Locals laze about Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood on the cusp of big changes.
Locals laze about Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood on the cusp of big changes.
For The Washington Post

Red Hook: On Cruise Control?

Taking in the anti-chichi, Hal Gould eats brunch at the Hope & Anchor diner.
Taking in the anti-chichi, Hal Gould eats brunch at the Hope & Anchor diner. (Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Inside Pier Glass, a studio and workshop way off Brooklyn's beaten path, an artisan was working magic on a shapeless blob. In a few deft strokes, with the help of a blowpipe, a jack and a red-hot oven, Mary Ellen Buxton created an elegant long-necked vase. But the scene outside the window upstaged her: From across the still blue water of the Erie Basin, the Statue of Liberty stared straight into the room.

Red Hook, the long-neglected Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood where Pier Glass is located, is all about the views. The Beard Street Pier promenade, a walkway at the end of the neighborhood's main drag, offers a head-on glimpse of Lady Liberty. Behind it is the Beard Pier Warehouse, a massive brick Civil War-era structure. The remains of the once vibrant Revere Sugar Refinery, now covered with gulls, are reflected in the water.

Now is the moment to catch those views and dig deeper into this scene, because Red Hook is changing. Last weekend, the 23-story luxury ocean liner Queen Mary 2 berthed just around the corner from the Beard Pier at the spanking-new, $52 million Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, inaugurating the scruffy neighborhood as New York's latest cruise port. In the coming months, dozens of ships, including the Queen Elizabeth 2 and four Princess Cruise ships, are scheduled to dock here, setting thousands of passengers into these brick-covered streets. Squint a bit and it's not hard to picture Van Brunt Street, Red Hook's main boulevard, lined with souvenir shops and wine bars.

But for at least another season or two, this former stronghold of longshoremen will probably be able to hang on to its semi-industrial, offbeat character. While not quite the side of New York that cruise passengers are looking for, it is a place adventurous urban explorers should see. Its raw, Bohemian edge is reminiscent of Manhattan's Meatpacking District or Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, before white-tablecloth restaurants and trendy clubs arrived.

Locals still pack into Sunny's, a tavern dating to the late 1800s, for Peroni beer, bluegrass jams and weekly book-and-author readings. For the latest update on the battle for more public access to New York waterfronts, Red Hookers pile into the Hudson Waterfront Museum, a rough-and-tumble barge moored along Conover Street. "It's a funky, real and pretty unique scene," said Bill Carney, a member of the faux French band Les Sans Culottes and a regular at Sunny's. "But you can feel the spirit of SoHo coming on."

Indeed. A few seeds from the posher side of New York have already been planted. At 360, a tony French bistro on Van Brunt, chef-owner Arnaud Erhart dishes out three-course gourmet meals -- roasted scallops and "biodynamic" wines are regular menu items -- for the irresistible price of $25 a head. LeNell's, a stylish wine and spirits shop a block away, offers an impressive stock of bourbons, bitters and other beverages in a parlorlike setting.

But these changes have not taken the working-class heart out of Red Hook. Founded by Dutch immigrants in the mid-1600s, it is like an island apart from the 72.8-square-mile borough of Brooklyn. It's actually a peninsula, separated from Carroll Gardens, the nearest neighborhood, by the labyrinthine Gowanus Expressway. About 20 minutes by foot from the closest subway station (at Smith and Ninth streets), Red Hook is most easily reached by taxi or bus. It's about a 15-minute drive from Brooklyn's better-known enclaves -- Prospect Park, Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg.

In some ways, the isolation adds to the appeal. Along Van Brunt, a mile-long commercial strip, the sight of locals leaning on fences and chatting on front stoops is common. In a neighborhood with an estimated 11,000 residents, faces soon become familiar, even to newcomers just visiting for a day. With its sizable African American and Latino contingents, as well as white inhabitants, Red Hook has a refreshingly multicultural character.

On a recent Sunday, a couple of neighbors gobbled fresh cupcakes and sipped coffee outside Baked, a popular coffee shop. Inside the Hope & Anchor, a diner and gathering spot, regulars swapped neighborhood gossip. A rousing spiritual wafted over from the Red Hook Tabernacle on Van Dyke, a side street.

In the end, isolation has been Red Hook's scourge. In the post-World War II era, when the shipping ports shifted to New Jersey, unemployment rose sharply and the houses and streets fell into disrepair. In some ways, the place has never recovered. Plywood covers windows on many of the buildings along Van Brunt and side streets. A brick factory building on Imlay Street, next to the cruise terminal, is locked up and covered with black construction netting. And along the Erie Basin, a massive shipyard being demolished to make way for an Ikea store looks like a hurricane zone.

But the new cruise terminal is supposed to change all that. The building, sprawling more than 180,000 square feet, was conceived in 2004, when Royal Caribbean and several other major cruise lines transferred from the old, outdated port on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan, to a facility in Bayonne, N.J. Even though the West Side terminal was outdated, it gave arriving passengers easy access to New York attractions. The Red Hook port is the city's bid to recapture the cruise ship market on its side of the river.

Aside from Lady Liberty, cruisers arriving in Red Hook will see a less glamorous New York. But for those who don't rush onto taxis and buses and head up to the Empire State Building and Times Square, there are a few sights worth seeing.

The Beard Street Pier, stretching along the Erie Basin, makes for an inviting place to stroll or bike and take in the views of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan. The biggest architectural attraction is the Beard Pier Warehouse, a sprawling brick complex with magnificent arched iron shutters. The interior, an expanse of wooden beams and massive supporting timbers, houses a mix of studios (glassmaking, woodworking) and a few retail stores. The aroma coming from Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, a couple of blocks away, is enough to lure any visitor inside. The house special, at once creamy and tart, is a dessert lover's dream.

And then there is Pier Glass. When a couple of visitors stepped inside, Buxton, the co-owner, greeted them warmly. "It's open-house day," she said. "If you want to know about glassmaking, you're in the right place." Soon she launched into a demonstration, explaining every step she took. Then she turned around to take in the stunning waterfront view behind her and smiled. "Now you've discovered the neighborhood's secret," she said.

Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat. Comments: travel@washpost.com.

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