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Red Hook's Long, Inevitable Gentrification Divides Community

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One of Red Hook's last sections of industrial waterfront will soon be transformed by gentrification. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

It was only a few years ago, down on Red Hook's industrial waterfront, that the old cobblestone streets were ruled by a pack of wild dogs. They lived in the ruins of the sugar refinery, next to the shipyard, on a quiet road littered with burnt-out cars and abandoned toilets. Perhaps it was this type of charming isolation that led to the neighborhood becoming so popular, but in today's Red Hook, there is no place for wild dogs. Their street was paved over, the refinery demolished, the shipyard destroyed, and over the past decade, the community has slowly been transformed from a scrappy post-industrial backwater into a crowded shopping and dining destination. The pace of change will only intensify in the coming years, when several of the last historic industrial warehouses on the waterfront are emptied out, making way for an ongoing megaproject that promises to further gentrify the neighborhood.

Along Red Hook's western edge, on a quiet stretch of the Buttermilk Channel filled with dead-end streets, truck lots, and distribution warehouses, Est4te Four is continuing their efforts to rebrand and redevelop the waterfront. Their project, "The Point," promises to create a "new cultural epicenter" on the waterfront, including the "high-end loft residences" at 160 Imlay Street and a creative campus centered around 202 Coffey Street. Construction at the Imlay residences has been underway for over a year, and the warehouses near Coffey Street are now mostly vacated, with leases for the remaining tenants, including a Haddad's film truck parking lot, a Snapple distribution warehouse, and a field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), expiring by the end of 2016. "They are supposed to leave this year," said Stefano Marciano, a Partner at Est4te Four, who was explicit about his company's goals to gentrify the neighborhood. "Red Hook is changing. It is only a matter of time," said Marciano. "With or without us, it is going to change. I think we can be an accelerator and gentrify in a nice way."

For residents of the neighborhood, the Est4te Four project is just the latest chapter in a decades-long transformation. "To me, it's a given that Red Hook is going to change," said Carolina Salguero, a Brooklyn native who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years. "The Red Hook that I fell deeply in love with was in 1997, and by 2002, things that I held really dear were starting to disappear," said Salguero. "I think the big tipping point was not even the opening of the Fairway in 2006, it was the announcement that a Fairway was coming." Ten years later, the first big snowfall of 2016 was an opportunity for Salguero, the president of PortSide NewYork, to reflect on the neighborhood's changing landscape, while weathering the storm onboard her boat, The Mary A. Whalen, which has a three-year lease for a berth in the Atlantic Basin, adjacent to 160 Imlay. Over a cup of steaming cider, Salguero recalled how in decades past, the aftermath of a blizzard in Red Hook would leave the nearby streets even more desolate than usual. "In that era, there were hardly any cars on the streets," she said, and Sanitation Department snow plows were a rare sight. "We'd go around with a four wheel drive pickup, towing sleds behind it, and playing crack the whip around the corners. It was a hoot."

Those quiet, empty streets are increasingly becoming a thing of the past in Red Hook. On the morning after the recent blizzard, the roads near the waterfront were filled with traffic: French tourists dodging a constant parade of plows, joggers splashing past rows of shiny new cars, shoppers laden with Ikea lamps and Fairway produce waiting for their Uber to arrive. The number of visitors to the neighborhood today can be overwhelming, even to newer transplants. "On the weekends, it gets packed. It gets more and more crowded," said Steve Loftice, the co-owner of Recycled Brooklyn, a custom-built furniture business which is Est4te Four's last tenant at 202 Coffey Street. Despite being located in the neighborhood for only two years, he sees a difficult future ahead, for both businesses like his and local residents. "The changes that are coming are crazy. It's next to impossible to find a place here," said Loftice, who doesn't know where Recycled Brooklyn will relocate when Est4te Four begins renovating their warehouses. "Unfortunately for the people who are here, it's going to get ruined and they are going to get pushed out."

Although the Est4te Four plans may be the next major change to Red Hook's landscape, the neighborhood was abuzz with rumors of several other proposed projects which would bring even more crowds to the area, including ideas for a ferry stop at the Atlantic Basin, a streetcar along the waterfront, and the neighborhood's first hotel, on Van Brunt Street. "This hotel is going to change everything," said Loftice. "It's going to be a shame." For Red Hook's future, though, much more dramatic changes are coming. "There are some bigger forces at work here," said Salguero, who recently served on Red Hook's NY Rising planning committee, evaluating proposals for how to make the waterfront more resilient in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The biggest project that Salguero sees coming is the Integrated Flood Protection System, the government's $100 million commitment to creating a plan for "a comprehensive flood management system for Red Hook" to address rising sea levels and future storms. This coastal defense system could eventually include large-scale flood walls, raised streets throughout the community, and other drastic alterations to the landscape. "What that becomes is going to be very significant in determining what this neighborhood is," said Salguero. "That's really going to change the place."

The old warehouse complex at the corner of Coffey Street and Ferris Street, which is slated to become Est4te Four's arts and tech campus, dates back to the 1880s.

The buildings, which are not landmarked, were originally part of the Lidgerwood Manufacturing complex, according to a comprehensive history written by Maggie Blanck.

Lidgerwood Manufacturing was "a world famous maker of hoists and boilers," according to Blanck's history, and "played a major roll in the development of the Panama Canal."

The enormous warehouses are currently almost completely empty, other than Recycled Brooklyn, and are mainly used as a television filming location, while Est4te Four plans their much-needed restoration.

"When we came over, we immediately felt in tune with this architecture," said Stefano Marciano, who is originally from Italy. "We are about to start the rehab, but we will keep as much details as possible."

"This is like a blank canvas to us," said Marciano. "We are about to involve a big name in the fashion industry to develop together."

Est4te Four's properties extend down Ferris Street, and include several other newer warehouses and parking lots.

This warehouse complex, used as a Snapple distribution center, is currently half empty. It dates back to the 1950s, when it was used as a Daily News printing plant.

In the empty second floor, few remnants of the industrial past remain. "We want to develop with creative industries—art, music, high tech," said Marciano, "but still in tune with the community."

"It's not like you are getting a shoe repair or a hardware store or something. It's bars and restaurants and some boutiques," said Salguero, about the new businesses now coming to Red Hook. "I think its important for the city as a whole to retain manufacturing centers."

The ATF building at the foot of Coffey Street is currently the field office for Firearms Trafficking and Violent Crime, but is slated to become another waterfront park in Est4te Four's plans, adjacent to the existing Valentino Pier Park.

From the roof of the Snapple warehouse, the views of the New York harbor are expansive. "We want to create a promenade. We want to create access to the waterfront," said Marciano. "Red Hook can be gentrified in a nice way. In a respectful manner."

Down on this section of waterfront today, the closest the public can get to the shoreline is a series of dead-end streets lined with razor wire, Chinatown buses, rusted cars, and trash-strewn cobblestones, a reminder that Red Hook still retains some of its industrial charm.

The parking lot south of Sullivan Street will be eventually be developed, although the company is still working on their master plans. "At the moment, I still don't know where the buildings will be," said Marciano. "It's not a project you complete in 24 months."

For now, the landscape here is similar to the old Revere Sugar Refinery property on Red Hooks' Beard Street. Seen here in 2005, it was a haven for wild dogs, and the refinery itself was a beloved neighborhood landmark, before being demolished in 2007. The site of the refinery has been used as a waterfront parking lot for many years.

Further to the north, near the Atlantic Basin, the residences at 160 Imlay Street are currently under construction, inside a historic warehouse which dates back to the 1910s. "Once it will be ready, I'm going to move in," said Marciano.

Originally home to the New York Dock Company, the building will become 70 luxury condominiums. "The highest price so far is $5,397,840 for a 3,831-square-foot apartment," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, back in 2015.

Though it may take years to develop, the quiet back streets of this part of Red Hook are already starting to change, with tourists, photographers, and wealthy investors drawn to their unique industrial architecture. "It's not going to be the Red Hook I fell in love with," said Salguero. "It's not going to be the same Red Hook for a lot of the people who live here now."

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Red Hook coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]

160 Imlay Street

160 Imlay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231