Being a Manhattanite, I have always had a too stigma about Brooklyn. As in it’s just too too. Too many subway rides away. Too many bearded residents. Too many attitudinal cabbies who refuse to take you back into Manhattan. Too anti-mainstream that it’s now, well…mainstream.
Once a haven for struggling artistic types, areas like Williamsburg and Dumbo have now transformed into an extension of Manhattan. Real estate shot upwards by the millions – out-pricing the City itself. Suited Wall Streeters moved into new glass ‘towers’. Vacant lots were filled. A skyline was built. Tourists flooded in. They got a Shake Shack.
The residents that made up these ethnic enclaves were pushed out towards areas like Greenpoint, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick. But gentrification followed in dogged pursuit in what’s now become a ceaseless cycle in Brooklyn. Sure there are undeniable benefits to this – economic growth, safer streets, educational improvements, and neighborhood beautification – but what of the cultural and social implications?
The initial draw of these areas was their authenticness. Their soul. Their character. Their diversity. Now they’re being constantly shifted, making it difficult to find pockets in Brooklyn where a sense of ‘realness’ still exists.
Enter Red Hook.
Red Hook, Brooklyn
A relatively small peninsula at the western tip of Brooklyn, Red Hook has somehow managed to escape the increasing modernity found in so many of New York’s gentrified regions. Instead, an old town urban atmosphere lingers.
How has it sat overlooked and ignored for so long?
Well…it hasn’t. Outsiders have been eyeing Red Hook for years.
Despite a violent history which saw Al Capone get his start (along with his scar) and inspired 1990’s headlines such as “One of the 10 Most Dangerous Places in America” and “Crack Capital of the World”, the past 20 years has seen Red Hook bounce back to the point where it has been heralded as a neighborhood on the verge, the next new thing, and an area in transition.
Yet this so-called “New Red Hook” hasn’t quite panned out.
An Isolated Community
Red Hook’s biggest saving grace? Its own isolation and inconvenience.
Highways and channels sever it from surrounding neighborhoods; the subway doesn’t reach it; and bus lines are fickle at best.
Out of this separateness emerged a tight-knit society which makes Red Hook seem more like its own individual town rather than just another annex of Brooklyn. Its become an active community of roughly 11,000 residents from a mixture of classes with half of the population living in project housing; artistic lofts providing roofs for creative types and freelancers; and families residing in town homes.
It’s affordable. Quiet. Neighbors wave to the same faces day in and day out. Visitors only come from as far as the outer boroughs and while you can’t say that it has been completely untouched (after all there is a Fairway Supermarket and an IKEA), Red Hook still retains its original character. Couple this with local wine tasting rooms, artisanal shops, waterfront views, breweries, flourishing restaurants, and classic bars – and it makes for one hell of a day trip from New York City.
A Day in Red Hook
My friend Alicia has been championing Red Hook for years. She’s the token friend everyone living in Manhattan has – the Brooklynite who constantly tries to coax you out for the weekend and is always met with the same staid response of oh umm yeah maybe. It’s all pretense. You both know you’re not actually going to go out there.
It’s nothing personal. She won’t come into Manhattan for the exact same reason. The East River may as well be called the River Styx for all the lengths a New Yorker will go to avoid crossing it. Yet somehow Alicia managed to not just convince me – but also fellow Manhattanite Bianca – to join her for a day in Red Hook.
We met in her Greenpoint neighborhood (both of us over 30 minutes late because of the reliably unreliable G train) for breakfast at the locally adored Peter Pan Bakery to discuss our game plan over red velvet donuts. I use the word discuss liberally as it was more like a mute game of follow-the-leader as our unofficial guide dictated “we’ll start with an Uber ride to the waterfront”.
As we exited the car to careen onto the unbalanced cobblestone road, I had trouble accepting that Red Hook was once one of the nation’s busiest ports. Sure the physical signs were there. Industrial warehouses and factories sat abandoned, harbor views cut clear across to the Statue of Liberty, and a 100 year old barge was tied up alongside the pier.
But envisioning thousands of dockworkers hustling to and fro as they loaded up container ships was hard to do in the settling quiet that enveloped us as we stood along the empty waterfront. Had we been in the Midwest, I would’ve half expected tumbleweeds to trundle past our feet.
It was an odd feeling. Odd in its rarity. I wasn’t used to encountering that kind of calming solitude in New York. We reveled in it as we made our way through Louis Valentine Junior Park – watching the Manhattan skyline shrink into the distance from across the water as we headed to the Red Hook Winery.
The Red Hook Winery
New York isn’t considered a prominent oenophile destination. Have you ever heard of the masses coming far and wide to sample wine that’s made in Long Island? No. The vineyards here are more frequented by party goers and bachelorettes who take cheap limos from the city for this classier notion of a booze cruise.
Yet New York is actually the 3rd largest producer of wine in the United States. Recognizing the potential of the grape varieties grown in this region, Brooklyn native Mark Snyder enlisted two top Napa Valley winemakers to help create the Red Hook Winery – an unlikely urban winery like no other.
We entered the converted factory building to see barrels used for tables, bottle-lined shelves, exposed brick walls, and cushioned window alcoves that peered out at the Statue of Liberty. Tastings were affordable with a range of choices from $8 all the way up to $35. Choosing the middle of the road $15 for 6 Harvest Reserve option, we settled into our nook for an unusual sampling of their experiential wines crafted from the two radically different vintners.
I like to think that I drink a lot of wine. Ok so I know I drink a lot of wine. But never have I been told “yo, this next wine is our trippiest.” We exchanged confused glances while simultaneously thinking that the first 5 glasses must have gone to our head because certainly we misheard him. Turns out we didn’t – he did indeed describe the winery’s orange wine as trippy.
Not to be confused with the citrus fruit, orange wine is basically white wine cultivated like a red – with the grape skin still intact. I’m not sure if trippy is the nomenclature I would have used, but the flavor profile was definitely something. I’m all for trying new things but I think I’ll stick to my regular white wines in the future.
We spent another couple hours chatting as our server turned our 6 tastings into 8. Whether that can be attributed to the fact that my friends are beautiful and fun to flirt with or he was hoping for a bigger tip, we may never be certain. What is true is that the batting of our eyelashes somehow got us a free tour of the cellar where many of the New York vintages sat marinating for future consumption.
Afterwards, we were led out the back entrance to continue our day in Red Hook.
***Other things to do along Red Hook’s Waterfront include Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie (one of the last remaining bakeries to use fresh squeezed key lime juice) and the Waterfront Museum (housed in a barge from 1914. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and promotes waterfront access as well as delves into the areas maritime history.***
No day in Red Hook is complete without food. Actually, no day anywhere is complete without food – especially when traveling. Local cuisine makes up a huge core of the foundation of a neighborhood’s culture and Red Hook is no exception. 80% of the local interaction I encounter during my travels comes through dining experiences (and if I’m being honest – alcohol – though I maintain alcohol is just as an important cultural practice. More on that later).
Alicia was insistent on having dinner at Hometown Barb-B-Que along Red Hook’s main drag – Van Brunt St. I was immediately skeptical. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her. It’s just that I grew up in the South and was no stranger to Tennessee BBQ. Southerners tend to think nothing can ever compare to food made below the Mason-Dixon line.
However, my reservations faded as we walked into the establishment. The place was packed solid with patrons snaking throughout the restaurant as they waited their turn for the first-come, first-serve counter service while a live band played in the background. This is how Southern BBQ is meant to be served.
Alicia went to grab us a couple of craft beers while Bianca and I chatted with the man in front of us and played peek-a-boo with his children. He assumed we were local to the area and was surprised upon the revelation that we came in from the city just to spend a day in Red Hook. “You know about this place?” was quickly followed by tales of the neighborhood. His pride for the close-knit Red Hook community was evident in the enthusiasm his voice portrayed when telling us of the other great restaurants and bars lying in wait around the corner.
An hour and a half later we finally sat down with our expertly pit-smoked medley of meats – accompanied with sides of mac-n-cheese, coleslaw, and cornbread. It was well worth the wait. For me, waiting in line is an essential part of the experience. Rubbing elbows with all the locals in such a fun atmosphere made the time fly by.
Now – back to the alcohol. I don’t know what it is about alcoholic beverages that attracts crowds like moths to an artificial light but bars are undeniably a huge part of our social culture. I recently dated a guy who didn’t drink at all, yet he frequented bars because – and I quote – “that’s where all the people are.”
So on our day in Red Hook, we went where all the people are and always have been – Sunny’s. This bar has been around in some way shape or form since 1890 and is still owned and operated by the same Red Hook family. The bar is unassuming from the outset but once inside, the basis of its appeal becomes evident. It’s like taking that cliched trip back in time. Listening to live bluegrass while indulging in a Sixpoint – a beer that’s locally crafted right here in Red Hook – was the ideal way to end the day.
Places like this are very few and far between. Its realness and authenticity are in line with the entire neighborhood of Red Hook. If you’re looking to discover a genuine, time-honored place in New York City – one that doesn’t even have a Starbucks – then spending a day in Red Hook is something not to be missed. Experience the area’s original character and charm before the city finds a way to make it easily accessible and starts attracting the masses.
***Getting to Red Hook – the easiest way to get here is to take an Uber or taxi. The IKEA ferry also runs daily from lower Manhattan. Check the schedule here***
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