OCTOBER 30, 2012
One of the eerier sounds you could hear yesterday as Hurricane Sandy approached New York City, if you lived within earshot of the Brooklyn waterfront, was the foghorns. The last of the container ships and cruise liners were being sent out to sea in advance of the storm. You forget about these things—it’s one of the strange dissonances of this part of the city, long since infiltrated by food-critic-approved restaurants and high-end toddler boutiques but somehow still in possession of a functioning industrial port.
The apartment building I moved into a month and a half ago is a few blocks off the water, in the vestigial part of Carroll Gardens that was cut off from the rest of the neighborhood by the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As the evacuation orders were going into effect on Sunday and the wind was beginning to pick up, I remarked nervously to my upstairs neighbor, who had grown up in the neighborhood and lived in the building for more than thirty years, that we were close enough to see the border of Zone A—the mandatory-evacuation region marked in red on the city’s maps—from our Zone B doorstep. “Eh, but that’s Red Hook,” he said.
It was a boundary I had thought of as more cultural than topographical—Red Hook, the old warehouse and shipyard district that had rusted for decades before its inevitable twenty-first-century cycle of bohemian resettlement and partial gentrification (it is home to New York’s lone IKEA), and Carroll Gardens, longstanding bastion of Brooklyn’s Italian-American middle class. But Sandy, when she arrived, observed the distinction between the two as scrupulously as my neighbor did. When the floodwaters receded this morning, my wife and I set out to explore the transformed neighborhood. Everything above Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s main drag, was covered in an oddly pastoral layer of leaves, blown down in various stages of coloring. Van Brunt and everything beyond was coated in a rainbow sheen of diesel fuel. Near the garages where the off-duty Chinatown buses were stored, the sidewalk was obscured with dark viscous sludge, the fumes woozily dense. Red Hook smelled, inescapably, like an industrial zone.
It was Lower Manhattan and Red Hook, plus Staten Island and the Rockaways, that absorbed the worst of New York’s share of Sandy. Around the height of the storm surge, someone had posted a picture on Facebook of one of the old New York Dock Company warehouses, a towering gray monolith on Imlay Street, besieged by water from the harbor, illuminated by the orange glare of the somehow-still-functioning streetlights. The water had cleared from Imlay this morning, but you could see where it had peaked. A pair of bicycles chained to a street sign—submerged nearly up to the crossbar in the photo from last night—were buried under a flotsam of cardboard.
The urban pioneers who now populate Red Hook pride themselves on being a tougher and more interesting breed than the stroller-pushing, yoga-mat-clutching hordes of Carroll Gardens, and the neighborhood had made a spirited point of putting up a fight against the storm. Bars like Fort Defiance and Red Hook Bait & Tackle had pledged to stay open. Give it ur best, Sandy, someone had written in bright-orange paint on a bit of construction site plywood on Van Brunt; STORM-SHMORM, we’re ALREADY UNDERWATER, read the sign in the window of a nearby swimwear shop, behind an ineffective web of masking tape. But the bravado seemed to have worn thin; Oy Sandy! Someone had spray-painted on a plywood window cover down the block, Enough Already!
The morning’s best and most black-humored piece of signage, though, was on the chalkboard in front of Red Hook Bait & Tackle: FREE SAND BAGS. Half a dozen of them were piled outside the doorway, and it looked like they had served the bar poorly. In the unlit interior, Karen Weiner, the co-owner, was inspecting the damage. She had kept the place open until five in the afternoon, she said, before giving up and retreating to her nearby third-floor apartment. Everything, from the plywood floor to the walls of ironic taxidermy, was soaked. “I guess it was time to get a new floor anyway,” she said.
A bearded twentysomething poked his head in the door. “Is the booze alright?” he asked. “Please tell me the booze is alright!”
“No,” she said. “It isn’t.”
Although the neighborhood had mostly drained out, there was one surviving swath of standing water further down the street, beginning around the intersection of Van Brunt and Reed Street and surrounding the local Fairway grocery store like a moat. An Orthodox man in a long black coat and felt hat and a long-haired bike-messenger type were awkwardly trying to climb past each other in opposite directions along the fence surrounding the Fairway parking lot. It was now going on 9:30, and a small throng of us disaster gawkers had gathered, shielding our iPhones from the rain as we Instagrammed the last remnants of the local catastrophe. A sort of survivors’ swagger was settling in; the onlookers laughed as a minivan driver, in a fit of hubris, attempted to ford the moat, then retreated.
A block away, an elderly woman in a brown sweatsuit was standing in her doorway, presiding over a person-sized blue and white plywood box that was blocking the sidewalk. Vivian Slaughter had stuck out the hurricane against the city’s orders and watched from the third-floor of her building as the water rose, submerging the sedan parked across the street. “That,” she said, pointed to the plywood box, “was the guard’s stand from the Fairway parking lot.” It had sailed up Van Brunt, coming to rest in front of her apartment after apparently entangling itself in some telephone wires.
Slaughter told me that she had lived in the neighborhood all eighty-one years of her life, had grown up in an apartment building a few blocks away whose first floor housed Sunny’s, the oldest bar in Red Hook. “The important thing is we’re still here,” she said. “We can always clean up.” Another young gentrifier couple, dressed in windbreakers, had wandered up as she told the story. “Holy shit,” the man said, looking at the box.
Slaughter’s entryway was streaked in mud and the power in the building was still out. I was suddenly self-conscious about being there; it was strange to feel like a tourist less than a mile from your own home. As I said goodbye and started back up the street, the rain started again. “Hey!” she called after me, pointing to my raincoat. “Hood up!”
Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic and executive editor of The Atavist.