Past and Present: A Red Hook Streetscape

Late 19th century photo mislabled Pacific Street at Columbia. Brooklyn Museum.

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Like the ruins of a forgotten civilization, the industrial parts of Red Hook rise up out of the modern city. There’s enough left to give us an idea of what the area looked like, but so much is now gone, and we have to rely on drawings and photographs to see what we are really missing. It was an amazing place in many ways. First of all, the Brooklyn waterfront, from Brooklyn Heights on down to Sunset Park, once contained more shipping and warehouse space than any part of the metropolitan area. Manhattan’s piers were overcrowded and busy, but Brooklyn’s piers were like a vast anthill of activity, unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

In its heyday, between 1850 and 1950, Brooklyn’s waterfront was humming with all kinds of industry. Cargo ships were unloading goods from all over the world, while barges from the Erie Canal were off-loading produce, grains, and natural resources from the Midwest, upper New York State and Canada. Warehouses were stuffed with all kinds of goods; lumber, grains, coffee, raw cotton, leather, foodstuffs, and countless other products, while the Red Hook streets were home to factories that produced everything from Vaseline to cigarettes to mattresses and wire. Plus Red Hook’s piers were also home to a burgeoning dry dock ship building and repair industry.

Today’s vintage photograph is a shot of a street in Red Hook, and is labeled Columbia Street at Pacific Street, with no date. It looks to be from the late 19th century. My first move was to go to the old maps, and try to date the photo. But it soon became apparent that the photo must be mislabeled. No maps show wood framed houses at that intersection, in that configuration. The wood framed houses and stables or warehouses are old, predating the ban on wood framed construction of the late 1800s, and look to have been built well before the Civil War.

If this is somewhere near Pacific and Columbia, then the tall tower in the background is one of the grain warehouses on the pier that began on the edge of Pacific Street and the bay. This huge warehouse with several grain towers was built around 1869. The earliest map I have predates the grain warehouse, but not the houses. The map from 1855 shows a perpendicular grouping of wood framed buildings that could be this group, but they aren’t on Pacific Street, they are on Amity and Emmett Streets with their backs to the pier. In 1855, that pier was empty, and was just a pier jutting out into the bay.

Going to later maps, the 1886 map shows the same groups of wood-framed buildings, on Amity, not Pacific. By this time, the grain warehouses were there, a block away, on the pier. Checking back in 1904, the houses are still there, as are the grain warehouses. But they wouldn’t be much longer. By the first decade of the 20th century, the wooden grain warehouses on this pier were run down, as was the grain business, due to an increase in inland rail transport. They would be torn down before 1910.

Wood frame construction such as this was a common site in South Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights, up around to Vinegar Hill and Wallabout. This was early 19th century Brooklyn, home to the people who worked in the factories, on the piers, and at the Navy Yard. As the century progressed, some of it remained decent working class housing, but much of it became blighted slum, with dangerously decrepit tenement and housing stock. Fire was a real concern here, and when you look at the combination of industries that were built up around the Red Hook docks, half of them highly flammable, it’s amazing the whole neighborhood never went up like a Roman candle.

But the 20th century marked the beginning of the end for most of Red Hook’s industry. While shipping and warehousing remained strong until at least World War II, it too, was a shadow of its former self as the century progressed. One by one, Red Hooks factories disappeared, and the buildings were either torn down, repurposed, or abandoned. Urban renewal, Robert Moses, the Red Hook Projects and the parks, the building of the BQE trench and on/off ramps, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel all changed the face of the neighborhood forever.

This block became part of Van Voorhees Park, right near where the BQE comes out of the trench and turns towards the Heights. Pacific and Amity end at Hicks Street, and Columbia runs along the north end of the park. I couldn’t determine when the frame houses were torn down, but suspect it was well before World War II, probably in the 1930s, when the Red Hook projects were being built, and this whole area was being looked at for the upcoming transportation projects. Robert Moses hated this sort of neighborhood.

The land for Van Voorhees Park was donated in sections in the 1940s, some of it coming from Long Island Hospital. Emmett Street disappeared into the park. By 1956, with the completion of the BQE in this section, the park’s land was completed at 5.25 acres. In 1998, the park was reconstructed, with more work done in 2000, completing the project. You’d never know there was ever anything else here. GMAP

Late 19th century photo mislabled Pacific St at Columbia. Brooklyn Museum.

Late 19th century photo mislabled Pacific Street at Columbia. Brooklyn Museum.

Present day site, in Voorhees Park, Red Hook. Googlemaps

Present day site, in Voorhees Park, Red Hook. Google Maps

Pacific/Amity/Columbia St area, Red Hook. 1855 map, New York Public Library

Pacific/Amity/Columbia Street area, Red Hook. 1855 map, New York Public Library

Pacific/Amity/Columbia St area, with grain warehouses. Red Hook. 1886 map, New York Public Library

Pacific/Amity/Columbia Street area, with grain warehouses. Red Hook. 1886 map, New York Public Library

Grain warehouses and Red Hook docks, Harper's Weekly, 1897, via Maggieblanck.com

Grain warehouses and Red Hook docks, Harper’s Weekly, 1897, via Maggieblanck.com

Grain warehouses in background, Red Hook. From Frank Leslie's Monthly, 1886, via maggieblanck.com

Grain warehouses in background, Red Hook. From Frank Leslie’s Monthly, 1886, via maggieblanck.com

1904 map. of Pacific/Amity/Columbia St area, Red Hook. 1904 map, New York Public Library

1904 map of Pacific/Amity/Columbia Street area, Red Hook. New York Public Library

2013 map, googlemaps

2013 map, Google Maps

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