October 1, 2008
The Pros and Cons of the Red Hook Ikea
A big-box retailer arrives in hipster Brooklyn and (shockingly) fails to end the world as we know it.
Everyone seems to have had the same idea: sling that bag over your shoulder and head to the Laundromat. You see them everywhere now—huge, floppy, blue Ikea totes stuffed with dirty clothes. They sell them at checkout for 59¢, catering to the urban crowd, not all of whom arrive by car. From my perch about ten blocks away, so far, that is the most visible effect of the very big box that opened in my very small neighborhood last summer.
It’s Brooklyn, ground zero of the hipster doofus, so the public display of irony can be expected, but the bags also signal a kind of acceptance. After many years of controversy, accusations of dirty dealings and payoffs, my own conversion to NIMBY-hood in a column here two years ago, and complaints that big, land-bound commerce has no place on a waterfront site (which, of course, in an ideal world, it does not), the store has opened, and—who would’ve thunk it?—it’s not such a big deal. There are some bright-yellow Ikea shuttles coursing through the streets, and on weekends a line of extra cars, but the city, at the urging of local activists, has largely succeeded in getting most visitors to take a roundabout route through what was once known as the “front” of Red Hook but is now manifestly its back: south around the Red Hook Houses, one of the city’s largest and most insular public-housing projects, and along adjacent streets where fuel-oil-truck garages still outnumber converted lofts.
The biggest inconvenience on Van Brunt, the local Main Street, has been rescuing the hapless. I get stopped every day to give directions. Once, a cabbie pulled up holding a map printed out from Ikea’s Web site. “Map not helping?” I asked. “No,” he said. “The streets aren’t numbered.”
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Red Hook is where people come to get lost. This is true of errant drivers—the Gowanus and Brooklyn–Queens Expressways and the mouth of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel are all nearby, and people passing through the city often contrive to stray from them (“How do I get to Philadelphia?”)—but it is also true of the people who have chosen to move here in the last ten or so years. Cheap space, rotting piers, Belgian-block streets, big skies with the city’s best sunsets number among the attractions. Sure. But the hard-core natives—the artists, bartenders, and furniture designers who still flock nightly to the roadhouse on the corner of Pioneer Street—also came here for the seclusion. It’s no accident that Red Hook has a large and visible concentration of transplanted and locally bred bluegrass musicians. It’s the sticks.
Before Ikea, there was simply no reason to come here unless you wanted to be here. It is not on the way to anywhere, and the highways, the long blocks of industrial approach, the projects, and a well-earned reputation for lawlessness kept unambitious flaneurs out. Plus, the streets are set at a slight kink to the rest of the borough, converging, dead-ending, and strangely marked with ancient Dutch names; in grid-dependent New York City, that is enough to sow profound navigational panic. FedEx sometimes can’t find me.
The “hook” in Red Hook is its bulbous peninsula, hanging off the south end of what has come to be known as Brownstone Brooklyn (the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, in part). It is bound to the east by the wide bay leading to the Gowanus Canal, to the northwest by the Buttermilk Channel, and to the west by the harbor proper. That’s where Ikea sits, a nearly mile-long frontage on the Erie Basin. For a couple of years before that consumer magnet was raised, the giant Fairway supermarket, a New York institution both discount and gourmand, was bringing outsiders in, but not nearly in the same numbers. There are two Fairways in Manhattan, after all, and plenty of other places to buy capers in bulk. Also, parked on the ground floor of a strapping old warehouse, a line of dead streetcars and picnic tables out back by the water, Fairway feels like it belongs in a way that a generic big box does not. The supermarket was developed by a family of local landowners who have a proven sense of what works in this quirky seaside village. The son, who seems to be getting ready to take over the family business, re-cently purchased a disused Manhattan diner and is preparing to truck it to a site across the street. Perverse, homey, with a rusted glance at the past. That feels like Red Hook.
Ikea is around the corner, down two blocks of a still cobbled street left rough to deter the traffic, which pours in from the other direction on a widened and freshly paved boulevard. Does it feel like Red Hook? No, but in its own way it is a great public space. The site was previously a shipyard, and the cranes have been repainted and, except for one placed at the parking-lot entrance as a sign, left where they were. Around them and between their steel legs winds a long, well-designed public park with grassy plantings, steel chaise longues in secluded bosquets, and many opportunities to be near, if not quite touch, the water. Interpretive signage and a wall inscribed with the names of ships repaired there remind you that the city was once a place for more than shopping. Industrial litter—bollards, ropes, tools—has been arranged in large groupings for visual effect, lest that universal Good Urban Design value, a nostalgia-laced “sense of place,” be lost to the real spirit of renewal. The outline of the yard’s old dry dock, which was buried amid much protest, is picked out in granite pavers in the parking lot. A study released just after the grand opening last summer determined that the city will need at least seven more like the one it just lost if it is to stay competitive as a working port.
Chalk that up in the “oops” column. And add a big red question mark for runaway consequences: a BJ’s Wholesale Club may be opening on a pier next door. But the gains, for the neighborhood and the city, are real. New life? Check. There are at least five restaurants opening or planning to open soon. New park? Check. What happens in the box stays in the box. Nowhere in that generous public amenity is one ever confronted with the reality of the action inside, the fevered consumption of lamp shades and lingonberries that is taking place next door. New ferry? Check. Every 40 minutes on weekdays, and every 20 on weekends, a boat now runs to Wall Street. Free. It’s transformative. Red Hook is now, for the first time, on the way to other places. You can pass through the neighborhood to get to somewhere else. And many do. Judging by the absence of those big blue bags, legitimate shoppers are often outnumbered by joyriding and even commuting freeloaders. A friend who works in Manhattan, whom I rarely see, actually dropped by to visit. One afternoon I saw the local Brooklyn skate punks spill out of the boat to explore the famous spots downtown. The wall has fallen; the frontier is open. And though I might pine at times, with the local rednecks, for that ends-of-the-earth feeling, now diminished, Ikea hasn’t ruined the place. But it has put it back on the map: MTV is filming the next Real World in a warehouse on a Red Hook pier. And they’ve built a beach. And there are palm trees. And that’s just wrong.