Undiscovered New York: Rambling Red Hook

Welcome back to Gadling’s weekly series, Undiscovered New York. Being the global metropolis that it is, criss-crossed with highways, cargo ships and landing airplanes, you may find it hard to believe that any part of New York City could be considered isolated. But the fact of the matter is that there are still some parts of the city that could easily be labeled “the place that time forgot.”

One neighborhood that holds such a distinction is Brooklyn’s Red Hook, a charmingly disheveled waterfront district cut off from the rest of the city by the BQE Expressway. Red Hook’s reputation as a working-class, hardscrabble industrial port area is well earned. From the mid 1800’s until the middle of the 20th Century, this was a thriving hub of marine-based commerce in New York City and home to around 20,000 residents, primarily longshoremen.

But by the mid 1960’s, a changing shipping industry had moved many dockworking jobs to New Jersey. The departure of these jobs from Red Hook, along with the completion of the BQE, sent the neighborhood into a period of decline. The 1970’s through the 1990’s saw the area ravaged by crime – LIFE Magazine even went so far as to declare it the “crack capital of America.”

Yet by the end of the 90’s Red Hook was taking a turn for the better. An influx of new residents, attracted by the neighborhoods cheap rents and gorgeous views of the New York Harbor were opening new businesses at a record pace. Recent years have seen further development, including a huge Fairway grocery store, the recent arrival of furniture behemoth IKEA, and a house for castmembers of MTV’s popular reality show The Real World.

Still, despite these changes, Red Hook maintains a unique charm unlike any other part of New York. Want to eat a chocolate covered Key Lime pie on a stick? How about taking in sweeping views of New York harbor and aging industrial relics? Click through for Undiscovered New York’s guide to Red Hook.
Red Hook Food
If there’s one thing that has New Yorkers talking about Red Hook, it’s the many unsung food spots. If you’re anywhere north of Key West, Red Hook is ground zero for some of the country’s best Key Lime pie at Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. This unassuming shop is nothing more than a small counter and a refrigerator with some freshly made slices of citrus-y heaven. If you simply can’t wait to try it, get yourself a swingle, which is a personal-size key lime pie on a stick covered in chocolate. Enjoy it outside on a picnic table while you take in some of New York’s best harbor views.

The other amazing food spot in Red Hook is the Red Hook ball fields, home to what is arguably New York’s most authentic collection of Central and South American cuisine. On weekends during the warmer months, the fields host lively soccer matches, and the competition is ringed on all sides by food vendors offering everything from mouth-watering ceviche to milky Horchata drinks to cheesy pupusas.

Van Brunt Street Strip
If lonely Red Hook could be said to have a main strip, it’s probably Van Brunt Street. A range of quirky and eclectic businesses crowd both sides of this thoroughfare, reinforcing Red Hook’s shifting reputation as a home for artists and artisans. LeNell’s is Red Hook’s liquor store and then some, stocking a diverse range of small-batch liquor and exotic mixers for the cocktail enthusiast. Meanwhile dessert specialist Baked offers a mouth-watering array of muffins, cakes and cookies. Those looking to discover their inner longshoreman should stop off for a pint at Sunny’s Bar, a proudly old-school local watering hole since 1890.

Urban Exploring
One of New York’s greatest forgotten pleasures is urban exploring. While there have been great benefits to the city’s gentrification, it’s also stripped away some of the quirky buildings and spaces that once gave the city its character. Red Hook still retains an essence of this “gritty” charm, and it can be amusing to get lost on its many deserted side streets and alleyways, revealing a number of deserted architectural relics. You might stumble upon the imposing Red Hook Grain Terminal, which looms ominously along the area’s waterfront. Or you may meander past the ancient Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse, a well-preserved Civil War-era factory that dates to 1859. Meanwhile, massive cruise ships drift by like lumbering giants as they inch their way into the nearby Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. It is perhaps bittersweet to note that one of Red Hook’s most iconic wrecks, the Revere Sugar Refinery, met the wrecking ball in 2007.