The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

Spirits of Red Hook

The three stories here relate to a few blocks of waterfront real estate in South Brooklyn. They relate, in spirit, to a theme of transformation this area has undergone in the past 10 years. The Dutch put the earth to work in agriculture; then came the shipping piers and ship-building; today a mix, with boats and ships, with stores beside storage, and manufacturing plants sided by gardens and a farm.

Strong winds blow down on Red Hook—a point of land stretching from Valentino Pier on the Buttermilk Channel to the playing fields beyond the former shipyards, via the quay of the Erie Basin. Winds here blow with a mortal force.

I arrived in New York on Valentine’s Day, while the remains of Ground Zero smoldered and Parks staff wore hazmat suits while wiping down leaves and remediating soil. The yard in the apartment I eventually moved into was a cat haven for rescues and the ground beneath a pair of fruit trees was blanched ashen as though from fallout or feline waste. I’d come to New York to write stories about my father and stepfather and our relationships with the seas. I was immediately stunned by the landscape of change.

The story began for me in California, where my stepfather, Alan, a sixth generation merchant seaman from Elizabeth, New Jersey had relocated in the 1950s following troubles with the Union Hall of the firemen and wipers, trades in the engine rooms of cargo ships and fuel tankers. My father, Bill, had migrated 400 miles south to Los Angeles a couple years before my mother, sister, and I moved into Alan’s house, a reliquary of maritime artifacts.

Over a period of six years in Southern California, Bill determinedly documented the San Pedro fishing boat community of the Port of L.A. His fastidiousness and zeal for accuracy led his hand to replicate an impressive pen and ink collection of rigging and dock work. My fathers shared no respect for each other, yet I was surprised to find an acrylic impression of a cargo ship being loaded by container cranes in the sun with the palm trees of Long Beach fore and aft. The stern label named the vessel Alan was working on at the time, as was one man’s bitter passion expressed artistically through crimson and cobalt colors of the shipping line’s emblem.

The book I came to write, Fathers of the Sea (2005), was infused with its own sense of viciousness and resentment. As I sussed out the sources and places of horror Alan storied up to frighten step-children, I took note of a grim direction Alan’s character forged me. In neighborhoods like Coney Island, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Bayonne waterfront, I envisioned the terror of a young sailor gone mad with drink and excessive pride. With exception: the ghostly remains of Todd Shipyards and the extant buildings of the Red Hook marine infrastructure calmed me as sites of work where mariners earned their living ashore, neither upriver nor to sea.

Todd Yards was one of many shipbuilders in South Brooklyn that old timers name when queried on the past. Three-thousand miles away, Alan repeatedly told of the yard where his father had worked. Assigned to a ship tender, Albert Duncan serviced cargo ships during the 1940s European war relief. Today cranes ornamenting IKEA stand as nameless and neutered memorials to the sailors and seamen lost in those efforts. There exists beneath asphalt a graving dock where my research indicates Albert shipped out to his death in 1942.

To get an idea of how the Brooklyn maritime landscape meets history, recall the North Atlantic images in Wolfgang Petersen’s cinematic masterpiece, Das Boot (1981), as sailors survived the sinking of one ship, to be rescued by another in fiery and freezing seas. According to a historian of the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II, many ships’ logs contained the unnamed numbers of survivors picked up, only to be torpedoed again—to be sunk twice (See Arthur R. Moore, A Careless Word…A Needless Sinking, 1988). Those names of sailors lost at sea in the Greenland Gap between Nova Scotia and the English waters often went without record. Signage beside the water’s rails that name no names presents an improper tribute to dying deeds of our shipping heritage.  

When I completed a draft of Fathers of the Sea, I called Alan from a marina on the Kill Van Kull. Overlooking sunken wooden hulls—a boneyard of the boats burnt to their waterlines. He told me then on the phone of his and his father’s work in Red Hook sailing into the Erie Basin with Tidewater Oil. Over the phone I became a third generation waterfront worker of South Brooklyn.

About that time I befriended a neighbor employed in the local marine industry. For 40 years, Charlie Kruger worked a block away from his home at Cowley Marine Supply, from his home, a company that vended tack and line to a waning industry. Charlie rode a hi-lo lift truck on the final day of the business, maneuvering around tight aisles to move cable, cleats, and the like. Charlie’s presence on the corner, on the block in the evenings, beneath the rolling harbor skies, was epitomized by the anchoring of a big pair of mooring bollards beneath a tree near the corner of Van Brunt and Beard Streets. 

Charlie died soon after his employers sold the building to a couple from Manhattan who razed the single story shop and erected an architecturally significant studio. Before construction on their new space took place, I happened upon a conversation at an outdoor café in the city. Three people at a table beside me were engaged in a conversation as one suggested to the other two “the first thing to do is to remove those bollards.” Naturally I was suspicious that I had heard correctly, but as soon as the wooden panels went up around the deconstruction site, the steel posts that look like huge, gravity-defying testicles were removed. It was a sad time for me when Charlie went the way of the bollards. To this day, the building remains uncompleted and vacant, the couple has divorced, and I wonder whether the removal of marine memorabilia played a part in their own history.

While Charlie and I shared salty tales, we also swapped gardening tips. He maintained a backyard tomato garden in his last two summers and we compared notes on growing techniques. I had begun a transit between sea and soil. In 2004, the backyard cat haven dried up as a result of the closing in Williamsburg of the Domino Sugar Factory. A ground floor neighbor moved in with a second-floor boyfriend and ceased her feline rescue efforts. By spring of 2005 the wasteland was thawing out, beginning a reclamation project that would become a community garden. 

I spent that spring season working the ground, sifting by hand construction debris and trash hauled through a fire-escape window. In my sense of humanity, the operation was a rescue of sorts. The visual sight of a man working the soil would inspire my neighbors, improving a quality of working lives. The Elizabeth Looking Garden, named after the youngest resident is a commitment to the strenuous labor of landscaping. Five years later, as Elizabeth attends college, the garden has become a patient example of neighborliness. The 2010 season witnessed attempts to overcome runoff limiting flood of the basement. Efforts to create a design to catch the rains took three months of weekend work with a neighbor: carving out earth, laying stone. Creating a step, my hovel scraped the brick rim of a century-old cistern. The original rain catch is now partially exposed on the very spot where the planned catch was anticipated.

Coincidences are more straightforward than the social theory I try to define. Imbued with a belief that beautiful examples—where once there was ashen earth—yes, compose space, yet, also sustain ideals. Enter Howard Harrington, with whom I worked in adult education, with union apprentices. An economist, he related social theories to various fields of study, both popular and academic.

An invitation to the Elizabeth Looking Garden was a request Howard was unable to oblige prior to his death in late November, 2010. I believed he would appreciate the work relation between community spirit and gardening, or the coincidence of having caught the cistern edge doing erosion control. He would have appreciated, as would have Albert and Charlie, a conscious effort to make witness the work of community gardening. Idealists speak significance to this kind of labor; I believed these men to have been sympathetic to such expression.

An essay striving to speak of men, of neighborhoods, and death, appearing poetic and sincere, is welcome to cynical suspicion. Yet fear of misunderstanding is beyond my intention. I speak only of these three men, of one garden, of a couple boneyards—Bayonne and the Greenland Sea. I speak of history and ethnography; biography, but not the whole of this neighborhood or the larger real estate named Red Hook. I speak only for me and for ideals company to dreams that work is valuable intrinsically, not uniformly, and that workers’ own tales need be told. In this eulogy to three men, I commemorate the marine and earthly landscapes I call my home.


Thomas Kerr

THOMAS KERR is a writer based in Red Hook.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues