Red Hook Island: The Future of Coastline Cities
Red Hook, Brooklyn is situated on the southwest corner of Brooklyn and has had a long and turbulent history. While the geographical location of Red Hook brought initial economic success, shifts in American society and economy crippled this area in the following century, and the coastline that once fueled this community’s wealth, devastated the residents in the Fall of 2012.In the 19th century, Red Hook developed due to the coastline convenience for maritime related industries. The neighborhood was primarily used for docks and grain storage, and during the Civil War, was the center of ship repair in New York. Red Hook benefited greatly from the 19th century industrial revolution and provided much needed work for the tens of thousands of immigrants coming into the city. During the 20th century, industrial building heavily subsided due to the Great Depression and the dock company that heavily contributed to community development pulled out and moved to Newark. This completely turned this port neighborhood on its back and the city of New York abandoned this area until the 1950s when they began buying back abandoned buildings. Crime and poverty was left uncontested and almost encouraged by the government’s complete negligence and marginalization. Red Hook was known as one of the worst neighborhoods in America and dubbed the crack capital of our country in the 90s. The neighborhood that once was the port center of the biggest city in America suffered the same fate as many urban minority-driven communities during the shift towards neoliberalism and the new global economy.
While the turn of the millennium brought new hope with technology providing more communication and exposure, the people of Red Hook were devastated by Hurricane Sandy in the Fall of 2012. The already dilapidated neighborhood got hit with the bulk of the storm due to its unfortunate location, and many apartments were washed away and destroyed, leaving residents worse than before. Despite help from the community, the city, and the federal government, many residents and small business owners suffered heavy losses, due to lack of flood insurance and FEMA’s limited aid. This led to many people forced to relocate, leaving their empty or near-empty lots. Even the silver lining of the neighborhood finally getting national attention after decades of the cold shoulder hurt many residents who decided to stay. While the attention helped the restoration and renovation process, it attracted New Yorkers interested in buying into the developing area and using the empty lots created by Sandy. The more this area developed, the more the area gentrified and the more it gentrifies, the more it will develop. Due to high land costs and the current trend factor of Brooklyn, many of these “developments” are focused on the business’ ability to profit off of a disaster while attending to the demands of newer residents. However, do these developments help the residents that actually need help?
Alex Washburn was the Chief Urban Designer for the NYC Department of City Planning during Sandy and due to his expertise in urban resilience, helped greatly with the rebuilding and improvement of the city after the destruction. He is still hard at work designing and pitching new ways to make Red Hook resilient and encourage development without high costs and changing the community. While many of his suggestions are small, realistic projects that would have immediate pay-off, one of his bolder ideas comes with a high price tag and a window into the future of New York.
His project dubbed “Red Hook Island” is a manmade island that acts as additional commercial and residential space in Brooklyn while providing a barrier for the mainland residents. There is already authorization for this creation dating back to the 20s with the intent of tide breaking and creating more warehouse space. According to Mr. Washburn’s design, one side of the island would be ports and structures that would break up the waves hitting the coast and the other would be filled with a planned community with flood resistant buildings. A project this size requires public-private cooperation and to benefit the people, it must continue being community-driven. This could potentially be the biggest urban development project the city has undergone in the past century, and is a long term plan that combats the rising tides and frequent coastline natural disasters, while preserving and improving the community without the crippling side effects of urban development like gentrification. This island also opens up new avenues to urban innovation in our country. New York suffers greatly from overcrowding, creating a consolidated area with many job positions while pushing lower income New Yorkers further and further away from their workplaces. This project provides other cities with a model to lessen the urban density. Mr. Washburn created an idea that has benefits to not only the targeted community in need, but the whole city in general. Many large city projects seem to use a problem as marketing value to leverage any risk created by developing in New York while only helping a small number of stakeholders with a myopic solution.
After Sandy wiped some of the land, global engineering firm AECOM proposed a massive project that would involve flood-protected waterfront skyscrapers and a subway link into lower Manhattan. Due to the general high price of NYC land and Brooklyn’s current rising value, a solely private development project in New York City will be inevitably luxury facing and would try to target new residents rather than the existing community. Mr. Washburn saw that this did not address the stakeholders who were most heavily affected or any of the problems with the neighborhood prior to the storm. This “top down” approach of businesses or public institutions creating a project without the voices of the actual residents not only addresses a small part of the problem but also worsens the quality of life and wellbeing of many residents.
After being marginalized by decades of economic injustice, the people of Red Hook deserve more than short term aid from FEMA and waterfront apartments no one can afford. It is unimaginable what many residents had to go through living in a historically ignored community after a natural disaster. Many cities throughout our country in places like New Orleans and Houston are going through similar historical injustices and a natural disaster is just a figurative and literal “opening of the floorboards”. To many, this project may seem like a pipe dream, but to an already suffering family hit with nature’s wrath, it is a newfound hope of generational community development.