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Really Seeing Brooklyn’s Red Hook

When photographer Sheila Archer offered to take me around Red Hook for half a day, I had to ask where it was.

Brooklyn Crab, Red Hook NY

This shack (a second-hand store) next to Brooklyn Crab reflects the mood of the area – bright, sunny, quirky – and seafaring

I’d never heard of this quirky industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn (in truth, I’d never been to Brooklyn other than by accident, heading the wrong way on the subway the day before).

On a brilliant winter morning, with the kind of light only the colder season can bring, we set out with our scarves and boots and handwarmers to explore the windswept streets of this still gritty collection of abandoned factories, creative street art, and seaside eateries.

“Just stand there and listen for a moment,” Sheila told me. “What do you hear?”

Nearby waves, a dog barking indoors, and electrical cables rubbing against one another.

“What do you smell?”

The sea, again, the asphalt, a few exhaust fumes, winter, I smell winter, and snow, which won’t fall today but will surely cover the ground tomorrow.

Focusing on the senses would give me a feeling of place and help me observe first and shoot later, Sheila explained. A tall ask for someone accustomed to snapping her iPhone without even looking at the screen…

Photography is a reflection of what I see and my reaction to it, she said.

At first glance, this is what I see. And hear. And feel.

Belgian paving stones in Red Hook

I touch the paving stones (imported from Belgium no less) to feel the texture so I’ll know how the light hits them

Streets of Red Hook

I learn to shoot at an angle

Shadows in Red Hook, New York

I learn to use the light

Small dog in window in Red Hook

I’m learning to use my feet. Given a choice I would have the photo come to me rather than go to it. And I learn to look for the unusual

It may be new to me but for years artists have been making Red Hook their home, drawn by low prices but also by its character, edginess and yes, its charm. It is charming, perhaps because of the seafaring atmosphere that still clings to it now that most of the ships have gone. This is, after all, a seaside village.

Reminders of the sea in Red Hook

Reminders of the sea are everywhere. Clockwise from top left: the fish door handle at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, the best I’ve ever tasted; fenders hung outside the door; marine-themed door to Baked pastry shop (ask for the chocolate cupcakes with salted caramel icing); an outdoor mosaic; another set of fenders; local garbage cans with an anchor motif.

The ships may have left but many traces of the sea remain.

Take Sunny’s Bar, that last bastion of mariners. Now it caters to artists but when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in October 2012, Sunny’s almost stopped catering altogether. Red Hook was particularly hard hit and the sandbags are part of the residue, a reminder among the damaged homes and watermarks that no one, not even tough, resilient Red Hook, is immune to nature.

Sandbags haven't been cleared away yet from Hurricane Sandy

Sunny’s Bar, as it still stands, evidence of Sandy just outside the door

Red Hook is slowly recovering, its secrets discreetly picked apart by New Yorkers fleeing the big city without wanting to really get away from it. House prices are rising and despite the difficulties of getting here, it is becoming a hip community. The challenge? To retain its charms as newcomers rush to make this their new home.

A Potted History of ‘The Point’

In the days when distances were far greater Red Hook was its own village, settled by the Dutch in 1636. Even then it had a particular personality, developing faster than the rest of Brooklyn. Throughout the 19th century it grew in importance, and by the 1920s Red Hook was the largest freight port in the world. It kept its title until the advent of container ships, too big to ease into ‘The Point’ (the name comes from the Dutch hoek, or point). Container shipping moved to New Jersey, and Red Hook began its long, steady decline.

A couple of decades ago it was known as one of the worst neighborhoods in the USA; it has been called the ‘crack capital of America’; and it contains Brooklyn’s largest public housing development.

Perhaps kickstarted by its impossibly jumbled heritage – British, Dutch, Caribbean, Italian, Indian – Red Hook is reawakening. Rather than a case of gentrification and a push for middle-class homogeneity, it has taken on a new, edgy, artistic-industrial vibe. Local people don’t mind: they still know one another by name, and they still feel like a coherent community. Globalization has nearly passed them by – I say nearly because it’s hard to ignore the giant IKEA store at its edge.

In summer, in the old days, you might think you’re in Italy, doors wide open, residents sitting on chairs along the sidewalk, chatting.

Every Sunday in the summertime, everybody had their windows open and their radios tuned to the same station. It was like a stereo, an Italian station with all the Italian songs playing—Ceno luna mezza mama . . . Or songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places” during the war. You’d smell the aroma of the tomatoes cooking, the smoke of the cigars from the old men outside talking about the old hometown. Your father’s sitting on the stoop, and you’re eating a lemon ice. You thought you had nothing; you had everything . . .

Pat Cooper, “It Happened in Brooklyn”

Like the comedy film about Mary, you’d be tempted to say: “There’s something about Red Hook.”

Along the waterfront the clam bars stay open but it’s too cold to eat outside. On a summer evening you can apparently smell the wood smoke of some of the best BBQ around. But the real grabber is Brooklyn Crab, its patio now empty in the winter chill, calling me to return in summer.

Brooklyn Crab patio in Red Hook

Brooklyn Crab patio, desolate in winter and crackling in summer (in winter people eat inside)

In my imagination, Red Hook is to Brooklyn and even New York what Marseille is to France – a rough cut, an unshaven acquaintance with gentle eyes, an eclectic alternation of old and modern and fresh and seedy and local. Never global though. Except for IKEA.

Red Hook is certainly fun. And eminently photogenic.

Cat invades Red Hook manger

A street manger scene. Look closely. Apparently several cats have made this their home, pushing off the baby Jesus statue from the haystack each time it is replaced.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • Sheila’s photo workshops, Brooklyn Photo Adventures, are for all photographers, from beginner to expert. If I were more of a photographer she would have taught me things like ISO and TV and white balance and exposure and bracketing and plenty of other things that make me break out into a sweat.
  • Getting to Red Hook without a car can be done. Take the 2, 3, 4 or 5 subway to Borough Hall. Go upstairs and walk down Court Street to Atlantic Avenue. Take the B61 Bus going towards Park Slope. Get off at Van Brunt Street and Coffey Street (bus drivers are friendly – you can always check with them.) Or cross the water with the New York Water Taxi shuttle from Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan ($5 weekdays each way, free on weekends). It takes you right to IKEA!
  • If you’re headed there to eat, the New York Times did a great piece on food in Red Hook, making me hungry in the process.
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