By Lea Khayata
On a late weekday afternoon, Valentino Pier Park, in the south west end of Red Hook, looks like any neighborhood park. Kids on their scooters and bikes are playing around the pier while their parents watch over them, enjoying a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty, before walking home on cobblestoned Coffey street. Ten years ago, a scene like this would have been impossible in this part of Red Hook.
Coffey street, the epicenter of Red Hook’s gentrification, was practically devoid of children in the past. Now, as more middle-class couples in their late thirties start families, the area is bustling with the shouts of young kids. One block away, the playground of the Red Hook Houses is even noisier, crowded with mostly older, African American or Hispanic children, living in the public housing project that accounts for two-thirds of the neighborhood population. The two crowds of children hardly ever play together.
Rachel Shapiro, a real-estate agent in Red Hook, says the gentrification process goes back 10 years, but she has noticed a change in demographics in the last two or three years, which she describes as a “kid boom”. In ten years, the proportion of white children at the Patrick F. Daly public school more than doubled, to 7 percent from 3 percent.
The block on Coffey street situated between Ferris and Conover street, with its old trees looking down on red brick houses built in 1865, has preserved the charm of Brooklyn’s old neighborhoods while undergoing some massive changes. John McGettrick, easily recognizable by his impressive white handlebar moustache, moved here 22 years ago with his wife, Rosemary, and their 5-year-old son. “He was the first kid on the block in a long time,” he says.
At the time, mostly old people lived on Coffey. “They all died or moved to Florida” says McGettrick. Of the 19 houses, four are still inhabited by the same people today. All the others have seen new owners coming in gradually, attracted by the affordable prices and the nearby waterfront. Today, there are seven children on the block, aged between one and eleven years old, according to McGettrick.
Stacie Merrol, 37, moved on Coffey street a year ago when she was pregnant with her first child. She takes advantage of the relative calm of the late afternoon, when older kids have left, to walk down the pier with her baby sleeping in a stroller. She used to live in Williamsburg. She says this part of Red Hook is “a hidden gem,” a paradise not many people know about. “We met a lot of people with young kids, we didn’t know that before moving in.” she says.
Another mother, Sophie Frey, anticipates a less idyllic experience with her daughter, who just turned one year old. “We’re really happy here, but as she’s going to grow up, here is not the best place to give her values” Frey says. She mentions the foul language children from the houses use in the park, and how their parents talk to them.
McGettrick has heard similar complaints. “Some concerns are legitimate, like petty crime and drug use,” he said, “[It’s] a phenomenon that is not unique to people in public houses, and some [complaints] are excessive.”
Red Hook is in a “holding pattern,” but he remains optimistic: “Children are a sign of hope; it means people consider the neighborhood as safe and nurturing.” But the separation between the children of Coffey street and the ones of the public houses is a reality. “It is not so much racial as economic” McGettrick says, “and they do mingle on some limited occasions”.
The public school, PS15, is common ground for both groups. This year, Stephanie Batcholder made the decision to take the plunge and put 5-year-old Margot in the school.
“I thought Margot would be a private school kid. [But now] she’s a PS15 one.” She says she consulted with some of her friends whose children went to the school two or three years ago and are doing great, but she still feels conflicted: “We all wish we could give back to the community and change things a little bit, but the reality is that a lot of people are scared.”