Brooklyn Waterfront: Berths or Boondoggle?
The 1970s were a tough economic time for the Brooklyn waterfront. Containerization of ship cargo had reduced the number of jobs, and many of those jobs had moved to facilities in New Jersey. The City and the Port Authority had a plan to build a new container port. Stephanie de Pue writing in the Village Voice in December of 1970, asked if the plan was just a political boondoggle with no one caring about the effect it would have on the people living in the area.
The paper reported that $9 million was earmarked to start buying 41 acres of privately held land around Columbia Street, on the waterfront. “together with the streets within the plot will provide the approximately 25 acres of back-up land per pier the Port Authority says it needs." The land was then to be leased to the bi-state Port Authority for the construction of containerization facilities for two of its adjacent piers.
The area now called the Columbia Waterfront District, is not considered Red Hook, but the container terminal which runs north of its entrance at the end of Hamilton Avenue is known as the Red Hook Container Terminal. Hamilton Avenue is used to define the border of Red Hook but the waterfront community on either side of the road was largely the same.
The Columbia Waterfront District is a narrow neighborhood with the water along one length and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (built in the 1950s) just a few blocks inland. Puerto Ricans established a community here by the 1940s, near the pier where the Porto Rican Line moved cargo and people to and from the island. By 1970 it was about 60% Puerto Rican, 30% Italian and 10% Black – and poor.
The Voice reported that the city's plan for adding 41 acres of port space was at a cost of 300 housing units, representing approximately 500 poor families with no provisions for finding them substitute housing.
The plan had the support of people with power including, Anthony Tony Scotto, President of the Brooklyn local of the International Longshoremen's Association, D. Kenneth Patton, administrator of the Economic Development Association and adviser to Mayor Lindsey, John Scanlon Commissioner of the EDA and Thomas Cuite, a leader of the New York City Council.
The Puerto Rican community threatened with a loss of housing and livelihood was organizing but had little political support. This was despite that, says the Voice, John Collins of the City Planning Commission calculated that the project would destroy 700 to 800 unskilled or semi-skilled non-union jobs held by residents of this community and Red Hook and close a number of Puerto Rican businesses while creating at most 500 ILA jobs.
Stephanie de Pue notes that the city was loosing waterfront business, dropping 28% in 1970; at a time when the EDA estimated that 40% of Brooklyn's jobs were waterfront germinated but asks if this was the right plan. She concludes by pointing out that even if plan for a new container port was successful, developments in vertical containerization would mean that the Port Authority would not need most of the cleared 41 acres.