Sunday, April 23, 2006

The walk home through Red Hook

This is a postscript to my post on the Queen Mary 2. I mentioned there that her new berth in New York is located in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Red Hook. For many years, the economic focal point of Red Hook was the Erie Basin, an artificial inlet formed by piers and seawalls. My photos of the departing QM2 were taken facing west, toward the Buttermilk Channel. Had I turned around to the east, I would have been facing the piers that form the southern edge of the Erie Basin.

Why Erie? During the nineteenth century, this became the final transshipment point for grain bound overseas; grain from the West that had been shipped across the Great Lakes to Buffalo, loaded onto horse or mule drawn barges and taken via the Erie Canal and Mohawk River to the Hudson at Albany, then transferred to Hudson sailing vessels that brought it to Brooklyn. Here it was unloaded from the Hudson sloops and schooners into elevators that later deposited it into oceangoing square-riggers bound for Europe or other destinations. What made this trade possible was the opening of the Erie Canal.

Red Hook has thus been a busy place for many years. While the canal and riverine grain trade ended long ago, it has remained an active commercial waterfront. For a time, sugar replaced grain as the bulk commodity handled there, this time as an import rather than export. It was also the site of a ship repair facility operated by Todd Shipyards, and a smaller service dock for tugs and barges remains. Below is a photo of part of the Erie Basin as it appears today, taken from the website of the Bridge and Tunnel Club (www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com). The large metal structure is a now derelict sugar silo, and next to the ruined pier in the foreground are the masts of a sunken lightship.

A small container port has operated at the northern edge of Red Hook and along the Columbia Street waterfront for some years, despite the lack of a landside rail connection. A year ago, I got this shot of two small container ships, Maersk Nassau and Industrial Century, docked there.

The continued existence of this cargo operation is threatened by the increase in value of the land it occupies for possible residential development. Nevertheless, Red Hook's continued use as a port seems assured by the addition of the passenger ship terminal at which QM2 now docks.

The inland sections of Red Hook have become an intruiguing variety of building types and uses. Its history is proclaimed by nineteenth century warehouses,

as well as by streets bearing haunting names.

Other interesting nomenclature may reflect a more contemporary mindset:


Buildings along Columbia Street, Red Hook's main commercial thoroughfare, are an odd patchwork. Consider this trio, which likely were identical when built:

The plaster chef holding the list of the day's specials was doing his job well, as the cafe behind me was transacting a lively business.

Walking north out of Red Hook on Columbia, I encountered two very contemporary signs attached to the south wall of a nineteenth century row house. The upper one had reassuring words for those contemplating splitsville.

Returning to my own neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, I passed Our Lady of Lebanon, a Maronite Catholic cathedral at the corner of Henry and Remsen Streets (see photo at left). I've been told that these ornate metal doors were salvaged from the Normandie, the great French liner that burned and capsized at a Manhattan pier during the early part of World War 2 (see below for a photo, taken from www.ocean-liners.com, of Normandie leaving New York during her brief career as one of the queens of the North Atlantic.)