Red Hook History

The Dutch established the village of Red Hook (Roode Hoek) in 1636. Red Hook was one of the earliest areas in Brooklyn to be settled. The area was named for its red clay soil and the hook shape of its peninsular corner of Brooklyn that projects into the East River. A map from the 1760s shows a developed village at a time when there was little else in Brooklyn. In the 1850s the Atlantic Basin opened and Red Hook became one of the busiest ports in the country.

Grain barges from the Erie Canal would wait at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal for their turn at the active piers. The book and film, "Last Exit to Brooklyn", set in 1952 Brooklyn is a dramatic tale of the lives of Red Hook dock workers and residents. H.P. Lovecraft's short Story "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925), the site about which Budd Shulberg wrote his famous screenplay, "On the Waterfront" and Arthur Miller's play "A View from the Bridge" has added to the area's notoriety. 

Red Hook was always known as a tough section of Brooklyn. Al Capone got his start as a small time criminal there, along with his wound that led to his nickname, "Scarface". In 1950, at the peak of the era of longshoremen 21,000 people lived in the neighborhood, many of them in row houses second only in age to those in Brooklyn Heights. Most people lived in the Red Hook Houses, built in 1936 for the growing number of dockworkers.

Today the East and West Houses are home to the great majority of the neighborhood: an estimated 8,000 people or 73 percent of Red Hook’s total population. But after the peak of the 1950s Red Hook suffered a loss of jobs, population and geographical isolation. Over the next decade or so, the neighborhood bled jobs as shipping underwent a dramatic change. Shipping lines began moving goods in long metal containers, rather than the traditional break-bulk shipping of barrels and bales, which were gathered into large nets and hoisted out of a ship’s hold. Containerized shipping required greater upland space and fewer hands to load and unload. The waterfront jobs moved to New Jersey, and the economy of the neighborhood changed drastically. For an image of the neighborhood at the time, visit a 1911 Lithograph map of Red Hook and the New York Dock Company Holdings

The Red Hook Houses, built in 1938, were originally built for families of docworkers and are one of the first and largest Federal Housing projects in the country. The 1990 Census estimated the population at just fewer than 11,000 with more than a third under age 18. That same year the average income per household was under $10,000. Unemployment in Red Hook was estimated at 30 percent among men and 25 percent among women. Two other major events influenced Red Hook’s fate: the 1946 opening of the Gowanus Expressway and the 1950 opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the borough.

If the history of Red Hook is to some extent the retelling of what once was, because of its isolation much of the neighborhood was left unchanged. In the present the neighborhood continues to draw the curious from outside. Added to the trickle of tourists, however, are the residents of the Red Hook Houses, who along with a swell of activists and artists drawn to Red Hook over the last two decades by the low rents, industrial, old world charm and astounding views. The history of the neighborhood to the present day is also intertwined with the ill-conceived plans of state and city government. 

In June 1994 the neighborhood and the community board released its 197a plan, a document submitted to the city pointing the way for waterfront revival. According to the 197a, in 1972 the city approved an urban renewal plan to develop 230 acres of waterfront for a modern container port, waterfront park and 225 units of housing for those who would be displaced by the container port. The proposal, according to the plan, “put a cloud of condemnation over many residential blocks which were eventually not taken due to changes in the internal container port design. This led to further decline and abandonment of housing.”

The city the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has a troubled history in Red Hook. Acording to one local tour guide, “The Port Authority has divested itself of several hundred acres with little or no long-term planning,” Gov. Mario Cuomo’s campaign literature in 1994 advertised the neighborhood’s Fish Port as a $27 million investment in the neighborhood that created 700 jobs. What the ad forgot to mention, was that the Fish Port had closed well before the literature was distributed, just six months after it opened. He and others have estimated it cost $42 million to build including leasing fees and other expenses. In 1993 the Port Authority sold the property for $2 million to Erie Marine Associates. They then rented a portion of the property to the City who redeveloped the waterfront into an evidence impound lot. “The most stunning views on the Harbor are commanded by broken-down cars,” At Bay and Columbia streets a cheerful green-and-white Fish Port logo still points the way home. To their credit, the police department, as part of the sale agreements, built the Columbia Street Pier, a public esplanade that extends out into Gowanus Bay. The agency also agreed to pay $50,000 toward the annual maintenance of the Firefighter Louis Valentino Pier and Park at the end of Coffey Street. 

The Valentino Pier, completed summer after much wrangling and pressure from the neighborhood, does command one of the best views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty in the city. In another transaction, the Port Authority in 1992 sold developer Greg O’Connell 28 acres, 10 of them on the waterfront, for the bargain price of $500,000. O’Connell redeveloped the Beard Street Pier into space for small manufacturing and has helped bring several businesses into the neighborhood and to provide a half-mile of waterfront public esplanade.

This first phase of the public waterfront access plan is constructed as an open pier where O’Connell hosts to the annual Red Hook waterfront arts festival, the Young People’s Performance Festival and the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition exhibits. Red Hook is also home to the largest concentration of Civil War-era warehouses in the city. In 1995 the Port Authority finally sold the Grain Terminal, built in 1922 off Halleck Street to receive grain shipments coming through the Erie Canal.

O’Connell’s Beard Street Pier was once home to the Trolley Museum. Red Hook resident Bob Diamond started the small museum in the 1990s with the intention of linking the neighborhood to Carroll Gardens once again. He received $210,000 through the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA), in 1996, and started constructing the project but he experienced financial troubles and the project's future is uncertain.

The main neighborhood attraction is the Waterfront Museum located in the Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, a wooden-covered cargo barge. The barge is the only surviving example of its kind and is anchored at Pier 44 off Conover Street. The museum sponsors educational programs, circus acts and a sunset music series. It is available for rental and hosts a variety of events. What makes the location so wonderful are the fantastic sunsets and amazing waterfront views.

One can only marvel at Red Hook reinventing itself. New residents of "the back" are in awe of the inspirational views of the Statue of Liberty while others enjoy the newly renovated library and commend the opening of Independence Savings Bank, now Santander Bank. From the creation of many community gardens to the recent renovation of an Olympic size swimming pool, this neighborhood is on a rebound. Red Hook is beginning to enjoy the success of its neighbors in Carroll Gardens and Gowanus. Propelled by a community spirit that will fight for positive change, new investment and residents and the investment by business, Red Hook is once again becoming a favorite Brooklyn neighborhood.