Close-Up on the Columbia Street Waterfront District


North of Red Hook proper, along the industrial piers lining Upper New York Bay, is a three-block-wide strip of multi-family houses, community gardens, galleries, and graffiti, all bathed daily in salty air and soft, flattering light. Residents of the Columbia Street Waterfront District, mainly whites and Latinos more affluent than their Red Hook neighbors, peer over industrial containers and monstrously elegant cranes at the lower Manhattan skyline and (if they’re lucky) a bit of the water, too. The shoreline isn’t actually accessible from any point in the neighborhood, since industrial trade and the Port Authority have complete reign. Neither is the breathtaking view actually superior to the one in Red Hook. The geographical quirks fuel residents’ two major debates: their locale’s name and affiliation, and the fate of the coveted, vulnerable, and revenue-attracting waterfront.

“It has a Red Hook zip code. The Red Hook
Marine Terminal is two blocks from here. How could this not be Red Hook?” argues Harry Hawk, co-owner of Union Street’s franks-and-beer PR phenomenon Schnäck. In fact, the Columbia Street district’s distinct identity dates to those energetic Dutch colonists, who called it “Red Mills,” as against its neighbor, Red You-know-what. Assorted European dockworkers and a Norwegian maritime community hedged out settlers’ descendants during the 19th century. In the 1920s, the Columbia Street district was a thriving center of Italian-American and, to a lesser degree, Puerto Rican community life.

The mid-20th century wasn’t so kind, as Mafia families set up shop and the construction of Robert Moses’s multimillion-dollar Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cut off commerce from adjacent Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens years before the project’s official 1958 completion. The construction of sewer lines, meant to ameliorate the Gowanus Canal pollution crisis, destroyed 33 neighborhood buildings (including the home and headquarters of the Mafia-affiliated Gallo family) and caused accidental deaths in 1975 and 1977. Fetid sewer trenches lay open during the resulting bureaucratic fumble. In the recent 20 years, community efforts have brought the neighborhood (along with Red Hook and Gowanus, sort of) back to livability. The port itself has done brisker trade than in earlier years. Artists, middle-class families, and a few hipsters, yuppies, and singles have arrived—”unfortunately,” says twelve-year-old resident Nicole Langley about the latter group—attracted by the industrial-chic–maritime-bucolic je ne sais quoi. Their presence has paved the way for the neighborhood’s newest crises: the possibility of gentrification (likely, unless you count the difficulty of actually getting here) and the question of opening up the waterfront to residents while maintaining existing jobs and dealing with the imminent corporate presence in Red Hook (superstore Fairway and a traffic-drawing IKEA plan to set up shop, and their landscaping plans dovetail with neither official proposals nor activist longings).

Boundaries: Atlantic Avenue to the north, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the east, Hamilton Avenue to the south, and the waterfront (Upper New York Bay) to the west.

Transportation: Take the F or G trains to Carroll Street; or the A, C, or F to Jay Street/Borough Hall; or the M, R, 2, 3, 4, or 5 lines to Borough Hall. The B61 bus rides Columbia Street, linking the neighborhood to Red Hook and downtown Brooklyn. You can even ride up to Jackson Avenue, if you’re so inclined. The B71 travels down Sackett and Union streets from Crown Heights and Park Slope. All told, it’s about 35 minutes to 14th Street in Manhattan on the F. Consider bikes, mopeds, and skates to bridge the gap.

Main Drags: Columbia Street is the only horse in town, with the eatery-heavy, low-scaled two blocks between Union and Degraw streets flashing parkland, skyline, nightlife, and gallery space as a kind of picture postcard of the local scene. The vista is nicest a few blocks north, and the dry cleaners and supermarket are farther south. The initial two blocks of Union Street feature the nabe’s cheapest and best food, plus some great knickknack and convenience stores. The water, of course, is also a main drag, as captured by Berenice Abbott’s 1936 view of the stately traffic off Pier 5.

Average Price to Rent: Studios rent for between $1,000 and $1,200; one-bedrooms from $1,350 to $1,450; two-bedrooms, $1,600 to $2,000; and three-bedrooms, $2,300 to $2,800. According to Bill Ross, owner of William S. Ross Real Estate, the most common rental is one floor of a brownstone—a one-bedroom, one-bath space with living room, kitchen, den, and sometimes double exposure—for about $1,600.

Average Price to Buy: Buildings in both major categories—mixed commercial-residential on Columbia Street and multi-family on side streets—go for slightly upwards of $1 million. Local non-millionaire sculptor Launa Beuhler bought a former bank building in the 1980s, when prices were gentler and, in Hawk’s words, “a paperboy could buy a house” due to the high crime rate. “It’s become very nice over there,” says Ross, “I think it’s going to be one of the hottest neighborhoods in New York City. And I think the bars and restaurants that have opened there are some of the hippest, coolest places in the whole city.”

Green Space: Of the four community gardens in the district, all administered by residents and the city-sponsored GreenThumb program, Human Compass Community Garden (adjacent to the commercial action, at Sackett and Columbia streets) is the most otherworldly; Columbia Street’s own Garden of Good and Evil, decked in lush vegetation and large-scale children’s art, has a pleasant outer garden open to visitors daily. In the fenced-off inner sanctum, a rabbit named Soleil respects the flora in exchange for regular feedings by Launa Beuhler, who teaches art classes there. Across the street from Human Compass is Art Lot (206 Columbia Street), currently featuring Adam Brent’s leafy installation Cooked Green. The living sculpture is on view 24-7, and open (i.e., the surrounding fence is open) on the first Saturday of each month. If Upper New York Bay doesn’t tempt you to a dip, swim laps at the cleaner and more refreshing Red Hook Pool (Red Hook Recreation Center, 155 Bay Street, 718-722-3211), which opened for the summer this past weekend.

Community Organizations: Friends of Mother Cabrini Park protects the park in question, named in honor of the patron saint of immigrants. The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway Initiative and Neighbors United for Columbia Street District recently put out a powerful fact sheet calling for a continuous greenway along the entire northwest coast of Brooklyn—essentially, a tree-lined bike and pedestrian route away from cars and trucks—and denouncing Department of Transportation efforts to widen the district’s streets for traffic.

Best Restaurants: Trendy haute Mexican joint Alma (187 Columbia Street, 718-643-5400) has rooftop elegance and a shimmering, near-panoramic view. For flavor, however, try the neighborhood’s major delicacies: the $4 panelle sandwiches at Ferdinando’s (151 Union Street, 718-855-1545) and the beer milkshakes at Schnäck (122 Union Street, 718-855-2879, Ferdinando’s didn’t invent the Sicilian specialty—chickpea pancakes, ricotta, and Pecorino Romano on a roll. It just perfected it. Harry Hawk, the mind behind the above-mentioned ice cream cocktail, says, “I really thought I had invented . . . a culinary masterpiece.” Disappointingly, he later found a beer milkshake reference in Steinbeck. Robert Sietsema calls the venerable House of Pizza and Calzone (132 Union Street, 718-624-9107) the 70th best Italian restaurant in the city—which, when you think about it, is saying a lot.

Best Bars: B16, Alma’s downstairs cocktail joint, helps contain the scenesters waiting two hours for Saturday night rooftop seating. During off-hours, the pitch-dark, high-ceilinged back room is ecstatically calm, with the odd older couple hanging out by the pool table. You might catch even a grad student typing a thesis on a laptop in one of the straight-backed, velour love seats that, like everything in this building, look more comfortable than they are.

Best Stores: In 2001, the Voice called General Nitemare’s cluttered, encyclopedic furniture stash the city’s “Best ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s Collectibles” (196 Columbia Street, 718-858-8659). The quirky owner will even refinish your selection, but don’t count on 24-7 service, as GN’s voicemail notes, “Monday—sometimes. Tuesday—sometimes. Wednesday—never.”

Politicians: City councilmembers Bill DeBlasio and David Yassky, State Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, State Senator Martin Connor, and Congresswoman Nydia M. Velaquez—all Democrats.

Crime Stats: The 76th Precinct serves the Columbia Street Waterfront District, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, and Red Hook. As of late May, it reported one murder, up one from the previous year-to-date; five rapes, up two; 37 robberies, down 27; 40 felonious assaults, up two; and 52 burglaries, down eight. Between 1993 and 2003, crime dropped 61.21 percent, less than the city’s overall 66.05 percent decrease.