A Day In the Life at Red Hook Houses

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Close to 9,000 people are believed to be living in the Red Hook Houses, legally and illegally. Photo courtesy of: Shelley Bernstein/Flickr Creative Commons

Close to 9,000 people are believed to be living in the Red Hook Houses, legally and illegally. Photo courtesy of: Shelley Bernstein/Flickr

By Miranda Lin

When the first 1,408 units of the Red Hook Houses were opened in 1939, they boasted the best technology could provide: self-operating elevators, incinerators in every hallway, gas ranges, electric fridges and a laundry room under each building. In 1955, another apartment block called was added, making the Red Hook Houses the largest housing project in Brooklyn, second only in New York to the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens. For the families of the Irish and Italian longshoremen that first moved into Red Hook, they were the embodiment of the American dream, the promise of a bright future.

Today, the Red Hook Houses remain a dream and a promise – but broken ones.  For decades, life in the Houses has been defined by violence, addiction, poverty, isolation and lost opportunity. According to the latest NYCHA data, nearly 15 percent of all families in the Houses are living on welfare and the average gross income is less than half the district average. Meanwhile, a 1999 community survey of 960 Red Hook residents showed that 35 percent of respondents carried a weapon for protection, while 18 percent said they knew victims of shootings, assaults and robberies.

Despite the bleak figures, new housing and employment opportunities are arriving; crime and drug rates are on the decline; and daily life goes on for the residents in the Red Hook Houses. These are stories of four of those lives.

8 a.m. The Rounds

When Dorothy’s husband died, she was left with no money, no job and six children. Within a month she had a nervous breakdown and thought she was going to die. But two of her neighbors came to her rescue and for three months nursed her back to health. When Dorothy asked how she could repay them for their kindness, they replied, “All we want you to do the rest of your life is do something good for somebody each day.”

In the 34 years that have followed, Dorothy has tried to do just that as the president of the Red Hook East Tenants’ Association. She wakes up at the crack of dawn every day, combs back her short white-streaked hair and sets off on her tour of the Houses.

First, Dorothy checks in on the  seniors. She makes sure they’ve all eaten and are feeling well; she knows exactly which ones have recently returned from the hospital and remembers who the last family member was to visit each of them

Next, she stops by the housing management office to take some phone calls and think up new ways to save the neighborhood. “I bring everything I can into this community to keep people out of trouble and to do the right thing,” she says in a slow southern drawl.

After two hours in the office, Dorothy is out the door again. She’s getting a group of kids from the Houses to help her clean up the trash in the courtyard. Nothing makes Dorothy happier than seeing everyone in the neighborhood put to work.

2 p.m The Climb

Eugene lives on the sixth floor of a 14-story high-rise, but the elevator to his floor often doesn’t work. “We got dope bangers on every floor who got keys to the elevator and turn ‘em on and off whenever they want,” he says. That means taking the stairs. But Eugene is diabetic, has a heart condition and uses a cane. Not to mention that the narrow stairwell is also used by drug dealers and addicts.

Red Hook’s history with drugs has been well documented. In 1988, LIFE Magazine ran a nine-page cover feature on the neighborhood, labeling it “the crack capital of America.” Some estimate that as much as $50 million of cocaine, heroin and marijuana travel through the Houses every year. After school principal Patrick F. Daly was killed in a shootout between two drug dealers in 1992, the police adopted a “zero tolerance” policy and setup a satellite police station on the ground floor of Eugene’s apartment.

However Eugene remains skeptical. “Nothin’s changed since the cops came,” he says. “What we need is cameras on every building and doors that can lock.” The magnetic lock on his building’s main door was torn out years ago and has not been replaced. Even if it was fixed, Eugene thinks it’d probably be ripped out again within a day.

6 p.m. The Fixer Upper

Eddie is well-known around the Houses for many things: “One is for being the white guy in the projects, two is being a bit of a hound dog and three is being a master handyman.” So when two young women asked if he’d help them fix their grocery cart, he happily obliged.

On the trip up to Eddie’s third-floor apartment, they pass a puddle of fresh vomit; a smashed hall window; and a paramedic guiding a sobbing woman out the door with a stone-faced man in sunglasses following closely behind. No one blinks twice.

“I’ve gotta get my power drill from my room,” he says as he shuffles through the piles of newspapers, tools and food cans stacked across his floor. There are two TVs in his bedroom. The first is switched to the harness races he’s betting on. The second is attached to a closed-circuit surveillance system Eddie has rigged up to his front door. “It helps me sleep,” he explains.

When Eddie first moved into his one-bedroom apartment in the Houses, everyone thought he was crazy. But he has a view of Coffey Park, pays $126.16 a month in income-adjusted rent and thinks the neighborhood is on the upswing – as long as people keep moving in. “People need to know that places like this exist and that they’re safe,” says Eddie, pointing to the Red Hook Co-op. The mixed-income development on Wolcott Street lotteried off two-thirds of its units to low-income residents two years ago after receiving 4,500 applications. The rest are now being sold at market value: $390,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and $510,000 for three bedrooms. Only two units have been sold.

“There ya go, baby, good as new,” says Eddie as he fastens the final rivet in the cart. The girls load up their bags from Fairway Market and hop into the elevator. It works, but Eddie refuses to ride it. “It’s like an outhouse in there.”

8 p.m. The Night Watch

Karen came to Red Hook 28 years ago as an 18-year-old single mother. “I didn’t know it when I came here, but Red Hook had a stigma as a place that family don’t come to visit,” she says. “So I had to make my own family.”

She learned to rely on herself and others in the Houses, but not outsiders, especially not the police. On April 28, 2006, her son Freddie was caught in a housing-wide drug raid, the memory of which still sends tears streaming down her cheeks. Federal policy has it that anyone convicted of a single crime is automatically evicted from public housing. “I didn’t know where my son was for four days,” she says.

Now Karen works as many nights as she can on tenant patrol. She sits and chats with one or two other tenants around a table in the hall. But as soon as someone enters, their eyes sharpen. Do you live here? Who are you visiting? What do you want? “Some people don’t like it because I’m too much in everybody’s face,” says Karen. “But it’s because I care enough.”

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