Today, everybody in the neighborhood is Spanish,” and as for the new ones coming from Manhattan: “The only thing I have against them is they don’t use the pooper-scooper.” Then we got in Kiersten’s white pickup truck and drove seven blocks to the water with the 1914 Showboat Barge where you can see performance art, look at the Waterfront Museum’s collection of old wet ropes, and stare out to sea from Red Hook’s peaceful shore. I feel like I’m in Spain or something down there. It also reminds me of Toronto Island, where I grew up, same kind of green-looking water, bohemian, quiet but right in the city.
The industrial suburb! What would D.H. Lawrence do with this? In his time, the Industrial Age, there was a fierce separation between steam and green, which he thought made sex terrible. Anyway, this whole area is blossoming—rumor of a water taxi, a greenway is proposed—but I wish it would just stay soft and quiet with the sound of water lapping. Since the train is a 15-minute walk, maybe it won’t get as crowded as other neighborhoods, though we did just see a crush outside the Monarch luggage factory’s $2000 lofts and then someone was sniffing around a building in a Yo La Tengo T-shirt. This morning, a woman leaned out of a green Volvo and asked how the neighborhood is. I told her, It’s very dangerous.