The revival of a waterfront

Posted on May 12th, 2010 by Erin McCarthy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Shipping industry

Welcome to Brooklyn’s New Shipping Hub

by Jessica Dailey and Vivian Doskow

As a handful of Red Hook residents practiced yoga in the sunshine on the Valentino Pier in Red Hook on a recent Saturday morning, a small number of tugboats, barges and water taxis sailed along the East River in front of them, the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline in the distance. The taxi stopped at a dock in front of Ikea, the giant Swedish furniture retailer. Not too far away, the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal stood empty, waiting for the arrival of a ship.


Click the image to view a photo slideshow of the Red Hook Waterfront

Welcome to Red Hook, Brooklyn, in 2010. This neighborhood once served as an important port of New York’s shipping industry. The calm setting provides a startling contrast to the waterfront of the early 20th century, where ships whistled loudly as hundreds of workers transported goods across the five boroughs. Now, after years of decline, Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), PortSide New York, and others are working together to revitalize the waterfront with a combination of industrial, cultural and commercial uses.

“Red Hook is a microcosm of all the things we’re trying to promote on the waterfront,” said Venetia Lannon, head of the maritime division of the EDC.

Throughout the 19th century and into the earlier half of the 20th, shipping was a major component of New York City industry. Using tugboats, barges and bales to transport goods, workers hoisted cargo out of the ships with nets. Beginning in the late 1950s, large metal containers became the new shipping standard, but Red Hook and other city waterfronts didn’t have enough land to unload the containers by crane and transport them onto trucks to go to distribution centers. As a result, most shipping moved to New Jersey. At the same time, new highways and bridges led for goods to be distributed on trucks, rather than boats. Much of Red Hook was abandoned. Through the 1960s and into the 90s, gangs, crime, and drug use soared.

But Red Hook is back. Some container shipping exists in several of the area’s piers, and the waterfront is now a hub for many shippers, who bring goods into Brooklyn by container and unload them along the waterfront’s warehouses. This is a new model, according to Lannon, and the warehouses prevent shippers from needing extra land to distribute containerized goods. Phoenix Beverage, for example, a beverage distributor, brings Heineken, Guinness and other beverages to the area and ports at Piers 7 and 11.

American Stevedoring Inc. controls the four container cranes in the Red Hook Marine Terminal. Its president, Sabato Catucci, told the New York Times that his company moved more than 110,000 containers at its peak in 2003. Reinauer Transportation and Hughes Marine, who own most of the industrial piers in Erie Basin, operate a 200-vessel fleet of tugboats and barges that move oil, fuel, sand, gravel and construction materials throughout the New York and New Jersey area.

“There are literally thousands and thousands of truck trips saved because of all this marine equipment,” says Robert Hughes, co-owner of Hughes Marine.

View Red Hook in a larger map

The area’s newest arrivals by sea are cruise ships. Opened in 2006, Red Hook’s own cruise terminal welcomes ships like the Queen Mary 2 and the Caribbean Princess on Pier 12 about 50 days per year. Even NY Water Taxi operates out of Red Hook and offers transportation between boroughs, recreational tours and for private events.

Meanwhile, the city is launching new projects to make the waterfront more publicly accessible. The EDC is working with PortSide New York, a maritime non-profit, to create cultural programs and inform the public about the waterfront.

“PortSide is a way to show all sorts of entities in New York City how to use the waterfront,” said PortSide director Carolina Salguero. It currently operates on the historic tanker Mary A. Whalen, docked at Pier 9B.  Beginning June 30, PortSide will move to Pier 11 in Atlantic Basin for summertime events, teaching the public about the tanker and shipping history.

Bloomberg’s administration also introduced two plans in April 2010 to revitalize the waterfront – Vision2020 and WAVES. Vision 2020, run by the Department of City Planning, sets goals for the city to reach in the next ten years, and it includes plans to create more waterfront jobs, preserve environmentally vulnerable space, and expand shipping, among other things. WAVES (the Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy), run by the EDC, will work on ways to improve the waterfront’s infrastructure over the next three years.

But with the growing industries and new citywide plans to rejuvenate the waterfront, challenges still exist. The events of September 11 ushered tight security into piers belonging to the Red Hook Marine Terminal. Anyone working in the terminal must present specific identification and the public isn’t allowed, limiting PortSide New York’s plans to have performances and cultural events at its current pier.

And piers are in disrepair, making increased shipping a safety issue, as they need to support the ships that dock. The graving dock, where large ships used to be repaired, for example, was demolished when Ikea was built.

“We need infrastructure to support the water taxi because the piers are deteriorated,” said Tom Fox, president and CEO of Harbor Experience Companies and founder of the water taxi. “The Department of Environmental Conservation has been slow to permit the preservation of these piers.”

But he has hopes for the waterfront to become as important as it was 60 years ago.

“I’d like to see the maritime industry become relevant in this city again. I’d like to see it provide employment and job opportunities that it had for hundreds of years,” he said. “There’s no potholes, there’s no traffic lights, there’s no traffic jams, there’s no flooding. It’s a fairly useful asset that hasn’t been utilized very much.”

Check out our feature on another Brooklyn industry: mom-and-pop pharmacies that are still surviving despite large pharmacy store chains.

One Comment on “The revival of a waterfront”

  1. Standing firm against Goliath | Industry NYC

    […] Check out our feature on another Brooklyn industry: the changing face of the shipping industry and Red Hook’s waterfront […]

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