The construction of the Erie, Atlantic and Brooklyn boat basins, along with the development of pier and dock infrastructure in the 1840s, set the stage for the peninsular enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn, to develop rapidly into one of the United States’ most important maritime hubs, shipping and unloading cargo from all over the world. But by World War II, Red Hook began to experience a decline in maritime use due to inadequate infrastructure. This began a domino effect of changes in industrial activity as many of the businesses opted to relocate to New Jersey for more space. Abandonment and degradation eventually led to the demolition of many industrial buildings under the Urban Renewal Act, while the development of the Gowanus Expressway in the 1960s magnified the area’s sense of isolation. By 1990, high crime, drug violence, poverty, illegal dumping, and overall decay of the built environment became the new character of Red Hook.
Today, Red Hook is experiencing a remarkable resurgence. Notably, the industrial business community—which shrank (following citywide and national trends) but never abandoned Red Hook entirely— is playing a significant role in the area’s revitalization and lending it a distinct sense of place. Red Hook is still home to a significant Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), managed by the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation (SBIDC), but non-conforming uses are starting to chip away at available industrial land, leaving less and less room for the activities that have shaped Red Hook’s identity as a center of creative production.
On Friday, August 8th, SBIDC Executive Director David Meade and the Pratt Center for Community Development’s Josh Eichnen led a walking tour of Red Hook as part of Open House New York’s and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Making it Here series. The tour took participants through a range of different types of industrial spaces, illustrating how areas like Red Hook—longtime industrial strongholds with a diverse building stock directly adjacent to mixed-use working class neighborhoods—can support diversified, resilient economic ecosystems.
The tour started off at Linda Tool, a factory that makes precision machine components. Founder and owner Mike Di Marino took a break from moving heavy machinery via forklift to show the group around; the largest and most expensive piece of machinery that he’d ever bought was to be delivered at 6 AM the following morning. Right away, participants were able to see why the city’s IBZs have been so important in recent years: at a time when huge chunks of the city’s stock of industrial land have been rezoned for different uses, the IBZs have provided the stability that manufacturers need to make significant investments in (often very large, expensive) equipment in order to incorporate new technologies and grow their businesses.
Of course, Mike was quick to point out one of the main challenges of the IBZs: they aren’t permanent, which can allow an industrial area’s patterns of use to shift despite their designation. In fact, Industrial Business “Zones” are not a form of zoning at all—they essentially represent a promise from the city that an area already zoned for industrial uses won’t be rezoned. And while that promise has generally been kept since the IBZs were created in 2005, industrially zoned land still permits a whole host of non-industrial uses, including commercial facilities like hotels, big box retail, and restaurants. As these types of businesses become more prevalent in changing neighborhoods (see: Greenpoint-Williamsburg), it makes it easier for developers proposing “non-conforming uses” to chip away, bit by bit, at the available land within industrial districts.
Case in point: just around the corner from Linda Tool, a new private school (with tuition well above the level affordable to the average family in Red Hook, which is home to the largest NYCHA project in the borough) is going up. The school’s developers had to appeal to the Board of Standards & Appeals for a special permit. While SBIDC and many local business owners fought it, the permit was approved, and construction was already well underway on the day of the tour. “The school is absolutely going to change the use of the area,” Josh explained. “On top of that, that new building is also taking up space that would have been used by an industrial business. Every time there’s a special permit or variance within an IBZ, land for industry shrinks. There’s no new space for industrial businesses being created.”
The new school won’t just change the use of its lot and immediate environs, but has the potential to throw off the rhythm of the entire industrial community in Red Hook. The influx of children into the heart of an IBZ will inevitably create new political struggles for businesses like Linda Tool, impacting delivery times, truck routes, safety regulations, and a whole host of other factors.
After exploring Linda Tool, the participants had a chance to visit the nearby Van Brunt Stillhouse, located on the same block as the non-conforming school, and learn about the distilling process while sampling some locally produced whiskeys and rums. From there, it was time to head down to the waterfront. Along the way, David and Josh pointed out many of the area’s historic industrial buildings (including a century-old ship repair facility that now houses a scene shop producing sets for film and theater), helping participants to get a sense of the uniquely diverse building stock that the area’s history of industrial and commercial uses had created.
One of the neighborhood’s most distinctive landmarks is undoubtedly the O’Connell Organization’s historic Red Hook Stores complex, a cluster of Civil War-era warehouses that are now home to a mix of small-scale craft and artisanal manufacturing businesses. “Greg O’Connell is a prime example of a private developer investing in industrial space and preserving space for legacy manufacturers while also making space for newer craft and artisanal manufacturing businesses and other supportive industrial uses,” Josh told the group.
The first stop in the Stores was REDU NY, a business run by designer Amber Lasciak, whose flexible team of 6-12 employees (depending on the production schedule) produces one-of-a-kind furniture from materials from across the New York metropolitan area, often designing and building entire interiors for restaurants, bars, and the like. Occupying one of the top levels of a building off Van Brunt Street, REDU NY has subdivided their space into a series of fabrication areas, rooms for material and fabric storage, studio spaces, and a “design loft” in a small glass room perched up on the roof, with sweeping views out over the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The loft is where the team meets regularly to brainstorm design concepts, and turn salvage into inspiration.
In a similar building nearby called the Liberty Warehouse (still part of the O’Connell complex) is the Red Hook Winery. On the day of our visit, the winery’s proprietors were in the midst of the first bottling since Hurricane Sandy, which devastated many waterfront businesses like theirs a year and a half before. Several of the other businesses visited, including REDU NY (then located in a ground-floor space) and the final stop, Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie, had also taken on significant water during the storm. But rather than wipe out the industrial community in this fast-changing area, Sandy helped to prove the resilience of Red Hook’s finely grained economic ecosystem. “I think it speaks volumes about this community that after Sandy, 90% of businesses have stayed,” David told the group.
Steve, of Authentic Key Lime Pies fame, highlighted a unique strength that allowed a production-oriented business like his to get back up and running (and contributing to the local economy) more quickly after the storm. “The good news for us after Sandy,” he explained, was that “a lot of food related businesses [restaurants, bars, et al] relied on people coming into the neighborhood. We had a lot of customers outside of the neighborhood that we’ve been selling to for 15, 16 years that were waiting with their orders as soon as we were back up and running.”
While Red Hook may never again be the hotbed of industrial activity that it was a century ago, the neighborhood’s strength as a manufacturing center today is more about quality than quantity. The businesses that opened their doors for the Making it Here tour all emphasized that they choose to do business in Red Hook because it is a place that they love, and a community that they are proud to be a part of. This is a common refrain amongst manufacturers in neighborhoods across the city: that manufacturing in New York today isn’t just about making a living, but about making a life.
“Red Hook is all about crafting a product that you believe in,” explained Sandra, one of Red Hook Winery’s founders. “We’re so fortunate to be able to be here.”