- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — As the self-designated captain of a 93-year-old barge that he refurbished as a combined maritime museum and residence, David Sharps exemplifies the quirky charm of Red Hook, a history-steeped neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront.

So when the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the borough’s industrial coastline to its list of the nation’s most endangered historical places, Mr. Sharps was pleased.

The trust argues, as do many residents, that old buildings should be rehabilitated and turned to new uses instead of being demolished to make way for fancy new residential developments.

“It’s our challenge of the next generation — what are we going to do, what is the waterfront going to look like?” Mr. Sharps asked.


The neighborhood has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. Cruise ships shuttling tourists to distant destinations come and go. Luxury high-rises are sprouting up. An Ikea furniture outlet is being built — and developers paved over a large Civil War-era dry dock to make way for its parking lot.

In its announcement last week, the National Trust said the area, which dates from the early days of Dutch settlers and was a shipbuilding and repair center for more than a century, was in danger of becoming a “victim of voracious developers anxious to cash in on the area’s newly hip status.”

“These buildings represent Brooklyn’s industrial heritage, and they shouldn’t be lost for that reason,” said Richard Moe, president of the organization.

Whether the group can exert anything beyond moral pressure to forestall the loss of significant sites is not certain.

Points of maritime history abound along the seven-mile Brooklyn shoreline from Sunset Park north to Greenpoint. They include vestiges of the iron works where the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor was built, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where hundreds of later warships were fitted for combat.

There is also Red Hook’s Erie Basin, where grain cargoes sent from the Midwest via the Erie Canal and the Hudson River were finally offloaded for shipment to Europe. The sailors and mob-controlled stevedores who spiced the waterfront’s legendary past are also mostly gone.

Charles Johnson, 58, an artist and photographer, said that to preserve shoreline spaces for public use, new residential developments should be “pushed back a block. They kill the waterfront.”

The neighborhood’s fate also is a concern to Greg O’Connell, a 60-year-old retired detective who has made the regeneration of Red Hook’s local economy a new career and personal crusade.

He said his own properties in Red Hook prove that old buildings, protected by zoning, can be turned to new uses — in his case such enterprises as glassblowing, haberdashery, apple processing and a key lime pie maker.

Red Hook preservationists were caught by surprise when a longtime landmark, a conical silo once owned by the Revere Sugar Co., was recently demolished.

Mr. O’Connell said that property had been bought a few years earlier for $13 million and sold for $40 million. “You could have done so many things with that,” said Mr. O’Connell. “But it’s all about the bottom line.”