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After it was settled in 1636, Red Hook remained a marshy rural land for 200 years. It wasn’t until the Atlantic Basin opened in the 1840s that the neighborhood rapidly grew.

The Atlantic Dock Company developed piers in the Atlantic Basin and railroad contractor William Beard had wharves in the Erie Basin built, helping make the peninsula one of the busiest shipping centers in the United States.

Ships from all over the world docked in Red Hook to receive and unload cargo and be repaired during the Civil War.

In later years, grain barges from the Erie Canal gathered at the opening of the Gowanus Canal waiting for a turn at the piers, until the decline in grain traffic in the 1950s.

The Red Hook Houses, one of the first and largest housing projects in the city, opened in 1938 for the families of dockworkers. During the early 1950s though, residents began to move out of the neighborhood because of transit limitations. 

Many buildings and warehouses built in the 1800s were crumbling because there was no money to renovate them and containerized shipping caused Red Hook shippers to move their businesses to new ports in New Jersey.

Renewal eventually began in the 1970s on the west side of Red Hook, called “The Back,” drawing painters and sculptors who found they could buy row houses cheap through a city program that subsidized housing for artists.

  • An old trolley car is parked permanently on the Red Hook waterfront. The car ended up in Red Hook when Brooklyn resident Bob Diamond found an abandoned Long Island Rail Road tunnel and proposed building a trolley line throughout the borough. The project eventually lost funding and the car was left in Red Hook.
  • Red Hook's waterfront boasts clear views of the Statue of Liberty.
  • Lehigh Valley No. 79, an all-wooden barge from 1914, sits docked in Red Hook as a waterfront museum that offers public viewing, circus shows, plays, musical performances and art galleries.
  • The Red Hook Community Farm is a 2.75-acre production and compost site that was established in 2001 on the site of a former concrete baseball field.
  • David Sharp runs the waterfront museum and keeps it up as his home with his family. After fixing it up, he brought the barge to its permanent home in Red Hook in 1994. In its past life, the barge carried tons of materials from railroad systems throughout New Jersey and New York.
  • The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary holds a parish that dates back to the 1850s.
  • The museum is filled with artifacts from fellow maritime lovers that sit next to various kitchen supplies and an office set-up that boasts a landline telephone.
  • The Red Hook Houses, still a thriving public housing community, opened in 1938 as one of the first and largest housing projects in the city. It was originally built for the families of dockworkers.
  • The iconic Sunny's Bar that's been around since the 1890s on Conover Street pays tribute to its late owner, Sunny Balzano. The bar remains open for business after financial strife following Balzano's death gave the old watering hole a scare. With help from the community, the family raised enough money to afford the down payment on the $2.5 million property.
  • A running track in the middle of Red Hook Park.
  • An increase of wine and spirit production in Red Hook is shown at Widow Jane Distillery as workers transport bourbon to the warehouse. The company started producing chocolate before they dabbled in cacao rums and liqueurs. Now they distill bourbon, rum, liquor and make chocolate under the same roof.
  • A century-old warehouse in the eastern part of Red Hook set fire weeks after locals began pushing to landmark the building.
  • Barrels are on display in the Widow Jane distillery.
  • The abandoned Red Hook Grain Terminal still stands at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal.
  • Keeping up with the neighborhood's seaside vibe, Brooklyn Crab hosts boozy games of corn hole.
  • After it was renovated in 2006 to make loft apartment, this 19th-century warehouse opened a Fairway supermarket on its ground floor.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Red Hook Got Its Name

The Dutch acquired the area now known as Red Hook when William Adrianse Bennet and Jacques Bentyn bought the land — 930 acres — from the Indian chief Gowane in 1636. They called it Roode Hoek, which meant Red Point (not hook), for the color of its soil and the shape of the land.

In the 1760s, the street called Red Hook Lane, originally an Indian trail, became a key route for the Continental Army. It ran all the way from what was then the center of Brooklyn (now Downtown Brooklyn) southwest through Dutch farms to Red Hook. 

In the Revolutionary War, Red Hook was established as an important line of defense, primarily because of its location overlooking New York Harbor. Fort Defiance was built there, under the supervision of Gen. Nathanael Greene, to guard the Buttermilk Channel between Red Hook and Governors Island. The fort was destroyed during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

The area remained rural until the mid-19th century, when the construction of the Atlantic Basin and the Erie Basin, enclosed safe harbors for sailing ships, made Red Hook a busy shipping center. The building of grain elevators, warehouses and new homes meant major development of the Red Hook area.

For a time, the neighborhood was considered squalid, overcrowded and crime-ridden. (It was home to the notorious gangster Al Capone before he went to Chicago.)

In the 1950s, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, impelled by Robert Moses in the name of “slum clearance” and “urban renewal,” cut right through the lower-income Red Hook neighborhood. 

More recently, artists and sculptors moved into a section called The Back on the west side of the neighborhood near Buttermilk Channel and began a revival of Red Hook.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.