20 April 2009

Lost City's Guide to Red Hook


The once-bustling waterfront community of Red Hook has lost a great deal of its original life. Nearly all, really. Van Brunt, Conover, and Richards Streets are lined with the ghosts of formally vital storefronts. If you want to know what life was like in the shipping days, when work was plentiful for Irish, Italian and Swedish laborers, and street life teemed with pushcarts and stickball, you'll have to talk to the old-timers still hanging on, because there's not much evidence of it on the streets themselves. Unlike other nearby neighborhoods, the recent gentrification has not been hung on a few enduring businesses and institutions, but built from the ground up. If I wished to tell you what used to be in Red Hook, this guide could go on and on. As it is, the tracing of Red Hook's living history is a much short affair.

DEFONTE'S: This sandwich outpost at Columbia and Luquer Streets, near the north end of Red Hook, is about as old as surviving businesses get in Red Hook, to my reckoning. Somehow, the 1922 eatery has survived in the middle of absolutely nowhere for decades. The mint-green building with all the upper windows boarded over is pure Hopper, sitting lonely on its blighted corner. It's family-owned, founded by a immigrant from Mori di Bari (the hometown of so many of the local Italian families). The sandwiches are big, good and cheap. They recently opened a Manhattan branch, so they must be doing well.

ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH OF THE VISITATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY: Walk south down Columbia and then Dwight Street to Verona. Turn right along the north side of COFFEY PARK. The dark forboding Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation dominates this central green of Red Hook. The church was established in 1954. This building is the second to stand on the site. A former structure, erected in 1878, was destroyed by fire on July 12, 1896. The present Gothic affair was built in 1896.

THE "R" SIGN: Look above at the abandoned billboard atop the building at Richards and Venona. This used to belong to paper goods manufacturer named E.J. Trum. When John Turano & Sons Furniture took over the address in 1978, they tried to tear down the Trum letters. All but the stubborn "R," and a period, were removed. There they remain. Let's just say it stands for Red Hook.


RED HOOK POOL: Walk back to Dwight, turn right, walk down to Lorraine. Turn left and walk to Clinton. Turn right to Bay Street. The Red Hook Pool, officially know as the Sol Goldman Recreation Center and Pool, is a gem of a relic from the WPA area, a gloriously huge pool and in great condition. It's an attraction of constant popularity in the summer, fostering a wonderfully democratic picture of community summertime fun.

RED HOOK BALLFIELD VENDORS: Kitty-corner from the pool, in Red Hook Park, during the summer months, are a gathering of Latin food purveyors collectively known as the Red Hook Ballfield Vendors. From these carts, offering the best local versions of delicacies from El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, you will receive some of the best street food in all of New York. The vendors have been working their magic for 20 years or so, and though they are singularly unappreciated by the City or the Parks Department, they are beloved of New Yorkers.


ERIE BASIN PARK: Walk west on Bay to Otsego. As you go, look south to the rusted-out behemoth of the PORT OF NEW YORK GRAIN ELEVATOR TERMINAL, standing starkly again the horizon like some accursed post-industrial City of Oz. Turn left on Otsego to Beard Street. I haven't brought you here to admire the new IKEA, but Erie Basin Park, which IKEA built as a sort of olive branch to the community for tearing down the historic Todd Shipyards. They did a fairly excellent job, and the expansive collection of piers, greenery, walkways, bike paths and maritime paraphernalia nicely captures the spirit and air of old Red Hook.

BEARD STREET: As you walk west on Beard toward Van Brunt, take note of he Belgian Blocks on the road. These can be found all over Red Hook, as well as remnants of old trolley tracks.

FAIRWAY: Again, I didn't bring you hear to appreciate the produce, but to take a look at the pre-Civil War coffee warehouse Fairway renovated as its Brooklyn home. It's an undeniably handsome object. Inside, head to the back patio. There, you can enjoy unadulterated views of Staten Island, the Statue of Liberty and the water traffic in New York Harbor. To the left are three old TROLLEY CARS, the sad testimony of Brooklynite Bob Diamond's doomed effort to bring trolley service back to Red Hook.

BEARD STREET WAREHOUSES: Across Van Brunt from Fairway, and continues south along Erie Basin are the long, red-brick Beard Street Warehouse, simply one of the most beautiful and beautifully situated industrial structures in America. Catch the Civil-War-era buildings at sunset for an unmatchable sight.

WEIRD MARITIME BUILDING
: Walk west on Reed Street, just in front of Fairway, to No. 20, a curious two-story black building that looks like it's auditioning for the part of Old Maritime Building, covered as it is with plastic fish, life preservers, ship wheels and flags. It's actually just a building some guy uses to work on his old cars and have a few beers with his buds. Adds local character, though.

SUNNY'S BAR: Walk to Conover and turn right. Sunny's Bar is one of the few holdouts from the old days. In the Balzano family since the 1930s, it is now opened only occasionally, whenever Sunny feels like it. The well-preserved interior is well worth a looksee.

Previous Lost City Neighborhood Guides

14 comments:

Carol Gardens said...

I'm pretty sure that Sunny's is no longer on a "whenever he feels like it" schedule. It is reliably open Friday and Saturday and (I'm pretty sure) Wednesday. There is a great bluegrass jam in the back room on Saturday night. It officially starts at 9, but the best players trickle in from 10-midnight. Sunny's wife, Tone Johansen, seems to run the bar on weekends, but Sunny's makes regular appearances as well.

Carol Gardens said...

Also worth mentioning: The Waterfront Museum on the barge, drag karaoke at Hope and Anchor, Key Lime Pies, Rocky Sullivan/Six Point Craft Ale, the farmers market/community garden...

Ken Mac said...

inspired by your Gowanus tour, I hope to head out there this week and snap like mad. Can you comfortably walk from Gowanus to Red Hook?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Right, Carol. Just trying to stick to the old historic stuff as usual. The new stuff you mentioned is highly recommended, tho. And you're right about Sunny's, but I sorta feel like a place that's open only a couple times a week is still open basically when the owner feels like it.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Ken: If you're a good walker (and I imagine you are) Red Hook is a doable walk from Gowanus.

Francis said...

I love these guides. On Visitation Church, since you mention P.C. Keely from time to time, you might be interested to know that he designed the original, in 1854, and when it burned down 42 years later was still around to be hired to design its replacement. But it was one of his last jobs, if not his very last, for he died before it was done, and his son-in-law, Thomas Houghton, completed it.

Francis said...

Correcting myself: The original Visitation Church on the site was 1878 as you said.

M said...

I got my wish. Was at Fairway two weeks ago, saw the "old maritime building" and said to myself, "I wish Lost City will blog about this." It was shuttered down when I was there, it was awfully windy. But in the summer, he has the doors thrown open, with disco music blaring from giant speakers! But I still have not seen anyone, just hear the music blaring! Maybe you'll investigate some more and get his story! Thanks for your blog, I so enjoy reading it.

LC said...

this is great!

I am very new to the city,and I think you might be able to help me with this.

You know there are "metal stars" on the warehouses in Redhook. Do you know what that is called?

I will be appreciated if you could reply me. Thanks!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

The stars are the ends of supportive struts called “tie-rods.” The tie-rods acted as a sort of corset, holding the building together by tying the wood frame and floors to the masonry and brick. You'll see them a lot on old warehouses, because they needed to support heavy materials. The tie-rods often go completely through a building.

Many people think the star shape is decorative, a nod to starfish, since these struts are often seen on harbor or waterfront buildings. But this is not so. There are just a lot of warehouses near waterlines.

John said...

I am the daughter of a Molese immigrant who settled and worked hard on the Red Hook piers. I grew up in Red Hook and am presently keeping journals of the old and new Red Hook as I see it from my life's experiences. I just wanted to comment on what a great job you guys are doing keeping track, researching and disclosing Red Hook's past history and future. You are right about trying to get the "old timers" to part with their memories if you want a true taste of Red Hook's past life, and about Red Hook's population of Italian immigrants, but they are not from "Mori di Bari" as written, we are in fact from "Mola di Bari". We refer to our city as simply, Mola, and we refer to each other, as a group, as "Molese", pronounced Mol-lay-say. The Molese longshoreman spent many early and cold mornings on Columbia Street under the Columbia Street clock in front of the Happy Hour Theatre between Union and President Streets waiting to be called for jobs along the Red Hook waterfront. (Red Hook, by the way, once was Carroll Gardens, the neighborhood split with Robert Moses' disection of it's core community). The looming, sizeable cranes that adorn the American Stevedoring Compnay at the foot of Van Brunt Street off Hamilton Avenue is what drove longshoreman to Port Elizabeth in New Jersey in the sixties. These men traveled for hours by public transportation to get to Jersey, and in some cases uprooted their families to New Jersey, just to earn a day's work. After purchasing a car, my own father would drive to Jersey and sleep overnight in it to make certain he could work overtime in the evenings, all to put food on the table for his family. And while we were poor, we never starved and ate better then than we do today. Common among the Molese at that time, too, was winemaking and, of course, gardening. It's amazing how they fit it all into their lives.

michael said...

Well, I nkow this is not about the past, but my grandfathers both had restaurants in the neighborhood. "Pop" owned a place called Economy Lunch on Summit St that served the workers building the Battery Tunnel. After the tunnel opened, and lunch traffic slowed, he closed and went to work int he paint factory across the street. My Great Grandfather, who I never knew, had one of Brooklyn's first Pizza shops on Van Brunt St near President. It was called "Pop's Pizza". If anyone has any pictures of these places I would love to see them.

Tito said...

I was born on Conova Street 77 years ago. I grew up when it was so beautiful. I remeber my mother taking us kids swimming of the Coffee Dock in the summer. I started working when I was 16 on peir 36 as an extra labor. and from there I joined the Army during the Korean Conflict. When I returned home I use to work for Tony Pimpinili, he was the hatch boss. From there I married and we stayed in the Hook for quiet a while, them moved to Long Island. Then I retired in Arizona.

bluishhh said...

I grew up in Red Hook and have fond memories of the neighborhood as I was growing up. Although I saw my school, Patrick F. Daly School, renovated, the houses along Conover Street replaced by newer buildings and the empty parking lot on Wolcott street turned into a complex, i realize that change is inevitable evn if I don't exsactly like it.