A remote hook in New York’s harbour
A view of Red Hook's massive Fairway supermarket from the floating Waterfront Barge Museum. (Natalie Rinn)
Perched on the shores of the New York Harbor with a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty, the sleepy neighbourhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, offers visitors and city-dwellers alike an unexpected, small town vibe just a stone's throw from Manhattan.
Along unkempt cobblestone streets lined with beautifully restored Civil War-era warehouses, fewer than 11,000 residents, artisans and entrepreneurs sip locally brewed coffee, take leisurely strolls with their dogs and mingle outside unpretentious bars that serve cold cans of beer and juicy pulled pork sandwiches at a fraction of typical city prices.
In recent years, a wave of big name businesses have flocked here, including the city's only Ikea, an outpost of the Swedish furniture giant; an expansive waterfront Fairway supermarket; and in June, the owners behind Brooklyn's landmark Alma restaurant debuted Brooklyn Crab, a highly anticipated seafood eatery that has drawn crustacean and mollusc lovers from near and far.
And yet, without access to a subway, undergirded by zoning that prevents significant residential growth and cut off from neighbouring Brooklyn by the traffic-choked Gowanus Expressway, Red Hook’s preserved quiet -- accessible only by ferry or bus -- remains distinctly separate from the frenetic energy that permeates so much of the United States' largest city. Striking views of lower Manhattan and the nearly completed 104-story Freedom Tower may peek through from across the harbour, but Red Hook feels a million miles away.
Red Hook began life as the 17th-century Dutch settlement of “Roode Hoek”, named for its red clay soil and its identifying hook of land that juts into the harbour. When the Erie Canal connected the Great Lakes to the shores of Red Hook via the Hudson River in 1825, a new shipping centre was born, and by 1848 more than 800 homes, workers' boarding houses and warehouses had sprung up by the bustling docks.
But Red Hook's boom was short lived. By the 20th Century, the saturation of industry and labour bred organised crime (attracting the likes of gangster Al Capone), and in the 1950s an evolving shipping industry replaced thousands of workers with supersized cranes. Simultaneously, the construction of sewage channels and the Gowanus Expressway on the community's eastern edge created a physical barrier between Red Hook and the rest of Brooklyn, crippling the already struggling community further.
But Greg O'Connell, a retired detective from Brooklyn, saw potential among the atrophy: the abandoned yet stunning 19th-century warehouses were perfect for artists seeking lofty space and cheap rent. In the late 1970s, he began to buy up waterfront structures and refurbish their towering brick shells. By the 1990s, intrepid tenants had given new life to the old structures, and Red Hook's renaissance was underway.
Visiting Red Hook today
Start by fuelling up. Hope and Anchor, located centrally on Van Brunt Street, the neighbourhood’s main drag, is a diner built on seaside charm that serves all-day breakfast, traditional sandwiches like hot pastrami on rye and enticing burgers like the Dropsy, a beef patty with chorizo, cheddar and a fried egg. For lower-key lunch fare just three blocks north, Ice House (318 Van Brunt Street; 718-222-1865) is a classic dive bar with red banquet seating and the best barbecue in town. Tender slider-sized pulled pork sandwiches served in red–and-white-checked cardboard boxes are dirt cheap at $3. If the bar’s extensive foreign and domestic beer list is too high brow, similarly inexpensive canned beer- and shot- pairings are hard to pass up. Take advantage of the city’s refreshing autumn weather in the spacious backyard that stays open until it snows.
Round off your meal with a salty brownie and a cup of locally roasted coffee at Baked. If the smell of fresh-out-the-oven treats does not grab your attention, the cafe's neon orange front door will.
From Van Brunt, turn left down leafy residential Coffey Street to reach Red Hook’s answer to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, Cacao Prieto. Founded by Daniel Prieto Preston in an old parachute factory, the beans-to-bar chocolate manufacturer offers free tours and tastes of freshly cooled chocolate squares. Not a fan of cocoa beans? The factory's latticed windows and ornate working liquor distillery make it worth the trip. Call ahead on weekends to reserve a slot.