Field Trip: Red Hook

Having already explored Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, I set out for another stop on NYC Ferry‘s South Brooklyn Route: Red Hook. Unlike those first two neighborhoods, I had previously been to Red Hook. A year ago, I ate at the Good Fork, and a dozen years ago, I ate at Alma. (Look, I’m not proud of how provincial that sounds, but Red Hook has historically been a pain to get to, and it’s not like I’ve been sitting on my duff watching TV the whole time. I’ve just been going other places.) So it was all new to me, which is exactly what I’m always craving.

NYC Ferry has added monitors displaying real-time service info, but if two boats are “departing now,” how do you know which is yours? (I had to ask.) As usual, the ride was a total treat, stopping first at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1 (Dumbo) and Pier 6, where I was tickled to see the ferry named Lunch Box by second-graders in Bay Ridge. (Tickets are $2.75 each way throughout the ferry system, by the way, and if you’ve never tried it, you should.)

As at Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, the ferry landing at Red Hook is unassuming to the point of being comical. Luckily, I spotted a sign directing pedestrian traffic, or I would’ve wandered elsewhere. In the map below, the dock is the little blue icon at eleven o’clock.

I was sure third-wave coffee would be available on Van Brunt Street, the main commercial strip, so I walked from Pioneer Street to the Fairway supermarket, and beyond. No such luck. But I hardly minded, because there was so much to reward the eye. It has taken me a long time, but I’ve finally realized that that’s what I like most in a destination: somewhere that makes the act of looking worthwhile. Van Brunt and the adjacent streets were a bonkers mix of the old, the industrial, the gentrified, and the overgrown; the buildings are low and the traffic sparse, making it a dream to stroll around.

Naturally I was pleased to see these guys.

Walking through Chelsea Garden Center, which I remember fondly from its Chelsea days, will make you want to quit everything and work in a nursery.

Out past the Fairway—which I skipped—is a long, warehouse-like building alongside a jetty. I had just about given up on that espresso when I came upon the impressive Nobletree headquarters and café. (I’m a fan of the Nobletree in the World Trade Center mall.) Dreams do come true! I had a nice chat with Charo, the barista.

It was probably the caffeine, but returning along the jetty, peeking inside the various studios and offices, I vowed to be more creative, more interesting, less whatever it is I am now. Drawn to a shiny old streetcar, I turned left, where I found the Waterfront Barge Museum and a restaurant—maybe it was part of the Fairway?—that didn’t look like it had good food, but the outdoor seating almost lured me in, regardless.

Let’s fast-forward a bit. Things and places I passed along the way toward Ikea: What I assume was a shop selling nautical antiques (not sure why I didn’t go in); the Brooklyn Crab restaurant (which I heard wasn’t great, but the setting sure is appealing); geese making themselves at home in a puddle on a vacant lot; and an office made of shipping containers.

Outside Ikea, I paused for a moment, wondering why there’s a crane over the parking lot and lawn. Is it vestigial?

I had a vague recollection that Columbia Street had interesting businesses on it, so I kept moving east. A friend I had asked for Red Hook advice mentioned Saipua, a floral design/soap company, and it looked pretty from the outside. As I was pressing my face up against the glass, a woman inside saw me and turned on the exterior lights, so I thought she would open the door an invite me in, but no. And I was too shy to open it myself.

Which is all fine, because my heart wasn’t into soap. I was loving all of that rewarding-the-eye stuff I mentioned earlier. As I made my way to Columbia Street, I came upon the Sixpoint brewery (love the company’s Sweet Action beer; it was named for a women’s porn magazine, and I used to have a T-shirt that said, “I put out for Sweet Action”); another wonderful old car (there were quite a few throughout the neighborhood); and a dramatically overgrown sidewalk where someone had carved out eyes.

I shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture. A fair bit of the walk was through industrial patches, where I wondered how safe I would feel at night.

The part of Columbia up by Cobble Hill is apparently what I was remembering; the stretch I hit runs through a massive housing project. (The New York City Housing Authority farm was impressive, with a class being advertised on how to make hot sauce.) So I headed back toward Van Brunt, for lunch at Fort Defiance restaurant. The route was a bit grim at first—a huge 99¢ store, the largest laundromat I’ve ever seen—but then I came across the Golden Anvil blacksmith/sculpture studio, a marvelous juxtaposition of new and old real estate, and a house nearly entirely overtaken by greenery.

Despite the never-ending nature of this post, I had been in Red Hook for maybe 90 minutes. Fort Defiance was exactly what I hoped it would be—small, charming, inexpensive, and delicious. I had a farro salad with asparagus and mushrooms, along with a side of rösti-style hash browns. (They were amazing.) I have since learned that Fort Defiance is famous for its piña coladas, of all things….

My Red Hook friend also insisted I visit Pioneer Works, “a cultural center dedicated to experimentation, education and production across disciplines” (per its website). The main hall was between exhibits, which suited me, because I was happy just exploring the space, which has galleries and offices on the second and third floors. The installation in the third photo below is “Crystal Cavern” by Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels.

And then there’s the garden.

I had forced myself not to look at the ferry schedule, so I could enjoy Pioneer Works without rushing, and sure enough, I just missed the boat. With 40 minutes to kill, I grabbed gelato at Dolce Brooklyn and let my eye be rewarded some more. It reminds me that I probably still own the URL sightskipping.com, which I bought thinking I’d start a site about the little stuff you notice when you walk around a place (rather than visiting the attractions everyone else visits). Maybe I’ll do something about it one of these days….

Anyway, as you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed Red Hook, and I’d suggest you go before it changes too much more. To wit: One of the marvelous New York Dock Company buildings along the waterfront is being converted to residential. Windows were obviously necessary, but I don’t know that these do the building justice.

P.S. Would it kill NYC ferry to put a few benches at the ferry landing? My dogs were tired.

Previous Field Trip posts:
Sunset Park
Bay Ridge
The Met Breuer
ICP Museum
Noguchi Museum & Socrates Sculpture Park
The Fisher Landau Center for Art
The High Bridge
The Broad
Crown Heights
Spuyten Duyvil
New York Botanical Garden
Bed-Stuy
The New Whitney Museum
Bushwick-ish
The Rockaways
Greenpoint
Wave Hill
Governors Island
F.D.R. Four Freedoms Park
Litchfield County, Conn.
One Wall Street
Behind the Scenes at Grand Central Terminal
The Howard/Crosby Microneighborhood
Federal Reserve Bank of New York
East River Ferry
Museum of American Finance

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2 Comments

  1. PortSide NewYork and our historic ship MARY A. WHALEN are right next to the Red Hook NYC Ferry stop! Main deck open FREE during TankerTime. Other programs offered portsidenewyork.org

  2. My wife and I have been making the Red Hook pilgrimage for years via the free Ikea ferry. Every time we go the place takes one more step away from being our personal discovery zone. That’s a little disappointing, but the effort deserves the credit, so we’re glad to know others are enjoying it. For those of us who have no summer escape from town, it’s like a day in the country.

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