After it was settled in 1636, Red Hook remained a marshy rural land for 200 years. It wasn’t until the Atlantic Basin opened in the 1840s that the neighborhood rapidly grew.
The Atlantic Dock Company developed piers in the Atlantic Basin and railroad contractor William Beard had wharves in the Erie Basin built, helping make the peninsula one of the busiest shipping centers in the United States.
Ships from all over the world docked in Red Hook to receive and unload cargo and be repaired during the Civil War.
In later years, grain barges from the Erie Canal gathered at the opening of the Gowanus Canal waiting for a turn at the piers, until the decline in grain traffic in the 1950s.
The Red Hook Houses, one of the first and largest housing projects in the city, opened in 1938 for the families of dockworkers. During the early 1950s though, residents began to move out of the neighborhood because of transit limitations.
Many buildings and warehouses built in the 1800s were crumbling because there was no money to renovate them and containerized shipping caused Red Hook shippers to move their businesses to new ports in New Jersey.
Renewal eventually began in the 1970s on the west side of Red Hook, called “The Back,” drawing painters and sculptors who found they could buy row houses cheap through a city program that subsidized housing for artists.
How Red Hook Got Its Name
The Dutch acquired the area now known as Red Hook when William Adrianse Bennet and Jacques Bentyn bought the land — 930 acres — from the Indian chief Gowane in 1636. They called it Roode Hoek, which meant Red Point (not hook), for the color of its soil and the shape of the land.
In the 1760s, the street called Red Hook Lane, originally an Indian trail, became a key route for the Continental Army. It ran all the way from what was then the center of Brooklyn (now Downtown Brooklyn) southwest through Dutch farms to Red Hook.
In the Revolutionary War, Red Hook was established as an important line of defense, primarily because of its location overlooking New York Harbor. Fort Defiance was built there, under the supervision of Gen. Nathanael Greene, to guard the Buttermilk Channel between Red Hook and Governors Island. The fort was destroyed during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.
The area remained rural until the mid-19th century, when the construction of the Atlantic Basin and the Erie Basin, enclosed safe harbors for sailing ships, made Red Hook a busy shipping center. The building of grain elevators, warehouses and new homes meant major development of the Red Hook area.
For a time, the neighborhood was considered squalid, overcrowded and crime-ridden. (It was home to the notorious gangster Al Capone before he went to Chicago.)
In the 1950s, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, impelled by Robert Moses in the name of “slum clearance” and “urban renewal,” cut right through the lower-income Red Hook neighborhood.
More recently, artists and sculptors moved into a section called The Back on the west side of the neighborhood near Buttermilk Channel and began a revival of Red Hook.
Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook.
He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism.
He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.