Red Hook: the hip New York enclave caught between gentrification and climate change

Residents of the transforming Brooklyn neighborhood, a peninsula surrounded by water, assured a grim look at its future on the citys floodplain after Hurricane Sandy in 2012

The party at Bait& Tackle didn’t look like a funeral. The bar was packed with people double-fisting beverages and dancing. But every now and then you caught person go quiet, stare at the ceiling, take a deep breath and sigh, eyes glimmering.

” It’s a lot to take up ,” said a woman to a friend stand next to her.” Where are you gonna go for happy hour now ?” she asked.

” I don’t know ,” her friend answered. “Nowhere.”

A grey-haired man behind the bar gave a bottle of vodka to a client who knocked back its last dregs. Barry O’Meara was not just the bartender- he also owned the place, which he had opened 14 years ago. But on 27 January 2018, it was coming to an end. O’Meara would close Bait& Tackle for good.

Until then, Bait& Tackle had been a neighborhood bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. O’Meara was shutting it down because the neighborhood was not what it used to be. The people moving to Red Hook-” the new people”, he said- were displacing his clients, who could no longer afford their rent.

” And the people moving in don’t frequent establishments like this ,” O’Meara said.” So that’s it .”

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The quay in Red Hook. Photograph: Henri Salonen

It was not the ending anyone had expected five years earlier. In October of 2012, O’Meara had stood on the street outside Bait& Tackle watching the ocean draw nearer and nearer. Soon water was pouring into the basement of his bar.

With its constrict rivers, estuaries and islands, New York City is extremely vulnerable to coastal inundating. Red Hook lies on the city’s floodplain. Flood maps is demonstrating that Red Hook- a low, flat peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides- wouldn’t stand a chance in the case of a “100-year flood”, a climate event so massive it has a 1% opportunity of resulting every year.

It might not sound like much of a risk, but “1%” is a deceptively small number. As Arctic glaciers melt, and oceans grow warmer and expand, sea levels are rising. Storms that would have been too weak to push the water to shore in the past will become powerful enough to do so. In the near future, what we think of as 100 -year floods might be more like 30 – or 40 -year floods.

Soon, it won’t take a heavy cyclone for Red Hook’s streets to flood. According to scientists’ projections, the city’s piers will vanish under high tide in the 2020 s. By 2080, a normal high tide will flood some streets. Part of Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s main thoroughfare, is expected to flood daily.

Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, offered a grim preview of Red Hook’s future. The cyclone, which devastated areas all over New York and left 43 dead in the city, reached Red Hook especially hard. As water gushed out of sewers and into streets, parks and basements, residents were forced to remember that Red Hook used to be a tidal marsh and that old, concealed creeks still stream under the asphalt like veins under the city’s skin.

After the blizzard, Red Hook residents who owned their homes believed their property had lost its value overnight. The truth was more surprising. Over the next several years, Red Hook’s home prices soared. It turned out that, blizzard or no blizzard, there were people in New York City and beyond who were willing to pay more than$ 1m for the chance to live on a floodplain.

Red Hook’s transformation was tangible. Two blocks of new luxury townhouses rose on King and Sullivan Streets. In 2016, Tesla opened a showroom there. More and more tourists strayed in for new and rebuilt galleries, eateries and bars. An old mill, right by the water, was turned into million-dollar condos. The Puerto Rican family that owned the Bait& Tackle building sold it to an investment company in 2016, and O’Meara’s rent shot up by 30%. Rising rents pushed more than a dozen of O’Meara’s friends out of the neighborhood and, in many cases, out of the city entirely.

Many Red Hook residents assured their neighborhood as the last bastion of real New York: a place where regular people with regular jobs could still afford to live. That “authenticity” was also part of its charm in the eyes of newcomers- but that didn’t reassure people like O’Meara, who felt the bastion was under attack , not only from the rising sea but from newcomers and their middle-class lifestyle too.

Five years after the cyclone, O’Meara said that Sandy was the beginning of the end for the neighborhood. Then he corrected himself:” There’s no such thing as a fucking aim. But it was the beginning of something different .”

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Andrew Amendola in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Photograph: Henri Salonen for the Guardian

Andrew Amendola is the fourth Amendola to live in the slender, four-story 19 th-century building on Van Brunt Street. He is an only child who grew up without a mom but who shared the house with his father, grandmother, great-uncle and two great-aunts.

When Amendola was a kid, Bait& Tackle was still a bait and tackle shop. Back then, in the late 1990 s, Amendola and his father used to break through a fence, on to the shore that is now home to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, and go crabbing. All they needed was a net and the huge blue claws were theirs for the taking. The silhouette of lower Manhattan shone only a couple miles out but there was nobody else by the water.

Amendola was 13 years old when he saw Barry O’Meara for the first time. The teen had sneaked over to his window to smoke a cigarette when he saw a white guy, back then a rare sight on Van Brunt Street, strolling by below.

He didn’t know the guy, so he hollered:” Go home, yuppie !”

O’Meara, a fourth-generation bartender, was hardly a yuppie. He had grown up in a small Irish village where his great-grandfather had a bar. He had served his first drink when he was eight. When he heard Amendola’s shout, he appeared up and wailed back:” Andrew? I’m gonna tell your father that you’re smoking .”

Immediately, the window slammed shut.

One afternoon in November 2017, Amendola was volunteering behind the bar at a VFW veterans’ club across from his house. His girlfriend came in and took a seat. Amendola fixed her a bloody mary, went to the other end of the bar, and made a quick phone call.

” What did the guy want ?” Amendola’s girlfriend asked.

” He wanted to offer $2.8 m for the building. I said no, we’re not getting rid of it .”

Amendola gets calls from real estate developers and private equity firms on a regular basis. When his great-aunt Sue Amendola died last fall, the calls get even more frequent.

” These people are predatory ,” Amendola said.

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View from the rooftop of Amendola’s house. Photograph: Henri Salonen

He witnessed the same happen after Sandy. After the market took a hit because of the cyclone, people came to Red Hook looking to buy. But Amendola has no intention of selling the house where he grew up. Neither $ 2.8 m nor the threat of another hurricane are enough to build him abandon a place that holds all his memories. More than money or security, he values that he can walk down the block and be annoyed that he has to say ” hi” at least to three people.

” Like,’ Oh, this fucking guy, I don’t want to see him right now .’ But I actually like not wanting to see them ,” he said.

At 26, Amendola plans to spend the rest of his life in Red Hook, just like generations of Amendolas before him did.

Red Hook’s desirability is rising because, unlike elsewhere in Brooklyn, townhouses are still relatively affordable there. Some gentrifiers come because they want their kids to attend the local private school that opened a year after Sandy.( Next year’s tuition: $30,200.) Others come because Red Hook is different from most other parts of the city. It is quiet, like a seaside village, except you can see the Statue of Liberty. You can see the sky. You can breathe.

It’s easy to forget that people didn’t always want to live on the waterfront. In cities, the rivers used to smell. Water entailed pollution and garbage, and waterfronts were where the cities pushed the working class, the poorest of the poor, the new immigrants. It is not a coincidence that Fifth Avenue is as far from any river as possible.

This started to change in 1972, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act and water quality across the United Country started to improve. At the same time, industry was abandoning cities, leaving behind vacant parcels that eventually attracted commercial developers and wealthy new residents. In various regions of the world, urban waterfronts have become the most desirable, expensive locatings, even though water is rising.

That’s one of the many quirks of Red Hook and places like it. After more than a century of living inland, the rich- abruptly hankering to live by the water- are pushing the poorest of the poor and middle class out. This migration might save longtime waterfront residents from rising water, but it doesn’t save them from losing their homes.

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Andrew Amendola and Katie Page on the rooftop of their home. Photograph: Henri Salonen for the Guardian

On the other hand, many of the low-income residents who still live on the shore don’t have any choice but to stay. Much of New York’s public housing is concentrated by the water, in Red Hook, Coney Island, the Lower East Side, the Rockaways. Red Hook has one of the oldest and biggest public housing projects in the country. More than half of Red Hook’s 12,000 residents are tenants of the New York City Housing Authority. Without government investment in flood protection, they are in harm’s way.

Coastal megacities from London to Tokyo and Rotterdam to Shanghai have installed seawalls, cyclone surge obstacles, super-levees and dyke-rings to keep the water out of the streets. New York has not. Americans are better at immediate disaster response than planning for the future, experts say.

In the future, there could be less and less government support for struggling working people in places like Red Hook. Flood protection, many urban planners predict, may only be available to those who can afford to pay for it themselves.

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In November 2017 , Andrew Amendola was decorating the vacant plenty next to his house for Christmas. Mounting a nativity scene was a family tradition. The afternoon sunlight induced the plastic angels shimmer gold, while a gust of gale blew a reindeer over.

” Go home, reindeer, you’re drunk ,” Amendola said.

The lot is home to four cats. After Sandy, he was sure that they had died. But a few days after the blizzard, they found their route back. Unlike many people, they had evacuated.

If you asked real estate developer Chris Ward, he might say that the vacant plenty is another parcel of scarce New York land being underutilized. Ward , now a senior vice-president at the global engineering giant Aecom, has a long history of collaboration with New York’s waterfronts.

In September 2016, Ward told the Brooklyn Eagle, a daily newspapers, that Red Hook had two alternatives: to become populated with high-rise buildings, co-ops and condos, or to remain the” underutilized low-income, unconnected community it is today “.

Aecom had just announced a proposal to radically transform the neighborhood into a hub of gleaming skyscrapers. The plan included a metro line from Manhattan and 45,000 new apartments in high-rises.

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The Hurricane Sandy waterline. Photograph: Henri Salonen for the Guardian

In his 2018 State of the State address, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, put “revitalizing” Red Hook on his agenda and called on the Port Authority to consider relocating the operations of Red Hook’s remaining port, the Red Hook Container Terminal, to Sunset Park. He also asked the Metropolitan Transportation Authority( MTA) to study options to extend the subway from lower Manhattan to Red Hook, a key component of Aecom’s vision for Red Hook’s reinvention.

Robert Pincus, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to come to Red Hook after Sandy because his rent in Carroll Gardens, on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, spiked. In Red Hook, his family could afford to rent a home. He wouldn’t buy property in Red Hook: he’s too aware of the climate hazards. But he understands why Aecom and other developers have their eyes on the neighborhood.

” There are billions of dollars to be made ,” Pincus said.” The developers make them in 30 or 40 years, and only then the land will flood .”

Chris Ward disagrees with this view. He find new development as a style to build and finance flood protection in waterfront cities across the globe.

” Most cities are taking the approach that with thoughtful architectural design and engineering we can ameliorate the risk at at an acceptable level ,” he told the Guardian.

Aecom is not the only company going after the neighborhood. According to the New York Times, Related Company, a major real estate developer, is also circulating a draft plan on Red Hook’s revitalization. The plan is titled” New York’s Next Big Thing “.

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Andrew Amendola cries after Barry O’Meara’s speech. Photograph: Henri Salonen

On his final night at his bar , Barry O’Meara got to the bar’s tiny stage for his final speech. He had to wait a little for the crowd to quiet down and listen.

” We have induced friends for life and we have built foes for life ,” O’Meara said into a microphone, with his usual flair for drama.

A slideshow of pictures ran on a screen behind him. In one photo, a sign outside Bait& Tackle said ” FREE HURRICANE ADVICE “. In Sandy’s aftermath, Bait& Tackle became one of the central neighborhood hubs where people went for help and company.

In the years since Sandy, residents of Red Hook and New Yorkers in general have been asking themselves: what is the right thing to do after such a disaster? How do you stimulate schemes when you know that it might happen again, but you don’t know if it’s going to be next month, next year, or in three decades? It seems like the rational thing to do would be to leave the waterfront and find a new home- somewhere on higher ground, somewhere safe.

But that’s not how people choose a place to live. There are other, more immediately compelling factors to consider. What can you afford? Where feels like home? Where are your friends and family, your favorite bar, your kid’s school? Knowing your neighbors or having a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty can outweigh a far-off-seeming flood risk. It’s not easy to leave a place you love- even if the place, by virtue of its geography, promises to one day kill you.

In Bait& Tackle, O’Meara’s speech was almost over. People raised their voices. First, one at a time:” We love you, Barry !” And then all together:” Barry! Barry! Barry !”

O’Meara told them to shut the fuck up.” I’m not sad ,” he said, interrupting the chant.” This room has been too great and too beautiful with happiness and laughter and pleasure to be sad. I’ve been fucking privileged. Let’s continue the night. I love you all. Thank you .”

After the speech, the DJ put one over David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.

Amendola stood next to the bar wearing a T-shirt bearing the words he once screamed to O’Meara:” Go home, yuppie !” Now, he wiped away tears.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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