In my first post on this blog, I confessed a weakness for places which are off the beaten track, quirky, not conventionally beautiful. Red Hook is like that. It was one of the earliest parts of Brooklyn to be settled, by the Dutch in 1636, and the name comes from the colour of the soil and its peninsular hook shape projecting into the Upper New York Bay. It has a colourful history to match. For a long time, the waterfront here was home to a vibrant shipping and warehousing industry until it relocated to the cheaper dock facilities of New Jersey in the 1960s. Back in the day, the seedy side of Red Hook with its cast of gangsters, blue-collar workers, and longshoremen inspired several iconic works, including Last Exit to Brooklyn, On the Waterfront and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. The crime wave that blighted the area from the mid 70s until its revival began in the 1990s was less poetic.
For as long as it remains without a Subway station, Red Hook will be a place apart and all the more interesting for it. It took my jet-lagged brain a while to work out how to get there from where we were staying in Ditmas Park and even then it didn’t work out the way I planned. Line closures at the weekend are a curse the whole world over. The kids and I ended up taking the footbridge over the thundering Gowanus Expressway which separates the neighbourhood from the rest of Brooklyn. As you can see from the photos, the weather wasn’t great on the April Sunday we visited, but that just added to the atmosphere.
One of the best things about Brooklyn is the astonishing diversity of its many ‘nabes’. In Red Hook, the vibe changes almost from street to street. The maritime heritage is very apparent, sometimes carefully restored, sometimes totally dilapidated. It was a classic Americana moment for us when we saw a parking lot with around 100 yellow school buses. ‘What exactly are we doing here, Mum?’ asked my eldest son nervously as we passed the Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest housing project. We did stick out like a matching set of sore thumbs; small, medium and large. I told him (hoping I was right) there was nothing to worry about and explained why Hollister and Times Square won’t be making it into my novel. Parts of Red Hook feel like no-go areas; others, like Van Brunt Street with its hip cafés and artists’ studios, are up and coming. There is some very nice real estate. Sentiment about the controversial IKEA that opened on the waterfront a few years ago may be softening a little. Yes, it is the usual boxy blue and yellow eyesore, but the decent road links for New Yorkers with cars and the NY WaterTaxi service to South Street Seaport in Manhattan bring people to the area who probably would never set foot here otherwise.
I love the old warehouse buildings. I particularly love the one which houses Fairway Market, one of the most amazing grocery stores I’ve ever been to. You have no business needing any foodstuff you can’t find here – you will find it, however obscure. We loaded up boxes of delicious prepared food by weight and took them to the deck at the back of the store to eat lunch. At that time of year thankfully it was enclosed from the elements but even so, the views of the bay, of Manhattan and the Jersey shore were simply breathtaking. It also happens to be the only place you can see Liberty’s face from land. Next we went to get Key Lime Pie from Steve’s where they use only the genuine article from Florida. I have to tell you, it was pretty good. I’m hooked.
I can’t end my first Brooklyn post without giving the people a mention. New Yorkers in general and Brooklynites especially are renowned for their attitude and not taking any crap. Literally, in the case of the owners of the house in Red Hook where I spotted the above message (I think we all know the place they have in mind…) But if you must complicate your life by becoming obsessed with a place overseas and setting part of a novel there 30 years earlier, you could do a lot worse than Brooklyn. The Brooklynites (native and transplanted) who’ve helped me with my research are some of the most warm, generous and enthusiastic people I’ve ever met. I didn’t once get, ‘What’s a foreigner doing writing about our country?’ which Americans sometimes encounter writing about Britain. All I ever heard was, ‘That’s so great, what do you want to know ?’
To Donna, Nancy, Tony, Clyde, Mel and Kathy – thanks for everything, my friends.
For more information:
Brooklyn Historical Society – www.brooklynhistory.org
Waterfront Museum – www.waterfrontmuseum.org
I am so delighted to be following your blog although I dont always respond!! Your descriptions are observant and also amusing. I live 6 hours from there and have never been.. Can’t wait for the novel..must have been great te see it all firsthand. Ness
Thanks, Ness! I love NY and Brooklyn especially so much it sends shivers down my spine thinking about them. I figured if people can write novels set in the 18th century, how hard could it be to do Brooklyn in the 1970s. With all the amazing input I’ve received, the answer is, not very. I have loved both the research and the writing, and I can’t wait to hear what you (and other readers) make of it.
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I can’t decide whether this comment is spam or not but since it is appreciative and the person seems to have read the article, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt this time.
Morning Isabel, I really enjoy your writing style and the research that you do on your subject. The Red Hook caught my interest as they soils in my part of Georgia are considered “Red Clay” although they are neither red nor clay. It is interesting to me how a phrase can be coined by simple repetition of early observation. Nice work and as usual a great blog post.
Thanks for your comment Peter. The blog has been going exactly 2 months now and I feel like I’ve been doing it a lot longer ! It is so great to write stuff that will be read straight away, and a nice change from the long project that is my novel. This On Location series is really fun for me and it’s also getting people intrigued about the book, which I obviously hoped it might. Interesting re your Red Clay in Georgia. I grew up in a village called Winterslow. If it is named literally, which I doubt, it clearly was by people who had not experienced the frozen lands of Ontario like you !