COFFEY PARK--The referee's whistle blew sharply inside the cage at Coffey Park. "Thank you!" yelled a 10-year-old boy who felt the foul call was long overdue on this 90-degree Saturday. It was a moment on a hot blacktop basketball court that could easily have turned into a bigger outburst from the player or the ref. But it didn't.
"That's enough!" was all the referee said. The conversation ended. The competition resumed. As time expired, one team celebrated, the other was disappointed.
To an outside observer strolling through Coffey Park on a Saturday, Books and Basketball looks like any other athletic league for 7- to 13-year-olds. And it is, except for one difference--players have to spend 20 minutes reading before or after their game, or they can't play.
The reading requirement was a simple response to a complex problem that the organizers at Red Hook Rise tackled five years ago.
"A lot of kids were having trouble filling out the application for the basketball program," explains Director of Operations Lori Bethea. The organizers installed a "literacy first" policy and demanded that a parent or guardian accompany the children on sign-up day. Asking more from the players and parents has paid dividends.
"It's made a big difference. The kids are more focused," says Bethea. "There's been a tremendous amount of improvement in their behavior. They're more respectful and encourage one another to read."
Lori's 16-year-old son Raymond played in the league before the reading component was added and now volunteers with the organization.
"Before 'Books' everybody was just playing to tighten up their game and become 'nice'-- that's what they call it," Raymond says. "There was more bickering and fighting about who's best. But now it's a lot more settled down, and there's a lot more kids."
Since 2000, participation has increased from 60 to 172 kids this summer. Parental involvement has also increased. This year 17 parents volunteer every week compared to six when the new policy went into effect. Another eight community members lend their time coaching, cooking, refereeing and organizing games and reading sessions.
One of those community members is Murray Hanson, the man with the whistle. Hanson, a legend among local youth organizers, is in the best position to see the changes. But for the Red Hook native, the story goes back further than 2000.
"There were some tough times," he says of the 30 years he's coached and ref'd in the community. "Red Hook was on the cover of Life Magazine [Crack: downfall of a neighborhood," July 1988]. Other coaches with teams didn't want to come down here. But we got through that."
Hanson credits Red Hook Rise founders Earl and Ray Hall for helping the community weather New York City's crack cocaine binge of the late 1980s and early 90s. "It's still not all peaches and cream. But they have solidified a brand new perception of Red Hook. They've helped a lot of people rethink what's possible in their lives. They've worked hard."
The hard work has gained the notice of politicians and businesses who have whole-heartedly embraced the new perception of Red Hook. When IKEA decided to pursue a store in Red Hook, they sought the Hall's help. When Fairway opens their doors on Van Brunt Street at the end of the year, Red Hook Rise will have office space upstairs donated by developer Greg O'Connell. A recent Saturday, Julius Spiegel, Borough Commissioner of Parks addressed the kids. And Borough President Marty Markowitz will appear on the last day of the season, Aug. 13.
All the attention this election cycle is new to a grassroots organization that was born out of Red Hook's hardship. "It's about time," Earl says. "They all say that education is a priority. And now here's a program that they can be a part of that challenges them to back that up."
The Halls' commitment to the neighborhood began long before Red Hook appeared on the political and real estate landscapes.
"We lost friends to the street. We lost relatives. We were fortunate to walk away without getting incarcerated or shot or stabbed. It was a wake up call for us to give back. To get the community to come together and unify and say, 'We don't have to continue to let the cycle affect us,'" Earl says.
To give kids something positive to do, the Halls began recruiting players for touch football games in 1994. They concentrated their efforts on at-risk teenagers, whom they found easy to identify.
"You can always find kids just hanging out in the street. Not doing anything." Earl says. "It's not hard to find the at-risk kids."
The growth of Red Hook Rise has coincided with several positive trends in the neighborhood. Crack cocaine's popularity has fallen along with the area's crime rate. Overall crime in the 76th Precinct has declined 56 percent since 1993, including an 87.5 percent drop in murder. Statistics like these tell a feel-good story that has made Red Hook a prime candidate for political photo opportunities. But the community still has real problems.
According to a report released by New School University, the median annual household income in Red Hook Houses was $10,372 in 1999. Consider that number with the fact that 25 percent of residents were between the ages of 5 and 14, and it adds up to a vulnerable population.
While the original football games concentrated on teens already on the street, Books and Basketball aims for this younger demographic. The goal is to reach kids before the street does. Judging by the rapid growth of the program, it's clear that Red Hook Rise has found an eager audience for its message.
"This is where it began," Earl says looking out over the lot between the basketball court and Richards St. "There was nothing here but solid cement, broken glass and debris. It was just a vacant park."
To anyone who has worked with youth in South Brooklyn for the last decade or more, it looks like a much different place. But as the neighborhood undergoes dramatic change, Hanson stresses, "Don't ever forget where you come from. Red Hook has an incredible history."
For 172 kids, that history includes learning to read in Coffey Park this summer.
On board the dredging of Buttermilk Channel
A unique oceangoing hopper dredge is currently operating off Red Hook's shore. Dredge McFarland stretches over 300 feet and has been enlisted to remove 100,000 cubic yards of material from the bottom of Buttermilk Channel. View the slide show. (All photos by B61)
Originally posted July 20, 2005
Acknowledgements: Coordination between PortSide NewYork and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District made this report possible.
BUTTERMILK CHANNEL--Amid the bustle of New York Harbor, the United States Army Corps of Engineers is quietly going about their business of maintaining the waterways for whatever developers and the City decide to throw at Brooklyn's waterfront--cruise ships, cargo, breweries, whatever.
On board the 319-foot Dredge McFarland, Senior Captain Karl Van Florcke tries to explain the current project as it's laid out on survey maps. "The 30s need to go down to 35, and the 37s go to 40." To the untrained observer the intricate charts might as well be Magic Eye posters, except they remain blurry even after your eyes cross. The bottom line is that the Buttermilk Channel must be deepened from 31 feet to 40 feet to remain a safe waterway for large vessels. It's routine maintenance that takes place about every five years.
For twelve minutes at a time, the dredge collects 1,000 cubic yards of mud. Quartermaster Tom Trader steers the vessel with 2nd Mate Jim Davidson to his right and 3rd Mate Bob Mason to his left. Davidson and Mason monitor traffic on screens that answer who, what and where on each and every vessel in the Harbor. Off to the side a grandfatherly marine biologist studies a laptop computer.
By the end of an afternoon aboard the ship, the survey map begins to look like an oversimplification of Dredge McFarland's task.
Two weeks on
"It's tough to find qualified people," Captain Van Florcke said of the maritime industry's labor market. "So you have to produce your own good guys because every dredge has their own idiosyncrasies."
Along with Captain Thom Evans, Captain Van Florcke oversees 35 men. The entire crew lives and works aboard the ship for two weeks straight, followed by equal time off in their respective Atlantic Coastal towns. The ship operates 24 hours a day. Some of the McFarland's crewmembers have manned their posts in this rotation for 25 years.
"It's a great lifestyle," Capt. Evans said walking past the living quarters of his crew. The rooms are comparable to dormitories, but clean. "There's always a pot of coffee on and someone to talk to. And the food is excellent."
The ship circles as it collects its next load. In the next four hours the McFarland will make a 40-mile round trip to dispose of the load beyond the Verrazano Bridge--barely exceeding 15 mph.
It's a cycle that the Philadelphia-based McFarland and its civilian crew repeat over and over 24 hours a day, in all kinds of weather, from Maine to Texas. Just as they did at the mouth of the Mississippi River before this, and as they will for Trenton, NJ afterwards.
In one year the ship will dredge enough material to fill a football field three-quarters of a mile high. The current project will add 100,000 cubic yards of sand, silt, and anything else New Yorkers throw into the mix. On this day a very pungent, spongy Butterball Turkey was removed before it reached the interior of the ship's hull, called the hopper.
The job of cleaning the filter falls to biologist Brad Davis. "I'm the guy who deals with everything you New Yorkers put in your river," he says. Even the dirty work aboard a dredge doesn't compare to what Davis experienced in his previous job. As a police officer in Austin, he investigated crimes committed against youth.
"That takes a toll," he alluded to things he encountered in a 10-year law enforcement career. Things he would clearly rather forget. "You can't do it for very long. So now I'm out here trying to help critters."
While the rest of the crew is busy with the mechanics and logistics of moving 4,000-5,000 cubic yards of mud a day, Davis and his mentor Ned Clement (the man at the laptop) are the eyes and ears that allow the brute force of the dredge to coexist with sea turtles and whales. Endangered species inspectors, such as Davis and Clement, are independent contractors who are legally required to monitor all dredging operations. They are not always on the same page with the rest of a dredge's crew.
"A while back one of the turtle people--that's what we call them--was worried that she was contributing to nuclear war. Because we were dredging down at Cape Canaveral and they have a submarine base there," Capt. Van Florcke recalled. "But I told her, if you don't do it, a turtle might get killed."
Fewer turtles have been killed thanks to a device that was developed on the McFarland. The "turtle excluder" funnels turtles (or once-frozen turkeys) away from the hopper where they would meet certain death. The device is now required on all dredges.
"It's cool to be on the ship where that technology was developed," Davis said. "I've never been on a dredge where the crew was as cooperative and diligent about protecting the environment as they are on the McFarland."
The Flying Bridge
The far off sound of a ship's horn is a soothing aspect of life near a major waterway. It's not soothing, however, when you're standing five feet away from it on the top deck, known as the "flying bridge."
"Hey," Capt. Van Florcke yelled down to the bridge through a tube. "I feel like I was just at a Who concert!"
On the flying bridge, satellite antennae sprout up every few feet like slalom flags facilitating the flow of information to and from the 38-year-old ship. They feed the Captains' Blackberry PDAs, maritime-specific weather programs and the laptop that receives Clement's undivided attention directly below.
At sixty feet above the water, the deck offers a rare perspective on New York Harbor. From right to left, Red Hook comes into view. The McFarland has been here before. One of the visits was to the graving dock in the Erie Basin, which is slated to become IKEA's 1,400 car parking lot.
"That's too bad. There aren't enough of them. Especially around here," Capt. Van Florcke said. The McFarland goes into drydock every other year.
The Captains each raised an eyebrow at the suggestion that dredging is free of the politics that grip landside waterfronts.
"Dredging doesn't have politics?" Capt. Evans asked rhetorically.
Among the government agencies that take an active interest in the McFarland's activities are the Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife; Department of Commerce; National Marine Fisheries; Coast Guard and Department of Environmental Conservation.
Indeed, dredging has its own politics. In 1978 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that prevented the Army Corps from competing with private industry for some dredging projects. The result has been mothballing of some Army Corps dredges to benefit private industry.
One private project underway is an effort to deepen New York and New Jersey's waterways to 50 feet. The improvement project is to prepare the Port for the rollout of Post-Panamax vessels. These new cargo ships are so big they can't fit through the Panama Canal. Their behemoth size is a manifestation of the shipping industry's effort to keep pace with ever-increasing amounts of imported products coming into the United States.
Key decisions are yet to be made about the best use of Red Hook's waterfront. Cruise ships will port at pier 12 with an eye towards 11. American Stevedoring Inc.'s lease for piers 7-10 expires in 2007. And the Brooklyn Brewery has expressed interest in moving from Williamsburg to pier 7. So this section of the Harbor will be dealt with in phase two of the 50-foot project. The entire undertaking is scheduled to be complete in 2014 at a cost of $1.6 billion.
The return trip
The Captains huddled around Clement and his laptop. The computer tracked the ship's movement as it approached the dump site. Clement clicked his computer's mouse and the hopper very precisely emptied into a predetermined 100 by 200 foot area 10 miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean.
Another segment of the survey map was deepened and a couple cigars were lit as the two-hour return trip began.
"That's my old man," Capt. Van Florcke, a Patchogue, Long Island native, pointed to a black and white military headshot on the wall of his living quarters. Both father and son graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kingspoint College. He reached into the top shelf of his closet and presented labeled Ziplock baggies of soil samples. "I keep these. I don't know why." The Buttermilk Channel's sample was drying in a pan on the desk.
Each packet shows the variety of soil found along the Eastern seaboard. From the brown silt of Maine to the white sand of the Gulf Shores, Capt. Van Florcke's collection provides an earthen timeline of the McFarland under his 22-year command.
"There have been times, where I thought 'this ship is the only thing between me and some deep [trouble],'" he said reflecting on harsh storms the McFarland has endured in the line of duty. "You get protective. It's like you don't want anybody to say anything bad about her."
It's hard to find a bad word to say about the ship or her buttoned-up crew. For a project of this magnitude, this close to Red Hook's shore, that's saying something. As New York City's decision-makers adhere to obscure charts of their own to remake Brooklyn's waterfront, at least one thing is certain: the Buttermilk Channel is once again a safe 40 feet deep.
Local families feel impact of City's cuts in day care
Out of School Time represents a shift in funds and focus by the City to address day care and after school needs of residents. Several Red Hook parents are struggling to adapt to the cuts.
By Sara Stefanini
Since the first week of September, when the Red Hook day care center she had been using for more than four years was forced to close one of its after-school classrooms, Luz Gonzalez has been scrambling to get her 10-year-old daughter into the program at Public School 15.
Gonzalez, a substitute teacher at the Salvation Army's Fiesta Day Care Center, where she had been sending her daughter, believes the P.S. 15 program is a better option than the city's new system of after school programs, called Out of School Time.
"It's terrible, it's inconvenient for all the parents," Gonzalez, 45, said of the city's move from supporting private day care centers to granting contracts for community based organizations to start programs that follow the OST guidelines.
Gonzales refuses to send her daughter to the OST program in Red Hook, offered at Public School 27, because she believes the program will have so many students her daughter would not get the attention she had at Fiesta Day Care, where two teachers looked after a maximum of 23 students in her daughter's age group. Her daughter is currently on the waiting list at P.S. 15, where two or three teachers oversee groups of up to 27 students.
OST guidelines require a minimum ratio of one staff member to 10 students for the younger grades, Christopher Caruso, assistant commissioner of OST programs, wrote in an e-mail message. At P.S. 27, 25 staff members watch over about 200 students.
Fiesta Day Care lost funding for its class of 17 children nine to 12 years old this year, and will probably lose its class of six- to eight-year-olds next year. Both classes run from 2:30 p.m., when teachers pick students up from school, to 6 p.m. The center also offers day care during school vacations.
The city's new options for after-school day care--the OST programs or vouchers with which parents can find their own caretakers--are unappealing choices, Gonzalez and other parents say. OST opened in September with a projected enrollment of up to 50,000 elementary, middle and high school students in 400 programs citywide, according to the Department of Youth and Community Development. The department says the program is a way for the city to streamline after school services and their accountability by bringing them together under a set of guidelines it has designed to ensure the programs offer a mix of academic and recreational activities. Parents and teachers worry that the programs will have young, inexperienced staffs supervising overcrowded classrooms.
Finding a trustworthy caretaker with whom to use the vouchers is also a challenge for many Fiesta Day Care parents, said Ruth Bumanlag, the center's director. About 10 percent of families live in the Red Hook Houses and many others live in single-parent homes, she said.
Lizzette Ramos, a home health aid whose 10- and 5-year-old daughters attended Fiesta Day Care, laughed and rolled her eyes when asked if she thought of using the vouchers. "I don't have anybody I can trust," she said, adding that the people she could trust already work. Like Gonzalez, Ramos, 28, began sending her older daughter to P.S. 15 when her Fiesta Day Care class closed.
The Department of Youth and Community Development announced this summer that over the next two years it will replace its contracts with 168 school-age childcare services, like Fiesta Day Care, with OST – the largest municipally-funded after-school system in the country. In the next few years, the department estimates that 550 OST programs in schools and community centers will be serving at least 65,000 students (an average of 118 students per program). Funding for the programs this year is $47 million, and will grow to $75.6 million in 2007, Caruso said.
"OST will offer youth a wide range of activities and services, including academic enhancement, life skills, community building, physical recreation and arts and culture," he said.
Critics of the OST programs argue that because it offers lower wages and less benefits than most private programs did, its staff will mostly be teenagers with little experience.
"I absolutely think it was a mistake," said Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, an organization of nonprofits that is helping day care centers find other sources of funding to keep their after-school programs open. "I think it's a sham, it's shameful."
While private day care centers in New York City, spend $4,000 to $5,000 a year per child on average, OST will have about $2,800 per elementary school student and less for middle school and high school students, Anthony said. "You're cutting the funding, cutting the staff, so what kinds of activities can you possibly have?"
Staff members at the OST program in Red Hook, sponsored by Good Shepherd Services, a social services agency, are mostly former students from the program who have been trained for the positions, said Clara Delgado, the program's assistant director.
Students five to 13 years old attend after school from 3 to 6 p.m., Delgado said. The staff helps students with their homework for the first hour, then moves on to activities such as arts and crafts, sports or dance.
But Melvin Stewart, director of day care services for the Salvation Army of Greater New York, worries that OST will place much less emphasis on educating students.
"I'm fearful that it's going to be a glorified babysitting program," he said. The Salvation Army's other after-school program, in East New York, Brooklyn, also lost its funding, he added.
Benny Vasquez, who until this year taught Fiesta Day Care's class of nine- to 12-year-olds and has a degree in early childhood education, said he emphasized reading and building students' vocabulary during class, and would not let students play until they finished their homework.
Vasquez and his fellow after-school teacher have now filled two open positions in the center's day care classroom for two- to five-year-olds, said Bumanlag, the director. Bumanlag worries that closing the second after-school class next year will be a devastating blow, because she would lose two other teachers, one of whom is also the assistant director.
"That is why I am motivating my staff to go back to school, get degrees," Bumanlag said. "We do not know the future of day care centers now in New York."
IKEA sides struggle to hear, be heard
The PAL Miccio Center's gymnasium accommodated a large audience for IKEA's "next steps" presentation to Community Board 6. By the end however, only 11 board members were present to vote on a resolution that skirted the issue of whether the graving dock can coexist with IKEA's 350,000 sq. ft. furniture outlet. And specific details of the asbestos remediation plan were put off for a future meeting. (Photo by Jessica Dheere)
UPDATED 10:57 p.m. JUNE 29, 2005: New York State Supreme Court Justice Karen Smith has ruled against the plaintiffs in a suit that claimed the City of New York failed to effectively evaluate IKEA's Environmental Impact Statement before approving the Red Hook project. IKEA spokesman Joseph Roth said today: "We are pleased with the court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit against our project in Red Hook, Brooklyn...As we have done throughout the development process, we look forward to continuing to work closely and cooperatively with the community on these efforts."
Originally posted June 27, 2005
RED HOOK-- "This is not Act II of a play," said Community Board 6 Chair Jerry Armer in his opening statement to last Thursday's joint session of the Land use/Landmark and Economic/Waterfront Development Committees. "I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed."
Armer was speaking to those in the audience who hoped the board would take a stand one way or the other on alternative site plans that would preserve the working graving dock at the Beard St. property. IKEA intends to turn it into a 1,400 car parking lot.
The presentation to the board was also IKEA's first since purchasing the Beard St. property earlier this month. The previous owner, U.S. Dredging Corporation, was slapped with several violations related to handling of asbestos during a demolition in January. It was the first opportunity board members and residents had to question IKEA's asbestos remediation plan since then.
Board member Lou Sones was among those disappointed by the Chair's decision to limit debate on the graving dock. "Jerry Armer changed the rules and moved the goalposts," he said. Sones had renewed the graving dock debate at an Economic/Waterfront Development committee meeting on May 2.
A motion was passed that night to discuss alternate site plans from the Municipal Art Society which would allow the store and the graving dock to coexist. At the following general board meeting on May 11, the motion was ruled out of order by Armer on procedural grounds. Because IKEA's plan was originally approved by the Economic/Waterfront Development Committee, any potential change to that approval would need to come out of that committee, Armer said at the time. The general board voted to address the graving dock/parking lot issue in a session involving both committees.
But when Thursday's meeting began, any possibility that the board would act to save the graving dock disappeared in Armer's statement.
The vague wording of the motion left plenty of room for confusion about the purpose of Thursday night's meeting--confusion that was exacerbated by the acoustics of the PAL Miccio Center's gymnasium. Originally scheduled to take place in the Center's cafeteria, the meeting was moved to accommodate the audience of 60 that included board members, residents, city-wide media and concerned preservationists. Despite the setting, no microphone was used so many statements were inaudible as the discussion shifted from one side of the basketball court to the other.
Among those who struggled to have his voice heard was Municipal Art Society Senior Vice President Frank Sanchez. He was prepared to present alternatives his organization developed to save the graving dock, but Armer announced the meeting would be strictly an informational meeting presented solely by IKEA.
"We cannot vote on something that's already gone," Armer said. "It's done." He was referring to the board's approval of IKEA's project. The 710-foot graving dock is still present and intact. Until IKEA took ownership of the property it had been in use since being built in 1866 and is listed as one of the New York Preservation Society's "Seven to Save."
"This committee and this board has historically been pro a working waterfront. A graving dock is integral to a working waterfront. There are precious few of them and there's a tremendous up tick in waterfront activity," Sones said as he attempted to introduce a motion that would force the committee to take a position on the matter.
Jesse Masyr of the law firm Wachtel & Masyr represented IKEA and explained that the company deemed both MAS's plans unviable. One would require IKEA to purchase a plot of land at the end of Columbia St. Masyr said that they had originally wanted to own the plot, but they "couldn't afford" the seller's price. IKEA recently purchased the surrounding property for $31.25 million.
The second alternative plan calls for an underground parking structure. John Clifford of the law firm Greenberg Farrow explained that the plan would require an elevator, which is unviable due to the large size of IKEA's merchandise. Also the second alternative would introduce a ramp at an untenable angle for delivery trucks, Clifford said.
MAS's Sanchez said that he would be happy to address these issues. Committee Chair Pauline Blake then suggested the board could recommend that IKEA open a dialogue with MAS. Sanchez was pleased with the idea. Masyr did not respond.
David Sharps of the Waterfront Museum argued passionately in favor of the graving dock. "As neighbors we are desperately pleading with IKEA to try to recognize the potential, which I don't think you realize it has."
When prodded by Armer to expand on his position, Masyr said, "Any change to the site plan puts us back to the very beginning of the process...we'd have to do it all over again as if we didn't go through it in the first place." No doubt, that is a scenario welcomed by opponents of the project.
But concern over asbestos and support for the graving dock are not limited to anti-IKEA activists. MAS's plans have garnered endorsements from United States Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and City Councilman David Yassky.
Velazquez wrote directly to IKEA regarding asbestos, the use of union labor and the graving dock. IKEA never responded to the U.S. Congresswoman.
When Sharps, asked him about Velazquez's letter, Masyr responded "I don't know what you're talking about."
Dan Wiley, Velazquez's Community Coordinator, read from the letter. Still Masyr did not address the concerns. Instead, Armer fielded the question and explained that the full remediation plan would be discussed at a future Public Safety/Environmental Protection committee meeting and pointed out that IKEA was not named in the violations.
Board members Elsie Felder and Devin Cohen each pressed the asbestos issue. Felder first asked for an update on the asbestos situation.
"The asbestos technically, not technically, legally does not involve IKEA," Masyr said alluding to violations levied at the property in January. "It has to do with actions taken by U.S. Dredging."
"I can assure you that I don't think you'll find anybody right now that is more sensitive to that issue than we are," Masyr said in response to Cohen who chairs the Public Safety/Environmental Protection Committee. He added that there would be a full remediation of asbestos at the site. That has been IKEA's stated position since their original Environmental Impact Statement was drafted in 2002. But they have refused to comment on whether they feel U.S. Dredging's handling of asbestos was proper.
After the meeting Felder expressed regret for not asking, "But now is it your responsibility now that you have taken ownership of it?"
When informed of Felder's follow-up, Masyr stated, "What you're talking about is a violation of a practice that's controlled by the environmental law of the city that has to do with procedure. And we have no 'nexus' as the law would say, to that." He did confirm that U.S. Dredging would not have a role in the demolition moving forward.
The two CB6 committees have 40 members combined. But in the end, only 11 were present to vote on a motion that recommended a meeting between IKEA and MAS to discuss alternative site plans. The motion did not advocate a position, and passed nine to one, with one abstention.
Red Hook's rhythm rushes inland
Extraordinary talent was on display in Red Hook this weekend. From break dancing to live theater, a celebration of the neighborhood's relationship with water transformed the peninsula into one large performance space. The range and rapidity of events put a serious strain on the constitution of our Society page staff (B61 Photo).
RED HOOK--The revolutionary war began on it. Dueling community groups now trade insults over it. And outside developers expect to have their way with it. But this weekend residents celebrated a relationship with South Brooklyn's waterfront, setting off a flood of creativity that didn't ebb until Sunday evening.
As an impromptu prelude to the weekend a blues singer/guitarist wandered into Lillie's late on Thursday night. Calling herself only Alicia, she proclaimed, "I'm trying to be professional, but I can't quite manage it yet." The polish that she lacked on stage had nothing to do with her crackly voice or fret work. With a repertoire heavy in Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, Alicia is the type of artist found only on the fringes.
The Red Hook Waterfront Arts Festival emanated from the Beard St. Pier on Saturday. Sponsored by Dance Theatre Etc., the fest attracted streams of visitors throughout the day. BWAC benefited as it drew 1000 people on Saturday alone. The Youth Film Festival was especially eye-opening as teenagers presented near-professional documentaries. One film from Made Ya Blink Productions presented a balanced dialogue and perspective of a changing Red Hook. KR3TS Dance Company, led by two-year-old break-dancer Noah Paul Galagarza, was the highlight performance on the pier.
As the crowd filtered inland, much of it collected in Coffey Park for a performance by Rennie Harris Puremovement presented by Dancing in the Streets.
The biggest surprise of the weekend was "Blow me down! The daring exploits of Spanish John, Pirate" at the new outdoor Coffey Street Playhouse. The backyard spectacle, written by St. John Frizell and directed by David Teague, ended its two-day run on Saturday night in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 130. The smart, quick-witted script and professional production-value made it difficult to classify the five-act romantic pirate comedy as "Community Theater."
Sunday the performances shifted to the end of Conover St. On the east side of the street three authors presented work at this month's Sunny's Reading Series. Todd Hasak-Lowy, aided by friends Matthew Rohrer and Josh Lewis, read "The Interview" from his collection of short stories "The Task of This Translator." The piece was a satire on the initiation into corporate culture.
Novelist Alicia Erian raised the temperature in the already-sweltering bar as she read a provocative piece from her first novel "Towelhead." Any synopsis would violate B61's family-friendly philosophy. But the book has been optioned for film by Alan Ball, creator of the HBO series "Six Feet Under."
Investigative journalist Katherine Eban delved into the black market prescription drug trade in Florida reading from her book, "Dangerous Doses: How Counterfeiters Are Contaminating America's Drug Supply." It's a true story that she described as "Scarface meets Duane Reed."
Across the street, bicycles and strollers lined up outside the Waterfront Museum and Showboat barge for the much-anticipated return of CIRCUSundays. Captain David Sharps will host world-class circus talent for three shows every Sunday in June.
And finally there was Open Studio 2005...which we regretfully missed altogether. But we heard glowing reviews, especially of oil paintings by Michael Prettyman.
In the end, this weekend's festivities did nothing to heal the open wounds related to waterfront development. And next year the impact from those decisions will be more evident. What is apparent, however, is that today's Red Hook shares an incredibly deep pool of creative talent.
Roselli draws simplicity from complexity
Mimmo Roselli has left his mark all over the world. His latest work "Drawing Space" is on display at Kentler International Drawing Space through June 25 (Photo courtesy of Florence Neal).
RED HOOK--"The line is the trace humans make passing in this world." That's how artist Mimmo Roselli describes his life's work. He has traced that line across the globe and now it has reached Van Brunt St. at Kentler International Drawing Space.
As three simple lines etched into Kentler's wall, the impact of "Drawing Space" is not from the subtle, monochrome visual itself, but from the broader contexts of environment and the artist's career. Roselli explained his fascination with "borderline communities" to an intimate gathering last Saturday afternoon.
"There's special strength in populations that live on borders," he observed. Sometimes that has meant geographic borders such as a Bolivian village where he worked with schoolchildren just west of Brazil. Other times it has been abstract borders such as a retirement community in his native Italy. In either case, Roselli has chosen to work in communities "where people pass from one place to another." Red Hook now joins that list which includes Chechnya, Venice, Heidelburg and Rio de Janeiro, to name just a few.
His experience in the Bolivian village was especially influential. "I saw how we spend our life consuming. They want to respect nature, never taking from nature over their necessity. They don't know accumulation."
Roselli's appreciation for the simplicity he has observed in his travels is reflected in his minimalist approach to art--triangles symbolize solidarity, white conveys serenity.
Working with the environment, Roselli has created installations where the line, or the "sign" as he refers to it, was represented by cables that made physical connections between earth, trees and buildings. He has also etched his sign into stones displayed in an Italian cathedral.
"Drawing Space" may be imperceptible to anyone in a hurry as it encircles the white walls of Kentler's gallery. True to the conceptual form of art, the installation will potentially mean profoundly different things to every viewer--just as the changes that affect our own "borderline community" will affect everyone differently.
Slow down or you might miss it.
Menchetti dominates hotdog eating contest
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was the first to congratulate Joe Menchetti for winning the first Stahl-Meyer Hot Dog Eating Contest. Schnack hosted the event on Memorial Day (B61 Photo).
COLUMBIA ST.--The competitive-eating Universe revolved around Schnack this Memorial Day and one star clearly shone brightest. Electricity filled the sidewalk air at 122 Union St. as prominent news outlets UPN and WB trained their lenses on the field of five. The anticipation of fifty eating fans built as the rules were read and came to a crescendo as the eating commenced.
While participants were not professional competitive eaters, each man had proved his worthiness in preliminary rounds. But only one man made history in this first Stahl-Meyer Hot Dog Eating Contest. Joe Menchetti raced to the finish of a 30-inch hotdog (the equivalent of five normal-sized dogs) in a tidy one minute, 30 seconds--a blistering rate of three seconds per inch.
While he washed the food down with a Jever Pilsner, the beverage could not cleanse his palette of victory's sweet aftertaste. Menchetti proved there was just room enough for one at the top. However, he had room for a standard-sized Stahl-Meyer hotdog as everyone else turned their attention to the race for second.
Undeterred, Arnie Chapman ate his way to redemption, finishing second in a very respectable two minutes, 10 seconds. Any other day, perhaps, it would have been Chapman, not Menchetti, who would have his arm raised in triumph by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. But not today. Today the spotlight rested squarely on the beaming Joe Menchetti.
For the vanquished, there was no solace to be found in Manchetti's considerable shadow. Faced with the uneaten remains of their respective hotdogs, they were left to wonder "What went wrong?" It's an image that is sure stay with the competitors as they train for next year.
Menchetti, meanwhile, was showered with praise and prizes from sponsors Ferris Stahl-Meyer, Jever Pilsner, Caputo Bakery, American Stevedoring and New York Waterways. It wasn't the first time eating has provided the Connecticut man with more than sustenance, and this may not have been his biggest prize. "Friends of friends haven't always had a lot of faith in what I could do," he said of the many bets he has won with his eating prowess. Now all of Brooklyn knows what Joe Menchetti can do.
NYCHA lawsuit revolves around open door
By nearly every objective measure, life in Red Hook has improved dramatically. So why is this Red Hook West tenant so mad? The short answer: this door. Related to a May incident, Eddie Franco (left) and his lawyer Jonathan Vitarelli (right) are seeking damages from the New York City Housing Authority. (B61 Photo)
RED HOOK--Bruised and battered, Eddie Franco appears to be in no condition for a fight. But after tripping over bricks that were propping open the door to his apartment on May 2, Franco's frustration has reached a boiling point. At first glance his lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority seems like a typical "slip and fall" case. But Franco himself had made previous complaints to NYCHA about the very conditions that led to the fall. Conditions that he says allow drug dealing and prostitution to take place in his building.
Tenants at the Gowanus Houses also raised the issue of damaged doors at this month's community council meeting. In that case, complaints allege screws had been removed from hinges preventing doors from closing completely and allowing non-residents unfettered access to the building 24-hours a day.
Wally Alvarado, Community Liaison for City Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, contacted NYCHA and the 76th Precinct after Franco spoke at last week's Red Hook West tenant meeting. Alvarado says that he has received assurances from NYCHA that the door lock will be fixed this week and that NYPD's narcotics division will investigate Franco's claims that illegal activity is rampant in his building.
The response is little comfort to Franco. The Red Hook West apartment door has not locked in the 10 years Franco has lived there, he says. After complaining in 2001, Franco claims he suffered retribution.
"Someone called the police and told them that I was the one selling drugs," Franco says. "Cops busted down my door and put a gun to my head at six in the morning."
After searching the apartment the officers realized drugs were not being sold out of his apartment and apologized, Franco said.
He complained again in February of this year. Now after falling awkwardly, hitting his face on metal scaffolding and receiving painful injuries to his shoulder, back and left leg, Franco is raising the issue again without fear of retribution. But this time he wants compensation in addition to a door that locks. He and his lawyer Jonathan Vitarelli of the firm Sifre, Iniguez and Vitarelli are awaiting a complete diagnosis of his injuries before setting a dollar amount.
Vitarelli says that NYCHA's neglect led directly to his client's injuries, including a gash that required seven stitches in his face.
"It doesn't make business sense," Vitarelli said of NYCHA's failure to fix the door even after Franco's complaints. "If someone breaks into a building and murders or rapes someone, NYCHA would not be liable. But they are responsible if the door's lock was broken and they made no effort to fix it. It's an abdication of their duty to maintain their building."
By nearly every objective measure, life in Red Hook has improved. A quick glance at crime statistics in the 76th Precinct shows a 56 percent decrease in overall crime since 1993. That includes an 87.5 percent drop in murder and 46.6 percent decrease in rape. Simultaneously, real estate prices have skyrocketed and Red Hook has experienced a cultural renaissance that few could have imagined a decade ago.
But the quality of life improvements throughout the neighborhood are still hard to imagine from Franco's third floor unit. He can no longer climb stairs to the ground floor mailboxes and relies on a cane to simply move around his apartment.
Riding the elevator last Friday afternoon, Franco struggled to hold his breath to the first floor. The pungent stench of urine is nauseating and overpowering. Outside his apartment building, Franco pointed to a first floor window with a bullet hole from a shooting earlier this year. Fortunately, the window was the only casualty.
On Tuesday NYCHA Public Information Officer Howard Marder responded, "We are investigating the claim made by Mr. Franco and reserve comment."
Meanwhile, Franco simply wants his door to lock and wonders, "Why do I even have keys?"
Walking tour provides overview from ground level
The Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment sponsored a whirlwind walking tour led by Dan Wiley on Saturday. Stops included visits with grassroots organizers, a preservationist and a leading developer. (Track photo by Claudio Papapietro. Graving dock image courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society. Map from Mapquest. All other photos by B61.)
Originally posted June 15, 2005
RED HOOK--A traveler wanders around the Erie Basin equipped with only a map. "It's a good place to stay away from, dat's all," explains a King's County native to the clueless outsider in Thomas Wolfe's short story "Only the dead know Brooklyn."
Much has changed since Wolfe's characterization was printed in The New Yorker in1935. Violent crime continues a downward trend, the wild dogs have been domesticated and real estate brokers clearly have no intention of staying away. Still, the rough terrain of Red Hook's politics can make even a longtime resident feel lost at times. On Saturday, 25 visitors took a walking tour of the fascinating place that Wolfe's unwitting traveler stumbled upon 70 years ago.
The tour was sponsored by Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment and led by Dan Wiley, Community Outreach Director for U.S. Congresswoman Nydia Valazquez. It began at the unsightly Smith/9th Street. Two months ago the decrepit subway station was scheduled for $22 million in structural and aesthetic improvements. But the MTA has cut the rehab project altogether.
"When they hike the fare, they should improve the service," Assemblywoman Joan Millman of the neighboring 52nd district said recently. "I worry for the safety of my constituents." Councilman David Yassky has also spoken out against the cut.
The sight of the dilapidated station quickly evaporated on this mid-80 degree day. A taunting peek at the unfilled Recreation Center pool was followed by the smell of the South American food stands and visions of the vast green fields on Bay St. For all the neighborhood's limitations, Red Hook has phenomenal recreational areas.
At the track, Ray and Earl Hall greeted the travelers. Their organization, Red Hook Rise, teamed with the Red Hook Health Initiative for "Health and Fitness Day 2005." The event promoted exercise in the neighborhood and drew appearances from Borough President Marty Markowitz and Judge Alex Calabrese of the Community Justice Center.
Ray remarked to the tour group that "there was a time when people didn't come down here." The Hall brothers have dedicated their adult lives to leaving their old stomping grounds better than they found it. "I'm glad you came out to see the positive things that are going on in the neighborhood," Earl said privately. "And not just all the other nonsense." IKEA's promise of hundreds of job openings and training to local residents has secured the full weight of Red Hook Rise's organization behind the project. Visions differ on what is best for Red Hook's future. And the brothers' role in aiding IKEA's bid has angered many equally-passionate residents. Much of the disagreements have been public and personal.
If there is any common ground in the battle, the tour group unknowingly stepped on it as they crossed Columbia St.
Beside the towering walls of the former Todd Shipyards, fertile soil sits atop an old blacktop playground. In a neighborhood filled with surprises, few compare to the image of Added Value's organic farm where the tour met another grassroots leader, Ian Marvy. Farmer Ian, as he's affectionately known to neighborhood kids, has put his considerable energies and talent into providing job opportunities and healthy food in Red Hook. The unlikely plot yields organic produce that's sold to local restaurants Liberty Heights Tap Room and 360.
Community Education Coordinator Caroline Loomis and Senior Youth Leader Tevon McNair described the programs that employ up to 20 area teens every summer. In three years, Marvy and Added Value have received enough positive press to fill a book. What hasn't been written yet, however, is the impact that 11,000 cars will have on the farm as they stream into IKEA every Saturday. And the company's proposal did not include any mitigation for the significant noise and air pollution that will result from the traffic.
This fate will be shared by all users of the track and adjacent playing fields. However, IKEA hasn't reached out to Added Value as they have with other groups.
"There is potential for partnership," Marvy said of the farm's prospective relationship with a 350,000 sq. ft. neighbor. "But the immediate concern is for the appropriate [asbestos] remediation to be done at the site."
The root of Marvy's concern was the next stop on Wiley's tour. Building #3, a historic, civil-war era pump house at 11 Beard St., was partially demolished in January. Allegations of mishandling and misreporting of asbestos-contaminated material drew $183,000 in potential fines for IKEA's contractors. After two delays, U.S. Dredging Corporation and Breeze Demolition will answer the charges in front of the Environmental Control Board on July 8.
To address another growing community concern, Mary Habstritt of the Society for Industrial Archeology was on hand to administer a maritime history lesson at the site. The subject: a working graving dock slated to become IKEA's 1,400 car parking lot. Habstritt's presentation included copies of a Scientific American article that marveled at the Todd Shipyard graving dock when it was built in 1866.
The current site plan calls for the graving dock to be filled with demolition debris and covered with cement. But the Municipal Arts Society has developed two alternative site plans that they say would allow the store and the graving dock to co-exist. Wiley pointed out a plot of land at the end of Columbia St. that preservationists think would make a better parking lot than the graving dock. The plot currently is for sale.
IKEA representatives will address these concerns at a meeting with the Economic/Waterfront and Landmarks/Land Use committees. The presentation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on June 23 at the P.A.L. Miccio Center. As with all CB6 activities, it is open to the public.
Traversing over broken glass and uneven footing, the tour made its way down the gritty cobblestone corridor to the picturesque Beard St. Pier and warehouses. Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition, Fairway's future abode and the sugar refinery provided Wiley with plenty of tour-guide fodder.
The Fairway building will feature an environmentally-friendly cogeneration plant that will utilize waste heat to generate power. A middle atrium will provide sunlight to the units on the inside of the building. And office space will be donated to non-profit organizations Red Hook Rise, BWAC and Dance Theatre Etc.
But even now the sights of the area speak volumes themselves. A walk through the office space unveiled the fantastic New York Harbor views as well as Blue Man Group props peeking through the hallway windows.
At this point in the tour, a visitor was heard to remark, "It's beautiful down here. But how would you get anywhere." New York Water Taxis are docked, ready to take commuters to Manhattan--just not from Red Hook. And trolley cars sit like immovable museum pieces. The trolley project was originally proposed and developed by Bob Diamond before a lack of funding and permits halted his progress. The idea may not be dead yet, however. According to Wiley, Congresswoman Valazquez has secured $300,000 in federal funding to conduct a feasibility study for a light rail system in Red Hook.
But for now the ferries and trolley cars are merely reminders that the neighborhood is so close, yet so far away.
An unplanned stop was made at Ralph Balzano's shop on Reed St. Neighborhood friends enjoying a casual Saturday afternoon seemed as awestruck by the sight of a walking tour as the travelers were by the sight of this one-of-a-kind waterside hangout. A brief exchange left both groups no less confused by one another before the tour moved on to the hospitable conclusion of the tour--the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge.
David Sharps' antique vessel and its homeport along the Pier 44 Jetty and Waterfront Garden are an example of Red Hook's future cohabitating harmoniously with its past. On board developer Greg O'Connell shed light on this project and those currently underway. He underscored the important role that artists have played throughout the development process, occasionally being interrupted by the sounds of the museum's complex ball contraption.
Walking tours in Brooklyn have traditionally ended at the Gowanus Canal. But that's where Wiley's began. And when Red Hook's retail industry booms and transportation improves, more and more outsiders will feel comfortable making the trek south of Hamilton Ave. Whatever issues arrive with the impending changes, one thing is certain: more maps will be unfurled on these narrow old streets. While they may show the visitors where to go, they won't begin to explain how it all got here.
State Supreme Court hears IKEA arguments
Pro- and anti-IKEA factions called Red Hook's "character" into question as they presented arguments in court Thursday. The parties argued over whether the City took the requisite "close look" at the plan's impact before they rezoned the proposed site. A full transcript of the proceedings is available at BigCitiesBigBoxes (B61 Photo).
Originally posted May 30, 2005
MANHATTAN--The battle over Beard Street's waterfront went before State Supreme Court Justice Karen Smith on Thursday. A lawsuit claims that IKEA's 1000-page final environmental impact statement (FEIS) did not properly examine the impact traffic will have on "neighborhood character" and the surrounding highways. The hearing got off to an unpromising start for the petitioners, who aim to nullify the city's approval for the 350,000 square-foot furniture store.
Smith's opening statement made it clear that a heavy burden rests on the plaintiffs. "I can't substitute my judgment for that of the agencies," Smith said to the plaintiff's lawyer Antonia Bryson. "Your experts and their experts disagreeing, that's not going to do it."
However, by the end of the hearing, it was unclear whether Smith was satisfied with the defendants' explanation of at least one issue--traffic on the Gowanus Expressway.
"They are misrepresenting what their own papers say about consideration of the Gowanus and the other highways," Bryson argued. "They did not look at 'Will traveling on the Gowanus be a lot worse than it was before the Ikea was in place?'"
Turning to the defendants, Judge Smith said, "I don't remember seeing anything about the Gowanus and the highway, just the local streets. I may have missed it, so please let me know."
Dan Greene, lawyer for the New York City Law Department Office of The Corporation Counsel, cited pages from the FEIS that deal with traffic on the Gowanus Expressway
IKEA's FEIS does not take into account the planned reconstruction project on the Gowanus, Greene said, because that project was too far into the future. The study did consider the increased traffic from pending projects Carnival Cruise Lines and Fairway.
According to Bryson, the City's approval violated two plans that the City developed as guidelines for Red Hook's waterfront--the City Planning Department's 1992 Waterfront Plan and the 1996 197-a plan. Both plans recommend the site remain zoned for maritime activity. Though neither document is legally binding, New York State's Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) requires city agencies to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors.
That's where the experts disagree.
"Neighborhood character, under SEQRA, is to look at a compilation of factors, not just one factor; and moreover, it is undoubtedly the most subjective area of review," Greene argued for the defense. Binder and Greene described Red Hook's waterfront as publicly inaccessible and "falling down."
To which Bryson responded, "Red Hook has some lovely public access that's in development and it's going to have more, and this is not the site for public access. So to tout that as the whole reason for the project is not appropriate."