Overcoming Obstruction: Identifying the Infrastructural Inequities that Perpetuate Segregation in Red Hook
Along the water’s edge cobblestone streets, charming buildings, boutique shops and restaurants give visual cues to residents and visitors alike. These cues state who belongs on what side of the Richards Street, the de facto dividing line: the artists, musicians, craftsmen and upper-middle class condo-dwellers (the new) on one side and the projects’ residents and working class on the other.
Red Hook, Brooklyn, is an amalgam of parts that function very differently for each of the two groups that call the neighborhood home: the extremely poor and the well-off. The neighborhood itself is cut off from the rest of the city. And within the neighborhood, separate areas have emerged, which inform the way people shop, commute, eat, and play. This research identifies a range of barriers—sometimes visible, sometimes invisible—that prohibit residents’ movement within the neighborhood. They include: the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, insufficient public transportation, limited access to education, and lack of mixed income housing. Further, the talk examines the way design has contributed to the inequitable separation of people from one another, both historically and currently, and argues for change. As tactics used to segregate have become less overt, the language we use to address the problem must also adjust.
The level of isolation experienced by the poor people in the community of Red Hook, Brooklyn, very clearly determines their social relationship to the rest of the city, and inhibits their upward mobility. Red Hook Houses is New York City’s second largest housing project (just behind Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens). The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which completely encircles Red Hook Houses, allowed urban planner and New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses to create a pocket of poor people in Red Hook in the late 1930s. The poor were already working on the waterfront so by creating housing projects, he more or less guaranteed that the poor people would stay there.1 Ever since, the residents in the projects have been forced to look up at the people driving though their neighborhood while the drivers effectively look down on the projects as they pass through. This underprivileged area has remained the same for the last seven and a half decades, in part because of the limited public transportation.
Better access to transportation, the introduction of mixed-income housing, schools and stores, and more diversity in architecture would help Red Hook residents’ quality of life. “Every few years, someone proposes a light rail or some sort of metro link to the Smith Street station—or lower Manhattan. That addition really would make things easier in Red Hook,” says local business owner Mike Spriggs. He adds that there is an opportunity for an aboveground link with public transportation as a subway tunnel in Red Hook isn’t feasible. The earth beneath the cobblestones and the pavement on the outer edges of the neighborhood is porous and gritty—not really ground at all. The aboveground link would shorten the commute time into Manhattan.
Along the water’s edge cobblestone streets, charming buildings, boutique shops and restaurants give visual cues to residents and visitors alike. These cues state who belongs on what side of the Richards Street, the de facto dividing line: the artists, musicians, craftsmen and upper-middle class condo-dwellers (the new) on one side and the projects’ residents and working class on the other. This is not to say the street is impenetrable. Vehicles and pedestrians are free to move (as much as they are willing and able) within the neighborhood. Residents from the Houses must cross over to the proverbial “other side of the tracks” to participate in the culture and diversity happening on the waterfront.
The shipping industry isn’t thriving like it once was, especially after IKEA paved over the city’s largest graving dock in 2005, but it is still a large part of Red Hook’s identity. The waterfront remains alive and active with specialty stores, local businesses, IKEA, Fairway, and the burgeoning artist community; still it has not been as efficiently utilized for transportation or mixed-use activities, as community members hope it could be. Providing the neighborhood with mixed-use development at the water’s edge, could help to integrate Red Hook’s two communities through leisure activities, shopping, food, and culture.
Within the last five years, Red Hook has welcomed its newest form of public transportation: the IKEA ferry. The ferry, part of the New York Water Taxi system, runs between lower Manhattan’s Pier 11 and Red Hook for a faster and more efficient commute to New York City’s first IKEA store. Customers have the benefit of a smooth trip to the neighborhood because they don’t have to deal with the lack of public transit, but need only hop on a ten-minute water taxi to transport them from Manhattan to Red Hook. The ferry is free to IKEA customers who spend ten dollars or more,2 and could be an extremely beneficial asset in cutting the commute time for Red Hook residents who work in Manhattan. But because the trip is five dollars each way for non-customers, it is cost-prohibitive to those without disposable income. I believe the price was set high to intentionally dissuade Red Hook residents from using the ferry for their daily commutes.3 The ferry could have opened up the neighborhood, and made Manhattan more accessible. Instead, getting in and out of the neighborhood is still a problem for Red Hook residents.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has made minimal effort to open up the neighborhood by increasing its access to public transit. Design and political intention are clearly at fault. Oddly, this same isolation is what draws many of the newer residents to the neighborhood. The quiet and solitude is a desirable quality for those looking to escape the noise and the speed of life in Manhattan.4 While the separation of people from public transportation is a negative for poor families who need to go elsewhere for school and work, it’s a luxury for the middle and working-class residents who can afford to live elsewhere but enjoy the peace and quiet of Red Hook. A respite for some is a burden for others. Again, a line is drawn between the classes in the community. The physical barriers keeping people in are also the psychological barriers that obstruct movement upward.
- Johnathan Mahler, “How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor,” The New York Times, December 3, 2012, accessed December 3, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/nyregion/how-new-york-citys-coastline-became-home-to-the-poor.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&. ↩
- Water Taxi: IKEA Express Shuttle, http://www.nywatertaxi.com/tours/ikea (accessed 5 Dec. 2012). ↩
- Robert, “Free IKEA Water Taxi Rides (for Non-Customers) Are Sunk,” Curbed, July 16 2008, http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2008/07/16/free_ikea_water_taxi_rides_for_noncustomers_are_sunk.php (accessed Dec. 7, 2012). ↩
- This is the overall consensus I got from the residents and long-time commuters I interviewed: Mike Spriggs, Kate Farrell, David Trimble and Frances Medina as well as the various quick conversations with other people on the ground. ↩