Red Hook’s largest cultural event, Red Hook Fest, is coming back in-person this summer with plenty of music, dancing, and opportunities to get to know your neighbors and the community organizations who support them.
The 29th annual celebration will kick off with an Opening Ceremony and performances on Friday, June 3, with the headline event following the next afternoon at Valentino Park and Pier. It’s the first time the festival has been fully in-person since the first wave of the pandemic forced it online two years ago.
At least 25 percent of the neighborhood has attended the festival in past years, said Heather Harvey, marketing director at Hook Arts Media, who host the event each year, but New Yorkers from all over the city head to the waterfront to take in the sights and sounds — and some even travel from other states and countries.
“Obviously, with the past couple of years of having virtual access to the festival, those international numbers have grown,” she said. “So we’re very much looking forward to returning to that neighborhood, community-oriented group this year.”
Opening day will be a more family-oriented event, she said, with a DJ, activities for kids, and free food giveaways. The headline performers — Martha Redbone and The Illustrious Blacks — will take the main stage on Saturday.
“One thing Hook Arts Media deeply believes in is making performing arts and cultural practices in New York City — the really vibrant arts and culture theme that is such a gem in our city — making those things accessible,” Harvey said. “By producing Red Hook Fest every year, we’re making this lineup available for free to our community.”
Headliners like Martha Redbone or choreographer Ronald K. Brown, who has performed at past festivals with his dance company, EVIDENCE, often perform at venues like Carnegie Hall or the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where tickets can cost hundreds of dollars each. Red Hook Fest doesn’t just make them financially accessible to the neighborhood — it makes them geographically accessible.
Red Hook is a transit desert, Harvey said, with many people reliant on the one bus that travels through the neighborhood consistently, and continued industrialization of the waterfront by companies like Amazon and UPS makes the route slower as it waits for trucks to clear the way.
“It’s incredibly important to make sure people in the community have access to things that don’t require the use of complicated transportation that many New Yorkers don’t have to think about, but in Red Hook is very much still a day-to-day reality,” she said.
Saturday’s musical performances will be accompanied by a community resource fair with groups including the Red Hook Boaters, the Red Hook Art Project, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, and Red Hook Mutual Aid. All together, the groups will provide everything from kayaks for people who want to take a spin in the harbor during the festival to information about housing, food distribution, and more.
“It depends on the needs of the year,” Harvey said. “Obviously, in 2020, when we did the festivals, it was all virtual, and we ended up highlighting organizations in Red Hook that were doing food and resource distribution such as toilet paper and laundry services because that was the most pressing need in that year.”
Most years they’ll also have someone who can help residents of the New York City Public Housing Authority complex, Red Hook Houses, navigate the ongoing issues there — from lack of heat and hot water to the lingering effects of Superstorm Sandy nearly a decade ago.
Booking big-name artists can be “complicated,” Harvey said. Paying performers fairly is important to the organizers, but so is running a free event for the community. Hook Arts applies for grants and gets corporate sponsorship as well as individual donations, but getting enough money to pay the artists while dealing with the trials of grant applications and nonprofit funding deadlines is always difficult.
“There are some artists who are very excited and enthusiastic to come back,” she said. “Artists who have had the opportunity to work with us often times tend to look at us as a great opportunity to have a great point of engagement with a community that might not otherwise have access to the work they’re providing.”
One of her favorite parts of running the festival, though, has been seeing brand-new artists grow up as they perform there over the years. Organizers prioritize getting a mix of professional and “pre-professional” performers on stage, and some, like dancer Solomon Goodwin, have gone from Red Hook Fest to appearing on television and in magazines.
“There aren’t a lot of equitable points of access for young people to think of their artistic endeavors, their artistic craft, as a viable career,” Harvey said. “One of the things that we really love at Hook Arts Media is that there are young performers who have now grown up on the Red Hook stage.”
All of the festival will be live and in-person, though some performances may be livestreamed online, Harvey said. With more performances in multiple locations, working out the virtual component is difficult, but she hopes video will be available live or once the festival has concluded.