The WWII doughboy statue that stands outside of VFW Post 5159 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, has witnessed the change come to Van Brunt Street. But every year, the post he guards draws over 200 former residents of Red Hook to the Veterans of Foreign War’s 50th annual reunion; a sign that the memory of what the neighborhood once was has not left the collective memory.
Last Saturday, former residents of Red Hook gathered at the VFW Annual Reunion, an event has been a community staple for over 50 years. Former residents and their families attended the reunion, reminiscing over the old Red Hook neighborhood that has long since been replaced by a split world of the wealthy on the water, and poverty in the projects.
The commander of Post 5159, Michael “Mickey” Chirieleison, 63, bought over $1,000 worth of roast beef, sausages, and ziti for the reunion. Behind the building, speakers blared oldies from decades past, when blue-collar jobs were plentiful, doors were left unlocked, and neighbors were friends. Over 200 people attended the reunion, from Jersey and other boroughs, and even from as far as Florida. Some were veterans while others were not, but all attendees shared a connection to Red Hook.
“I was a young kid in the neighborhood,” said Ben Butler, 75, recalling similar memories as the other guests. “All the guys that came back from the Second World War would come outside the post. They would give me a job, for example, to get them a pack of Lucky’s. And they’d give you twenty-five cents, and you’d run like a rocket… The cigarettes cost seventeen cents, and they’d say keep the change, kid.”
In 1939, ground broke for what would become the borough’s largest public housing project. In 1946, construction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway began, effectively cutting off Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. In the 1950s, the Red Hook trolley was shut down, decreasing residents’ mobility even within the neighborhood. And as shipping containers began to be used in the 1960s, increasing efficiency of storage and therefore decreasing the demand of manual labor in the shipping industry, the number of jobs plummeted. Waterfront business in Red Hook came to a standstill.
With the loss of jobs and transportation, many residents like those at the reunion moved out in search of work. In their place, those with fewer options moved in, filling the public housing units. By 1990, LIFE had named Red Hook “the crack capital of America.” But artists began arriving in Red Hook in the early 2000s as they searched for more affordable housing, and upscale wine shops and galleries began to pop up on the neighborhood’s main run, Van Brunt street. Today, a two-bedroom apartment in Red Hook runs an average of $3,200.
“We had such a nice enclave here,” reminisced Elsie Tweedy, 73, who moved away in 1971 to Marine Park. “There was the shoemaker, the candy store, the grocery store, the Laundromat… We used to go to the Christ Chapel boat rides, and go in the morning and come back late at night and have our doors open and nothing was ever missing. Nothing.”
That Red Hook is gone, as is the crack and isolation that replaced it. Instead, For many, they weren’t happy with Red Hook, unless it was their Red Hook.
“In my adolescent years, when you lived by the pier, you weren’t worth sh–,” said Inez Colon. “Now, you can’t touch the piers. You come up this way, and you’re paying a lot of money.” Colon scoffed at the idea that realtors now use the view of Manhattan as one of Red Hook’s selling points. “Don’t sell me that,” said Colon. “I’ve been looking at that since I was a kid.”
Elsie Tweedy’s husband, Gerard Tweedy, 78, was also baffled by the gentrification. “You had the bathtub in the kitchen,” Gerard Tweedy recalled about the apartment he lived in as a young man in the late ‘40s. He said he paid thirty-eight dollars a month for rent, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to move in if they could afford another place. “An apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen—they think they got something good? Are these people freaking nuts?”
But not all the former residents feel this way about Red Hook; some are fine with the change. “That’s how things should evolve,” Butler said in response to cousin, Gerard Tweedy, who was complaining about the lights that have been installed in the neighborhood since his departure.
“They got three lights all on Van Brunt Street,” grumbled Tweedy. But whether it were three lights or three hundred, it did not seem to matter to Tweedy; his Red Hook is gone. “For a hundred years they never had lights,” said Tweedy, his voice raised with exasperation as his eyes widened and rolled.
Politely protesting, Butler expressed differing feelings. “I like the lights. It lets me stop and look around.”