Red Hook: A Storied Past

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Judith Dailey, 58, has fond memories of growing up in Red Hook when the Brooklyn neighborhood was still bustling with longshoremen and their families.

She remembers seeing movies at the Pioneer Theater, going fishing with her father, a dock worker at Todd Shipyards, and attending church bazaars in what was then an open field behind the convent at Visitation Place.

"The bazaars were like a mini-Coney Island with rides and games," reminisced Dailey, a teacher's assistant at Red Hook's P.S. 27. One man from the neighborhood gave out candy to all the children, she said.

She described a close-knit family and community life. Not only did she have her family, which was of Puerto Rican heritage and included seven brothers and sisters, but Dailey said neighbors also looked out for each other. "You didn't get away with a thing," she said. "Everybody knew everybody. It was such a sense of security."

Red Hook became an important shipping center in the mid 1800s with the opening of the Atlantic Basin, a wharf with warehouses used largely for the storage of grain.

During its shipping heyday -- from the 1850s until the 1950s -- Red Hook also had its tough side. Al Capone got his start as a petty criminal in the neighborhood before moving to Chicago in 1920. It reportedly was during Capone's days in Red Hook that he was wounded and was given his nickname "Scarface."

The dark side of life on Red Hook's docks was dramatized in the 1954 movie "On the Waterfront," starring Marlon Brando.

Dailey, who remains a Red Hook resident, remembers when the neighborhood began its downward spiral as shipyards, including Todd Shipyards where her father worked for 27 years, began closing.

According to the Encyclopedia of New York City, Red Hook's decline in the late 1950s and early 1960s was linked in part to the demise of so-called break-bulk shipping, when goods were packed in boxes and longshoremen physically unloaded them from ships.

This mode of moving goods was used less and less with the advance of container shipping, which involves placing cargo in large containers lifted off ships by cranes. The region's new container shipping hub shifted across the harbor along New Jersey's shores.

"Businesses moved out and people also moved. We lost a lot of families," Dailey said.

Red Hook's maritime history goes back much further than last century. The area was first settled by the Dutch in 1636, one of the earliest settlements in Brooklyn. The Dutch named the area Roode Hoek -- red for the color of its soil and hook for the way the peninsula curved into the harbor.

With the opening of the Atlantic Basin in the 1850s, Red Hook became one of the busiest shipping ports in the country. Brick rowhouses lined the residential areas and in 1936, the Red Hook Houses East -- a big public housing project -- was built to provide residences for dockworkers, many of whom where Italian, Irish and Puerto Rican immigrants.

The decline of the shipping industry was not the only reason Red Hook fell on hard times. The neigbhorhood was physically cut off from the rest of the city when the Gowanus Expressway was built in 1946. Later, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, whose Brooklyn entrance sits at the northern tip of Red Hook, did more to isolate the neighorood.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Red Hook earned a reputation as a crime-ridden, desolate place. Abandoned warehouses and empty lots abounded.

That is why Dailey welcomes any new businesses that want to settle in the neighborhood. She supports a controversial proposal to build a huge Ikea furniture store in the old New York Shipyards.

"I support Ikea because I remember what it was like when people were able to work in their community," she said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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