[the future of the hook]

Topic: Around Town

Red Hook is changing and everyone knows it. The New York Times today explores the debate over what direction the neighborhood should take in the future.

A strip of prime waterfront just on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway from fast-gentrifying Carroll Gardens (where I live), Red Hook has caught the eye of artists looking for cheap spaces, of developers looking for condo spaces with great views, of blue-collar businesses that have been pushed out of other parts of the city, and of big “box stores” like Ikea, which plans to open a store there in 2007, and Fairway, which will open a large supermarket this spring.

There are a number of factors that have kept gentrification at bay in Red Hook, even as other neighborhoods like Long Island City, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, the Meatpacking District and Williamsburg have blossomed in recent decades. For one thing, it doesn’t have its own subway stop, which will put it out of reach for many. For another, it is home to the Red Hook West and Red Hook East housing projects. The latter is a sprawling 33.34-acre complex that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) describes as “the largest part of the largest development in Brooklyn.”

Together, these two projects are home to 6,518 residents, according to NYCHA, while John McGettrick, co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Association, has pegged the number of public housing residents at 7,268, and today’s Times article rounds the number to 8,000. Whatever the actual number, it’s clear that these residents make up the vast majority of those who live in the neighborhood, and they are desperate for jobs. They have thus welcomed plans to bring in the new Ikea and Fairway. But it’s far from clear that the new jobs will go to residents of the projects, and it’s also uncertain what path of development would provide the best prospects for the locals.

I have little sympathy for those who are desperate to keep (or recapture) the old character of the neighborhood. Red Hook has been moribund for decades, and I’m not sure the life of Irish stevedores back in the day was as wonderful as it might look in the rosy glow of nostalgia. For those who love the way it’s been in recent years — grotty and poor and derelict — I acknowledge the aesthetic appeal of urban decay, but I’m not sure it’s worth preserving when there’s the prospect of bringing jobs to thousands of unemployed residents. So what about condos and high-end apartments? Well, they don’t generate jobs the way that light industry does, and it looks like Red Hook is actually a viable spot for light industry again. So I’d lean towards that option, without ruling out the box stores that also bring jobs. But it’s a complex issue, and my views are by no means settled.

In the near term, I’m definitely looking forward to that Fairway opening up, especially now that I have a car. I would love to see Red Hook turn into a neighborhood worth going to.