Community Courts


About Red Hook


Decaying warehouse buildings line a wooden dock along a waterfront. 

A pier along the water stands in front of a distant Statue of Liberty.

Industrial equipment, cranes and a smokestack are shadowed against the setting sun.

“The Back”

Located in the southwestern corner of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the neighborhood of Red Hook boasts a long and turbulent history. The neighborhood’s name comes from its shape as a “hook” of land protruding from the coast of Brooklyn. Red Hook is geographically isolated: surrounded by water on three sides and by the Gowanus Parkway and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel on the fourth, it is separated from the rest of Brooklyn and at some distance from local subway lines. With stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, the neighborhood’s western side, nicknamed “the Back,” was a natural location for one of the nation’s busiest ports.

From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Red Hook’s port made it a thriving industrial neighborhood of mainly Italian and Irish American dockworkers. It was also home to one of the first Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York City. By 1950, Red Hook had 21,000 residents, many of them longshoremen living in the Red Hook Houses, a public housing project built in 1938 to accommodate the growing number of dockworkers and their families. The neighborhood had a tough reputation—with such notorious figures as Al Capone getting their start there as small-time criminals—and its seedy side was immortalized in movies such as the On the Waterfront (1954), starring a young Marlon Brando.

When containerization shipping replaced traditional bulk shipping in the 1960s, many businesses at the Red Hook ports moved to New Jersey—as did the jobs. Unemployment increased quickly as industries abandoned Red Hook, and the neighborhood’s economy underwent a rapid decline. By the 1970s and ‘80s, it became known as being a crime-ridden, desolate neighborhood, severed from the rest of Brooklyn.

Several brick high-rise apartment buildings stand behind trees and grass.

The Houses

One of the largest public housing projects in New York City and in the country, the Red Hook Houses were first built as a Federal Works Program initiative under former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Red Hook has long been divided between the residents of “the Back”—predominantly white homeowners living on the waterfront—and the residents of the Houses, who are predominantly black and Latino and constitute the majority of the neighborhood’s population, outnumbering residents of “the Back” two to one.

In 1990, the towering Houses, comprised of East and West clusters, were home to 11,000 residents, more than a third of which were under the age of 18. Unemployment was high and by the early 1990s, Red Hook was suffering from very serious problems: the deterioration of its physical fabric, abandoned buildings, illegal dumping of trash, poverty, skyrocketing drug use and violence. Life magazine named it one of the ten worst neighborhoods in the U.S. and called it “the crack capital of America.” In 1992, beloved school principal Patrick Daly was killed in broad daylight at the Houses, caught in a crossfire when he went to look for a student who had left school upset after a fight that day. This well-publicized incident became a pivotal point in the neighborhood’s history, bringing in a high level of police and criminal justice attention. It was at this time that the idea to establish a community court in Red Hook first began circulating, and by 1995, community outreach efforts and a neighborhood Public Safety Corps were firmly in place.

Today, the Houses are home to 8,000 of Red Hook’s 11,000 residents. Crime has dropped dramatically: between 1993 and 2003, homicides were down 100 percent, felony assaults down 68 percent, robberies down 55 percent and rapes down 33 percent, and the neighborhood is continuing to change.

A view of low-rise buildings and vehicles in front of a giant pier.

An aerial view of a proposed plan for a large Ikea store, with a sprawling parking lot, along a waterfront.

Gentrification and the Future

Like most New York City neighborhoods, Red Hook is enmeshed in the real estate game, with property owners and more affluent renters perpetually looking out for the next big market. But due to its past reputation and physical isolation, an influx of commercial wealth has been slow to come to the neighborhood.

Middle-class artists seeking low rents were the first neighborhood “outsiders” to come to Red Hook in the late 1990s, settling in houses in “the Back’s” long-abandoned business strip. The cobblestone streets and Civil War-era warehouses attracted tech firms and creative companies priced out of more expensive neighborhoods and looking for affordable office and studio space. Within a few years, restaurants, shops and bars opened on blocks that had lacked a commercial presence for decades. The formerly decaying waterfront has been rebuilt and now hosts art festivals and other events, and a new water taxi service now connects Red Hook to lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, making it less isolated and more accessible to those who work outside the neighborhood.

Fairway Supermarkets is slated to open its first Brooklyn location on the Red Hook waterfront, and in January 2005 New York City negotiated a long-term lease with the Port Authority to develop a $30-million passenger ship terminal at the Red Hook piers, making it a docking point for cruise ships from around the world. Perhaps the biggest—and most divisive—symbol of the neighborhood’s gentrification is the dawning of an Ikea superstore on the Red Hook waterfront. The draw of added jobs to the neighborhood is countered by local concern over the added traffic, as thousands of vehicles could potentially be re-routed onto formerly empty streets. Red Hook’s future may be an uncertain one, but its shifting fabric and continuing controversies are as old as the neighborhood itself.


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