Hooked on Red Hook

Jimmy Kalogeras and his father, Nick, came to Red Hook seven months ago, pooling their money to open a diner at the corner of Van Brunt and Commerce streets.

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.

"When we heard that Red Hook was coming up, all this stuff was going in, he left where he worked, I left where I worked, and we came," said Kalogeras, who used to work in Astoria and now manages the Red Hook Cafe and Grill. He is 22, and his father is 57.

"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.

Her son, Garland, 27, commutes by subway to his retail job in Elmhurst, Queens.

"The people here do need jobs," she said Thursday evening as she took a walk around the houses. "But there are no jobs around here. That's what we're hoping Ikea will do."

Samuel Wright, 57, an unemployed youth counselor who first came to live in the project with his parents in 1953, casts another vote for jobs -- and offered a personal message for businesses setting up shop in Red Hook. "What I would like to see someone give these people is a guarantee of jobs," he said.

In a sign of how commercial development could improve employment prospects, Wright noted that some residents have found work in the Lowe's hardware store that opened last year on Second Avenue in Gowanus, across the Gowanus Canal just east of Red Hook.

"I'd say that right now things are looking fairly well, but they haven't materialized yet," Wright said.

All this development hasn't been without controversy. Some residents opposed construction of the Fairway, and some similarly are opposing the Ikea project, objecting to the store's size and saying it will bring too much traffic into the neighborhood -- which all concede is lamentably short of public transportation. Often voiced is the concern that Red Hook could find itself victim of a Faustian bargain, shrugging off decrepitude at the cost of its essential character.

Still, it says something about Red Hook's chrysalis-like state that the Red Hook Civic Association finds itself in the position of opposing one big project (Ikea) while supporting another (the ship terminal).

John McGettrick, co-chair of the civic association, practically gets misty over the thought of the big boats at rest in Red Hook.

"This could be history repeating itself," he said, a harking back to days of yore when Red Hook's energy flowed from the waterfront and cargo was king.

"It was a different type of maritime activity, but it was still maritime activity."

Sue Amendola is ready and waiting.

When her grandfather arrived from Italy's Amalfi coast near the turn of the last century, he bought the four-story brick tenement on Van Brunt Street, between Sullivan and King streets, and opened Amendola's Deli on the first floor. The dockworkers, factory workers and neighborhood regulars who came in for espresso and cold-cut sandwiches are long gone.

Amendola, who grew up on the second floor and has lived in Red Hook for 45 years, inherited the building from her father. She keeps the storefront stuffed with bric-a-brac -- waiting, she said, for the return of good times.

From her home's rear windows, she can see the southern end of the property, where the city plans to build the ship terminal, and she is buzzing with ideas. "I'm thinking of making a bed-and-breakfast," she said, only half-jokingly. "For the tourists, you know."

Four blocks north, at the Red Hook Cafe and Grill, Jimmy Kalogeras thought about the Port Authority workers whom the ship terminal may displace. But he just couldn't get too worked up about it.

"I'd lose customers," he said. "But then again, if they open up the cruise lines, I'll gain others. It's a win-win situation."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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