The dynamism of Brooklyn is evident in all of its many neighborhoods. And, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, Brooklyn contains multitudes. So, for our purposes, those multitudes have been divided into all of Brooklyn's varied 'hoods, each with a specific and distinct past and personality. So that's why we're going to go back into the history of each of these distinct areas, to understand better where they came from, where they are now, and maybe where they'll be headed. First, we did Williamsburg, and then Brooklyn Heights, then Coney Island, because apparently I'm working in a counter-clockwise concentric circle through Brooklyn's waterfront neighborhoods? No, that's not it. There's no method to my madness. And, yet, now I'm doing Red Hook. So, I guess my madness is at least centered around Brooklyn's waterfront? I don't know. I just don't know. But, Red Hook it is.
This is a timeline of one Brooklyn neighborhood, its past and present, its people and places.
1636: Roode Hoek
Red Hook was settled by the Dutch in 1636 and was one of the original settlements in the Dutch colony of Breukelen. The region was named Roode Hoek—which means "Red Point" in Dutch—because of the red soil and the fact that a part of Red Hook stuck out in a point into New York Harbor. There's no "hook" anywhere, no matter how much Hoek seems like it would translate to "hook", it doesn't. Modern day Red Hook is also home to a street called Rapelye Street, which was named after one of New Amsterdam's oldest families. In fact, Sarah Rapelje is believed to have been the first European child to be born in New Amsterdam. Her family would settle on Long Island and she would give birth to fifteen children, fourteen of whom survived (IMPRESSIVE), and is believed to be the ancestor of over a million people alive today, which, wow. Included among her direct descendants was actor Humphrey Bogart. Everyone should go out right now and watch "The Maltese Falcon." And read the book. Dashiell Hammett, though not a descendant of Sarah Rapelye (that I know of) is awesome.
1776: The Fort that Saved America
Brooklyn was the site of what would turn out to be a pivotal battle for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Although the Battle of Long Island—fought where Prospect Park stands today—was a victory for the British, the American troops still managed to escape to Manhattan and, from there, travel north where they could regroup and go on to fight another day. But how exactly was it possible for the 10,000 American troops to evade twice as many Brits and Hessian mercenaries? Especially when there was a British war ship heading through New York Harbor, in order to cut off the Americans' flight from Brooklyn? It was possible because of Fort Defiance, a makeshift fort in Red Hook built by scrappy American revolutionaries, who fired at the HMS Roebuck, effectively preventing the ship from sailing all the way to the East River. Fort Defiance sustained great damage as the British ship fired back, but the men there saved the day for the American troops who made their escape. Although the original Fort Defiance no longer stands, there is an amazing bar/restaurant in Red Hook now that proudly bears its name.
1840s: A Shipping Port Grows in Brooklyn
Red Hook developed in the 19th century to be the busiest shipping port in the entire world. The neighborhood became known for its industry and many huge factories and warehouses were built along the waterside—buildings that are still there today. Despite, or rather because of, the profitable commercial reality of Red Hook, it wasn't really developed as a residential neighborhood for people other than dock workers and so it maintained its air of remoteness from the rest of Brooklyn. Although many New Yorkers amassed their wealth through business done in Red Hook, the actual population consisted mainly of dock workers—mostly Italian and Irish immigrants.
1938: The Red Hook Houses
Red Hook had long been a working-class, immigrant-heavy neighborhood, but it was struck particularly hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s. During the Depression, Red Hook became home to many hastily constructed shelters—dubbed "Hoovervilles" after President Herbert Hoover—that were deemed unsuitable for living and cleared away to make room for the public housing project that would become known as the Red Hook Houses. Although intended to better the neighborhood, the Houses were architecturally drab and incongruous with the rest of the neighborhood's buildings. The Red Hook Houses remain the largest public housing site in Brooklyn, housing over 5,000 people, and have long been notoriously crime ridden. Another, more positive, public project completed in Red Hook around this time was the Red Hook public pool on Bay Street which is Olympic-sized and still an awesome place to go on a hot, summer day.
1950s: "On the Waterfront"
For such a discrete neighborhood—after all, it is bound both by water and the unceasing traffic flow of the BQE, making it difficult to access in a way few other New York neighborhoods are—Red Hook has been the center of many iconic artistic works, including the Elia Kazan film, "On the Waterfront," the Arthur Miller play, "A View from the Bridge," and the H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Horror at Red Hook." All of these works portray Red Hook as a hardscrabble, isolated place, where the rules of society don't apply anymore, where the rules have been so warped that a new code of honor must grow in their place. Or not. It is noteworthy that Red Hook is not only the birthplace of such ethically-tortured artistic inspiration, but also of many of the most renowned names in organized crime. Red Hook was the breeding ground for Al Capone and Crazy Joey Gallo, as well as countless other low-level gangsters.
1990: "The Crack Capital of America"
In 1990, Life Magazine named Red Hook the "crack capital" of America and listed it as one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. Red Hook had indeed sunk into a mire of poverty and crime, the low point of which was reached in 1992 when beloved elementary school principal Patrick Daly was killed in the crossfire of a drug-related gun battle while trying to visit a student of his. The elementary school was re-named in his honor, and three teenagers were convicted for his murder. The legacy of that day was not only the senselessness in Daly's death but also the ruined lives of all the families involved. Red Hook had reached its nadir. In the decades since, crime has steadily declined in Red Hook, and while poverty and unemployment are still endemic, the quality of life for all residents has improved.
2000s: The Era of Fairway and IKEA
During the first decade of the 21st century, Red Hook was similar to many other Brooklyn neighborhoods in that the process of gentrification had begun. However, Red Hook's gentrification moved at a much slower rate, due in no small part to the lack of public transportation in the neighborhood and the looming presence of the Red Hook Houses. Nevertheless a strong artistic community took root, lured by huge converted factory spaces, cheap rents, and beautiful light. Small restaurants and businesses like Hope & Anchor, Baked, and Saipua opened up. The tone of the neighborhood's commercial progress began to change when first Fairway and then IKEA opened up during the decade. Although many neighborhood residents were opposed to these huge stores (particularly IKEA) the stores were overwhelmingly supported by residents of the Red Hook Houses and, while drawing many more weekend day-trippers, haven't wildly changed the face of the area. One notable change that Fairway did bring though was the addition of that part of the 'hood's first ever traffic light. Prior to the opening of the grocery store, no traffic light had been deemed necessary by city planners.
2012: Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy wrought a path of devastation all up and down the East Coast, and Red Hook was not among the neighborhoods that were spared. In fact, the damage wrought in Red Hook is still felt strongly a month later. Businesses that had quickly become neighborhood institutions—like Fairway—were completely destroyed and have to re-build from nothing. Other businesses without the funds of a Fairway lost their entire inventory and private homes were utterly destroyed. The Red Hook Houses were without power or electricity for days and days, forcing residents to seek heat and hot water elsewhere. Schools and libraries were closed. Artists' studios were wiped out, all of the work destroyed. Clean water was scarce. As Red Hook continues to recover, though, it is important to look at the positive things that emerged as the waters receded. The Red Hook Initiative was formed and hundreds, if not thousands, of community members banded together to help each other with the clean up. For a community that had been dubbed "one of the worst in America" only two decades before, this can only be seen as a hopeful change. It will take a lot more work to restore Red Hook to what it was before the storm, but there is little doubt that the people who live there are up to the task.
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