June 24, 2004

Article at The New York Sun

The Lure Of Red Hook

Surrounded by water on three sides and hemmed in by the Gowanus Expressway on the fourth, Brooklyn's Red Hook is a world unto itself. "Pure romance," pronounced longtime resident Olga Bloom, whose Bargemusic - a renowned concert venue - is anchored below the Brooklyn Bridge, just a few knots upwind from Red Hook. "When you look down our cobblestone streets, you see boats going by, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance."

Ms. Bloom was introduced to Red Hook in 1978, by helpful longshoremen who brought her there to buy marine paint for the old barge she had bought from the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. Because city officials had been discouraging her - nicely, she said - from living on her barge in the treacherous East River, she was in the market for a house as well as for paint. She fell in love with a skinny, Civil War era brick row house on Coffey Street, with a garden "fore and aft" and a price tag of $6,000. Because the two houses on her building's northwestern flank were set well back, hers was bathed in light for most of the day.

Even in the 1970s, $6,000 was a bargain price for a three-story house. But while Ms. Bloom saw the "beauty beneath the dirt and debris," lenders saw only that the city government had zoned much of Red Hook for industrial use - thereby outlawing residential construction. You could buy an existing house, but if it burned down you couldn't rebuild. Mortgage bankers refused to approve loans. Only romantics like Ms. Bloom and artists desperate for cheap space were likely buyers.

Artist Gloria Dieter, for example, who today lives across Coffey Street from Ms. Bloom, had been living in a tiny place in TriBeCa when she came out to paint the Red Hook waterfront in 1979.When she saw a "For Sale" sign on a crumbling brick house with a gorgeous wooden-doored, two-car garage and a large, overrun garden, she and her husband put down their savings - $80,000 in cash - to buy the house. Ignoring an order of condemnation, they began fixing the house up. "It was hard for us to ignore the roosters though," Ms. Dieter recalled. "Crowing at dawn and cock fights at night. Then there were the gun fights. And of course the motorcycle gangs. One night some big mafia guys came, took all their bikes, threw them in the Gowanus, and that was that."

Artist Bettina Magi, who bought her 1872 Coffey Street house for $85,000 in 1994, recalled roach infestation, ankle-high debris, linoleum floors, dropped ceilings, and dark brown plastic paneling on all the walls. But when she ripped off the window shades and saw Lady Liberty, she knew she was where she belonged. These were working-class homes, she said, and therefore without the elaborate ornamentation of Brooklyn Heights. But they had backyards, where a gardener could grow her own ornamentation. Because her father had sailed by the Statue of Liberty as an immigrant child, she planted a sprig in his honor from a fig tree that her grandmother had brought from Umbria. The fig tree now shades the garden, which, with its exuberant rosemary bushes and ancient roses, conveys a distinctly Mediterranean feel.

With its mix of late-18th-century maritime buildings and early-19th-century warehouses built to handle trade from the Erie Canal, Red Hook has a conspicuous orientation to the water. Its Civil War-era brick row houses and turn-of-the-20th-century plain frame houses originally housed dock workers, rather than Brooklyn's gentry.

Red Hook's prettiest street is probably Coffey, which features brick and frame houses, lush gardens, and views of the water. Two doors (or two gardens) down from Ms. Bloom someone is rebuilding an old frame house into a serene Nantucket-style cottage. Across the street, a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather is beautifully restoring a brick row house from the 1870s. On the corner at Conover, a young engineer, Dan Preston, who heads the Atair parachute company has restored and updated a large 1846 building that had been abandoned for 22 years. After his threeman team worked for eight months loading 50 dumpsters with debris, Mr. Preston became his own contractor, because no professional would touch the building. Today, he lives on the top floor and runs his parachute business on the lower three floors.

Red Hook is now a hot neighborhood. Its austere residences, sometimes interspersed among funky industrial buildings, are being restored by both longtime owners and new investors. Hipsters have been moving in, bringing a fresh feel to the area while patronizing the new restaurants, bars, and galleries. Prices have soared, of course. A top-floor loft on Coffey Street with views of the water is now being offered at $425,000 - close to Cobble Hill prices.

But houses, even on streets with industrial buildings, are particularly prized. Thus Laura Goodwin, Miriam Torres, and their two boys got a bargain when they paid $450,000 for a two-story-plus-full-basement, 2,300-square-foot frame house on Van Dyke Street. With 5-inch-wide plank floors, granite tops and wood cabinets in the kitchen, and terrazzo tiles in the basement, the house had been solicitously renovated by its former owner. Ms. Goodwin, who has filled the house with china and antiques, has also installed an altar to her African ancestors, using an appealing - probably once Roman Catholic - tin rack for votive candles that she found in a dumpster.

"Sky and water and fabulous views, plus the quiet," said Ms. Goodwin of their block. "People, people, people," added Ms. Torres, recalling their previous neighborhood of Clinton Hills, where they still own a gym. "I grew up in every ghetto in Brooklyn," said Ms. Torres. "Crown Heights, East New York, Bushwick. Now I sit and watch the boats come in." They are worried about the noise and traffic from an Ikea store that is to be built between their house and the waterfront. Still, the owner next door is asking $875,000 for an unusually handsome, four-story brick house - which would be a record price for the neighborhood.

A comparably restored house on a better street - Dikeman - is owned by Joseph Bernardo and Gary Rego,who run the Hope & Anchor diner around the corner on Van Brunt Street. Three months ago they declined an offer of $750,000 for their 3,000-square-foot, 12-room house, for which they had themselves paid $179,000 in 1998. The price had been low in part because of extensive termite damage.

They secured an FHA mortgage - "the kind that built repair costs into the loan," said Mr. Bernardo - and spent $40,000 of it on a superb restoration done by neighborhood contractor Robert Evangelista. The house has three working fireplaces with their original mantelpieces and tiles intact. It also has elaborate tin ceilings whose detail shines through the dim light."I refused to wire the ceilings for electricity," said Mr. Bernardo. "So we have a lighting issue." He also stalled Mr. Rego's plan to knock down a kitchen wall to open up the dining area. "Really, look at those moldings that would be destroyed,"he said.But on everything else the partners agreed - they needed a new kitchen, two new bathrooms, a garden, and structural supports to shore up sections damaged by termites.

Something about Red Hook attracts foodies. When homeowner Lou Sones invited me to his house on Conover Street, he said he would be easy to find because he'd be barbecuing chicken wings in the backyard for his bar, the Brazenhead, on Atlantic Avenue. And indeed smoke plumed out from behind the tiny frame house. "My wife tamed the backyard," he said, gesturing at the ebullient but neat array of bushes, flowers, and vegetables. "The herb garden has sage, cilantro, dill, basil. But 90% of the backyard is peppers, which I need for my sauce."

When we walked around to the front, to enter the house properly, I noticed that it sits level on the ground - unlike many Red Hook houses that have sunk into the soft landfill. "We had to jack up the whole house," said Mr. Sones, in order to put the kitchen below grade. "I'm glad we have a wood house, though, because wood is flexible and lets the house move on the fill. Some brick houses tend to crack."

Mr. Sones and his wife, Pat, a location scout, put their entire savings into buying their house for $115,000 in 1997. The previous owners, who thought they were making a killing, said Mr. Sones, had used their Visa card to buy the house for $3,000. But because the house is in a manufacturing zone, the Soneses couldn't get a mortgage. They borrowed half the purchase price from a friend.

A fighter by nature, Mr. Sones was the chair of Red Hook Groups Against Garbage Sites (GAGS), which helped defeat the Giuliani administration's attempt to site a huge garbage transfer station in Red Hook in the late 1990s. Mr. Sones regards the Ikea, which Mr. Bernardo likens to Dorothy's house dropping on the neighborhood from out of the sky,as little better.On the other hand, Mr. Bernardo's restaurant took its optimistic name from the Rhode Island state flag, which had in turn appropriated a Biblical idea: "God is our hope and our anchor." Having survived decades of scourges and plagues, Red Hook homeowners believe the promised land is just ahead.