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.
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