Red Hook: A Tale of Two Cities

“The sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction.”
                  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (p. 21: Book 1 Ch. 4)

When Hurricane Sandy hit my neighborhood of the past nine years in October of 2012, exactly two years ago today, I had to face a reality that people talk about but don't feel so acutely on a day-to-day basis in our wired, hyper-connected world: Red Hook is a hard place to live. While on a map it seems to be a part of Brooklyn, and one not so far as the crow flies from the steel canyons of Lower Manhattan, anyone who lives here would tell you that it's set apart from the City in more ways than one. If not the expressway built by Robert Moses, cutting Red Hook off from the rest of Brooklyn, then perhaps the crack epidemic of the 80's-90's that killed a local elementary school principal, or the recent reverberations of that crime wave?

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When Hurricane Sandy nearly completely flooded Red Hook, words started running through my head: we are living on the edge. This is not a normal place. The seething underbelly is at hand. Perhaps those thoughts came too late at night, when I was busy juggling care of an infant with planning for Find & Seek. But these thoughts came, and they sat with me, and they colored my perspective of my neighborhood.  After Sandy, Red Hook smelled like motor oil for at least 2 weeks. That's something I've never experienced. Smelling it in the air, seeing it all over the ground, seeing piles of belongings stacked up on every corner, hearing stories of the apocalypse told by friends with flood-borne PTSD, having to tell my girls to put down the sticks we picked up outside (we don't know what's on them), seeing the lines of people coming to the church for food and warm clothing, hearing stories of families staying inside their cold, dark apartments, for fear of the hallways. . . all of these things taught me that Red Hook was suffering.  

But I already knew that. I knew it when I taught 4-year-old students with rotting teeth, in the same school where one teen bound (with tape) a 6-year-old in a stairwell. I knew it when many of my 7-year-old students' imaginative stories included an ambulance.  I knew it when I heard shots at night.  When I heard helicopters overhead. When I heard true stories of robberies at gunpoint. When I found crack viles on my street. When a local teen died under mysterious circumstances, just last year.  Over the past nine years I've lived here, I have come face to face with the reality that Red Hook is really two neighborhoods in one: The world of the Red Hook Houses (NYCHA buildings house around 50% of Red Hook's population of 11,000) and "The Back" (brownstones along cobblestone streets where many of the "gentrifying" families live). In many ways Red Hook's two worlds mirror the discrepancies of power and privilege that have been building in the past century across New York City, one Mayor Bill deBlasio has taken to calling our own Tale of Two Cities, in a Dickensian sense.  While economic inequality is on the rise everywhere in the United States, most would agree that it is more acute here in NYC. It is even more obvious in a neighborhood like Red Hook. A place set apart, literally, from the rest of Brooklyn by the BQE, and removed from transportation more than most neighborhoods are, and if that weren't enough: it's nearly surrounded by water.  For these and many more reasons through the ages, Red Hook has taken on a mythic character.

Over 50% of our Red Hook neighbors reside in NYCHA buildings. Post-Sandy, these buildings have been shrouded in scaffolding, for reasons unknown to many. Mold is rampant. Diesel fumes from external boilers infect the air. Dozens of large trees were cut down in 2014, having been killed by salt water from Sandy.

Over 50% of our Red Hook neighbors reside in NYCHA buildings. Post-Sandy, these buildings have been shrouded in scaffolding, for reasons unknown to many. Mold is rampant. Diesel fumes from external boilers infect the air. Dozens of large trees were cut down in 2014, having been killed by salt water from Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy’s widespread destruction in 2012 set the neighborhood back even more, in one sense, but the storm’s aftermath also pushed neighbors together in ways that non-tragic circumstances haven't been able to do. For many weeks, into months, Red Hook's citizens took account of each other, regardless of which section of the neighborhood they lived in. Great collective efforts were made to work on transformative community restoration.  Bridges were truly built.  But then again, while we (from Red Hook's separate worlds) started talking to each other more than ever when we were all in need, gradually what we think of as "normal" set in again, the lights went on, the basements were pumped dry, the generators were turned off, and we were back to  . . . two cities?  Hopefully not, as evidenced by many great programs that have grown from within Red Hook’s ranks. The neighborhood is open to the development of vibrant partnerships, particularly those which keep children’s best interests in mind.  In this context, we are acutely aware of how our Find & Seek story can function as a vital new link in the larger story of a healing Red Hook.  

(Hope for the future of Red Hook runs high: balloons go up at the Barnacle Parade, 2014. Click image to see more. See video of 1st Annual Barnacle Parade.)

By Kristin Eno