Discover one of New York’s artiest and grittiest neighborhoods—both by watching films set there and by paying it a visit.
Red Hook—formerly part of an inexact area called South Brooklyn—is intimately known by its residents but mostly from afar by most New Yorkers. The onetime Dutch fishing village can claim to be one of the best kept secrets in the city.
Since there are only buses (no subway) between Red Hook and other neighborhoods, its ambiance is partly created by its comparative remoteness. Yet with its perfect land views of the Statue of Liberty, Red Hook is strongly connected to the spirit of NYC.
Boasting a vibrant arts scene, live music bars such as 111-year-old Sunny’s, and plenty of great places to eat, the once Italian-American and Norwegian neighborhood is strongly characterized by its views of old docks and shipyards. Post-industrial lofts in old warehouses house artists and galleries.
Artisans and capitalists
Red Hook is also a place where one of North America’s most profitable IKEA stores, the sumptuous Tesla Motors luxury electric car showroom, and the cornucopia-like Fairway Food Market rub shoulders with the colossal arts and science institution Pioneer Works, craft distilleries, chocolate factories, wineries, and bike shops.
Movie-lovers may have seen representations of Red Hook, or the real thing, more often than they realize. The defunct shipping areas have long been a playground for filmmakers who desire to capture the area’s industrial past.
Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic On the Waterfront was filmed in Hoboken, New Jersey, but it depicts criminal events that unfolded in the Red Hook longshoremen community in the 1930s and 1940s.
Corruption, murders, and deplorable working conditions there prompted Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1948 series of articles “Crime on the Waterfront,” which were published in The New York Sun.
Kazan engaged the playwright Arthur Miller to research the case of Pete Panto, a dockworker and union activist who resisted the Mafia-led International Longshoremen’s Association and was murdered by the Mob at the age of 27 or 28 in 1939.
Miller’s resulting 1947 script The Hook was never produced, however, because Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn tried to coerce Miller and Kazan to make Communists, not mobsters, the villains of the piece.
Yet Miller’s protagonist Marty Ferrara was clearly the inspiration for Terry Malloy in Budd Schulberg’s screenplay for On the Waterfront. Marlon Brando gave one of his most lauded performances in the part.
Terry makes a heroic stand against the Mob, even though his personal dream of being a top prizefighter has been thwarted by his mobster brother.
Terry’s resigned speech is legendary: “You don’t understand. I could’ve had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.”
Another classic Red Hook film is Sidney Lumet’s A View from the Bridge (1962), based on Miller’s 1955–56 play, which had grown out of his research for The Hook. The bridge in question is the Brooklyn Bridge.
Telling an emotionally tugging tale about love, life, and the process of assimilation for Italian immigrants, Miller’s play begins with the narrator, Brooklyn lawyer Alfieri, telling the audience: ‘This is Red Hook, not Sicily. This is the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge. This is the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world.”
Lumet’s film depicts the dockworker lifestyle as gruelling and dangerous—it begins with a harsh, fast documentary-style montage of dock vehicles surging through a timber yard and longshoremen unloading shaking cargoes of planks from cranes.
The most memorable moment (at least for 1962) occurs when Eddie Carbone (Raf Vallone), the doomed Italian-American longshoreman protagonist, comes home drunk and is enraged to find his beautiful orphaned niece Catherine (Carol Lawrence) making out with her cousin Rodolpho (Jean Sorel).
Eddie angrily kisses each of them on their mouths, revealing his incestuous passion for Catherine and, perhaps, his homoerotic desire for Rodolpho, though he is consciously attempting to prove that Rodolpho is gay. It is believed to be the first same-sex kiss in American cinema.
Goodfella in Gowanus
Like On the Waterfront and A View From the Bridge, Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas (1990) was, in its own way, a story of dreamers grappling with power—in this case, gangsters willing to attain it by any means.
Shot all over New York and also in Florida, the movie features a brief scene set under the Ninth Street Bridge at Smith Street on the border of Gowanus and Red Hook. The bridge, finished in 1933, supports the F and G subway lines and spans the Gowanus Canal.
There the paranoid Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) have a meeting that alerts viewers to the fact that Karen is in grave danger because of her marriage to Jimmy’s fellow gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta).
No way out
The Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize winner Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), written and directed by Matty Rich, is about the struggle a teenager, Dennis (Larry Gilliard Jr.), faces in trying to break his family’s life of impoverishment—and domestic violence—in a Red Hook housing project. His get-rich-quick scheme—robbing a dangerous drug dealer—goes horribly wrong.
Recalling a time when Red Hook was a violent neighborhood riddled with crack, Straight Out of Brooklyn is bleak. Still, Red Hook waves a flag of nostalgia in the film via a shot of the landmark John Turano & Sons furniture store with the iconic remaining “R” of its long-broken sign.
Fish out of water
Spike Lee naturally shot Red Hook Summer (2012) in Red Hook; the local community welcomed the production to the neighborhood. The film is seen through the eyes of a pampered, sullen 13-year-old Atlanta boy, Flik (Jules Brown), who is sent to spend the summer on a Red Hook project with his fire-breathing preacher uncle, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters).
The expectation that Flik will come of age by overcoming the local boys who menace him is upset by a sudden plot twist: the denunciation of Enoch by a man he had molested 15 years previously when the latter was a youthful member of Enoch’s Georgia flock.
Hope for the Hook
Despite this radical turn of events, Red Hook shines as a place of optimism in Lee’s film—Lady Liberty holds up her torch for the neighborhood.
Filmmakers and TV directors’ interest in Red Hook isn’t about to dwindle. The upcoming ABC series Deception was partially shot there, as were scenes from the CBS series Madam Secretary and Elementary.
As producers and directors discover opportunities to film in New York rather than in California, they will likely explore regenerating communities like Red Hook. For the rest of us, Red Hook remains an off-the-beaten-path trove of art, live music, and great food and drink. Catch it while you can.