New York may be one of the most visited cities on the planet, but it is also one of the least explored – at least by tourists. Outsiders tend to concentrate themselves into a few quadrants, barely venturing across the water to see Williamsburg before scrambling back to the safety of midtown Manhattan.
I was guilty of similar behaviour until I lived and studied in the city a few years ago. Brooklyn, unsurprisingly, I found to be New York’s most dynamic borough. And while I toured it thoroughly, I never ventured as far as the sleepy bayside neighbourhood of Red Hook – tucked into a hard-to-reach enclave, just far enough away to dissuade most travellers from checking it out. It was not until I returned after several years away that I found the neighbourhood the same way most New Yorkers discover it: on a trip to Ikea. When local friends suggested we spend a Saturday eating Swedish meatballs and looking at furniture, I hesitated, figuring that we’d be heading to suburban New Jersey. But I agreed when I heard that Ikea was actually in Red Hook, which I suggested we explore before hunting for new linens. The name rang a bell, and conjured up images of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
We trekked to the downtown ferry near the South Street Seaport and waited in line with hordes of Ikea shoppers, already armed with blue and yellow tarp bags.
The ferry ride (free on weekends) takes roughly 20 minutes and offers pleasant views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Knowing little about where I was headed, I decided to do some research on my phone during the crossing. Although the neighbourhood is now quite isolated, it played a central role in the city’s history over the past four centuries. Settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, the region was initially called “Roode Hoek” due to its red trees and pointed shape, which juts out into New York Bay. A battleground in the American Revolutionary War, the area eventually turned into a major shipyard that employed about 7,000 people by the 1940s. Irish and Italian dockworkers gave the neighbourhood a tough reputation in the 20th century, with even Al Capone apparently having had his face slashed there (earning him the nickname “Scarface”). Container shipping eventually made Red Hook’s docks obsolete and the area crumbled. The Gowanus Expressway cut it off from the rest of Brooklyn both geographically and undoubtedly economically as well. Between 1960 and 1980 the neighbourhood went from 18,000 to 10,000 residents.
Two events have marked the more recent history of the neighbourhood: the controversial opening of Ikea in 2008 (it replaced a historic working dry dock) and Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the streets, cut power and caused many businesses to shut their doors for months and some forever.
As the ferry neared the dock, I began to lower my expectations. Red Hook, I figured, would be a sightseeing tour of urban decay. I could not have been more wrong. While Ikea and the (impressive) grocery store Fairway might be the first sights one sees upon arrival, just a few streets back Red Hook becomes a village from another era. The neighbourhood is a mishmash of red brick buildings, two-storey clapboard houses and warehouses that either sit empty or have been converted into various artistic endeavours.
Our first stop was the Widow Jane Distillery and its adjoining Cacao Prieto, housed in a beautiful old factory. The combination boutique distillery and chocolate factory is a gourmand’s dream. We quickly got down to tasting (samples are just a few dollars) and eventually to buying. The next stop was Lobster Pound, a beloved business where I had a sweet and tender Maine lobster roll on a hot-dog bun. The place is basic, but the friendly service and wonderful flavours had me immediately following its popular Manhattan food truck on Twitter in case I wanted a repeat before leaving town.
For dessert, we popped into Baked, a coffee shop/bakery with sumptuous treats including sweet-and-salty brownies and chocolate bourbon pecan pie. Boozed and fed, we wandered up and down Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s main thoroughfare, exploring the neighborhood’s oddly upmarket shops, which do not quite suit the dockyard backdrop. One standout was Foxy & Winston, a cute textile and print shop that doubles as the art studio for designer Jane Buck. I also liked Wooden Sleepers, a men’s wear shop that specializes in vintage Americana jackets and outerwear. It’s not cheap, but buying one-of-a-kind items never is.
“Red Hook has become a quaint waterfront village over the past few years,” my friend and local Ben Preston said later, as we discussed the sharp contrast of chic boutiques and shuttered factories. “… Right now, it’s a nice blend of dockworker dumpy and urban maritime chic, with all different kinds of people mixing together in a unique small-town nook.”
As my group walked back to the ferry, the sun was setting and the sky was lit up bright red; the Statue of Liberty glowed a burning orange pink. Couples lingered, taking in the view, and children ran down the piers chasing a soccer ball – a rare moment of serenity in the urban jungle. We never did make it to Ikea, but none of us minded much.
A few more nighttime visits to Red Hook would cement my love for it. Places such as Sunny’s and Bait and Tackle stand out as some of the last “authentic” New York dive bars. Botanica, with its sorrel-laced concoctions and simple but elegant decor, became one of my favourite cocktail bars. And I realized that Brooklyn Crab – home to a party atmosphere, buckets of beer and crustaceans, a huge roof deck and a minigolf course – is truly something special in one of the world’s densest cities.
Gentrification has arrived in Red Hook – but it has moved at a slower pace than other parts of this metropolis. In a city with few affordable places left to live, rents will surely increase, driving locals farther afield, as was the case in Williamsburg and Park Slope. No wonder residents have adopted a motto, spotted frequently on bumper stickers: “Welcome to Red Hook. Now Git!”
IF YOU GO
There are two ways to get to Red Hook without a car. The first is to take a ferry from lower Manhattan at Pier 11, which is $10 on weekdays and free on weekends. The more circuitous route is by public transit on the F train to the Carroll Street stop. From there it’s about a 20-minute walk or five-minute taxi trip.
Where to eat and drink
Baked: A friendly neighborhood bakery that serves excellent sweets and has its own cookbook. 359 Van Brunt St.
Bait and Tackle: A fishing tackle shop turned neighborhood pub, this place is a hidden New York classic.320 Van Brunt St.
Botanica: A simple and elegant cocktail bar that serves creative drinks with unusual ingredients. 220 Conover St.
Brooklyn Crab: A three-storey stilt building with big crowds, lots of tender crab and an 18-hole minigolf course.24 Reed St.
Fairway Market: A massive supermarket with an inviting atmosphere, great coffee and a lovely patio overlooking the water in summer. 500 Van Brunt St.
Lobster Pound: A simple and delicious spot for lobster rolls two ways: the warm Connecticut version or the cold New England one. Closed until spring 2015 for renovations. 284 Van Brunt St.
Sunny’s: The neighbourhood’s most well-known bar, once popular with longshoremen, has reopened after repairing massive damage from Hurricane Sandy. 253 Conover St.
Where to shop
Botta di Vino: Purveyor of Italian wine displayed by region as well as other paraphernalia for enjoying a bottle. 357 Van Brunt St.
Erie Basin: Expertly curated vintage and antique jewellery and other objects. 388 Van Brunt St.
Wooden Sleepers: Vintage men’s wear shop specializing in leather jackets and other outerwear. 416 Van Brunt St.
Foxy & Winston: A textile and paper shop with stationery, clothing and tablecloths designed in-house. 392 Van Brunt St.
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