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A Neighborhood in Transition

Photo of Gregory O'Connell
Greg O'Connell

From certain angles Red Hook looks more like a maritime ghost town than an up-and-coming neighborhood. Remnants of the past are visible in every direction: a stately red brick warehouse that extends into the harbor, cobblestone streets, the towering concrete silos of an abandoned grain terminal, the ruins of a former sugar refinery.

Once among the busiest seaports in the nation, this tiny peninsula of Brooklyn hasn't been gentrified like other formerly industrial neighborhoods. In places like Williamsburg and Soho, factories and warehouses have been converted to coops and condominiums, with coffee shops, trendy bars, galleries, and Prada stores attracting artists and professionals. Some say Red Hook is in the early stages of the same process, and recent changes in the area have brought controversy.

Despite its proximity to Manhattan, gentrification has been slow to affect Red Hook because of its inferior housing stock, lack of a subway line, and the presence of a major highway that separates the neighborhood from brownstone Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood. For many years the area was considered a hopeless slum. Gregory O'Connell, a local real estate developer, recalls how difficult it was to rent property there in the 1970s: "At that time if I put an advertisement in the newspapers, I would describe the properties. We would get calls, and then they would ask me where the property was. When I would mention Red Hook, you could feel that the phone was quiet."

Now, he says "it's just the opposite." According to real estate broker Linda Williams, the rents in Red Hook are almost as high as in Williamsburg. "There are just so few rentals," and "the people who want to be here, really, really want to be here." The neighborhood "has a similar feeling to what Williamsburg had several years ago. Similar types of people. A lot of artists."

Photo of Chris Bonanos
"Red Hook has some of the earmarks of gentrificaiton in that there's a lot of opened up space, a waterfront, old factories. On the other hand it doesn't have subway access, which is a problem..."
   -- Chris Bonanos,
New York Magazine

As the largest single landowner in Red Hook, O'Connell is behind several development projects, most notably efforts to convert a Civil-War era warehouse on Van Brunt Street into an upscale Fairway supermarket. The issue has divided the neighborhood. While some emphasize that the project would bring business to the area and create jobs, others fear that traffic along Van Brunt Street would disrupt the community.

Life-long resident Sunny Balzano is afraid that a Fairway would bring a glut of traffic to Conover Street, which is the location of his century-old bar, famous for its small-town atmosphere, historic décor, and proximity to the water. "Trucks and whatnot will be coming up these streets, which were built for horses and wagons."

Some residents are more concerned about rising rents. A truck driver who's lived in Red Hook for 20 years, William Graziano, worries that eventually he'll have to move. "My biggest fear is that sooner or later the rents will be so high that I won't be able to live here. When the rents start to reach in excess of twelve hundred to fourteen to sixteen hundred dollars, we don't make that kind of money."

O'Connell, on the other hand, stresses that "gentrification brings some great changes to a neighborhood. People become more civic minded. They become more active." Chris Bonanos of New York Magazine agrees that most people benefit from gentrification to some degree. "It means there's money coming in. It means cafes and restaurants, which do mean more money in the neighborhood. Therefore the services get better ... And most important the crime rate usually goes down."

Bar owner Balzano stresses that he's not against change, but fears that the wrong kind of change will cause the neighborhood to lose its special character: "Change things, yes, but don't take an axe and cut the whole damn thing down and rebuild it. That is pretty much what's going to be happening, at least as I see it."

Read the complete text of Rafael Pi Roman's interview with New York Magazine's Chris Bonanos about gentrification, rent control, and the real estate market after 9/11.

For more information about Red Hook and plans to build a Fairway supermarket in the area, read a recent article by Toni Schlesinger in the Village Voice.


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