By Miranda Lin
It is Friday night in Red Hook and the streets are eerily still. From time to time a human shadow will emerge then quickly disappear again into the darkness. The only traffic is the B61 bus that languidly rolls on to Red Hook’s main strip, Van Brunt Street, every half hour but rarely stops. During the weekdays, almost no one gets on or off here. But in less than 24 hours, Red Hook will be invaded. Hordes of weekend warriors will ride in on their luxury SUVs and charge with their platinum credit cards. They are a welcome arrival to some, but to others they are a nuisance.
There once was a time in the 1980s and early 90s when no one outside of Red Hook dared enter and even many of the residents were trying to get out. Karen Hatch used to teach at P.S. 27 Brooklyn in those days and remembers Van Brunt as a street full of empty storefronts with shattered glass. Now, though, she often comes to Red Hook on IKEA’s free weekend water taxi and spends time shopping in the row of trendy arts and crafts boutiques that line Van Brunt. “It’s lovely here,” she exclaims. “I would move here in a second if I could.”
And Hatch isn’t alone. While most weekenders are drawn to Red Hook for the IKEA or Fairway Market, more and more are beginning to venture beyond the big box bubbles and into the local stores, creating a swell of new businesses catering to their upmarket interests. Eric Famisan, owner of the custom soap and flower shop Saipua, was one of the first stores to open on the block five years ago. Since then, he can think of at least a half-dozen other stores that have joined him selling mostly one-of-a-kind handicrafts.
Famisan originally started working Thursday to Sunday, but he realized that “Thursdays and Fridays were essentially lost days for me because there were so many more productive things I could have been doing than tending the store on those days.” Similarly, many of the stores on Van Brunt have decided to limit their hours to when they can reap the most success with outside visitors. “Only about 10% of my customers are from Red Hook,” says Russell Whitmore, owner of Erie Basin jewelry store. “We really work to attract people from other neighborhoods.”
But those who do reside in Red Hook are less than enthusiastic about the influx of day-trippers. In addition to the literal boatloads of shoppers that are brought in by the IKEA ferry, there is also a significant upsurge in car traffic. “On the weekend, Van Brunt turns into a total expressway,” says Famisan. With limited access to public transportation, the narrow thoroughfare is the only option for IKEA-bound cars as well as the designated route for freight trucks. Still, with few street lights and plenty of nearby parks and playgrounds full of children, some residents fear that it is only a matter of time before an accident happens. “Traffic is probably what we get the most complaints about,” says Detective Paul Grudzinski, Community Affairs Officer for the 76th Precinct. “But what can you do when that’s the way it’s designed?”
And while it might also make good business sense to stay closed during the weekday, it has left some local residents frustrated and excluded from their own community. “There’s a real micro-economy springing up around just weekenders,” says Michael Eckblad, an installation artist who has lived in Red Hook for the past ten months. “Red Hook is a completely different place on the weekends than any other day, especially at Fairway.” Though Eckblad has learned to cope with the weekend crowds (“Just get your grocery shopping done early on the weekdays and stay in on the weekends”), he still fears that the neighborhood will become a generic destination and “lose all of its spunk.”
Despite the weekend disruptions, Red Hook’s main appeals remain intact: low cost of living, quiet (generally) and plenty of green open space. “I guess that’s the one good thing about our terrible transit system,” Eckblad says with a smile, “It keeps us isolated.”