Red Hook Apocalypse: How Sandy Undid an Up-and-Coming New York City Neighborhood

The hurricane wreaked havoc among the restaurants and businesses in the historic but long ignored Brooklyn area. Now it has to rebuild

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Seth Wenig / AP

Workers dispose of food damaged by Hurricane Sandy at Red Hook's Fairway supermarket in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 31, 2012

The quirky wooden two-story storefronts of Red Hook’s Van Brunt Street are more reminiscent of a Cape Cod fishing town than the cookie-cutter architecture of the brownstone, townhouse and housing-project symmetry of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that surround it. And the area’s idiosyncratic separateness from much of New York City has long been reinforced by it’s isolation from all the arterial subways that connect Brooklyn with Manhattan and Queens. It’s that quirkiness as well as the gorgeous views across the harbor — Lady Liberty outside your front window and fresh sea air — that has attracted scores of young hipsters and the associated restaurants, coffee shops, artisanal distilleries and other small businesses of the booming Brooklyn-cuisine scene. 

It has also lately attracted some major retail destination stores — Fairway supermarket, in a 19th century coffee warehouse at the water’s edge, attracts shoppers from throughout the borough on weekends, while a massive Ikea outlet services the whole city — with low water-taxi fees for Manhattanites who want to travel to Red Hook to buy space-saving furniture for their tiny apartments.

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A ghostly silence hung over the normally bustling Ikea on Wednesday, and a few security personnel were the only people to be seen as gulls soared overhead in the gray skies. The store was largely spared water damage, but without power, no business could be conducted. (The city disconnected Red Hook’s electricity on Monday night, having ordered the neighborhood’s residents to evacuate.)

On Tuesday morning, the air was thick with the steady thrumming of sump pumps up and down Van Brunt. Most buildings’ basements were flooded, and the arriviste businesses and longtime residents found one another at a kind of block-party-meets-wake cleanup. People counted the cost of Sandy’s devastation, soldiering on in the knowledge that whatever they had suffered was suffered by their neighbors too. Sometimes it takes a disaster to remind folk that they’re part of a single community, whether they choose to recognize it or not.

Steve Linares, a chef at Fort Defiance, showed TIME the restaurant’s flooded basement. “Our refrigerators are down there, embedded into the concrete. They’re ruined. It’s going to take a long time to pull them out of there and replace them.” He estimated the damage to be $100,000 and said FEMA had been meeting with small-business owners in the area, although he didn’t know what the agency was offering. “We don’t know when we’ll be able to open again, but we’re here helping the owner,” he said. “We like him. He’s a good guy. And it’s in our interests to get him up and running as quickly as possible.”

There was a similar spirit of cooperation throughout the community. “Everybody is helping one another,” said Linares. “People are sharing sump pumps, hoses and generators, doing whatever they can to help their neighbors get through this.”

A couple of doors down, Ben Schneider, who runs the Asian-crossover bistro Good Fork, had a table set up on the sidewalk to provide neighbors and volunteers free coffee and bagels as well as serve as a clearinghouse for generators, pumps and other vital equipment being shared along the street. “Red Hook is like a small town,” said Schneider. “It’s natural that we want to help each other and get through this together.” The water in his dining room reached near table-top height, “but the basement, where pretty much everything happens in these restaurants, is finished.”

Corey Calabrese led a group of volunteers from door to door telling residents and business owners of a planned community meeting later that evening being organized by the Red Hook Initiative. She worried that businesses seemed to have more help at hand than some of the older residents, who needed strong arms and backs to help them move furniture out of flooded basement-level apartments.

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Every business along Van Brunt and the pier that juts out into the bay at its end had been devastated, and the water taxis that ply the commuter route along the Brooklyn littoral bobbed uncertainly alongside a pier that was twisted and mangled like wire tie.

Down the street, in Fairway’s parking lot, the store’s fleet of shopping carts were stacked high with goods, which workers in maroon uniforms were cataloging and tossing in a dumpster adjacent to a giant FEMA truck. A security guard who wouldn’t give his name refused to let anyone enter the grounds but allowed that the store had been pretty much destroyed. That assessment was confirmed by a water mark over 7 feet tall on a wall around the side of the building. The store’s pier-side location offers an exquisite view and fresh ocean breeze on a Sunday afternoon, but it also put it directly in the path of what must have been a 15-foot wave cresting the 8-foot breakwater. A stench of meat beginning to rot hung over the muddied rear entrance, and refrigeration trucks were loaded.

Around the corner at Sunny’s Bar, Mike Horenstein, a 26-year veteran of the neighborhood with a salty gray mustache, was undeterred. “We didn’t leave,” he said, “because they told us to evacuate for Hurricane Irene, and nothing happened.” But he’s sardonic: “We’ll rebuild it better. One thing we’ve learned: sandbags don’t make any difference in a storm like this.”

At the nearby headquarters of Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, whose tart treats are legend throughout the greater New York area, Samantha Citrin was only starting to come to grips with the scale of the damage. “We’re all helping each other,” she said. “We’re good like that.” She was not sure when Steve’s will begin baking again.

On the ocean side of the same pier, staff members of the production kitchen at Mile End, whose smoked brisket and other Montreal Jewish fare have made it an instant legend of the Brooklyn food movement, are in DIY hazmat suits, scrubbing bleach onto the floors and wall of a devastated facility that has suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

A disconsolate Max Levine showed me around, making sure I saw the brand-new massive smoking ovens that were destroyed by saltwater. One of his partners, Noah Barnamoff, was blunt: “The businesses and residents of Red Hook need help. We’ve come here and invested to help revitalize a historic neighborhood. But after this devastation, everyone should know: we can’t rebuild this community without assistance.”

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Residents and business owners weren’t sure of what sort of assistance they could expect. So far, they were hearing that FEMA will offer low-interest loans. But for many, that won’t be enough.

Outside a flooded duplex apartment on Coffey Street, landlord Gino Vitale helped his tenants pump out water. But it wasn’t only seawater. “There was poo floating in it,” said tenant Elizabeth Freund. “The sewer backed up.”

Vitale estimated the damage his 16 buildings had suffered to be $600,000. Did he have flood insurance? He laughed. He suffered $80,000 of damage from Irene, he said, and his insurance company sent him a check for $4,000.

Much of the furniture from Freund’s basement apartment, which was still under 8 inches of water two days after the storm surge, was stacked disconsolately on the sidewalk. Downstairs, a child’s sneaker and a drumstick float by in murky water. Freund, an artist, and her family evacuated when the surge began, but she soon returned, sleeping on her upstairs neighbor’s sofa. “I needed to be here as soon as possible,” she said. “It’s hard to be anywhere else when all you want to do is get started on fixing your place.”

Mateo Zlatar, who runs a nearby app-design studio near the Gowanus Canal, had thought on the eve of the storm to raise his computers off the floor and place them on a long table, which also held a bowl containing a goldfish. “When I came in on Tuesday morning, the fishbowl was there, still full of water, but the fish was gone,” he said. The water mark on the adjacent wall reaching almost 5 feet suggested that the fish would have enjoyed an hour or two of unprecedented freedom, albeit in water both salty and toxic, before its demise. The canal, after all, is a Superfund site. The computers wouldn’t have lasted as long.

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