Red Hook cranes at IKEA's Erie Basin Park on the waterfront in Gowanus Bay, Red Hook, Brooklyn. ©Mark D Phillips
Red Hook cranes at IKEA’s Erie Basin Park on the waterfront in Gowanus Bay, Red Hook, Brooklyn. ©Mark D Phillips

Red Hook’s history is the story of America.

The Red Hook of the Revolution was completely different from today’s paved and developed region. Mostly swampland, Red Hook consisted of one large landmass named Cypress Tree Island. Described as a “mountain,” the 40 to 50 feet in elevation provided a strategic location to control entry into the East River. Red Hook Lane, an Indian trail, provided the only access from the heights of Brooklyn to Red Hook.

On April 10, 1776, General George Washington ordered the construction of a fort on the island in what he called “an exceedingly strong defensive position.” Outfitted with four cannon, Fort Defiance was the westernmost in a series of forts constructed on the heights of Brooklyn.

With the American army entrenched in the hills of Gowanus and Prospect Heights, outnumbered three to one, British Admiral Howe decided to sail an armada of seven ships through the harbor to the East River to finish Washington and his troops. While sailing past Red Hook Point, the ships came under fire from Fort Defiance. The intense fire from the fort caused the ships to turn back, saving the day for the Americans.


The British launched a three-pronged attack on August 27, 1776, the first and largest battle of the American Revolution. Severely outnumbered, General Washington led the Continental Army in a nighttime retreat across the East River on August 29th. Fort Defiance was credited with keeping the ferry route clear.

“Most people think that Washington led his troops from Red Hook, on Red Hook Lane, to evacuate from Fulton Ferry to Manhattan. Moving 10,000 men to the ferry and rowing across in one night? Can’t be done,” said John Burkard, who has lived in Red Hook his entire life. “I think they left all along the shore from Red Hook to Fulton Ferry. Some of them probably met up with another garrison on Governors Island.”

As a child, Burkard heard many stories about Red Hook’s role in early American history. Upon his retirement, he took up the unofficial role as Red Hook’s chief historian. His research led to many discoveries and investigations into neighborhood lore. With nothing more than tenacity, Burkard has unearthed long forgotten maps and references to a rich history in Red Hook. Burkard discovered several maps, including the oldest from 1766 which shows the remnants of a fort in Red Hook. No reference was made to the builder, only the fact that it existed.

“The neighborhood has a lot of streets named for Revolutionary War generals who served under Washington,” says Burkard.

On a trip to London, Burkard discovered an 1835 book by Gabriel Furman that told the story of British Major Grant. As Grant was leading his troops along Red Hook Lane, an American soldier shot and killed Grant and another soldier from his perch in a nearby tree. When the American was killed, the British troops buried Grant and his comrade along Red Hook Lane, leaving the American where he lay. Later, after the British troops left, sympathizers buried the colonial soldier in the same spot.

Could this be a Revolutionary War burial ground located at the corner of Nelson and Columbia Streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn? ©Mark D Phillips
Could this be a Revolutionary War burial ground located at the corner of Nelson and Columbia Streets in Red Hook, Brooklyn? ©Mark D Phillips

Burkard is convinced that the burial ground is located at the corner of Nelson and Columbia Streets. The building that stands on the lot was built with a cutoff corner, leaving a triangle of undeveloped land. His research shows the building was constructed in 1932, but was unable to find any records for the property prior to that time.

“There is rumor and folklore that the location was the burial ground,” said Burkard. With the owner’s permission, he placed a sign on the site stating the site “is undergoing research to confirm it’s existence as a Revolutionary War Burial Ground. Please respect it as such.”

Burkard would like to see the story of Red Hook’s role in the Revolution given its due, by teaching in the schools and his ultimate goal, a Heritage Trail running from the Burial Ground to Fort Defiance.

Today’s Red Hook is much smaller than its original boundaries. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Red Hook point was a shipping destination. The Atlantic Basin, built in 1847 by the Atlantic Dock Company, was an enclosed safe harbor for sailing ships. The Hamilton Ferry was original started in 1846 to facilitate traffic to and from Greenwood Cemetery. The Erie Basin around the “hook” from the Atlantic Basin was opened in 1864. All three were important components in the development of the Red Hook area.Construction began on Erie Basin – the artificial harbor on which the shipyards sit – in the 1850s. Red Hook became one of the most important shipping depots in the Port of New York and served as the terminus of the shipping network that included the Erie Canal. Irish immigrant William Beard built the Red Hook Stores in the 1870s as warehouse space boomed in Erie Basin and Gowanus Bay.

In the spring of 2006, Red Hook premiered the first new major destination within one of these 19th century constructs, as the neighborhood began its ride to gentrification.

Fairway opened its first Brooklyn location within the first two floors of the Red Hook Stores originally built to warehouse coffee and cotton. Greg O’Connell, a retired New York City Police Officer, has been a driving force within the neighborhood and is seeing his dream come true. In the late 1970s, O’Connell began purchasing the abandoned properties on the Red Hook waterfront, including the Red Hook Stores. Fairway was the culmination of a long dream for the developer.

“It’s a home run for the neighborhood,” said O’Connell. “Fairway is a part of the neighborhood.”

The US Navy Blue Angels pass in formation just above the Statue of Liberty in preparation for the Bethpage Federal Credit Union New York Air Show at Jones Beach on Saturday and Sunday, May 27-28, 2006. ©Mark D Phillips
The US Navy Blue Angels pass in formation just above the Statue of Liberty in 2006. ©Mark D Phillips

The 33,000 square foot store is almost overwhelming. Walking through the store, the vastness of the space is completely different from the other grocery stores within brownstone Brooklyn. Known for its fruits, vegetables, and prepared food, Fairway is a suburban store within Red Hook.

In 2004, the City of New York approved a plan that allowed for Ikea to demolish all of the historic Todd Shipyards’ buildings, fill in the Red Hook Graving Dock, and clear the entire site to make way for the store and a 1,400-car parking lot. The loss was a crippling blow to the maritime industry. Until Ikea cleared the property, it was an active ship repair yard, and the company leasing it employed up to 100 people. As one of the largest graving docks in the New York Harbor, it was critical to the burgeoning maritime industry and had a replacement value of roughly one billion dollars.

On June 18, 2008, Ikea opened its doors as the first superstore in Brooklyn.

The Queen Mary 2 arrived in the wee hours of the morning on April 15, 2006, for its inaugural stop at the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook. For the county of Kings, and particularly Red Hook, the terminal is the first step in a revitalization of the long-neglected waterfront. The sight of cruise ships on the Red Hook shoreline increased as Princess Cruise Line began docking at the location.

The neighborhood became a mecca for artists and artisans. Stunning waterfront views clash with urban decay. Gowanus Bay and New York Harbor offer amazing visuals. Tugboats ply the area, passing through the narrow entrance to Gowanus Bay on the way to their berths. Changes in weather can be frightening and spectacular as the water reacts.

And Superstorm Sandy proved just how frightening and devastating the water could be. Overnight on October 29, 2012, the National Weather Service in New York records a 14-foot storm surge in the harbor, that inundates the shoreline and fills Red Hook’s low-lying  businesses with water to the ceilings of their first floors. Fairway would not reopen until March, 2013, the first of the waterfront businesses to make a comeback.

Sunny’s Bar has always been in Red Hook. So it seemed, until along came Sandy, almost destroying the beloved waterfront bar.

Walking into the establishment returned patrons to the days when Red Hook and Brooklyn led the nation in maritime pursuits. One felt like you had entered a scene from “On the Waterfront.”

The Balzanno’s operated the longshoreman’s restaurant and bar continuously since the late 1800’s. Sunny Balzanno continued the family tradition when he took over the family property in the late 1990’s, creating Sunny’s Bar.

Super storm Sandy changed all that. When the storm surge barreled up Conover Street, water flooded the basement to the ceiling, and left 2 feet of water in the bar area. The force of the water undermined the buildings structure and repairs were extensive and expensive.

The Red Hook community responded to its beloved speakeasy.

Volunteers helped pump the water from the building. Two fundraising campaigns, benefit concerts, and donations by its many previous patrons raised $100,000. The funds were used to completely fix the damage in the basement and to the foundation, as well as replace nearly all the mechanicals and appliances needed to reopen the business.

Ten months after Hurricane Sandy, Sunny’s Bar reopened and finally a feeling of hope returned to the waterfront.


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