Searching for my first New York apartment, I discovered Red Hook. I could barely afford anything on my editorial assistant salary — an apartment in Chelsea had the bathroom in the kitchen, and even Park Slope was beyond my means – but in this Brooklyn enclave I’d found a third-floor walkup with fluted columns separating the living room and dining room, and a view of the waterfront and lower Manhattan. Of the three bedrooms, one would be my darkroom and one would be my writing studio. I put down a deposit and started packing my periwinkle blue dishes.
Al “Scarface” Capone got his start as a small time criminal in Red Hook, along with the wound that led to his nickname. When my mother and aunt learned I was moving here, they marched into the realtor office and demanded my deposit back.
Thirty-five years later, I’m still thinking about Red Hook – now one of Brooklyn’s hottest neighborhoods. Visitors flock to its farmers market and community gardens, get a cup of joe at Stumptown Roasters, baked goods at Baked (including the original “Brookster,” a hybrid brownie-chocolate chip cookie-cupcake), listen to roots and blues at Jalopy Theatre and kayak with Red Hook Boaters.
I convinced my brother, who shares a passion for all things Brooklyn, to join me on a day trip to Red Hook. I forewarned him that there’d be a lot of good eating.
Surrounded by water on three sides and gridded with 19th-century Belgian-block roads, Red Hook has a rugged urban beauty. Young professionals raise chickens in their backyards here, preferring the small town feel to the hubbub of, say, Williamsburg.
Settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, the area was named for its red soil and hook shape jutting into the East River. On the Waterfront was set in Red Hook. Arthur Miller also wrote about corruption on the docks here. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. dramatizes the lives of Red Hook dockworkers and residents in 1952.
After the shipping industry left and the Gowanus Expressway and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel were built, Red Hook was cut off from the rest of the borough. As a result, much of its old world charm and waterfront views are intact. The waterfront revival sputtered in the mid ‘90s, and in the mid 2000s artists and those seeking affordable housing discovered the neighborhood gem.
The enchantment begins on the free water taxi, leaving from Manhattan’s Pier 11 and arriving 10 minutes later in Red Hook, Brooklyn. On the upper deck, with breezes making the midsummer heat tolerable, there are views of Governor’s Island. Soon the Statue of Liberty’s head appears, silhouetted against pink clouds, and everyone is clicking their cameras. Look back, and there’s the Manhattan skyline.
A man is whistling an old New York melody that I can’t pinpoint, with tremolo that sends chills down the spine.
Soon Red Hook comes into view. There are kayakers along the shore of old brick factory buildings with arched windows and black shutters swung open. The buildings remind me of Berenice Abbott’s Lost New York 1930s photographs. There are terraces packed with diners under red and yellow umbrellas.
The water taxi makes two stops — Fairway supermarket and IKEA — and we disembark at Fairway, closest to Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s main drag. Behind two vintage buses there is an outdoor dining patio, with tables shaded by umbrellas, as well as a glassed enclosed dining area. You can purchase prepared food from the store and eat it here, enjoying some of the best views in all of New York.
Opened in 2006, Red Hook is the fourth store the Fairway chain built, taking advantage of the waterfront location. It remains the largest in the chain of nine and was key to the neighborhood’s revitalization. There is a neighborhood guide on its website: http://www.fairwaymarket.com/store-red-hook/
Artisanal cheeses, olives and olive oils, coffee beans roasted on the premises, and deli selections that include lobster rolls make this store a destination. Samples are offered of a tomme goat cheese from the Pyrenees. It’s so good I wind up buying a small wedge for $8, even though it’s going to be pretty stinky by the time I get it home.
Next on our visit is Pier 41, Liberty Warehouse, a magnificent brick warehouse with arched windows and doorways. It’s been adaptively reused as a banquet hall, a glass studio and a winery. Pier 41 was built in 1873 as part of the waterfront that made Red Hook a major shipping and warehousing center in the mid-19th century.
At Red Hook Winery, while sipping Riesling, Rose, Viognier and Petit Verdot made from grapes grown on Long Island and upstate New York, we chat with Virginia – that’s actually not her name, it’s the state she’s from, but we wind up calling her Virginia because we never learned her actual name. Virginia has lived in Red Hook for a little over a year. She likes it, and was here when Hurricane Sandy brought water midway up the walls of the building and volunteers rallied to bail out the winery. http://www.redhookwinery.com
At the end of the warehouse is Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie – by some standards, the best key lime pie in New York. They are made in small batches from fresh-squeezed Key limes from Florida and handmade crust with real butter. We sample a small tart. Stevesauthentic.com
We walk up the street to Brooklyn Crab – Virginia recommended it – and climb the steps to a tree house of a building where we sit at a table in the bar area. Our plan is to eat everywhere in Red Hook, so we’re just going to have a bite here. We order six Maryland blue crabs boiled in a spicy mixture. Our condiments are in a basket on the table, as is a roll of paper towels – essential for this messy operation, beginning with peeling back the key on the underside of the crab, cracking the shell and peeling off the top, then the gills, to get to the succulent white meat. It’s a lot of work for not a lot of meat, but that’s what makes it taste so good. I end up with Old Bay-seasoned crab juice all over me.
After a good scrub down, we head for the Waterfront Museum, a barge that the curator bought for a dollar and restored in 1986. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the more than 100-year-old barge has been located here since 1994. The museum was founded to preserve the flavor of life along the river. Just outside the museum is a landscaped waterfront park connecting to Liberty Warehouse. http://waterfrontmuseum.org
The Added Value Red Hook Farmers Market is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and offers veggies, poultry, pork, beef, fish, smoked meats, eggs, baked goods and more from farms throughout New York State. Food demos, author appearances and live music add to the family-friendly atmosphere. http://www.added-value.org/the-farmers-market
We visit another large warehouse that has been turned into an art gallery on two floors by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. The enormous Civil War-era space is not only ideal for exhibiting art, but each arched window, with its views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty, is a work of art. BWAC (pronounced bee-wack) was organized in 1978 by 16 artists looking for a place to exhibit, and has grown to become Brooklyn’s largest artist-run organization. http://www.bwac.org/
We continue on Van Brunt Street, poking in shop windows, noting areas still in need of restoration. Hurricane Sandy wasn’t kind to Red Hook, and there are signs of recovery underway. We pass a sign that says “Chocolate Factory Tours” and follow it excitedly. Founded by Daniel Prieto Preston, an inventor and aerospace engineer whose family has been farming organic cacao and sugar cane in the Dominican Republic for more than 100 years, Cacao Prieto produces bean-to-bar chocolate daily and distills a line of small batch, cacao-based liqueurs and rums. From the website we learn that the warehouse space smells like chocolate and is full of shiny machinery that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. But, bummer, Cacao Prieto is closed on Saturday! We shall return. Products ranging from preserves to soaps and a Nutella-like spread are available through the website, as are liqueurs and, of course, chocolate. cacaoprieto.com
After checking out the Lobster Pound – lobster rolls and lobster bisque to go – we opt for the sit-down comfort of The Good Fork, Red Hook’s fine dining establishment. Owned and operated by the husband of the Korean chef, The Good Fork offers contemporary fare with a Korean twist – sides of kimchi and Korean pancakes. We share a special appetizer of scallops that melt in your mouth. My brother enjoys a ricotta-based gnocchi with ramp pesto, and I make a meal out of the Prince Edward Island mussels in a coconut broth.
After dinner, we cruise around, looking for the site of my old apartment. I think it was Pioneer Street, but I can’t be sure. There’s absolutely no way to verify or validate where it was, so I might as well just make it up. Sure, it was Pioneer Street.