Neighborhood Watch: Red Hook

Brooklyn’s hardscrabble waterfront neighborhood is riding high.

WORDS Hunter Braithwaite
November 2018

Photos by Chris Sorensen

In August of 1776, a massive fleet of British warships assembled in New York Harbor. The plan: take New York, destroy the Continental Army and revoke the independence that had been declared the previous month. The Brits took New York, but what prevented them from achieving their other goals during the Battle of Brooklyn was Fort Defiance, in what is now Red Hook. Though the fort, with its four canons, fell rather quickly, legend has it that the enemy was delayed long enough for George Washington to escape across the East River. “It may have served its purpose,” says St. John Frizell, a writer and bartender who took the fort’s name—and underdog ethos—for his bar and restaurant on Red Hook’s main drag.

Red Hook’s geography is its fate. Jutting out into the harbor between Governors Island and the Gowanus Canal, the Brooklyn neighborhood once thrummed with dockside commerce. In the 1920s, it was the busiest freight port in the world. Yet after World War II, the shipping industry relocated to New Jersey. Surrounded by water on three sides, and cut off from the city by the lack of a subway line, the neighborhood declined until the mid-’90s, when artists and urban pioneers came in search of cheap, bountiful square footage. What followed was a slow-burning resurgence that was all but drowned by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

The water, light, peace and quiet draw people like Frizell, who moved here in 2002. Also, the grit: “I just loved the vibe of industrial decay.” He jokes he wouldn’t have had to open Fort Defiance if someone else did. “I really had no burning desire to operate a bar,” he says, but “I loved the neighborhood, and felt that it needed one more thing.” That thing is a joint that stretches from morning coffee to lunchtime burgers to late-night cocktails.

The backyard at Sunny's Bar

Fort Defiance is an immersion blender of cultures. The bar’s façade—Colonial-era script on a schoolhouse-red wall—recalls Revolutionary days. The inside is inspired by Buenos Aires’ San Telmo district, with floral-print vinyl tablecloths and a woodblock of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. I order a muffuletta—the classic New Orleans sandwich of olives, cheese and Italian cold cuts—washed down with a Colonial Cooler, a version of the Pimm’s Cup developed in British North Borneo in the 1920s.

The drink is a nod to the legendary food and drink writer Charles Baker, Jr. He’s the patron saint of Fort Defiance. Above the bar, Baker’s deco cocktail shaker is enshrined in glass.  “His recipes are preceded by stories of who he was with and where he was,” says Frizell. “And that’s the way it should be. I mean, I would rather have a bad drink with great people than a great drink with bad people.” 

While Fort Defiance has always been a neighborhood bar, the term took on added meaning six years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Fort Defiance lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of alcohol and kitchen equipment during the storm. Red Hook was without power for three weeks. “It was cold and wet, and the [cleanup] was the dirtiest work you can imagine.” And yet—Frizell searches for a way to put it—“In some ways, it was the best time of my life.”

Over the coming weeks, locals stopped by to help Frizell get his business back on its feet. “I’m glad I didn’t have the time or opportunity to second-guess myself, because I might not have reopened,” he says. “But I never had the time, because people just kept showing up.”

A viewfinder points to the Statue of Liberty

As I head out, Frizell remembers another reason he loves Red Hook: “I moved here to be close to Sunny’s Bar, which I thought was the best bar in the world. I still think that.”

To get to Sunny’s, I head down van brunt, passing a block-long line at Hometown Bar-B-Que, vintage cars parked outside the Brooklyn Crab seafood shack, and onto a cobblestoned street where, across from a ghostly quiet lot that once housed dry docks, I find Frizell’s favorite bar, a mile as the crow flies from the Statue of Liberty. 

Inside, amid antiquated stools and vinyl booths, I’m handed a beer by owner Tone Balzano Johansen. In a crisp Norwegian accent, she tells me how she got from the island of Frøya to a pleasantly ramshackle dive on the bumpiest street in New York. “I didn’t plan on getting into the bar industry,” she says, taking me out back to show me a painting she made, a Gustonesque mash of rambunctious mauves.

“I bring scientists here to be scientists. Science is part of culture. It doesn’t need to be hidden.”

Her road to Red Hook began in 1995, when she won a fellowship at MoMA PS1. She rented a room in the Webster Apartments in Midtown Manhattan, built in 1916 by one of the heads of Macy’s to house the shop girls. It was still a female-only residence. “A skyscraper full of women, all ages. It was beautiful for a bit, but it became a little strange.” The next year, she moved to Red Hook, where she met Sunny Balzano. Sunny was a painter himself. His work adorns the front of the bar. Though he was some years older than Tone, the two hit it off, marrying in 2000.

Sunny was born in the building next to the bar, which his family had run since 1890, supplying longshoremen with their boilermakers during Red Hook’s glory days. “There used to be a bar on every corner here,” Tone says. “This is the only real survivor.”

Today, Sunny’s is standing room only, a place with regulars and T-shirts for sale. But back in the 1990s, when it was John’s Restaurant and Bar, named after Sunny’s uncle—crickets. “You have to understand, there weren’t really customers then,” Tone says. “This place was barely breathing.” With a few months left on their liquor license, they treated it as a private club for their friends to drum up some cash. It worked until the city shut them down.

The whiskey selection at Van Brunt Stillhouse

The bar reopened in 2002 with a different name: Sunny’s. Over a decade, it rose to prominence. Red Hook grew, people moved in. “Neighborhoods in New York are constantly changing—always have been, always will be.” Frizell explains. “But change in Red Hook happens at a human pace. You can go away for six months and come back and still recognize it.” 

At Sunny’s, the transformation took a few decades. That is until Oct. 29, 2012. Tone was in the basement of the building next door when Sandy blew out the window, blasting her with a jet of water. “I flew up the steps. Something takes over when you’re in life-threatening situations.” The storm surge filled the basement in five minutes, blowing out the foundation. They’d fundraised to reopen the bar and settle legal troubles. And then, on March 10, 2016, Sunny died. He was 81.

“I could have left,” Tone says. “Gone and just gotten a regular job. But I have a connection to this place. I feel like the protector of this.” She adds, “I don’t come from the beer and liquor industry. I know embarrassingly little about alcoholic libations. But I do know a lot about the human spirit. The necessity of human connections is the same as the necessity of vitamin C. It’s something that your spirit needs to have.”

A family enjoys  lunch at Hometown Bar-B-Que

In search of another kind of spirit—the barrel-aged variety—I walk southeast for a few residential blocks until the smell of booze wafts heavy in the air. Since launching in 2012, the Van Brunt Stillhouse has been putting out small runs of boutique liquor. They’ve dabbled in rum, gin and grappa, but whiskeys are their mainstay. Among the most popular is the rye, which—like Red Hook—has outgrown its working class roots. 

When they moved to Red Hook in 2003, Daric Schlesselman was an editor on The Daily Show and Sarah Ludington was an architect. Now, the husband-and-wife team run the artisanal distillery that focuses on local ingredients and adventurous blends. 

“There used to be a bar on every corner. This is the only real survivor.”

In the tasting room, distiller Baker Neale pours me a few samples: ample bourbon, spicy rye, boozy moonshine. The standout is their signature American whiskey, smooth and sweet, with floral notes and a languid finish. “The American is our own unique mash build,” Ludington says. “There isn’t another whiskey like it out there.” To build that mash, they source nearly all of their grain from New York’s Finger Lakes region, and age the resulting spirits in 10- to 30-gallon barrels, smaller than the industry standard of 53, meaning a higher ratio of charred white oak to maturing spirit.

More distilleries are popping up nearby—Widow Jane is a few blocks away, Breuckelen Distilling is across the Gowanus Canal—but the mood is cooperative, not competitive. “It’s really exciting that there are more and more small-batch, locally made spirits available,” Ludington says. “We can help each other out. If you can convince a consumer to try something unique that is made in a much smaller place, then they’re going to ask for more.”

Lobster at Red Hook Lobster Pound

Down the street, a group of artists and scientists at Pioneer Works are also exploring the benefits of cooperation. Located in a former 19th-century iron works, the organization is a hydra-headed cultural incubator: publishing house, artist residence, concert venue. Walking up, I look into the cavernous main hallway to hear the stray plunks and zangs of art-rockers sound-checking for that night’s show. Next door at founder Dustin Yellin’s studio, assistants fabricate art, and a man with a video camera asks if he can record our conversation for a documentary he’s making on Yellin. He expects to be done in a year or so.

Yellin is known for his “Psychogeographies” series, in which he presses magazine clippings and paint between 28 sheets of glass to create a 3-D collage resembling a human figure. The term was coined by French philosopher Guy Debord, who used it to describe how people drift through a city. But Yellin sees it from a different angle: “It’s as if I was going to smush your brain in my hands and just, like, sprawl it out on the table and read it like a map—a map of your history and experience and thoughts.” They are quite popular with collectors. “The rich people come here and say they want to buy a piece of art, and I tell them no. I tell them they have to first support Pioneer Works, and then they can buy a piece of art. The artwork is the gateway drug to this more social piece.”

Yellin founded Pioneer Works in 2012. Today, he runs it with a team of experts, including director of sciences Janna Levin, an astrophysicist and expert on black holes. She spearheads the “Scientific Controversies” speaking series, which draws large crowds to lively, informal debates about the mysteries of the universe. She also brings Nobel Prize-winning scientists to participate, stressing that overlapping with the arts is not required. “I bring scientists here to be scientists, because science is part of culture. It doesn’t need to be hidden in the walnut of some other practice.” 

I slip out and wander over to Pioneer Books, the group’s storefront for curated and self-published material, including a reprint of a 1973 book Charas, about ex-gang members who built a geodesic dome in a vacant lot in downtown Manhattan after meeting utopian-minded polymath Buckminster Fuller. With a new Tesla dealership to my left, and crumbling warehouses to my right, the book could be Red Hook’s bible. Asked to describe the neighborhood’s growth and setbacks, Yellin shrugs. “Utopia is difficult.”  


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