Dear IKEA, Thanks For Ruining My Red Hook

A new waterfront development has our laissez-faire columnist gasping in horror.

Call me Mr. NIMBY. That’s right. I never thought it would happen to me.

I’ve been staunchly laissez-faire about development ever since I moved to New York City. A durable place, I always thought: strong enough, big enough to withstand the most ill-considered abuse. I’ve defended mediocre buildings on the grounds that the grid would absorb them; I’ve attacked high-architectural fantasias because I believed that to layer idealism on Manhattan’s mercantile soul would be tantamount to civic death. At length and over many years I argued that we should let the market run its course at Ground Zero, that to do anything else would guarantee only the creation of foreign objects there. Of course grassroots resistance (and the ensuing airing of views in the press) is part of the ecology of development here, and I never advocated a private process or a public one devoid of checks. But I was never too moved when the complainers lost.

Unlike sensitive places like Boston and Philadelphia (historically the economic losers in the regional game that New York won), we don’t have to pussyfoot around too much here, worried that the wrong massing in the wrong place is going to destroy the dainty brick-and-cobble histories that bring the tourists in. If the joys of one neighborhood are squashed by development (Soho, say), three more neighborhoods (Nolita, BelDel, the Lower East Side) will rise around it in rebuke to the idea that any amount of money, or any single merchant’s or builder’s vision, can really change or control this city. Evidence that Manhattan can take a punch? Sixth Avenue in Midtown, Tom Wolfe’s famous “Rue de Regret,” is pure Gotham delight; I used to love the big plaza at the World Trade Center, so full of others who shared that taste; and who really pines for Penn Station anymore?

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Even in slightly more fragile Brooklyn, I’ve never complained about the things that tend to get built when big money changes hands and politicians find themselves rallying under the flag of economic development. Have you noticed the total absence of screeds here against the Frank Gehry–Bruce Ratner plans for Atlantic Yards? That’s because I think it’s fine. And until recently I lived only a few blocks away.

Then I moved. And now I have a backyard. And it backs up to a perfectly scenic truck lot. And across the street from that there’s ­nothing but a few hundred yards of empty blacktop and a low warehouse between me and the Buttermilk Channel, with leafy still-in-limbo Governors Island beyond, and then the open harbor. From my roof I can see the Statue of Liberty, close. And when the Queen Mary 2 pulls in it blots out the sky. When they make their calls at the new cruise-ship terminal, you can see the top levels of even the lesser Princess-line boats over the high garden fence—the one I’m sure in the spring will be thick again with morning glory, our local kudzu.

I wouldn’t say I moved to Red Hook only to be close to the harbor, but I won’t lie to you. Thread the kayak through the house from its berth in the backyard, slide it on top of the car, and drive six blocks to the gravel beach at the perfect little park at Valentino Pier—recently restored and already forgotten—I can be in the water in ten minutes. And then in just a few strokes (aided, if the timing’s right, by the truly monstrous currents coming out of the East River) I can tour the neighborhood’s other waterfront glories. First, the adjacent pier colonized years ago by light industry, the quirky private kingdom of a carpenter who has lined it on all sides with a forest of palms and squash blossoms (also home to the bakers of the world’s best key-lime pie). Around that point there’s another interesting beach in the crotch of dying piers; another new park, ­lovingly planted with things that look good by the sea; a new bank of granite blocks, still clean. Then a dicey little tide rip at the end of a sharks-tooth jetty, the repurposed rail barge of the Waterfront Museum, and the neighborhood’s chief fame for outlanders: the new Fairway supermarket. Having one of the city’s best cheese counters at hand takes the sting out of a 30-minute walk to the subway. And you can sit out back on picnic tables, eat a decent lobster roll (only $7.99!), look out over the shipping to the shores of Staten Island, and watch the water taxis dock.

Dodging them, I usually slip into the Erie Basin, that great relic of New York’s economic triumph. Curving around from the mouth of the Gowanus Canal, it forms an inland sea. Since the traffic from the Erie Canal—which it was built to serve—dried up, the basin has seen many other uses, until recently always nautical: shipbuilding, ship berthing. Just north of the single inlet there’s a very handsome sugar refinery in an advanced state of decay, a sunken lightship at its feet, across from another brick pier full of the best kind of modern urban ferment; Blue Man Group has its set- and costume-design workshops there, and there always seems to be an art show. And swans. The rest of this vast inner coast is lined with docked oil barges and seldom-used seagoing machines.

It was there on a recent morning that I confronted the limits of my idyll. I paddled in, turning right to tour the perimeter, alone in the blue immensity, the Lower Manhattan skyline clear to be seen and not too far off. Before another paddler chanced by, perched in the back of a red canoe, there was no life but a few oily cormorants, a heron, and a great nervous white crane. I’m not making this up: it flew off when the jackhammering started, startled, and then it was my turn. I was floating in this insipidly perfect reverie only a few yards from the construction site of the infamous Red Hook Ikea; the mouth of the Graving Dock, a historic shipyard dry dock, was just to starboard, behind a barrier of orange construction webbing. Soon it’s going to be buried under a parking lot.

It was real, and it was happening. The local activists and Manhattan goo-goos had failed to stop it, I remembered, piecing together half-scanned newspaper memories: massive consulting fees to the politically connected; tales of a government giveaway; traffic studies, pro and con; accusations of racial pandering to the leaders of the housing projects across the way.

Years ago an architect friend, Alex Washburn, had even shown me a drawing of his brilliant counterproposal: the Erie Basin developed as a smarter, grittier cousin of the Baltimore Inner Harbor—mixed-use, flags snapping in the wind. God, that would have been great. But nothing had stuck. And now a very big box was going to be built in a very stupid place. A curiosity had become—simply by my moving to the neighborhood and falling in love with it—an ­abomination.

Paddling back, and for weeks after, I tried to squirm around my newfound NIMBY-hood. Isn’t it always a perfect wonder to watch the city change? Not like this. Wouldn’t there be a mitigating waterfront park? The renderings show a few patches of green. Won’t the increased traffic benefit local business? About as much as the cruise ships, whose passengers sometimes wander to the nearest bodega for a Popsicle. Isn’t my own Red Hook home full of the stuff they sell? I never did mind the drive to the store in New Jersey, even less now that I’m a total hypocrite.

Idyll: such a fragile word. Just add an umlaut and it’s a lounger from Ikea.

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