They came because of the boats and the people who work on them -- the boats that are there now, at the Port Authority piers, and the ones to come, the glittering cruise ships that glide through their dreams.
"It's going to be great for us, for all the businesses here," he said.
Red Hook's future has been arriving for some time. Up and down Van Brunt and Columbia streets the past three to four years, the restaurants and small businesses have multiplied. The artists priced out of Dumbo, Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been snapping up renovated spaces in old factories and warehouses -- and purchase prices and rents for townhouses, apartments and studios have taken a decided upward tilt.
A Fairway supermarket in Red Hook was just a glimmer in Brooklyn developer Gregory O'Connell's eye in mid-2000. Now, after years of debate and controversy, a 52,000-square-foot Fairway is being built on Van Brunt Street. A huge Ikea, the city's first, gained City Council approval for development along the neighborhood's southernmost piers, at Erie Basin, with the retailer pledging to provide job training and opportunities to residents, develop a public esplanade and set up weekend ferry service to and from Manhattan.
And on Wednesday came the announcement that the city's Economic Development Corp. has negotiated a long-term lease with the Port Authority to develop a $30-million passenger-ship terminal at Piers 11 and 12, with ships from Norwegian Cruise Lines Ltd. and Carnival Corp. expected eventually to dock there and bring in millions in port charges -- and their paying guests.
Simon Rodriguez, who sees the blue-gray waters of the Hudson whenever he opens his front door, has been waiting for those oceangoing ships. His father told him they would come, someday.
"I welcome it. I would like to see the QE2 parked right in front of my house," said Rodriguez, 30, referring to the elegant Queen Elizabeth 2, the Cunard Line ship that docked on Manhattan's West Side in April.
"I'd like to see a whole big concourse, where tourists could come, maybe some restaurants, a nice mall type of thing," he said. "They've got to make sure it's family oriented. Something nice for the community."
His father, Heriberto, came from Puerto Rico to New York as a young man and worked 55 years as a longshoreman at a dock off President Street that has long since been destroyed. He raised his family in the house on Van Brunt Street now occupied by his widow, Margarita, 70, and his son.
Some years before he died, the father looked toward the waterfront and told his son that the old neighborhood was changing fast. "He warned us. He told us, 'This isn't going to last long,'" Simon Rodriguez recalled. After years growing up in the depressed neighborhood, Rodriguez is happy to see change he considers positive, even if negative aspects come with it.
"It's amazing, but 30 years ago, 20 years ago, nobody wanted anything to do with anything around here," he said. "This whole thing was bars and run-down housing. Now you can't find an apartment around here for anything less than $1,800 [a month]. It's ridiculous. We're lucky we own our house. Everyone else is being squeezed out." In the crack-fueled 1980s and early 1990s, the thought of people being squeezed out of Red Hook by higher housing prices was, well, unthinkable.
Drugs and violence were part and parcel then of the neighborhood's reality. No more. Although Red Hook residents still face poverty and high unemployment, the area is not the real-life stage for drug dealers' pitched gun battles, and the drop in violent crime is nothing short of phenomenal.
Police Department crime statistics for the 76th Precinct, comparing 1993 and 2003, show dramatic drops in all categories: homicides down 100 percent, felony assaults down 68 percent, robberies down 55 percent, rapes down 33 percent.
The NYPD statistics for 2004 through mid-December show that violent crime in the precinct continues to be kept at bay. There was no significant change from 2003, the first year that Red Hook had no slayings since at least 1968.
Delves Henderson, 58, has lived in the Red Hook Houses since 1954. She lived there in December 1992, when PS 15 principal Patrick Daly was gunned down and killed in broad daylight, caught in drug-war crossfire when he went to the huge Housing Authority project to look for a child who had left school upset after a fight.
"It had turned out to be really bad at a time," said Henderson, a retired data entry clerk. "The gun shooting, the muggings, you know. Now when you hear gunshots, it's usually the New Year coming in."
These days, people feel comfortable enough to walk their dogs along Ostego Street, through the project. What would make them even more comfortable, Henderson said, is to have good jobs close by.