By Keith Olsen
Red Hook was once a place where men disappeared into black cars with drivers hired by the mob, boys hit Spaldeens that bounced between cobblestones, the docks teemed with longshoremen, and a tall metal pyramid, where sugar was refined, loomed in the background.
Stories have long been told about the harbor community, from Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to Arthur Miller’s play, “A View from the Bridge,” Hubert Selby’s novel, “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” and “Straight Out of Brooklyn,” a 1991 independent film by Matty Rich. Most recently though, Brooklyn author Gabriel Cohen has written crime novels about the neighborhood, taking readers back to a place that hardly exists anymore.
For decades, the Brooklyn neighborhood served as the primary destination for barges and boats that fished along the Hudson River. But little by little, Red Hook has begun to build over its history, replacing industrial buildings, dry docks and cobblestone streets with big businesses, upscale condos built alongside wide driveways that can accommodate families with minivans and SUVs. Cohen brings old Red Hook to life, however, revisiting both the glorious and inglorious days of the harbor in his novels.
Before becoming a Red Hook enthusiast, Cohen, 49, graduated with a degree in English from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He spent five years as a part-time reporter for a weekly paper, while simultaneously writing songs and singing a rock band before moving to New York. Since then, Cohen’s main passion has been the place he has called home for 21 years: Brooklyn, the setting of all of his books. In fact, readers often have said to him that the Brooklyn neighborhoods featured in his stories have felt almost like characters themselves.
“I live here because I like writing about it,” he said. “And I like writing about it because I live here.”
While he began writing books in 1991, a couple of years after relocating to Boerum Hill, it took him ten years to get published. In 2001, St. Martin’s Press published “Red Hook,” a crime novel that follows Detective Jack Leightener, a New York City homicide detective, who returns to his native Red Hook after a body is found along the Gowanus Canal.
Upon its release, the crime novel received glowing reviews. Publishers Weekly described it as “better than promising…it is accomplished,” and The New York Times Sunday Book Review lauded Cohen’s ability to give readers a “real feeling” for Red Hook, calling it an “outstanding first novel.” The Mystery Writers of America also nominated “Red Hook” for a prestigious Edgar award for best first novel.
The subjects of Cohen’s six published works have varied markedly over the years, from Red Hook murder mysteries to four neighbors’ frustrations with a boom box that blasts rap on their block of Boerum Hill, to his lone non-fiction book, which chronicles his discovery of Buddhism through divorce. Cohen said that he has always enjoyed writing for different niches. “Publishers like you to write just one thing,” he explained. “But I just don’t like being pigeon-holed. I like writing about what I’m interested in.”
But despite the variety of Cohen’s work, he has always been drawn to Red Hook, the setting for three of his books. “It’s different than other New York neighborhoods, especially in its intense connection with the harbor,” he said. “And there’s just something about Red Hook that attracts interesting, visionary, independent people.”
Cohen’s interest in Red Hook, where his series of crime novels takes place, came from the metamorphosis he found in the neighborhood’s culture and livelihood. There was a time when shipping thrived along the New York Harbor, but due to changes in technology, much of the industry has left the Hudson’s waters in the past half-century. A loading crane first replaced tasks once done by hand and by group, with fewer men needed to place cargo on the ships. Subsequently, the work all but left Red Hook and traveled across the harbor to New Jersey, where railroads were easier to use to transport materials around the country. Nowadays the neighborhood is known for its Ikea and Fairway, two sprawling complexes, built in the last five years just off of the pier.
The author also chose to set his crime novels in Red Hook because of what he sees as his greatest mystery: its evolved quietness. While researching for the novels, he spoke to old-timers and longshoremen who frequented the local Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and area bars. He discovered there were around 21,000 people who lived in the neighborhood 50 years ago, nearly twice as many as there are now. Advancements in technology, and New York City “master builder” Robert Moses’s push for the creation of the Brooklyn battery tunnel and new expressways contributed to the shedding of jobs in the harbor area and the isolation of Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn.
Carolina Salguero, founder of PortSide New York, a non-profit group that calls for building a maritime hub in the Atlantic Basin of Red Hook, saw not just the demographic and physical changes of the area, but also a lack of awareness among the residents of the harbor. “Some of the people aren’t interested, and others are just not aware,” she said. “There is a somewhat heightened awareness now, but it’s still plagued by an amount of ignorance; people don’t understand the harbor.”
In the time Cohen has written about the neighborhood, he has met people who have tried to bring the old Red Hook back. David Sharps, president of the Brooklyn Waterfront Museum, dredged a sunken barge from Lehigh Valley and turned it into a museum and performance space. Salguero also is an active harbor conservationist whose organization dedicates its resources to educating about the waters and giving tours of its barge.
Cohen and Sharps teamed up recently to coordinate an all-day event at the end of June, celebrating other New York Harbor writers in the first Waterfront Book Festival on Pier 44 in Red Hook. Nine authors read excerpts from their books, with Cohen the lone fiction writer of the group. Though there was little advertising and no budget, around 80 guests attended the event.
“I thought it would be nice to draw attention to the fact that New York is a city surrounded by water,” Cohen said. “It wasn’t just a historical approach, but that the harbor is still pretty important to the life of the city and the port of New York.”
Sharps also saw the event as an opportunity to highlight authors, who like Cohen, were interested in the harbor. “Good literature can place you in another era,” he said. “And it can produce a background and a framework that allows people who might not be able to get to the shores or who might not be close to the harbor to have a glimpse about what it used to do, or the potential it possesses.”
For much the same reason, Cohen has organized Sundays at Sunny’s, a monthly literary gathering at a bar across from the pier, for more than nine years. New York writers, novelists, poets and memoirists all have regularly attended.
After years of deserting its past, a neighborhood that was once the lifeblood of New York City, Red Hook has slowly begun to revisit its roots. Through his literature, Gabriel Cohen stands at the forefront of this renewed interest in the harbor.
Photo credit for New York Harbor: David Sharps