Monday, November 20


Visiting Red Hook, Brooklyn

A few weeks back, Dawn tipped me off to a book signing and mini-tour of the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn by Gothamologist extraordinaire Kevin Walsh of Red Hook is an fascinatingly human little bit of New York, newly gentrified, and on a scale that puts one more in mind of the old ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago than built-up Manhattan. The place exudes a nostalgic feel, that reminded me of the urban Midwest, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, South Bend, Peoria--homey, gentle, lazy locales still very much part of my mental furniture, and I was glad of it. And now, a sampling of the lazy, pleasantly low-key delights of our urban adventure...

While still slightly bleak in spots, Red Hook nonetheless boasts a remarkable view of the Financial District and its bristling skyline.

Our urban explorers assemble. Note the hipster in plaid on the right, who appears to have shoplifted Napoleon III's mustache.

An amazing little discovery: the old Workingmen's Cottages at Warren Street. The mid-block courtyard, with its sundials, semi-topiary and trees has a strangely Lewis Carroll sort of feel; more extraordinary is the fact that officially the brick-paved terrace is actually still a public roadway.

This is the nineteenth-century equivalent of low-cost housing. I shudder to think what these 11 ft by 32 ft cottages would go for today.

In addition to being charming bits of urban furniture, these young kids have the unusual distinction of playing in the front yard of a house said to be the birthplace of Winston Churchill's mom, Jennie Jerome--the only belle-epoque belle I can think of who edited a magazine and had a snake tattoo on her ankle. Really.

Afterwards, Dawn and I chanced on a charming little parish church, SS. Peter and Paul and Our Lady of the Pillar (Peter, Paul and Mary?), with a fascinating early Victorian gothic-cum-gothick interior crowded with vivid polychrome gingerbread.

Not quite Ralph Adams Cram, but it had a folkloric vividness and sense of devotion which you could really feel deep in the ornate scrollwork.

And no old emigrant parish church would be complete with a cluttered grandma's attic of colorful plaster saints.

And a little bit of POD history. This is the first St. Anthony's bread donation box I've seen, and a more ornate version I saw at Holy Innocents on 37th Street seemed to indicate it was a form of charity where donations went to buy bread for the poor. What we were unable to ascertain was whether it was linked to distributing blessed bread on his feast day, or whether it was a year-round custom.

And the obligatory nineteenth-century technicolor Mary. Is she wearing eyeshadow?

Red Hook is a fascinating, strangely bucolic neighborhood for all its citified airs, and exudes, in the words of Mr. Walsh's new book, also called Forgotten New York "a wonderful strangeness." This little tour, I later discovered, barely scratched the surface as the place includes a half-sunken lightship with its fully-rigged masts still well above the water, an old sugar refinery granary, and the last wooden railroad barge in existence, now serving as a maritime museum, classroom and event space. Only in New York. And, it seems, especially only in Brooklyn.

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