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Red Hook's Now Back in the Pink
Old port enjoying big-time revival

by ELIZABETH HAYS
Copyright May 5, 2002, New York Daily News.

The years brothers Danny and Vito Defonte have spent in Red Hook stretch longer than the line of hungry workers outside their family's 80-year-old sandwich shop at lunchtime.

And no one is happier or more surprised to witness the long-neglected waterfront neighborhood's new revival.

"You used to say, 'Red Hook,' and people would say, 'Forget about it!'" Vito Defonte, 71, said recently outside the famous Defonte's Sandwich Shop on Columbia St.

"I never thought that people would want to live here," he added as he stood just steps from an old luggage factory that was recently reinvented as luxury lofts. "But now they do."

After decades of blight and neglect, Red Hook a once-thriving port that fell into deep decline in the 1970s and '80s has been rediscovered.

Drawn to its spectacular waterfront views, cobblestone streets and small-town charm, artists and young people have flocked to the tiny neighborhood in recent years.

And new businesses and developers, who once shunned the isolated neighborhood's vacant lots, crumbling warehouses and derelict piers, now trip over each other to snatch them up.

Businesses Double

Advocates say the number of businesses in Red Hook has doubled in the last decade.

"It's nice to see," said Danny Defonte, 75, whose son, Nick, took over the store when the elder Defonte reluctantly threw in the apron after more than 50 years. "As long as it gets improved, that's all I care about."

At least three new bars have appeared in what was only recently a rundown neighborhood, and a French restaurant is slated to open on Van Brunt St. soon.

Plans are underway to bring in an enormous Fairway supermarket to one of the neighborhood's pre-Civil War waterfront warehouses.

"Development like this is new in Red Hook," said Frank Manzione, a real-estate broker who has worked in the area for 30 years.

Manzione said commercial and retail activity are up substantially. And he said housing prices have more than doubled in the last five years, with one- and two-family homes selling for more than $400,000.

"For an area that was so undesirable, Red Hook is very desirable now," he said.

Located at the southwestern tip of what was once called South Brooklyn, Red Hook's rough-and-tumble reputation dates to the early 19th century long before gangster Al Capone got his start in the notorious neighborhood as a petty thief in the early part of the last century.

By the Civil War, Red Hook had become one of the busiest ports in the country.

Ships from all over the world docked at its piers. Its lively narrow streets were lined with the low houses of dock workers and small stores and its many bars and boarding houses were filled with longshoremen and seamen.

In the 1930s, to accommodate the neighborhood's burgeoning population, the city cleared much of the eastern part of the neighborhood to build the Red Hook Houses, then among the biggest of their kind.

"It was a tough time everyone was trying to make a living," said Danny Defonte, whose father, Nicola, opened the family store in 1922 after emigrating to Red Hook from Bari, Italy.

"But it was a really nice neighborhood," added Vito. "It was filled with trees. And there was the trolley car."

After World War II, however, the neighborhood began to change. Innovations in the shipping industry made Red Hook's once-mighty docks obsolete. Then, the opening of the Battery Tunnel and the Gowanus Expressway cut Red Hook off from nearby neighborhoods.

Neighborhood's Downfall

Over the next several decades, families and businesses began to drift away, and empty lots, abandoned buildings and sagging warehouses took root in the once-bustling neighborhood.

Red Hook went through further changes in the 1980s and early '90s, when drugs and violence seemed to take over. Young families refused to venture outside after dark and residents of the Red Hook Houses were afraid to stand near the windows.

The neighborhood reached its lowest point in 1992 when a beloved local elementary school principal was killed when he was caught in crossfire between two rival gangs.

"That really tore the neighborhood apart," said well-known local activist Emma Broughton, who is often referred to as the mayor of Red Hook. Broughton moved to the neighborhood with her family in the late 1950s.

The ongoing revival also has brought Red Hook a host of new problems and issues.

A few years ago, the ethnically diverse, mixed-use neighborhood united to fight plans for a major garbage treatment plant on the waterfront.

But now that Red Hook is largely cleaned up and ready for its next phase, competition for newly valuable property has caused deep divisions.

And as more development comes in, Red Hook has found itself caught between advocates fighting for more housing, especially along the waterfront, and those who want to see more businesses and jobs brought there.

"It's a very special place," said John McGettrick, head of the Red Hook Civic Association. "It's a neighborhood worth fighting for."

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