On the Waterfront


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.”

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.”

O’Connell, wearing overalls and sitting in his office, a black Dodge diesel pickup truck, explained his Red Hook preoccupation, which even his critics agree is not just about money. He is holding a thick stack of grimy business cards. With a just-the-facts-ma’am delivery, O’Connell, son of a cop from a “typical Depression-era Irish family,” explains, “I liked the history of Red Hook. I like stuff that’s falling down, that nobody else wants. It was never the dollars and cents. I have a lot of properties [60-some total in South Brooklyn]. I have partners. We would make a lot more selling to private developers. I’m not worried about where my next meal is coming from. I have never sold a property. I finally found a location that I could help develop, a location that is defined—Red Hook is surrounded by water on three sides. You can have an impact in a defined area.”

At some point over the years, O’Connell decided the way to do good and convince the city to sell him the building would be to bring in a grocery store: “Everything I read about getting a community on its feet—communities with half on the poverty level or below—it all said food.” He went to Fairway, which he says is “community minded. Look at their Harlem store. They hire locally. That means 300 union jobs for Red Hook.”

At the recent council hearing, Councilman Rodriguez reprimanded the EDC for not considering other proposals—some for “affordable housing” that “Red Hook needs desperately.” “There were four or five people,” he said. “You didn’t meet with any of them.” The EDC maintains the other proposals were not “serious,” or as logical, since O’Connell owns “all the surrounding property around the warehouse.” Rodriguez insisted, “That’s not the way for this city to do business. You can’t do it that way anymore. There’s a new government now.”

Community review began last September, creating just about “more brouhaha than any land-use issue in the last 20 years,” says Community Board 6’s Jerry Armer. The meetings began in Red Hook’s firesides: David Sharps’s 1914 wooden railroad barge with the upside-down rowboat on the cabin ceiling and the P.S. 15 auditorium with, at the time, a children’s stage set of giant aluminum-foil-covered musical notes. Before each meeting, community board member Cecilia Cacace—Red Hook-born and proud of it: “My father was a dockworker, a chef, and a phenomenal brain”—would line up her different colored pencils to take notes. “Walking into those meetings was like walking into a Twin Peaks episode,” says arts producer Michelle Moskowitz, who used to work with Dancing in the Streets and choreographer Martha Bowers, both longtime presences in Red Hook. Sometimes people accidentally testified on the wrong topic. But they always sounded like they were in Hamlet.

The contingent of O’Connell supporters was like a little army; they always outnumbered the dissidents because O’Connell and his Kings Harbor View Associates Partnership are very organized. This group’s position: Of course O’Connell should own the building. He has brought in nearly 75 new businesses. He turned the Sullivan Hotel into affordable housing. He did beautiful renovation jobs. He gives free space to artists, the trolley restoration project, youth programs.

“I always wanted to get out the violins at this point,” says artist Florence Neal, director of the Kentler International Drawing Space. She likes O’Connell, but she is not big on a giant Fairway with a 300-car parking lot in her neighborhood. No matter how politically correct a grocery store it is. Artist Tina Olsen goes on about how she never thought she would support a developer, but “Oh, I love Civil War warehouses and vegetables, and Red Hook, you know, has no vegetables.”

The biggest protest always comes from those apoplectic about how the Fairway traffic and noise will ruin the neighborhood, turning Van Brunt Street, the only street that goes to the warehouse, into the Silk Road of Brooklyn with 14,000 car trips a day. Old people will get run over, they say. Children will get more asthma than they already have. Frail wooden buildings will shake in their foundations. The noise will be unbearable. Red Hook-raised Mauro Bacolo, who recalls the late ’40s, when the waterfront had thousands of men and ships, says, “Big trucks had those heavy rubber tires, and nobody gave a shit about decibels back then.” But now people talk about decibels all the time, even though most of the shipping industry, except for the Marine Terminal, is gone. Gone, too, is Bacolo’s father, a “longshoreman in the morning and a numbers guy in the afternoon, but some were around here,” says Bacolo. A woman at the Veteran’s Post remembers Bacolo’s father. “Oh, he was so handsome,” she said. “He looked just like John Garfield. He had all his own teeth.” The men in the Veteran’s Post today—Gooch, Sharky, and Johnny Finger (he is missing one), the Village Elders, who spend their days watching the track on the big-screen TV—could care less about the Fairway. And those Fairway meetings were confusing, anyway. Fish, spices, calico—they used to come by water. That was the whole point of the waterfront. Now trucks, clipper ships with sails on their bumpers, will bring the food and the fish by land to the water. It is backwards.

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.

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!