A Day In the Life at Red Hook Houses

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Close to 9,000 people are believed to be living in the Red Hook Houses, legally and illegally. Photo courtesy of: Shelley Bernstein/Flickr Creative Commons

Close to 9,000 people are believed to be living in the Red Hook Houses, legally and illegally. Photo courtesy of: Shelley Bernstein/Flickr

By Miranda Lin

When the first 1,408 units of the Red Hook Houses were opened in 1939, they boasted the best technology could provide: self-operating elevators, incinerators in every hallway, gas ranges, electric fridges and a laundry room under each building. In 1955, another apartment block called was added, making the Red Hook Houses the largest housing project in Brooklyn, second only in New York to the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens. For the families of the Irish and Italian longshoremen that first moved into Red Hook, they were the embodiment of the American dream, the promise of a bright future.

Today, the Red Hook Houses remain a dream and a promise – but broken ones.  For decades, life in the Houses has been defined by violence, addiction, poverty, isolation and lost opportunity. According to the latest NYCHA data, nearly 15 percent of all families in the Houses are living on welfare and the average gross income is less than half the district average. Meanwhile, a 1999 community survey of 960 Red Hook residents showed that 35 percent of respondents carried a weapon for protection, while 18 percent said they knew victims of shootings, assaults and robberies.

Despite the bleak figures, new housing and employment opportunities are arriving; crime and drug rates are on the decline; and daily life goes on for the residents in the Red Hook Houses. These are stories of four of those lives.

8 a.m. The Rounds

When Dorothy’s husband died, she was left with no money, no job and six children. Within a month she had a nervous breakdown and thought she was going to die. But two of her neighbors came to her rescue and for three months nursed her back to health. When Dorothy asked how she could repay them for their kindness, they replied, “All we want you to do the rest of your life is do something good for somebody each day.”

In the 34 years that have followed, Dorothy has tried to do just that as the president of the Red Hook East Tenants’ Association. She wakes up at the crack of dawn every day, combs back her short white-streaked hair and sets off on her tour of the Houses.

First, Dorothy checks in on the  seniors. She makes sure they’ve all eaten and are feeling well; she knows exactly which ones have recently returned from the hospital and remembers who the last family member was to visit each of them

Next, she stops by the housing management office to take some phone calls and think up new ways to save the neighborhood. “I bring everything I can into this community to keep people out of trouble and to do the right thing,” she says in a slow southern drawl.

After two hours in the office, Dorothy is out the door again. She’s getting a group of kids from the Houses to help her clean up the trash in the courtyard. Nothing makes Dorothy happier than seeing everyone in the neighborhood put to work.

2 p.m The Climb

Eugene lives on the sixth floor of a 14-story high-rise, but the elevator to his floor often doesn’t work. “We got dope bangers on every floor who got keys to the elevator and turn ‘em on and off whenever they want,” he says. That means taking the stairs. But Eugene is diabetic, has a heart condition and uses a cane. Not to mention that the narrow stairwell is also used by drug dealers and addicts.

Red Hook’s history with drugs has been well documented. In 1988, LIFE Magazine ran a nine-page cover feature on the neighborhood, labeling it “the crack capital of America.” Some estimate that as much as $50 million of cocaine, heroin and marijuana travel through the Houses every year. After school principal Patrick F. Daly was killed in a shootout between two drug dealers in 1992, the police adopted a “zero tolerance” policy and setup a satellite police station on the ground floor of Eugene’s apartment.

However Eugene remains skeptical. “Nothin’s changed since the cops came,” he says. “What we need is cameras on every building and doors that can lock.” The magnetic lock on his building’s main door was torn out years ago and has not been replaced. Even if it was fixed, Eugene thinks it’d probably be ripped out again within a day.

6 p.m. The Fixer Upper

Eddie is well-known around the Houses for many things: “One is for being the white guy in the projects, two is being a bit of a hound dog and three is being a master handyman.” So when two young women asked if he’d help them fix their grocery cart, he happily obliged.

On the trip up to Eddie’s third-floor apartment, they pass a puddle of fresh vomit; a smashed hall window; and a paramedic guiding a sobbing woman out the door with a stone-faced man in sunglasses following closely behind. No one blinks twice.

“I’ve gotta get my power drill from my room,” he says as he shuffles through the piles of newspapers, tools and food cans stacked across his floor. There are two TVs in his bedroom. The first is switched to the harness races he’s betting on. The second is attached to a closed-circuit surveillance system Eddie has rigged up to his front door. “It helps me sleep,” he explains.

When Eddie first moved into his one-bedroom apartment in the Houses, everyone thought he was crazy. But he has a view of Coffey Park, pays $126.16 a month in income-adjusted rent and thinks the neighborhood is on the upswing – as long as people keep moving in. “People need to know that places like this exist and that they’re safe,” says Eddie, pointing to the Red Hook Co-op. The mixed-income development on Wolcott Street lotteried off two-thirds of its units to low-income residents two years ago after receiving 4,500 applications. The rest are now being sold at market value: $390,000 for a two-bedroom apartment and $510,000 for three bedrooms. Only two units have been sold.

“There ya go, baby, good as new,” says Eddie as he fastens the final rivet in the cart. The girls load up their bags from Fairway Market and hop into the elevator. It works, but Eddie refuses to ride it. “It’s like an outhouse in there.”

8 p.m. The Night Watch

Karen came to Red Hook 28 years ago as an 18-year-old single mother. “I didn’t know it when I came here, but Red Hook had a stigma as a place that family don’t come to visit,” she says. “So I had to make my own family.”

She learned to rely on herself and others in the Houses, but not outsiders, especially not the police. On April 28, 2006, her son Freddie was caught in a housing-wide drug raid, the memory of which still sends tears streaming down her cheeks. Federal policy has it that anyone convicted of a single crime is automatically evicted from public housing. “I didn’t know where my son was for four days,” she says.

Now Karen works as many nights as she can on tenant patrol. She sits and chats with one or two other tenants around a table in the hall. But as soon as someone enters, their eyes sharpen. Do you live here? Who are you visiting? What do you want? “Some people don’t like it because I’m too much in everybody’s face,” says Karen. “But it’s because I care enough.”

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8 Responses to “A Day In the Life at Red Hook Houses”

  1. Kieran Meadows
    January 11, 2010 at 11:55 AM #

    Nice to see some coverage of this part — the “front” — of Red Hook. Keep up the good work.

  2. Philbin Metcalf
    February 18, 2010 at 1:12 PM #

    I agree with Kieran. You are helping to give voice to the 75% of Red Hook otherwise invisible to the world. If you haven’t already you should check out what Andy Vernon-Jones has been up to. http://hereinredhook.blogspot.com/

  3. ramona cargo
    February 25, 2010 at 11:53 AM #

    I moved into redhook projects in 1967 i was 8 years old. It was a wonderful place for me to grow up and live there. everybody knew everybody neighbors was family orientated and watch everybody else’s children back then it took the village of redhook projects to raise and help familes if you know what that means. we went to the micco pal center party’s it was fun and kids got along and played together. i had three children that were raised in redhook projects. but by the 1980 redhook was off the chain with the war on drugs

  4. wanda cummings
    October 8, 2010 at 6:42 PM #

    I grew up in Red Hook along with my 2 older brothers and 1 little brother we left Red Hook in 1977 when my parents brought a home in Queens I will never forget Red Hook there were happy times there. Yes everyone knew everyone and we had a lot of friends. Our parents always sat outside in the summer time and we had so much fun all of us went to P.S. 27 I really miss those days I am glad to see that Red Hook is changing for the better. I also remember the tenant patrol which my mom and friends were apart of and we always went to miccio center for the parties but we also had parties in our building for the different holidays it was so much fun.

  5. tk
    June 23, 2011 at 2:27 PM #

    I was born in the building 22 mill st apartment 2c right in the apartment my mother delivered me. I had an wonderful childhood. Venturing out to play in the many parks surrounding the projects. Until I got hooked on drugs at the age of fifteen. I left Redhook Projects many times. It is a beautifully made projects but the people that didn’t care about it tore it up. I would have stayed there if I didn’t feel the darkness everytime I entered. I still dream of my childhood and the good memories I had there though. And PS 27 and junior high school 142 there are still some great memories… even though I left years ago.

  6. Mollie F. Howard
    January 13, 2013 at 8:00 PM #

    Now, at age 89, I am looking back a my teen years in the Red Hook Housing Project. We move there when it wa brand new and lovely. The grounds had rose bushes and other greenery, which before long were destroyed by the childrewn of careless parents. My father predicted that, in fifty years, the projecxts would be the slum that was destroyed in order build it. World War Two, brought changes when residents were hired by defense planfs. Their salaries no longer qualified them for residency, and they moved on. My family remained. I graduated from Manual Training H.S. in 1941, married, and was a war widow in 1944. My baby and I reuerned to 28 West 9th St to my parents’ 5th floor apartment. Much has, of course, changed in the following years. A long career with Dept. of Army in th Pentagon was a gratifying experience. Now, retired and living in El Paso TX, I’m looking forward to my 21-year-old great-grandddaughter’s approaching wedding. Never dreamed I’d live this long to enjoy the ever-expanding family. Good wishes to all Red Hook residents. Mollie F. Howard El Paso TX

  7. Arnold Schwartz
    March 29, 2013 at 10:09 PM #

    I was 6 years old when my parents moved from the lower East Side to The Red Hook Houses in 1941. At that time the community was mostly Irish and Italian families. We were of the Jewish faith, and definitely the minority. There were always gangs in Red Hook, even in 1941. My introduction to the “hood” was during my earliest days at PS 27. I was living at 116 Mill St and it was about a 20 block walk to the school. I just left my building and suddenly a big cardboard box was dropped over me and I felt a bunch of bodies jumping on the box. I was a little bruised, but when they lifted the box, I just got up and continued on my way to school.
    That was my initiation to the “hood”. After that experience, I was never bothered again. From then on I was accepted as one of the “guys” I was just 8 years old when some of the kids asked if I could play basketball. When I got on on the court in a small park on Clinton St., I was the best player in the group. From that day on, the “Jew boy” was the most popular kid in the group. I left Red Hook in 1959 after I graduated from Brookln College. I got married soon after, and my parents remained in Red Hook until 1970. I have very fond memories of my time in Red Hook. I never returned to Red Hook until 2008. I wanted to show my wife where I grew up. A lot of memories came back to me. I was so sorry that PS27 was closed in 2009.

  8. wc
    December 3, 2014 at 1:30 AM #

    people in red hook need to wake up and smell the coffee other races are moving in and after a while there will be no more blacks or hispanics. so the abled bodied need to use your socials and stop feeling sorry for yourself or envying your neighbor, get into somebody’s school. Try to be a role model for your children, because when you give up your children give up.

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