Red Hook, Brooklyn: A rich seafaring history, organized crime and the isolation of a beleaguered neighborhood



PODCAST Red Hook, Brooklyn, the neighborhood called by the Dutch ‘Roode Hoek’ for its red soil, became a key port during the 19th century, a stopping point for vessels carry a vast array of raw goods from the interior of the United States along the Erie Canal. In particular, two manmade harbors were among the greatest developments in Brooklyn history, stepping in when Manhattan’s own decaying wharves became too overcrowded.

With these basins came a mix of ethnicities to Brooklyn, and along with new styles of row houses came the usual assortment of vices — saloons and brothels along Hamilton Avenue. This fostered the development of crime along the docks, and Red Hook soon witnessed firsthand the opening salvos of 20th Century organized crime.

How did the history-rich, nautical neighborhood go from a booming center of employment to one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States by the 1990s? And can some surprising twists of fate from the last twenty years help Red Hook return to its glory days?

Featuring: Revolutionary War forts, shantytowns, Vaseline factories, famous gangsters, the gateway to Hell, and cheap Swedish furniture!


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The Bowery Boys: Red Hook: Brooklyn on the Waterfront

Notes, clarifications, sources, and additional information will be posted next week. Photo above: Taken on Van Brunt street, 1/11/2012

 The Atlantic Docks, illustration taken from Booth’s History of New York. (care of NYPL)

Modern living, circa 1939. The Red Hook Houses at their debut. Although the housing development cleared away a great many dilapidated homes — following a common model of urban redevelopment — the uninspired uniformity would put a dent in the neighborhood’s original character. (Courtesy LOC)

The Red Hook Play Center opened in 1936, the final of 11 swimming pools Robert Moses built during his early years as parks commissioner. Its Art Moderne style made it a beautiful if curious addition to the neighborhood.

The Erie Basin, a clutter of vessels and piers, is strangely beautiful from overhead in relation to the Manhattan skyline. (Pic courtesy Wired NY)

The crisis of organized crime and corruption within the longshoreman’s union along the Brooklyn waterfront was an inspiration for many writers, including Arthur Miller (below) in his unproduced screenplay ‘The Hook‘ — referring both to the neighborhood and the longshoreman’s “ever-present baling hook“. Later, Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg found similar inspiration for the Oscar winning film ‘On The Waterfront’, loosely basing events on situations that took place along the entire New York and Brooklyn waterfront. (The film was made in Hoboken, but there are of course famous shots of the Manhattan skyline.)