New Column! Hook Lines: Life and Property in Red Hook

When a pair of young women in heels and short skirts—obvious outsiders—come in, they wait for their drink while the bartender finishes his conversation, looking uncomfortable and irritated. They sit in a corner; no one approaches them.  And they leave quickly.


“IT’S A SELF-SELECTING PLACE,” says Anne O’Neill, a writer planning to open a store devoted to the work of Red Hook artisans.  “I think many are drawn to it for the community,” But that community can be hard to crack.  “At the very least,” says Mr. Herbert, who came from London a mere year ago, “it takes six months of drinking, four times a week, in the same bar—and that’s if you have an ‘in’ with the old-timers who’ve been here 10 years.”

To those who are bona fide members of what’s commonly called “the village,” stories of community spirit are legion.  There was the time Merch broke his glasses; the Bait took up a collection and he had a new pair within two days.  Or the time one girl cut her foot and a neighbor rushed over to stitch it up. “Just from living in this neighborhood for two years I’ve made more and better friends then I ever had in high school or even college,” says Kelly O’Neill (no relation), who works in television and moved to Red Hook right out of college.

“If I ever have a holiday that I can’t make it home for, I know that there’ll be someone from the neighborhood extending an invitation; if I need someone to feed my cats when I’m away it’s covered; I never have to worry about teetering home from the bar at 3 a.m. alone because someone will insist on walking me home … and, really, the list goes on and on.”

Adds Anne O’Neill, “It’s an old-fashioned place where you walk down the street and say hi to everyone. … When people are sick, you bring them soup. If you want to talk to someone, you go by the coffee shop, the diner, the bar or the park to find them—instead of making an appointment for two weeks in advance.” Says Bevin Strand, who tends bar at the Ice House, “Red Hook is a land of misfits. A lot of people get the appeal, probably more people don’t.  But those of us who really live here probably always will.”


OF COURSE, LIKE ANY small town, there are downsides. Says Kelly O’Neill, “Let’s put it this way: I love this neighborhood because I can’t walk to the deli without seeing someone I know.  I hate this neighborhood because I can’t walk home from the deli without someone stopping me to say, ‘Oh I heard so-and-so saw you buying seltzer and cigarettes at the deli.’ Says Anne O’Neill, “It’s junior high: Everyone knows everything about everyone else’s business, who is dating whom, who is no longer dating whom and why—truthfully or what ever the rumor mill has dredged up.”

Gossip is the No. 1 complaint. “There’s really not that much else to do, especially in the winter,” explains Mr. Stein.  Or, as someone else puts it more bluntly, “everyone sleeps together sooner or later. But it’s a little bit like Groundhog Day. Whoever you got into a fight with, whoever you went home with … the next day it’s the same people, the same bar, acting like nothing’s happened.”

Says a former resident, who preferred not to give his name (“I’d like to be able to go back there”), “Gossip is the only form of inclusion. You’ll never see the inside of anyone’s house, but you’ll know everyone they’ve slept with in the past year. It’s crazy, and it’s sad. … It’s all these people who have opted out of the competition and craziness of New York life.  They all have a fig leaf of creativity, but the truth is a lot of people aren’t doing much with themselves and this is the one place that doesn’t make you feel bad about it.”

To others, that’s the charm.  “I feel like I’m judged on who I am—no one’s asking ‘what do you do’ within five minutes of meeting you,” says Mr. Stein.  And although he’s laying low for the moment, couch-surfing around north Brooklyn, “I’ll end up going back,” he concludes.  In the words of Scott Merchant, one of the community’s elder statesmen, “A lot of times I want to move away from Red Hook.  I just can’t—I like it too much.” 

Postscript: Mr. Stein, since the writing of this column, has moved to L.A. … despite a “Don’t Move to L.A., Charlie” Facebook page organized by fellow Red Hook residents.

New Column! Hook Lines: Life and Property in Red Hook