Reported with Richard Feloni.
As a resident of the Red Hook Houses, Jacqueline Smith experienced some of the most severe damage Hurricane Sandy had to offer last October. Fearing the worst, it took her a few days to gather enough courage to see if the supermarket she deemed so important to life in her neighborhood was affected. The Red Hook Fairway— the only supermarket in Red Hook and the only Fairway in Brooklyn—had shut down.
While she waited for Fairway to reopen, Smith, who mostly gets around by walking, had to travel to other markets around South Brooklyn. The next closest supermarket, the Pathmark grocery in Gowanus, is only accessible by car. And in her opinion, it lacks healthy choices, anyway.
On Friday, she pushed her own folding shopping cart around the store, smiling and repeating under her breath, “I’m so glad it’s back!”
After more than four months of being closed, the Fairway at the southwest end of Van Brunt Street opened its doors again Friday morning. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Miss America Mallory Hytes Hagan were on hand to praise the market and cut the ceremonious ribbon.
“Today’s opening is a metaphor,” said Sen. Schumer from the podium. “This is the reopening of a neighborhood. Red Hook is back and open for business!”
The crowd cheered, as he raised his fist in the air.
Fairway is in the ground floor of a brick building by the waterfront, and Sandy’s effects were immediate: Five feet of water rushed in off the ocean and pushed shelving and cashier machines up against the opposite wall. The company was able to recover due to adequate business protection insurance, used in case of such an emergency.
Several hundred Red Hook residents from the Houses and the rest of the community gathered on Friday for its reopening, as well as plenty of shoppers from other places in Brooklyn.
Small business owners were on hand, too. Since Fairway first opened in 2007, many have appreciated how it brings other Brooklyn residents into the neighborhood. Visitors have the potential of exploring the neighborhood and spending more of their money at Red Hook establishments.
“This has been a rallying point for small businesses,” said Captain Jeffrey Schiff of the 76th Precinct, noting that the reopening could only help the community. He stood off to the side of the crowd gathered in the parking lot, along with some of his officers, to keep an eye on the several hundred shoppers who waited for their chance to go inside.
Ron Kyle, owner of Dry Dock Wine & Spirits, and St. John Frizell, owner of the restaurant Fort Defiance, represented the small business coalition Restore Red Hook and announced that the group had raised half a million dollars for the neighborhood recovery effort. Fairway shoppers could donate a dollar or more to the effort at checkout, with the market promising to match up to $20,000.
The opening ceremony lasted an hour and was lighthearted enough to keep most customers from getting restless.
“My wife and I don’t cook,” Markowitz yelled to the crowd with his signature animated delivery. “So when we celebrate our holidays…our personal chef — is Fairway catering.”
Outside the front door, parents pushed strollers and greeted friends, and others like Park Slope resident Brooke McKeen watched their kids from the Brooklyn School of Inquiry choir perform as part of the celebration. Applause and laughter filled the parking lot in front of Fairway and as the doors opened, hundreds headed towards the entrance to grab a grocery cart.
Within minutes, the aisles were crowded and the checkout line jammed, but that did not dampen the spirits of many customers. In the newly renovated eating area along the waterfront towards the back of the store, the Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-Phony–a group originally formed in 1939 to cheer on the former baseball team–played in celebration as customers nibbled on sandwiches and sipped soup.
Each keynote speaker commended Fairway for allowing all of its Red Hook employees to work at other franchise locations while the Red Hook location was closed.
“We had an obligation to the workers,” said Howie Glickberg, the Vice Chairman of Development and grandson of Fairway Markets’ founder, Nathan Glickberg. “The local workers don’t have a lot of money. They live week-to-week,” he said. “They’re thrilled to be back.”
Vanessa Vicens was working at Fairway for just a few months before the storm hit. Vicens was born and raised in Red Hook, and now lives on King Street with her husband and 4-year-old daughter. Vicens’ household was without power for three weeks, and she was devastated after the store closed in late October. “I was emotionally depressed,” she said. “I had to go through it here, and at home.”
Like other relocated workers, Vicens took advantage of the shuttle service provided by Fairway from its Red Hook location’s parking lot to the Douglaston, Queens or Long Island location but was inconvenienced by the hour-long commute. On Friday, she walked to work in just 10 minutes.
Though employees were saddened by the destruction of what some called their “second home,” none reported serious concern over losing his or her job. “I knew they would take care of us,” said Jinelle Bryan. Bryan is a resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and has been working in this Fairway for four years.
Inside the store, workers were happy to be back as they arranged fruit stacks, straightened signs and helped customers find their way around the new layout of the store. Michael Ayala joked with co-workers behind the cheese counter and was eager to help customers. A Red Hook Houses resident, Ayala has been working at Fairway for six years. Just two months before the storm hit, Ayala helped a friend, Ryan Irizarry, find a job at the Red Hook location. “We all know each other,” said Ayala. “It’s like a big family. When you work here for six days a week, you get to know people.”
Kevin O’Connor of Park Slope made the trip to Red Hook on Friday not only for the better food selection, as compared to the markets in his neighborhood, but because, “The people who work here are just nicer.”
“I was paying double at delis and they have half the stuff,” said Red Hook resident John Gordon Gauld. He was forced out of the neighborhood once his apartment on Van Brunt Street was flooded by Sandy, and returned to find that he could not afford the rent on the restored property. He has recently moved to a new place on the same street. “Groceries are expensive,” he said, adding a box of rice to his basket, “but these prices aren’t too bad.”
Long-time resident Walter B. Johnson wore his “Vietnam Veteran” cap on Friday and was one of the first people inside to shop. He is originally from East Harlem, but has lived in Red Hook for over 50 years.
“I used to play down here as a kid when there was nothing,” he said, referring to the plot of land the market inhabits. “It was just grasslands. It’s huge that Fairway is here,” he said, saying that it not only provides an essential service but has helped revitalize the area, leading to a safer and cleaner neighborhood. To Johnson, the four-month wait for the reopening was “Way long. Way long.”
When asked if he usually shopped at the Red Hook Fairway, Johnson replied, “Of course! Where else can you go?”
–As reported in The Brooklyn Ink