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
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
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.
Red Hook today
Start by fuelling up. Hope and
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
From Coffey Street, turn right back onto Van Brunt in the
direction of the water. On your right, Erie Basin –
named for the neighbourhood’s 19th-century unloading dock – is an
artfully curated vintage jewellery and furniture shop with a corner storefront
modelled after the neighbourhood’s original clapboard homes. Further south, the
shop Saipua crafts
unorthodox candle and hand soap scents, like cracked sea salt or ground coffee
and mint. And where Van Brunt meets the
harbour, a hidden waterfront promenade tucked behind Fairway’s massive facade
extends past a set of rusted vintage street cars, a floating barge
museum that doubles as a theatre and the Pier 44 Waterfront Garden, where meandering pathways are lined with
diverse vegetation and wooden benches looking out to the water. One block north, hand-painted signs direct you to arguably the
best key lime pie that money can buy.
Authentic Key Lime Pies, located in an
old soda factory on Van Dyke Street, Steve Tarpin uses 54 boxes of imported
Mexican key limes every week to create the lightly tart pie filling that is
poured into 4in, 8in and 10in graham cracker crusts. Seeds from
freshly-squeezed key limes dot the production area floor, and eye-catching
paraphernalia from Mexico and Tarpin's native Florida hang from the
Take away a pie and a plastic spoon for a sunset picnic at
the waterfront Louis Valentino Jr Park, once home to Fort Defiance,
which protected Manhattan from British ships in 1776 during the American
Revolutionary War. Today, a manicured lawn and refurbished pier with views of
the Statue of Liberty stand in its place.
Once hunger hits again, think seafood – and specifically, think Brooklyn Crab. With space for nearly 300 guests, a waterfront bar that
churns out homemade piña coladas in colossal neon mugs, an umbrella-studded
dining deck and 18 holes of miniature golf, the three-story structure is a
self-contained party. Come midweek to dine with locals or prevent a lengthier
wait on the weekends by arriving early.
Where seafood does not satisfy, Van Brunt Street offers top
notch alternatives. The Good Fork is
filled with a candle-lit glow, a devoted local crowd and offers inventive
dishes like steak and eggs with kimchee rice. Fort Defiance, a
few blocks north, serves up fresh pasta, small plates like chicken liver pate
with bacon-onion jam, and historically-inspired cocktails like the Colonial
Cooler, a twist on the Pimm's Cup that was first mixed in British North Borneo
in the 1920s. The pocket-sized Home Made cafe provides
plush couch seating and flatbread pizzas built on Italian staples like parmesan cheese, arugula, prosciutto and fresh tomatoes. Make a
selection from a long wine list and relax.
Post dinner, wind down at Red Hook's legendary Sunny's,
just around the corner from Brooklyn Crab. Long time owner Sunny Balzano was
born in the building next door and the bar has been in the family for
generations. Today, the drinking hole hosts bluegrass bands and displays the
work of local painters. Coloured lights frame the cash-only bar and a miniature
courtyard fits snugly between front and back room seating areas.
Exiting the merriment at Sunny's onto a quiet cobblestone
is the perfect way to leave New York City's most remote getaway. But do not
worry: the trusty B61 bus stops just around the corner on Beard Street to bring
you back to civilization (namely, the rest of Brooklyn and subway connections).
Red Hook's culinary, shopping and sightseeing destinations
can be tackled in one relaxed and very walkable midday to evening itinerary.
From the subway (the F or G Carroll stop in Brooklyn), the B61 bus will
scoot you down Van Brunt Street and into the neighbourhood’s commercial centre.
Alternately, you can start your trip by sea via the New York City
Water Taxi. Embark from Pier 11 at the southern tip of Manhattan and
step off at Ikea's oversized, modern pier. A five-minute walk east along
adjacent Beard Street provides your first taste of the neighbourhood’s
minimalist industrial vibe. A free Brooklyn Crab shuttle bus also departs from
the F and G Carroll Street stop.