Red Hook has been part of the Town of Brooklyn since it was organized in the 1600s. It is named for the red clay soil and the point of land
projecting into the Upper New York Bay. The village was settled by Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam in 1636, and named Roode Hoek. In Dutch, “Hoek” means “point” or “corner,” and not the English hook (i.e., something curved or bent). The actual “hoek” of Red Hook was a point on an island that stuck out into Upper New York Bay at today’s Dikeman Street west of Ferris Street. From the 1880s to the present time, people who live in the eastern area of Red Hook have referred to their neighborhood as “The Point”. Today, the area is home to about 11,000 people.
Rapelye Street in Red Hook commemorates the beginnings of one of New Amsterdam’s earliest families, the Rapelje clan, descended from the first European child born in the new Dutch settlement in the New World, Sarah Rapelje. She was born near Wallabout Bay, which later became the site of the New York (Brooklyn) Naval Shipyard. A couple of decades after the birth of his daughter Sarah, Joris Jansen Rapelje removed to Brooklyn, where he was one of the Council of twelve men, and where he was soon joined by son-in-law Hans Hansen Bergen. Rapelye Street in Red Hook is named for Rapelje and his descendants, who lived in Brooklyn for centuries.
During the Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island), a fort was constructed on the “hoek” called “Fort Defiance”. It is shown on a map called “a Map of the Environs of Brooklyn” drawn in 1780 by a loyalist engineer named George S. Sproule. The Sproule map shows that Fort Defiance complex actually consisted of three redoubts on a small island connected by trenches, with an earthwork on the island’s south side to defend against a landing. The entire earthwork was about 1,600 feet long and covered the entire island. The three redoubts covered an area about 400 feet by 800 feet. The two principal earthworks were about 150 feet by 175 feet, and the tertiary one was about 75 feet by 100 feet. The Sproule and Ratzer maps show that Red Hook was a low-lying area full of tidal mill ponds created by the Dutch.
General Israel Putnam came to New York on April 4, 1776, to assess the state of its defenses and strengthen them. Among the works initiated were forts on Governor’s Island and Red Hook, facing the bay. On April 10, one thousand Continentals took possession of both points and began constructing Fort Defiance which mounted one three pounder cannon and four eighteen pounders. The cannons were to be fired over the tops of the fort’s walls. In May, Washington described it as “small but exceedingly strong”. On July 5, General Nathanael Greene called it “a post of vast importance” and, three days later, Col. Varnum’s regiment joined its garrison. On July 12, the British frigates Rose and Phoenix and the schooner Tyrol ran the gauntlet past Defiance and the stronger Governor’s Island works without firing a shot, and got all the way to Tappan Zee, the widest part of the Hudson River. They stayed there for over a month, beating off harassing attacks, and finally returned to Staten Island on August 18. It appeared that gunfire from Fort Defiance did damage to the British ships.
Samuel Shaw wrote to his parents on July 15:
“General Howe has arrived with the army from Halifax, which is encamped on Staten Island. On Friday, two ships and three tenders, taking advantage of a brisk gale and strong current, ran by our batteries, up the North River where they at present remain. By deserters we learn that they sustained considerable damage, being hulled in many places, and very much hurt in their rigging. So great was their hurry, that they would not stay to return our salute, though it was given with much cordiality and warmth; which they seemed very sensible of, notwithstanding their distance, which was nearly two miles”.
Later years and recent history
Almost the entire New York metropolitan area was under British military occupation from the end of 1776 until November 23, 1783, when they evacuated the city.
Red Hook circa 1875.
In 1839, the City of Brooklyn published a plan to create streets, which included filling in all of the ponds and other low-lying areas.
In the 1840s, entrepreneurs began to build ports as the “offloading end” of the Erie Canal. These included the Atlantic, Erie and Brooklyn Basins. By the 1920s, they made Red Hook the busiest freight port in the world, but this ended in the 1960s with the advent of containerization. In the 1930s, the area was poor, and the site of the current Red Hook Houses was the site of a shack city for the homeless, called a “Hooverville”.
From the 1920s on, a lot of poor and unemployed Norwegians, mostly former sailors, were living in the area in what they called Ørkenen Sur (“The Bitter Desert”) around places like Hamilton Avenue and Gospel Hill. In 2015 NRK made a documentary about it in Norwegian. There is also an old documentary film about this.
In the 1990s Life magazine named Red Hook as one of the “worst” neighborhoods in the United States and as “the crack capital of America.” The principal of P.S. 15 in Red Hook was killed in 1992, in the crossfire of a drug-related shooting while looking for a pupil who had left his school. The school was later renamed the Patrick Daly School after that principal, who was beloved within that school.
Red Hook is a peninsula between Buttermilk Channel, Gowanus Bay and Gowanus Canal at the southern edge of Downtown Brooklyn. Red Hook is in the area known as South Brooklyn, which, contrary to its name, is actually in western Brooklyn. This name is derived from the original City of Brooklyn which ended at Atlantic Street, now Atlantic Avenue. By the 1950s, anything south of Atlantic Avenue was considered South Brooklyn; thus, the names “Red Hook” and “South Brooklyn” were applied also to today’s Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Heights, and Gowanus neighborhoods. Portions of Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill were granted landmark status in the 1970s and were carved out of Red Hook.
Red Hook is the only part of New York City that has a fully frontal view of the Statue of Liberty, which was oriented to face France, the country which donated the statue to the United States following the country’s centennial.
Red Hook is the site of the NYCHA Red Hook Houses, the largest public housing development in Brooklyn, which accommodates roughly 6,000 residents. Red Hook also contains several parks.