RED HOOK THEN TO NOW: marsh, mill pond, port, derelict, renewal

Inspecting Fort Defiance, 1776

Pre-colonial Red Hook

The Native American Lenape people call Red Hook "Saponickan” or “Sapohanican.” It is a fertile marsh where the Lenape fish, hunt waterfowl, grow corn, dig shellfish and create large oyster middens along the southern and eastern shoreline. These shell piles are used up in industrial production many years later. 

It is a place of summer settlement.  Their path from Red Hook to what is now downtown Brooklyn becomes Red Hook Lane, one block of which survives into 2016.  

Freeke's Tidal Mill

Typical Brooklyn tide mill of the mid 1600s to mid 1800s.


1636 to 1850:  200 years as a blue green space

In 1636, Duch colonists arrive, a people, then and now, noted for their water management skills. They install tide mill ponds using water to generate power. (At high tide, a dam shuts water in the pond; and when the tide is low, the dam is opened, and the falling water turns the mill wheel.) Cleverly, they seed the bottom of the millponds with oysters, so the mill ponds generate power at high tide and make for easy food harvesting at low tide. An early Dutch settler, Adam Brouwer, proposed a canal that was dug through Red Hook to allow goods to be brought back and forth by water without having to go all the way around the peninsula. See the text of the original petition to built the canal in Henry Reed Stiles' 1867 "History of Brooklyn."

See a video of a computer model of a working tide mill here.

See a video of a historic mill in the UK here.

During these 200+ years, most of Red Hook remains rural (and marshy) and is used for fishing, shellfishing, and light farming (grass, corn, orchards).  The harbor is fecund and not fished out nor destroyed by pollution.  Oysters are so plentiful that the poor, not just the wealthy, eat them in great quantities.  

It is a sleepy place with few buildings. Most buildings are humble affairs associated with work (mills, fishing).  In comparison, during this time, Brooklyn Heights evolves from village with a bustling ferry landing to a cityscape with row houses.

Red Hook farm owners are often big names in Brooklyn Heights, it being a manageable daily commute by horseback between the Heights and here.

Red Hook Building Company, 1838

Certificate of the Red Hook Building Company, collection of PortSide NewYork


Change is in the air by the late 1830s. Maps are published showing Red Hook fully covered in a street grid, including many streets of residences.  These are for the development plan of the Red Hook Building Company led by Col. Daniel Richards. It fails, and he goes on to build Atlantic Dock. 

Warehouse and Basin of the Atlantic Dock, Brooklyn, 1851

1851 depiction of part of Atlantic Dock. The current Atlantic Basin is a downsized, modernized version of the facility that was built with granite warehouses and piers within the waterspace.


1850-1950: 100 years of intense urbanization and growth

Brooklyn is incorporated as a city in 1834.  Most of Brooklyn is farmland, except of the suburb of Brooklyn Heights.

In Red Hook, a major, man-made harbor surrounded by warehouses called Atlantic Dock is finished in the late 1840s, and the Bull Creek canal is filled to construct Atlantic Dock. (Atlantic Dock is sometimes called Atlantic Docks and is called Atlantic Basin as of the 1960s.)

Atlantic Dock triggers urbanization in Red Hook at an explosive pace and ends Red Hook’s mill pond and farm era. 

The creation of Atlantic Dock leads the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to report that Brooklyn is on its way to become a commercial center and a player relative to New York City (which is just Manhattan at that time.) 

Yes, a Red Hook maritime development is seen as that significant to the future of Brooklyn. Maritime businesses begin moving en masse from Manhattan to Red Hook.

During the next 100 years, massive port, shipyard, warehousing and manufacturing sites are constructed, most of them related to the waterfront if not on it.  Housing is constructed on many blocks, and Red Hook’s population increases in size and diversity with immigrants from several places and visiting sailors from many nations.

The waterfront is busy, and not just with massive cargo vessels. There are tugs, there are yachts. Small boats are for rent, there is a floating pool, excursion boats pick up in the neighborhood, many marine businesses run small boats to transport visitors or seek business from vessels in the harbor.  Photographs from the early 1900's show scenes that look the New England shore that New Yorkers like to visit, with all sorts of boats and maritime uses cheek by jowl.

Erie Basin: The Photography of Jenny Young Chandler, 1890-1915

Erie Basin, Photo by Jenny Young Chandler, from The Henry Ford


Erie Basin: The Photography of Jenny Young Chandler, 1890-1915

Erie Basin, Photo by Jenny Young Chandler, from The Henry Ford


Erie Basin canal boats, ca. 1900

Erie Basin canal boats, ca. 1900, source New York State Archives 


War Materials about to be shipped out From Erie Basin, 1941

Erie Basin, WWII war materials ready to be shipped.  International News Service photograph, March 1941. Collection of PortSide NewYork


During much of these 100 years, Red Hook has a combination of industry, residences built on the street grid, shantytowns off the grid, and undeveloped land.

Shantytowns - not to be confused with squatters - are low-income, hardscrabble housing that is common in Brooklyn and Manhattan through the 1800s where the residents often build the home and pay "ground rent" for the land. The shantytown residents get no heat, water, sewage or waste removal services, and the roads are not paved. Residents often keep livestock and have small businesses on site taking in sewing or running taverns or processing waste (rag picking, scrap metal). For more, see our essay "Shantytowns, affordable housing, back in the day."

Amazingly, despite a booming economy that has Erie Basin become the busiest maritime facility in the nation and be the heart of Brooklyn's port of international significance, Red Hook still retains open land and shantytowns, vestiges of its watery shoreline, until the 1930s. 

The late 1930s is when the last of Red Hook's marsh is filled. That is when streets are constructed over all of Red Hook on the grid envisioned 100 years before by Col. Daniel Richards. This final phase occurs when the NYCHA Red Hook East development is built in 1938, followed by the ballfields and pool. NYCHA Red Hook West is built in 1955.

Since the late 1990's, the media has often reported that the construction of public housing is one on the changes that drags Red Hook down (the construction of the BQE and containerization leading to the departure of shipping are the other two factors often cited).

However, when the NYCHA houses are built in Red Hook, they are hailed as a great improvement and are popular -not surprising, given the many acres of Red Hook that still have shantytowns, a squatter colony, and the rough land of a waste dump that recently filled former marsh and tide mill ponds.

Look at eastern Red Hook in NYC's 1924 aerial to see a lot of acreage that shows paths through weedy undeveloped terrain. Also, some blocks south and east of Coffey Park are on the street grid but remain undeveloped.

Much of that rough land in southeast Red Hook is replaced by the Red Hook ballfields and pool. According to the New York Times, the opening of the Red Hook pool was attended by 40,000 people.

Ørkenen Sur images

The shantytowns of the 1800s were modest to hardscrabble housing but not as wretched as the squatter camps that sprang up in the 1920s. One of those, Ørkenen Sur, arrived before the Great Depression due to a collapse in international shipping that stranded many Norwegian sailors.


Photo of newly constructed NYHA building with car, 1939

Newly constructed NYCHA Red Hook building, 1939


1960 to 1992: the plummet, 32 years when most maritime and manufacturing departs

Red Hook’s economy collapses from boom town to abandoned warehouses and empty lots, from a bustling shoreline to a silent, rotting one. The death of Red Hook is not just because shipping changes with the advent of containers and moved to NJ, as the story is often told.

Yes, in 1956, the shipping container is invented; and yes, in 1962, the Port Authority opens the world’s first container port, in Elizabeth, NJ which causes most shipping to move to NJ. But the collapse of Red Hook is clinched by the inaction that follows. 

A lot of property is warehoused (and some still is) by the private and public sector.  Government policies about the waterfront play a big role. Some are policies of doing nothing, others of doing things that fail, others that block efforts to reactivate it. 

In the early 1960’s, Red Hook’s major waterfront landowners include the Port Authority, the City, Todd Shipyard and the Revere/Sucrest Sugar refinery.

The Port Authority owns much of Red Hook’s waterfront after buying the former NY Dock properties in 1955, eg, much of the waterfront running from the BrooklynBridge to and including the Grain Terminal on Columbia Street. The City owns some large parcels inside that stretch.  Also in there is the largest privately-owned waterfront site in Brooklyn, the Todd Shipyard. Next to that is the Revere/Sucrest Sugar refinery. The rest of Erie Basin is owned by the Port Authority.

1975 footprint of larger proposed RHCT

An early plan for a Red Hook containerport envisioned one much larger than was built.

A public discussion simmers for years about whether to build a Red Hook containerport and how the City and Port Authority will work together (or not). The Port Authority updates some of its holdings in the 1960s by razing Atlantic Dock structures and filling over half its waterspace to create the current Atlantic Basin. 

In 1972, a joint City-Port Authority plan is approved to make 230 acres of Red Hook into a containerport that would run from the entrance of Erie Basin up to the current port.  The promises include one by the City to build new housing for displaced residents. 

The full containerport plan is never built; a smaller containerport is installed in the 1980s.

During these years of limbo and the spector of eminent domain to build a port, many homeowners sell, the real estate market withers, buildings are razed.  Decay intensifies along the waterfront which for 300+ years has been the source of Red Hook’s power, appeal and its connection to the larger world.  

In the late 1980s, the Port Authority invests $42MM in the Erie Basin Fishport which opens, flops, and closes within months in 1987.  

Red Hook’s waterfront is left with a scar of abandonment and the stigma of inaction.

Good policies also have destructive effects 

The Clean Water Act of 1972 improves water quality, and marine borer worms return and live up their name. They bore through the wood pilings holding up piers which begin collapsing because the property is being warehoused and not maintained.

Next, the US Army Corps drift removal program pulls down the inactive piers destroyed by borers and rot so timbers don’t break loose and create hazards floating around the harbor. This removes a lot of maritime infrastructure. Fire takes out others such as the pier that becomes Valentino Park. 

All of this degrades and removes docking infrastructure which state environmental regulations of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will make hard to rebuild once new property owners try to bring the remaining piers back to life.

In the early 1990s, the Port Authority begins selling an arc of waterfront properties along the southern edge of Red Hook to (moving counterclockwise around the shore) Greg O’Connell and his partners, Hughes and Reinauer who set up the Erie Basin bargeport, and the Quadrozzi family.

All those landowners report that their efforts to reactivate the water’s edge face the challenge of the DEC that is reluctant to grant permits for shoreline repair. Many of their complaints with the DEC are detailed in a 2005 New York City Council Waterfront Committee Hearing. 

Getting a DEC permit remains a major challenge in the present day. 

Urban blight of the era

Inland, gangs, crime and crack use wreak a toll on the Hook during the 1980s. A stalwart, rump remains of the Red Hook community soldiers on, while the media portrays Red Hook as the poster child of the crack epidemic.  for outsiders, Red Hook's waterfront becomes known as a place where people drive to do illegal dumping (tires, stolen cars, an occasional body), drag racing and other illegal activities. 

By the late 1980s, the maritime industry in the region is growing and seeking dock space, but waterfront parcels in Red Hook are inaccessible and warehoused for years. A vivid example is the warehousing is the Sucrest/Revere sugar refinery property that sits idle, often for sale, after the refinery closes in the 1980s. 

The word on the street (or in a rag tag marina of locals that existed there for many years) is that the refinery is owned by a crony of Imelda Marcos. That owner, and the one that follows, has the property listed at high prices that are more than a decade ahead of their time, so the site doesn't sell.  During this limbo, the site's docking infrastructure and buildings deteriorate badly.

Towards the end of this tough 30+ year phase, quietly, urban pioneers start moving into private housing; and small-scale manufacturers and industrial businesses set up shop. On their heels are years of graduate students coming to study urban decay and how to plan renewal.

American Molasses - Sucrest - Revere Sugar

Revere Sugar in 2007 after Thor Equities had begun demolition. Photo (c) 2007 Carolina Salguero

1992 ­­­- 2016: 24 years from nadir to hot real estate and superstorm Sandy

December 12, 1992 is widely deemed to be Red Hook’s nadir when the beloved Principal of PS15 elementary school Patrick Daly is shot and killed by drug dealer crossfire in broad daylight. Civic betterment groups swing into action, and the neighborhood rebound begins.

The large waterfront parcels sold by the Port Authority (above) slowly come to life for varied uses (maritime, retail, mixed use of commercial, industrial and public access), and the effects of the increased activity, and safer waterfront, ripple inland. 

The urban pioneers and small scale manufacturers continue coming, so that by the early 2000's, the media rebrands Red Hook from "no-go zone" to "destination."  Red Hook becomes the poster child of artisanal, design-build, New Brooklyn by the sea.

The 2002 approval of a Fairway Market for a waterfront warehouse sets off a real estate boom. In 2004, a zoning change clears the way for IKEA to create a store on the old Todd Shipyard, and IKEA closes on the shipyard in 2005. (In the last days of the shipyard, PortSide tapes several oral histories about the shipyard on site).

This is Red Hook WaterStories 1.0. Come back soon for the rest of the article that covers 2002 to 2016.

RED HOOK THEN TO NOW: marsh, mill pond, port, derelict, renewal