Over the years the Then & Now book series has documented the changing faces of urban centers by recreating, from the same spot on the street (or closest thing to it, if the street is no longer there), archival photos from one-hundred years prior. The first one I saw was Madison: Now & Then, and even though little has changed to Wisconsin's capital city's modest downtown center, the time capsules on each page told a rich story - one which continues, the book is probably only 10 years old and already the "Now" photos are out of date.
However, Madison, WI, has some great history and charming streets, but its evolution simply can't compare to the kinds of changes that, not just New York City, but a single small neighborhood in Brooklyn has gone through over the past 100 years. The public engineering projects of probably the most polarizing person in NYC's history, Robert Moses, barely fit into one book. Thanks to his great ambition for the city, and incredible hubris, several neighborhoods in the outer boroughs were completely leveled to make way for commuter highways (or "parkways") thanks to families leaving cities for Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey. Today these highways are essential for the city to function, but the neighborhoods that met the wrecking ball continue to feel like half a neighborhood with ghosts around every corner. (Ironically, today many such neighborhoods in Brooklyn are being repopulated by the children of those who fled the city decades ago and helped make those commuter highways necessary that leveled chunks of the outer boroughs.)
One such neighborhood is Red Hook, Brooklyn. Once a self-sustaining appendage of Carroll Gardens, full of dock workers and seamen, it was completely cut off from its surrounding neighborhoods at Hamilton Ave by the Battery Tunnel and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the mid-20th century. After many families were displaced, others moved on due to the difficulty of simply getting to and from the neighborhood (a problem that still exists today). Apartment buildings were torn down (or burned down for the insurance - it wasn't just the Bronx that was burning) and mostly replaced with warehouses and bus garages, likely due to Red Hook's proximity to the Battery Tunnel and the BQE, rather than to any docks. Eventually the massive Red Hook Houses* projects were built, completely changing the face of the neighborhood, which saw a sharp decline with a well-known crack problem (which can still be seen occasionally today - a Methadone Clinic is a popular neighbor to Red Hookers).
* Thanks to its transient population of dock workers, Red Hook was never as prosperous as other neighborhoods in South Brooklyn - The Red Hook Houses sit on the site of the shack city known as "Hooverville".
Walking around the neighborhood today is like walking around Roman ruins - you'll find a beautiful, 100 year old brick 4-family apartment building wedged between an active bus garage on one side, and an empty lot teaming with feral cats on the other. However, every so often you can find evidence of Red Hook's heyday if you look close enough.
Anyways, thanks to the wonderful collection of photos at BrooklynPix.com (as you can see from the water mark, I don't own any of these photos, but you can find more at their website and even buy a couple), and Google Maps, I did some "Then & Now" comparisons myself. Basically, I needed to take a break from my thesis.
NE corner of Van Brunt & Beard
I had this one wrong initially. When I first saw the photo, I thought it was the NE corner of the street, since there are still a few houses that look like these buildings still standing. BrooklynPix.com, however, listed this as the NW corner (3rd image). I figured the corners had similar architecture, but a friend who lives in one of the buildings confirmed it was the NE corner, which makes more sense that the trolley tracks go E towards the former dry dock.
Van Brunt St at Delavan, west side of the street
Much of the commerce on the west side of Red Hook is on Van Brunt St., but every other street seems to have the following scene: an old apartment buildings brushing up against warehouses. It's great that the 3 apartment buildings have survived, and interesting to see that empty lots aren't a new thing.
Hamilton Ave, looking south east
Here's a great view of what changed Red Hook - beyond those trees in today's view lies the Battery Tunnel. While the trolley and the businesses look inviting, it is hard to imagine NYC traffic without the popular commuter artery. Recently Red Hook has looked into reinstating a trolley on Van Brunt or Richards St., however, with the massive amount of bus and trucking traffic, I don't see how that would be possible.
Hamilton Ave, facing west
I really had to make sure I was reading BrooklynPix.com's location label for this pic, it's hard to believe that what is now a container unloading center used to look like this. But, apparently Hamilton's Ferry used to sit at the end of Hamilton Ave (makes sense, you can see its silhouette at the end of the street). Commuters would take the trolley to Hamilton Ferry to get to Manhattan, or visa versa for shoppers venturing to a popular cheap Swedish furniture store. No wait, that's happening today.
Richards St at Sullivan
That's right, Richards St had a trolley, too. Many cities have fallen in love with trolleys all over again as a cheap and economic (and relatively green) form of transportation, and it's amazing to see them on every block of Brooklyn in photos from the early 20th century. Light rail is great for downtown districts like Denver and Seattle, but I can only imagine they would clutter a quiet street like Richards, pushing parking and car traffic to the sides.
Richards St and Wolcott, looking west
A block from my apartment there was once a bar. Since there is a bar across the street from me now, and the former bar pictured below is now a school, I'm not too broken up about it. Still, the storefronts that once graced Richards St are kind of an interesting "what if" as the neighborhood continues to grow with large warehouse stores like Fairway and Ikea.
Richards & Wolcott, looking east
I get sandwiches (and late-night Doritos) from that bodega these days. Although after dark, it's through a through bullet-proof glass window.