Red Hook's historical double life

Jade Olivia Earle Special to the AmNews | 9/21/2011, 7:03 p.m.
Red Hook's historical double life

From a bird's-eye view of the neighborhood of Red Hook, one sees a similarity between the area's landscape and a child's LEGO set.

And as New York City's LEGO set, complete with brown public housing projects on one side and white, newly painted buildings on the other, one can also hear the sounds of construction work loudly and clearly above the stillness of the area.

Walking along 9th Street, a massive new basketball court, featuring the Knicks' colors, sits noticeably between two older brown public housing projects. Dark gray pavement is interrupted by light tan cement that runs underneath tall brass columns encircling the middle of the street.

The inconsistency of the area is an indicator of the rich history and diversity of the Red Hook community and its residents, specifically the young people of color who live together as one, participating in the Red Hook Initiative.

Considering the area's high poverty and unemployment rate, the Red Hook Initiative, which was established in 2002 as a means of helping young people look toward the future, is a godsend.

"The Red Hook Initiative began nearly 10 years ago as the Red Hook Health Initiative, intent on addressing disparities in health care in the community," said Councilwoman Sara M. Gonzalez. "It soon began addressing a wide range of community issues, and my attention was drawn particularly by their focus on youth concerns."

The organization's leaders target middle school and high school students with mentoring, tutoring and help with the college applications process. The majority of the students are either Black or Hispanic and participate in the RHI Youth Ambassadors group in their senior year in high school.

"It's like your whole personality changes. You get more respectful, your whole attitude changes," said Roy Marin, 15.

However, the initiative is not a cure-all for the neighborhood, and many of Red Hook's young people are looking for other ways to spend their free time, such as participating in music or basketball or just relaxing around the neighborhood.

"I like to go to the pier," said Lai Kyn Fishburne, 15. "I think it's pretty, so I like to be alone in the quiet and I like the smell of the water."

Along with the pier, Red Hook, named for its shape as a "hook" of protruding land from the Brooklyn coast, has been known for ship activity, which made it a pivotal industrial area for decades.

Starting in the mid-1800s, many Italian and Irish Americans came to the area to work on the docks, loading cargo and packages.

Due to the large influx of immigrants and its generally booming population, Red Hook was a natural location for public housing, which was built in 1938 to accommodate the burgeoning population. By 1950, there were at least 21,000 residents in the neighborhood, and among them were large numbers of Puerto Ricans, who made the neighborhood one of the first and core Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the city.

By the 1960s, shipping containers began to replace bulk shipping, and many dockworkers began to lose their jobs.