Red Hook, a mixed-use neighborhood combining light-to-heavy density residential uses with light-to-heavy manufacturing zones, is a peninsula that is surrounded by the Gowanus Bay, Erie Basin and the Buttermilk Channel. Red Hook was the original Dutch name given to the area as it was a descriptive nautical reference point for sailors navigating Brooklyn’s coastline. European settlements can be traced back to the 1600’s, when the Dutch began charting the eastern seaboard. Historically, Red Hook has been known as a bustling waterfront community and to this day retains much of its working class values. The overwhelming majority of residents live in the Red Hook Houses (East and West clusters). The construction of the Red Hook East Houses was completed in 1938 as a Federal Works Program initiative under then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Together with the Columbia Street District, the area’s Columbia Street was host to the first Puerto Rican enclave in the United States in the 1950’s and rich African-American and Latin cultures continue to thrive in the community. The construction of the Gowanus Expressway in the late 1940’s and the opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in 1950 served to geographically sever Red Hook from the rest of the district and led to divergent paths of neighborhood development.
The community faces on-going daily challenges illustrated by a socioeconomic profile that includes an unemployment rate of 21.6% (per 1990 Census), low average levels of educational achievement (43.6% of the population graduated high school per 1990 Census), the highest poverty levels and the highest population of youth (35.2% of the population is under age 18 per 1990 Census) relative to the other neighborhoods in the district. On July 14, 1994 Community Board Six submitted a plan entitled “Red Hook: A Plan for Community Regeneration” to the Department of City Planning, that was ultimately revised by the City Planning Commission and adopted by the City Council on September 11, 1996. This was Brooklyn’s first plan adopted by the City pursuant to the provisions of Section 197-a of the City Charter. Many elements of the “197-a Plan” have been actively discussed, explored, if not implemented by a host of municipal entities, elected officials, and private interests that have a stakehold in the community. The previous borough administration committed to the process by organizing a Red Hook 197-an Implementation Task Force that focused primarily on the housing needs of the community. In winter 2000, the old “Sullivan Street Hotel” property at Sullivan and Richards Streets was reopened as a successful public-private affordable housing project under the former Brooklyn Borough President. In addition to the need for the development of new and in-fill housing units, improvements in transportation, education, employment, commercial and health services are necessary to achieve the overall objective of balanced social and economic growth.
Positive public and private attention and investment is beginning to show. Most of the park properties in the neighborhood have been recently reconstructed. The long-awaited Louis Valentino, Jr. Park and Pier at Coffey Street’s Pier 39 culminated the community’s uphill struggle to recapture some of its most prominent resource, its waterfront, for public access and enjoyment of the views of the New York Harbor. Another important milestone was recently achieved on December 18, 2001 with the formal designation of the Fire Brick and Clay Retort Building at 76-86 Van Dyke Street as the neighborhood’s first designated landmark building. The opening of the Red Hook Community Justice Center at the old Visitation Church School building, extending Manhattan’s Midtown Community Court concept, provides decentralized, direct dispensing of justice together with social services designed to help the non-offending local population as well. The introduction of an Independence Savings Bank branch office in Red Hook represents the first and only commercial banking services available in the neighborhood for residents and businesses alike. Red Hook has the third highest concentration of waste transfer stations in the City; neighboring residents and businesses can attest to the ill effects (including but not limited to putrid odors, vectors, excessive and often illegal truck traffic, etc.) of such facilities when they are poorly operated.
The industrial businesses that exist in Red Hook rely on trucking as the primary way to move goods and freight into and out of the area. Heavy truck traffic has had a serious impact on the residential population and most likely contributed to infrastructure failures and the collapse of some of the older buildings in the area. The geological substrata of this coastal floodplain region contains a dense organic layer of red clay (hence the “red” in Red Hook) that exacerbates the longitudinal transmission of surface vibrations. For years efforts have been underway to reevaluate the existing Truck Route network with an eye toward minimizing its direct impact on the residential community while optimizing its intended industrial usage. The existence of truck-based solid waste transfer stations, that provide little by way of economic development of the community, has contributed to the problem of truck traffic in a major way. By virtue of its zoning, the availability of land in appropriately zoned heavy manufacturing areas have led to attempts by private and public agencies to site noxious industrial uses with no regard for the needs or welfare of the host community. As a result, the community has numerous sentinel organizations and individuals, an impressive communication network and developed a keen ability to organize itself around any perceived threats to their well being. If some of the area’s oldest conflicts arose from illegal conversions of residentially-zoned properties for industrial-related uses, some of the newest ones are of the exact opposite nature. Industrial properties have been increasingly illegally converted to residential use with additional legal conversion attempts taking place that will ultimately escalate tensions inherent in this mixed-use community between local residents and businesses.