Excerpt: 'The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel' by Thomas Heise
From Chapter Three
Blood on the Industrial Waterfront
It is both impossible to ignore and easy to forget that New York is mostly an archipelago of islands and that its waterfront is the most extensive of any city in the United States. In other major cities, from Miami to Hong Kong, the shoreline contains the priciest real estate, historical monuments, glistening skyscrapers, museums, parks and public esplanades, restaurants, and retail. Not in New York. Not until recently. The most coveted addresses in the city, in Manhattan especially, have been farthest from the soiled edges of the island: Central Park West, Fifth Avenue, and Park Avenue. Conversely, as late as the 1990s many of New York’s waterfront neighborhoods were, as a result of Robert Moses’s midcentury urban renewal projects, peripheral slums associated with dying industries, government housing, and poverty. Yet within two decades—a short time in the life of any city—their status would radically change. This chapter follows the story of crime and gentrification in New York to one of those waterfront neighborhoods, working-class Red Hook, Brooklyn, and to three writers, Gabriel Cohen, Reggie Nadelson, and Ivy Pochoda, whose novels map and narrate the redevelopment of this isolated, forlorn, yet starkly beautiful place. Better than any other neighborhood in The Gentrification Plot, Red Hook and its history—at midcentury as a bustling port filled with stevedores and wiseguys, then from the 1970s through the 1990s as a no-go zone of drug-related violence and poverty, to its current status as a frontier of gentrification—encapsulates the city’s transformation into the postindustrial citadel of today. The two gentrifying neighborhoods previously considered, the Lower East Side and Chinatown, have historically been the home to light manufacturing and a lively retail scene but primarily have been home to people, hundreds of thousands of people crammed into tenements. In contrast, for much of its history, Red Hook was an industrial space organized around shipping, warehousing, and waste treatment, the site of backbreaking blue-collar labor. Its residential real estate was, and still is, limited: a few streets of rowhouses, many of them recently rehabbed, close to the docks, and a sprawling community in NYCHA apartment towers further inland. In this one, marginal neighborhood we can detect the erosion of Fordist industrialism and the rise of neoliberal postindustrial-ism driven by real estate and tourism, and we can detect here too simmering class tensions that boil over into violence when the neighborhood is retrofitted for a new economy.
For non–New Yorkers, the South Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook may be less familiar than the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Red Hook is “uncharted territory,” Cohen writes, while Pochoda calls it “the loneliest place on earth.” For Mayor Bloomberg, however, Red Hook was on his radar for redevelopment from the day he took office. In his first State of the City address in 2002, he announced that his administration would remake New York’s “inaccessible and neglected. . . 500 miles of shoreline.” He singled out the “old industrial waterfront sites” in the neighborhoods of Gowanus and Red Hook for conversion “into housing, parks and other developments.” He also slated for revitalization Governors Island, 172 acres of prime real estate offshore from Red Hook and a short ferry ride to the skyscrapers of Manhattan’s financial district. Furthermore, the “entire waterfront” of Manhattan was to be made “accessible to walkers and cyclists” with a “multi-use recreational” ribbon wrapped along its edges like a bow. “Our crime rate continues to fall,” Bloomberg noted, adding, “New York is safe, strong, [and] open for business.” To keep crime falling further, he announced “Operation Clean Sweep,” which would target “quality of life violations by aggressively policing low-level offenders.” It was a far-reaching vision of New York as a low-crime, cleaned-up postindustrial city oriented around business and pleasure. The dirty waterways, long considered an afterthought, were suddenly positioned as of strategic importance to the city’s future. By the end of his three terms, Bloomberg did “more rezoning of the waterfront and made more efforts to modernize and encourage reuse of industrial property than has ever occurred [in New York].” “We must bring new life to the waterfront,” he declared.
The writers Cohen, Nadelson, and Pochoda offer a starkly different vision of the city’s creaky waterfront, one much less sanguine about the future. In their eyes, Red Hook in the late 1990s and early 2000s was being resuscitated, but it was also shot through with the racial and class violence of gentrification. In the context of redeveloping the waterfront, the rhetoric of “new life” was clearly a euphemism for the new people that gentrification would bring to an area whose older forms of life were dismissed as superannuated. The stories told by Cohen, Nadelson, and Pochoda, set in Red Hook in the last years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, are as much investigations of homicides and missing persons as they are of a place dying, disappearing, and reemerging as something else.
Red Hook’s luridly colorful name seems almost too good to be true from the crime novelist’s perspective. But it is derived not from the area’s reputation for blood and gore but from the color of the soil and the Dutch word hoek, meaning “point” or “corner.” The neighborhood—a “weird fat lip of land”—juts out into the harbor with unrivaled views of the Statue of Liberty (Nadelson, Red Hook, 6). Its northeastern border is the elevated six-lane Gowanus Expressway, completed by Robert Moses in 1941, that connects the often-clogged Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the usually jammed Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, linking (at least in theory) the neighborhood to Manhattan and Staten Island. The diagonal cut of the expressway and eight-laned Hamilton Avenue running beneath it sever Red Hook from the wealthier neighborhood of Carroll Gardens and leave residents trapped behind lanes of traffic that have to be crossed over via a dicey pedestrian bridge or passed carefully under to reach the closest subway station at Smith and Ninth Streets, a mile away. In Cohen’s novel, also titled Red Hook, the expressway is a “deep gash,” an open wound that years later haunts even those who have left the neighborhood, especially Cohen’s NYPD protagonist Jack Leightner (28).
As a place, Red Hook bears contradictory significations that are unique to its geographical and economic position. One of the first impressions conveyed by urban planners, politicians, and writers who study the neighborhood is its paradoxical interconnectedness to the rest of New York and remoteness from it. “Red Hook is defined by its proximity to water and roadways,” write the authors of the redevelopment blueprint Red Hook: A Plan for Community Regeneration (1996), a Giuliani-era proposal to transform the area. They go on to note that “while critical to the movement of goods and vehicles, these waterways and transportation structures separate Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn.” The remoteness of the area is actual but also imagined: “To the outside world Red Hook often evokes images of danger and isolation,” the authors of the plan remark. Red Hook seems simultaneously inside the city and outside of it. Nadelson’s novel figures Red Hook as “the edge of the world” yet only “a couple of miles from Manhattan” (25), literally on the fringe but central (at least at one time) to the city’s economy as “the biggest shipyards on earth” and as the city’s main port (7). The social and economic changes in Red Hook are “a microcosm” of the transformations to the wider city (281).
The word “transformations” may lend a false impression that changes in the neighborhood have been smooth. In truth, they have been anything but. Red Hook has been beaten and bloodied by decades of passive neglect and active harm. The Gowanus Expressway destroyed the neighborhood’s retail corridor by casting it in perpetual shadow and raining down on it exhaust fumes and nonstop noise. Red Hook’s status as a busy port for unionized white ethnic laborers rapidly declined in the 1960s. The advent of containerization in international shipping eliminated the need for so many hands to unload cargo. The opening of a larger and better-connected port in Newark, New Jersey, was the coup de grâce to the industry in New York. The publicly subsidized Red Hook Houses, originally built in the late 1930s for dockworkers, had by the 1970s gained a reputation as a notoriously violent African American and Latinx housing project. Its cluster of over thirty buildings, with nearly ten thousand residents, is the largest concentration of public housing in the borough. When the city embarked in 1975 on a $378 million sewage treatment project in Red Hook, it seemed to many residents like adding insult to injury. The city seized houses and businesses along Columbia Street, tore them down to dig a sewage interceptor canal, then paused work when buildings started to collapse because their foundations had been weakened by the dredging years earlier of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Then the murder of the beloved elementary school principal Patrick Daly in 1992 traumatized the neighborhood all over again. Daly was caught in crossfire at the Red Hook Houses, where he’d gone to search for a nine-year-old who’d left school after a fight. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, it drowned Red Hook in several feet of water and muck. Even despite the influx of wealthier residents in recent years, Red Hook remains poor: in 2014, 49 percent of its households earned less than $25,000 a year, classifying them as “extremely low income.”
For a small neighborhood, Red Hook has generated a surprisingly substantial body of literary and filmic discourse. This has included H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1955), Hugh Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), and Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991). The horror at the heart of Lovecraft’s anti-immigrant screed, published at the height of 1920s xenophobic nativism, is racial and ethnic mixing. Its protagonist, the New York police detective Thomas F. Malone, tracks down a human smuggler in the neighborhood, which is histrionically characterized as a “polyglot abyss,” a “nest . . . of disorder and violence,” and where “Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements,” plus “unclassified Asian dregs,” live cheek by jowl. In Lovecraft’s imagination, Red Hook is less terra firma than a kind of fluid area associated with rootlessness, nomadism, and the noxious mixing of people from different cultures and nations, something liminal, uncategorizable, and polluted.
Arthur Miller’s opening image of Red Hook in A View from the Bridge is of a “slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge.” But what soon emerges into view is a tight-knit, if fractious, community of immigrant and first-generation longshoremen who are heroic and tragic, driven by loyalty and led astray by jealousies. In Miller’s depiction, Red Hook leaves a firm imprint upon its inhabitants. Explaining the frustration and rage of his protagonist Eddie Carbone, Miller declares that he “is not comprehensible apart from [his] relation to his neighborhood.” Miller’s Red Hook is both a vibrant ethnic community and a toxic stew of incestual desire and class resentment. Carbone leers at his wife’s eighteen-year-old niece, who is pursued by an undocumented Italian who Carbone suspects is gay. When Carbone reports him to immigration services, he violates the insular neighborhood’s code to enact its own brand of justice, setting up what will be his downfall: a knife in the gut. Published during Red Hook’s white, working-class heyday, Miller’s play prefigures its decline in Carbone’s death.
The part of “the slum that faces the bay” in Miller’s work alludes to what is locally known as the neighborhood’s “back,” its more desirable real estate and the part increasingly gentrified by century’s end. “The front,” in contrast, refers to the impoverished terrain of the high-rise Red Hook Houses and a wasteland of repair shops and gas stations abutting the expressway. Whereas “the back” is the territory of Lovecraft, Kazan, and Miller, “the front” belongs to the Black film director Matty Rich. Released in 1991, just after New York City’s homicides peaked at 2,245 in a single year, Rich’s gritty Straight Out of Brooklyn reflects public panic over urban crime in Red Hook’s subsidized housing. When the authors of Red Hook: A Plan for Community Regeneration remarked that the neighborhood “evokes images of danger and isolation,” they cited Rich’s film as evidence. Taking place in the Houses, Straight Out of Brooklyn centers on the teenager Dennis Brown, who wants to flee with money he plans on obtaining by robbing a drug dealer with a borrowed shotgun, a plan that ends tragically. The film leaves viewers with the impression that no one gets out alive.
Collectively this body of literary and filmic discourse represents Red Hook, at its best, as an isolated, closely knit community that polices itself and, at its worst, as a variegated anticommunity, a hybrid mélange overrun with lawlessness. Taken together, it attests to the cultural anxiety Red Hook has consistently provoked in the urban imagination. This anxiety is also implicit in the recent proliferation of urban planning literature on the neighborhood that testifies to Red Hook’s unsettled status. Since the crime decline of the mid-1990s, the area has been at the center of no less than four major revitalization and renewal initiatives to gentrify the neighborhood, including the aforementioned Red Hook: A Plan for Community Regeneration, The New Waterfront Revitalization Program (2002), Vision 2020: New York Comprehensive Waterfront Plan (2011), and Red Hook: NY Rising Community Reconstruction Plan (2014). In this urban planning literature, Red Hook is always already a work in progress, a neighborhood as fluid as the water around it.
James Throgmorton argues that urban planners are storytellers who write narratives about the urban future. The “stories” they tell through their otherwise technocratic and data-driven reports “guide readers’ sense of what is possible and desirable.” The latest of the reports on Red Hook, NY Rising, crafts a narrative of the neighborhood’s transformation as inevitable. “Red Hook is a changing Community,” the authors note, before reaffirming a few pages later that “Red Hook is a rapidly evolving neighborhood,” and then once more for good measure, “Red Hook is in a time of transition.” Left unsaid in this passive phrasing are the underlying socioeconomic and ecological forces that bring about the change that urban planners, we are led to believe, merely struggle to keep up with, rather than actively hasten. Left uncritiqued, too, is “the teleology of waterfront ‘development’ as ‘progress,’ the belief that proposed redevelopments are technologically, socially, environmentally, and economically better than what came before.” The language and narrative deployed in the four initiatives evoke a vision of a new waterfront that “distances itself from and places itself in opposition to an obsolete and contaminated industrial landscape.” In these reports, Red Hook’s historical status as a blue-collar shipping port is not denied but rather is relegated to the background, nearly invisible apart from a few photographs of outmoded cranes mixed in with images of sparkling cruise ships and new cafés. The dirty word “gentrification” is also missing from the latest plan’s 194 pages but haunts it like a specter. Or maybe it is so obvious that all the references to “change,” a community “rising,” and a neighborhood being “reconstructed” are euphemisms for “gentrification” that the word need not be uttered. One of the common narratives of urban planning, Throgmorton asserts, is the one that “constructs the city as a site of opportunity and excitement, a center for artists and other creative people,” a claim borne out by the redevelopment documents. What the plans imagine—and help bring into being—is a future postindustrial Red Hook as a vibrant community of artists, a place of “park and outdoor recreational amenities,” a place with water tours for visitors, and a place that memorializes New York’s sinking maritime industry in a small museum housed on a wooden boat.
Red Hook’s transformation into a place for recreation, artisanal manufacturing, and upscale housing is part of the restructuring of work and life in the city away from heavy industry and toward services and white-collar work. Much of the credit for this change in Red Hook would seem to go to one person: not Bloomberg, but Greg O’Connell, an ex–drug cop turned developer who bought his first building in Red Hook in 1982 and now owns twenty five of them. Over the years, he assembled the largest real estate portfolio in the neighborhood, estimated at $400 million, much of it bought for pennies on the dollar as in rem buildings from the state. Red Hook’s Fairway grocery store, housed in a block-long nineteenth-century red brick warehouse for storing cotton, is there because of O’Connell. Many of Red Hook’s small businesses, including “a hat manufacturer, medical supplies distributor, glass blowers, carpentry shops, [and] an apple processor,” are his tenants. Etsy, the online company through which indie craftspeople sell art and jewelry, leases nine thousand square feet of space from him. O’Connell’s Red Hook is a veritable postindustrial hodgepodge of boutique and just-in-time manufacturing. As O’Connell has said in interviews, being a detective in SoHo when it started to gentrify gave him a street-level view of what to look for twenty or thirty years down the road, a postindustrial future in the making: “I saw [Red Hook] as an opportunity, a challenge.”
Even for all of his outsize presence in Red Hook, O’Connell is, like Bloomberg, a conduit for the impersonal forces of postindustrial restructuring that in the early 2000s created a neighborhood in a state of “transition” with jarring juxtapositions. A neighborhood where rotting piers have been rehabilitated to accommodate luxury cruise liners. Where converted warehouses are home to tech startups. Where a massive housing project looks out onto the blue whale of a 346,000-square-foot IKEA with acres of parking on what was a Civil War–era graving dock (a type of dry dock). As we will see, Cohen, Nadelson, and Pochoda offer a violently contested story of the neighborhood in which its industrial past is not easily forgotten and its postindustrial future is not entirely assured.
About the Author
Thomas Heise is the author of The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel (2021), which is part of Columbia University Press’s Literature Now Series. He’s also the author of the novel Moth (Sarabande 2013), Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande 2006), and Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers 2011), which was part of the American Literature Initiatives. A faculty member at Pennsylvania State University (Abington), he lives in New York City.
Excerpted from The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel by Thomas Heise. Copyright (c) 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.13076