Quirks and Curiosities: Red Hook, Brooklyn

For some, it’s synonymous with IKEA. For others, with shipping and industrial warehouses. You might know it as the place with Hometown BBQ and Brooklyn Crab. You might have wolfed down an entire Key Lime Pie while enjoying views of Lady Liberty.

While it means many different things to many different people, the essence of Red Hook can be traced back across its long history. Once a marshy waterfront named Sassian by the Lenape people who lived there, the area was eventually colonized by the Dutch in 1636 and renamed Roode Hoek (red corner, not the English hook as it was translated to eventually) because of its red soil and jutting shape. By the turn of the 20th century, it was one of the busiest shipping ports in the city.

Heavenly Bodies,
an installation by Bosco Sodi

These days, some vestiges of the Dutch influence can still be found through street names (Van Brunt, Van Dyke, etc.) and seaside ports. Now, however, Red Hook is an amalgamation of different identities, a quirky outpost outside of the subway’s reaches, a patchwork of old and new. It is at once the site of the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn (Red Hook Houses was first opened in 1939 and now has a population of over 6,000 people) and an enclave for artists escaping the skyrocketing rents of the once-affordable East Village. It is gentrifying but not quite gentrified. It is a place struggling to preserve its history while reckoning with change.

Its varied history and diversity makes for an interesting place to visit, a place that feels authentic and neighborhood-y, unlike some other parts of Brooklyn that are beginning to feel like Manhattan offshoots. The area has embraced the quirky, the curious, the strange, and it pulls you in and makes you want to explore.

Read on for a walking itinerary of Red Hook’s numerous quirks and curiosities…..

Pioneer Works
Garden + Warehouse Space

Stop 1. Jalopy Theater

Strung lights and a bright red facade make this spot hard to miss, but it’s location makes it hard to stumble upon. Tucked in the corner of where I-478 meets I-278, Jalopy Theater is a venue and school dedicated to folk music from all traditions. The venue hosts live concerts at its theater and also offers classes and workshops for musicians of all ages. Maybe folk music is your passions, maybe you just want to enjoy some good entertainment while sipping a beer. Either way, Jalopy has something to offer.

Stop 2. Pioneer Works

As I wrote a couple weeks back, Pioneer Works is an arts space that occupies an old Iron Works factory. The space also boasts a garden (free to the public) that offers a constantly changing landscape of art and curiosities for any visitor. It’s also a great spot to spend an afternoon, with a pop-up outdoor café open on weekends. The venue is currently closed for the season, but it is worth a walk by to see the colorfully painted fence nonetheless.

Robotic Church, Pioneer Street in Red Hook

Stop 3. Robotic Church

Outside the former Norwegian Seamen’s Church, an iron skeleton mans what appears to be a pair of stage lights. No, you aren’t seeing things. You’ve just stumbled across the Robotic Church, a site-specific installation of more than 50 computer-run sculptures managed by Amorphic Robot Works. The ‘robots’ perform for an audience, making a music-like beat that keeps time alongside other instruments in the space (including xylophones and electrodrummers). The Robotic Church opens its doors only on select dates throughout the year, so be sure the keep an eye out for the next time these sculptures come to life.

Stop 4. Red Hook Community Farm

Ever thought you would read the words “Grown in Brooklyn” on some lettuce you were buying at the Farmer’s Market? Probably not. That’s one of the reasons Red Hook Community Farm is such an anomaly, with nearly 3 acres of organically grown produce and an active composting site.The other is its deep roots (pun intended) in the community. Since its founding, the Community Farm program has made it clear that they stand for more than growing tomatoes. The farm has served over 5,000 residents from the nearby New York City Housing Authority towers through its two farm sites, youth programs, weekly farm stands, a school workshop program and more. Learn how to get involved here.

The last trolley in NYC, stopped in its tracks

Stop 5. The Last Trolley in New York

Once upon a time, trolleys were the transport mode of choice throughout our city’s boroughs. Now, only one remains with us, and it is, sadly, inactive. Urban explorer Bob Diamond attempted to revive interest in a trolley line along the Brooklyn waterfront, successfully creating a one-mile course through Red Hook. However, the project was met with resistance from the city and, in 2004, the trolleys were removed and their tracks were paved over. Today, only one remains, as well as a sliver of track, right behind the Food Bazaar supermarket.

P.S. On your way to the next stop, pick up a pie (or 2, or 3) from Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, a Red Hook institution worthy of the hype.

Stop 7. Bosco Sodi: Perfect Bodies

In a nondescript concrete lot surrounded by a chain-link fence lies an art installation by renowned contemporary artist, Bosco Sodi. The installation, which features large clay spheres and cubes made from rust-orange clay, mirrors the ethos of Red Hook itself: unassuming, surprising, both gritty and imaginative. The color of the clay (found locally in Sodi’s native Oaxaca, Mexico) contrasts nicely with the grey on grey of a once-empty parking lot. It is unexpected, something you could easily walk straight by only to wonder a few seconds later what you just saw, and turn around to look again. Much like the neighborhood in which it sits, the sculptures are raw, hidden, enticing. They make you wonder. And they can be viewed on Saturdays and Sundays until December 20.

Stop 8. Waterfront Museum

For our last stop, what better way to learn about an old seafaring community than on a boat? The Lehigh Valley 79, a railroad barge that dates back to 1919, arrived in Red Hook as a museum in 1994. Today, the museum continues its educational and outreach programming as well as maintaining the century-old barge, which is now a historic landmark. Free tours are offered Thursdays and Saturdays, or by appointment. All aboard!

Map of the Route