Red Hook

This Is Red Hook, One Month After Sandy

Some scaffolding going up, but still a lot of heart in South Brooklyn.
Some scaffolding going up, but still a lot of heart in South Brooklyn. Photo: Hugh Merwin

The emergency management trailers are still parked in Coffey Park near the basketball court, and tall, cranelike spotlights are still stationed on corners throughout the neighborhood, but the police officers no longer stop by to turn them on every night. The gutters are streaked with oil and dirt around Richards and Verona, just outside Visitation Church, where a line still forms each weekend when volunteers hand out diapers and garbage bags. And as rebuilding begins in earnest, the neighborhood’s identity — only really coming into focus when the storm hit 31 days ago — is evolving yet again.

The restaurants are open, or are reopening. Hope and Anchor has been serving burgers and grilled cheese almost continuously, and the pulled-pork sandwiches with B&G; pickles are back at Brooklyn Icehouse. Meanwhile, Brooklyn Crab, the three-level Reed Street restaurant, still scoops up diners in a gas-guzzling van outside the Carroll Street station and has even introduced brunch.

St. John Frizell, the cocktail man and affable owner of Fort Defiance, the bar and café at the center of Red Hook’s food scene, has slept very little this month. He knows that maybe twenty of his best customers have left their damaged homes in the neighborhood, which is barely accessible by subway and really only threaded to the rest of the city’s public transportation system by the B61 bus line. When Frizell sees his regulars now, it’s when he passes them on Pioneer Street, where they stand on the sidewalk outside their homes in the mornings and get the latest reports from contractors.

The piles of wet sheetrock are still being removed from the basements of row houses, but Fort Defiance is open. The restaurant has a new kitchen and is keeping regular hours. Frizell was able to bring his chef Steve Linares back on payroll a few weeks ago, even though the refrigerators had been stripped of their compressors, and the restaurant was still cleaning up old, spoiled food. Frizell is most worried that people will associate Red Hook with rubber boots and petroleum instead of highballs and lobster rolls.

Matt Lewis, the co-owner of Baked, agrees. “We don’t want people to think, Oh, I don’t want to go to Red Hook because of the storm and the damage.” The bakery became the de facto hot chocolate and coffee outpost for hundreds of volunteers that descended upon the neighborhood to help clean up after the storm.

“Our needs have changed,” says Lewis. “People stop and ask, ‘Can we bring you blankets?’ We tell them who’s accepting donations, but what I really want to say is, ‘Oh, please buy a cake.’”

A few weeks ago, Lewis joined Frizell and Home/Made owner Monica Byrne in forming Restore Red Hook, which raises money directly for the community’s small business owners, allowing them to bypass the interest rates attached to SBA loans. Lewis hopes the organization will move past the inclement weather in the future on to improving the strength of the community’s business district. The group is now planning a winter festival that Lewis describes as a cross between the Mermaid Day parade and the Atlantic Antic. Hopefully other restaurants in the neighborhood, like the Good Fork, will have reopened for business by then. “One of the best parts about this,” says Lewis, “is we all know each other really well now.”

“Not that you’d ever wish for it to happen this way, but we became part of the community,” says Christopher Miller. “There’s no question this is the right place for us.” Miller and his business partner, Billy Durney, didn’t plan to even start building out their forthcoming restaurant at 454 Van Brunt Street, the converted garage where they still plan to debut Hometown Barbecue next spring, on the corner of Reed Street, one block from the water. But they were compelled to help. Durney slow-cooked 1,000 pounds of meat the day after the storm in his portable, seven-foot-long Lang trailer-smoker and gave it all away. “We’d make deliveries to Calvary Church, and after the first day, the people knew us,” says Miller. “‘Hey,’ they’d say, ‘the rib guys are here.’” They’ve been smoking meat every weekend, and even lent the rig to Fort Defiance for its annual Evacuation Day pig roast. “We want to help everyone we can,” says Miller. “These are the people who would help us.”

After the storm, Durney, who lives in Brooklyn, got to the restaurant first. A half-ton six-burner stove had been picked up by the surge and smashed onto the opposite wall inside the under-construction restaurant. “Whatever we put in,” says Miller, “we lost.” The restaurant is still planning on opening in the spring on the corner of Van Brunt and Reed, but Miller says he and Durney now plan to build the bar on a foundation of cinder blocks.

At the Pier 41 building, home to Mile End’s production kitchen and Steve’s Key Lime Pies, and the Liberty Warehouse, a large catering and events space, everyone wants to get back to business. The Red Hook Winery has been sanitized, and its tasting room is being demolished. They will rebuild.

“I’m told the building is the highest point in Red Hook,” says Darren Palace, the winery’s general manager. “The building never took on water in the past, I’m told, not even in the eighties.”

The storm surge breached the pier a month ago though, destroying the winery, much of its inventory, and several fermentations in process. At least one barrel full of wine was swept out to sea.

“We have a better sense of what we lost,” says Palace, “but in the beginning, we weren’t sure exactly how much wine was gone.” In preparation for the storm, the winery unplugged the computer running its inventory software onto a high shelf. It wasn’t high enough.

“After the storm, we had sommeliers in here, wine buyers.” All people Palace knows, but in a completely different context. “The first few days, they were literally shoveling shit. I didn’t understand it.” Palace says the experience has changed him.

The electricity was back on last Thursday. It turns out that Robert Walsh, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services, is a supporter of the winery. “He said, ‘I’m bringing the mayor down,’” says Palace. “Then Bloomberg was on the pier. He said, ‘Let me make a phone call,’ and it was done.”

It’s time to get back to work. After the storm hit, Palace lost access to his pumps and his ability to control the wine’s temperature, so there are three vintages he says he doesn’t know about. Early next year, the winery will test samples drawn from every one of its 60-gallon barrels before any talk of bottling can begin.

Regardless, Palace says “we are planning on staying,” adding that the winery’s owner Mark Snyder chose its location for a reason. “We’re committed to wine produced from Long Island grapes.”

Yesterday, Fairway announced it will reopen in six to twelve weeks. That’s a lot sooner than expected, but an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 shoppers do not make the trip to Red Hook each day while it remains closed. The neighborhood remains a collection of contradictions: As public-housing residents continue to protest NYCHA’s rent demands after being left without heat, hot water, and electricity for weeks, a building a block away from the water has sold for $11.8 million, and Russell Crowe has been seen skulking around town in character for a new movie filming on Conover.

Meanwhile, St. John Frizell’s is serving the neighborhood a full menu of hot drinks for cold nights, including toddies and Irish coffee. When the restaurant opened in 2009, its stock of rye and gin was laid out across finished wood, a decision Frizell regretted because it’s never been easy to clean. So after the basement was pumped and hundreds of pounds of steel and broken bottles had been cleared from the restaurant, Frizell seized the opportunity to tile Fort Defiance’s back bar. “That’s the thing,” he says. “When something like this happens, you don’t put things back the way they were. You put them back the way you wanted them to be.”

This Is Red Hook, One Month After Sandy