FAQ: the history of Red Hook

“[Red Hook] has almost entirely lost its identity, in consequence of the Atlantic Docks, and the other extensive and important improvements in that part of the modern city of Brooklyn.”

–Henry R. Stiles, c. 1870

I’m switching things up a bit this week – instead of spinning a story out of Red Hook’s history, I give you a question-and-answer format. Feel free to leave any subsequent questions in the comments.

How did Red Hook get its name?
From the Dutch Roode Hoek, “red point”, so named for the color of the soil and a former geographical feature. The same was true for nearby Yellow Hook, which rebranded itself Bay Ridge after an outbreak of yellow fever in the 1840s (definitely one of my favorite bits of Brooklyn trivia).

So it’s not named for the hook-looking thing that extends into New York Bay?
No. That bit of land, known as the Erie Basin, was completed in 1869. The “point” referred to in the name was actually part of a tidal island. In fact, one of the first canals was built by Dutch residents of the Gowanus Creek area, cutting northwest to avoid the shallow, choppy waters south of Red Hook.

Detail from Bernard Ratzer’s 1770 map at the Brooklyn Historical Society, compared with a recent Google Earth image.

Erie Basin? Like Erie Canal?
The same. Erie Basin was so named to evoke the end of domestic travels for grain that made its way from the midwest via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River. Much of Red Hook’s economy was dependent on the grain trade, with a serious decline in both coming in the 1950s.

What were the Atlantic Docks, the ones that caused Red Hook to lose its identity?
Built by the Atlantic Dock Company, Atlantic Basin, as it was formally known, was constructed in the 1840s. The yard was on the northern side of Red Hook, facing Buttermilk Channel. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and a real-estate boom in the 1830s created an entrepreneurial opportunity, and Daniel Richards and James Stranahan stepped up to the plate. They finished their first grain elevator in 1847; by 1884, Atlantic Basin had eight, to go with 20 acres of warehouses. Of the 2,100 new houses in Brooklyn in 1848-1849, 800 of them were in Red Hook alone. Bye bye, Dutch farms and mills.

Why would someone ship to Red Hook, and not to somewhere closer to Manhattan?
Simply put: space. Atlantic Basin was one of the largest ports of its time, offering 150 berths. (That still wasn’t enough: ships would often have to camp out near the mouth of the Gowanus Canal for something to free up.) Because waterfront Brooklyn at the time was not nearly as developed as waterfront Manhattan, there was plenty of room for warehousing, too. This saved the cost of shuttling goods back and forth for storage.

And, as believe it or not, Atlantic Basin is just over a mile away from the tip of Manhattan.

Red Hook, circa 1875, from a Currier & Ives print. (from the Library of Congress, via Wikipedia)

Who built the shipyards?
Mostly Irish and German immigrants. Many Irish already called Red Hook home by the 1840s, but the Atlantic Dock Company imported cheaper Germans. This naturally led to some strife, which the Company tried to quell by agreeing to hire the two groups in equal numbers. There was also a sizable Norwegian population in the area, although Bay Ridge is better known for them.

The building of Erie Basin is more interesting. Its founder, William Beard, charged incoming vessels from all over the globe 50 cents per cubic yard to dump the rocks they held for ballast. Not only did he get his material at no cost, he also created what might be the world’s most cosmopolitan piece of artificial land.

Did Red Hook play a role in the Battle of Brooklyn?
Indeed it did – in fact, it might have saved the young United States. To protect the waters from a British advance, the former colonists cobbled together a rudimentary fort, which they called “Fort Defiance”. Its cannons – with the help of a headwind – kept Admiral Howe’s man-of-war, Roebuck, and a hundred or so other ships from reaching the East River. Instead, they dropped their militiamen in Gravesend.

A few nights later, Washington orchestrated the army’s daring escape from Brookland Ferry – which the troops had reached by a road named Red Hook Lane. That road is now a block long, but I did manage to find a picture I had taken of it in August.

Today’s southern terminus of Red Hook Lane, at Boerum Place in Downtown Brooklyn, features art by Steve “ESPO” Powers.

What did people in Red Hook do for fun in the 1800s?
Glad you asked. There used to be a marshy island known as Tinkersville, which was known as a rough section of town. Sometimes (perhaps after a few too many) someone would find a fat pig and hop on its back. It would run to the water and swim to the mainland in an attempt to throw the rider. The residents of Tinkersville were, understandably, not happy about having to chase down their pigs, and might take some physical revenge on the joker.

Where did Red Hook get its gritty reputation?
Some of it has to do with Al Capone: it was here that his face received its trademark scar. But really, it goes back to the industrial era, when kids with nothing better to do joined gangs. Two of the most prominent were divided by the neighborhood’s geography: the “Pointers” to the west, and the “Creekers” to the east. Today, those areas are also known as “the Back” and “the Houses”, after the Red Hook Houses.

Red Hook also suffered from a 1927 report by the New York State Crime Commission, which concluded that Red Hook’s juvenile population was the third-most delinquent in the world across comparably sized areas.

How did Robert Moses screw this area up?
Stand pretty much anywhere in Red Hook and look northeast. That’s the Gowanus Expressway, which climbs over the Gowanus Canal on its way to the BQE and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. This highway – the same that split Sunset Park in two and destroyed 3rd Avenue – provides a physical barrier between Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. The completion of the roadway also allowed trucks easy access to the area, resulting in a reduced reliance on shipping-facilities. (This post’s header comes from the inspiring cover of his Triborough Bridge Authority’s pamphlet on the Gowanus “Improvement”.)

Unlucky buildings at the future mouth of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, 1940. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

What’s up with Buttermilk Channel?
Its name seconded by a restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Buttermilk Channel is the body of water separating Red Hook from Governor’s Island. Dairy farmers from the southern reaches of Kings County would bring milk by boat to Red Hook, preferring that course to crossing terrain. According to legend, choppy water at the confluence of the Gowanus Creek and the harbor often turned the milk to buttermilk.

How did Red Hook decline, and what goes on there today?
In 1964, a graduate student named Herman Sherman – yes – wrote in his thesis, ”It is still evident that Red Hook’s future is still bound up, as it has been for hundreds of years, with shipping.”

This was true, but perhaps not in the way Sherman had hoped. After the drop in grain shipments, the advent of containerized shipping in the early 1970s chased most of the jobs to newer ports in New Jersey. Much of the empty space was initially claimed by garbage-processing plants, although neighborhood residents fought these and proposals for a sludge plant with much success.

As with Industry City, many artists have moved in to the empty warehouses; the GO Brooklyn art project lists 148 artists in the neighborhood. And the Red Hook Container Terminal, in the old Atlantic Basin space, maintains the tradition of Red Hook’s shipping industry. According to the Times, about 15% of the region’s beer arrives there.

For real estate: the Red Hook Houses are the second-largest public-housing project in New York City (behind the Queensbridge Houses). Finished in 1938, they were built for dockworkers, and even received a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940. As I mentioned in my introductory post, Red Hook has recently been “discovered” by bargain-hunters. The downside is you need a reliable form of personal transportation, unless you want to depend on the somewhat-finnicky B61. But at least Fairway and IKEA are within walking-distance.

Bound sources:

The power broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York by Robert A. Caro (Vintage Books, 1975).

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

South Brooklyn, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill-Gowanus, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Central Business District, and Civic Center: community planning study, Manuel S. Emanuel Associates (Dept. of City Planning, New York City Planning Commission, 1967).

The colony that rose from the sea: the Norwegians in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, 1850-1910 by David C. Mauk (Ph.D. dissertation, 1991).

Red Hook, Gowanus neighborhood history guide, Marcia Reiss, Ed. (Brooklyn Historical Society, 2000).

Red Hook place-names by Herman Sherman (M.A. thesis, 1964).

A history of the city of Brooklyn : including the old town and village of Brooklyn, the town of Bushwick, and the village and city of Williamsburgh by Henry R. Stiles (Heritage Books, 1993 reprint, orig. 1867-1870).

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8 Responses to FAQ: the history of Red Hook

  1. chickenunderwear says:

    EVERY time I got to the track I recall the advice I was given back in the ’70s. “Do go to Red Hook, the cops don’t even go to Red Hook.”

  2. susie says:

    I dig the new FAQ format.

  3. Myrna Molina says:

    I live in one of the Red Hook Houses, and I have always wanted to see what the apartments looked like back in 1938. Possible?

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  5. Tom Rupolo says:

    While researching my book on Red Hook I learned that Al Capone received his famous scar in a fight in Coney Island, not in Red Hook. Unfortunately I learned that after my book went to print, so I too am guilty of preserving this myth

    • Keith Williams says:

      Thanks, Tom – could you point me to a resource that confirms the Coney Island location? I’d love to link to it when I correct this post.

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