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.
More of the neighborhood’s residents found themselves unemployed, and a stream of people began leaving the neighborhood, the community becoming a shell of its former self.
By the early 1970s and into the 1980s, crime was rampant in the streets, and by the 1990s, the Red Hook Houses, which once housed dockworkers, became home to a dangerous, yet profitable drug ring. Drugs took over the public housing and much of the neighborhood.
It wasn’t until 2006, when the drug bubble burst and more than 150 law enforcement officers came through Red Hook to arrest dealers, that the neighborhood really started to change. But change came at an enormous cost: Grandmothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters were brought into custody in drug sweeps that occurred on April 28 of that year.
Naiyma Holmes, 27, who works as an RHI administrative staffer, remembers that day when the cops came through the neighborhood after an 18-month investigation that started in 2004.
“I remember cops surrounded all the buildings early in the morning,” Holmes said. “They raided two apartments in my building, right around the corner from Hicks.”
The April 2006 raid resulted in about 153 arrests. The raid was a wake-up call for many in the community, which was viewed as a drug haven.
“I think [the raid] scared a lot of people,” she said. “It made people change their life a little bit.”
But the move to change Red Hook was not the result of a single effort. Many Black and white folks worked to make the community a better place.
One respected member of the community has been Greg O’Connell, a retired white New York City police officer who had the vision to see a better Red Hook community. O’Connell wanted to bring jobs back to Red Hook and improve the landscape.
In one area, he bought 28 acres from the Port Authority and redeveloped the area so it could accommodate businesses and apartment seekers looking for affordable spaces. With his efforts, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and processors began coming into Red Hook as the area became more settled.
Artists and low-income New York residents were also able to find inexpensive apartments, and business owners were able to find affordable office space. In addition, a new water taxi service was implemented, providing a much-needed connection to downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.
These new developments were welcomed by people of color, but with change came new demographics to the area. Red Hook, which was known for a large Black and Hispanic population for decades, suddenly had significant numbers of white folks. According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 1,727 white residents.
However, even with the new people in the area, many young people of color are not seeing the newcomers as a problem.
“There’s always going to be a conflict between races,” said Maribeth White, 24, who is African-American. “But it’s not a huge issue from what I see out here in Red Hook just because of how the community is made up.”
For Blacks and Hispanics, there has been a peaceful sharing of the neighborhood for more than a generation. White said she grew up with Black and Hispanic friends and lives in an apartment now with a majority of Hispanic tenants. While relations are good, they are not perfect.
“I would say the most annoying thing is when you’re around and they start talking Spanish because they just don’t want you to know what they’re saying,” White said.
White, who works as an RHI education advocate, has lived in Red Hook for 24 years. As a child, she grew up in a middle-class family, moving back and forth between homes in Red Hook and Queens. After her father became sick when she was in the eighth grade, her family decided to move to Red Hook permanently.
White says she seemed to have lived a double life as a young person in Red Hook, hanging out with drug dealers in the neighborhood one minute and getting new Cabbage Patch dolls from her positive, hard-working parents the next.
“I never did anything extreme,” she said. “But, it was kind of the people I hung out with. It made me very aware of [feeling like], ‘I should not be back here, you know, this is not how I grew up.’”
Similarly, Holmes also grew up for 27 years in Red Hook in humble beginnings with a grandfather who owned a store in Bed-Stuy and schoolmates who were from different ethnic backgrounds. But after her 19-year-old brother was killed in 1998, then-15-year-old Holmes went through an emotional part of her life, hanging out with young people who were not positive.
“I just kind of got out of that [phase],” Holmes said. “I couldn’t disappear from my mother anymore. I mean, I came from a good family.”
Unlike when she was growing up, Holmes says young people today are able to take advantage of multiple resources to succeed socially and academically, given the amount of organizations such as RHI.
“It’s not just, you’re coming in to play basketball,” she said. “[RHI] offers homework help, paper work help, college help.”
Both White and Holmes mentioned that the older residents in the neighborhood seem to be the only ones complaining about the newer developments in Red Hook, such as the Ikea that opened in 2008.
“They complain because it’s an inconvenience to them and they don’t look at the community as a whole,” White said.
Although White commends organizations like RHI, she says there are still young people and parents in the neighborhood who are not trying to do the right thing,
“Had we held on to the feelings we had back in the ’50s and ’60s of empowerment and keeping together families and things like that,” she said, “we would’ve been so much further than where we are now.”