Red Hook residents frustrated by ongoing recreation center closure

The Red Hook Recreation Center, long in need of repair after Hurricane Sandy, is still closed months after Hurricane Ida damaged the building’s boiler.
File photo by Stefano Giovannini

The Red Hook Recreation Center has been closed since last spring — and residents are growing more frustrated with the city’s parks department as they wait for it to reopen after Hurricane Ida damaged the facility’s boiler in September.

Recreation centers citywide closed in March 2020 in response to the start of the pandemic. A small number reopened last summer, and the city announced in mid-September that they were reopening the remaining centers.

At least three centers were damaged during the Sept. 1 storm and would be remaining closed “until further notice,” according to an update released by the department at the time — two in the Bronx and the Red Hook facility.

A Parks Department spokesperson said the Red Hook center “is not closed indefinitely,” and that the department expects it to reopen in the near future, once they find and install a mobile heating unit, a “temporary solution,” to the center’s lack of heat. They did not answer questions about how long that might take, or when the center is expected to reopen.

In 2014, the department spent $763,000 “emergency boiler reconstruction” at the Recreation Center to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy. The repair was completed in June 2014 — a year after construction started and seven months behind schedule.

While the facility has been closed to the public for more than a year, staff were still working inside the building, but have now been reassigned “indefinitely,” according to Jo Goldfarb, communications director at the nearby BASIS Independent School.

A staff member at the center, who asked not to be named as they are not authorized to speak to the press, said the building will be closed completely, and confirmed that staff had been reassigned.

David Small, a retired 51-year-old Access-A-Ride driver and Red Hook resident of about 20 years, said there are very few places for people to gather in the neighborhood. The ball fields and track adjacent to the recreation have been closed for years due to lead contamination, and the city’s multimillion dollar remediation and renovation projects are behind schedule.

The ball fields by the rec center.Photo by Jason Speakman

Small stopped working last year while dealing with a cancer diagnosis and other health issues. His doctors instructed him not to spend too much time sedentary inside his apartment, he said, and he can’t be exposed to the sun for long, so he planned to start spending some time at the recreation center.

That was just before the pandemic started and closed the building’s doors, he said. Nearly two years later, he and his neighbors still don’t have many options.

“There’s nowhere to gather,” he said. “Yes, there’s cell phones, yes, technology, if you’ve got a phone, that’s the best thing you can do. There’s no benches to sit on, and with all the dust and everything…With the pandemic, we can’t even meet up in a restaurant. Other than that, you need a cell phone.”

The dust Small referred to is a result of the ongoing construction project at New York City Housing Authority complex Red Hook Houses, which were also severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Residents have spoken out about conditions at the complex while construction is ongoing — hundreds of trees have been cut down and most of the outdoor space has been fenced off for construction.

Tiffiney Davis, co-founder of Red Hook Art Project, Inc., thought the building would be reopening this month, and had been planning a new program making use of the arts studios there.

The Project gave up their space at 183 Richard Street because of the pandemic, she said, and shifted to all-virtual classes.

“Now we’re currently running programs out of a local school, there are limitations to how we can do programming and how we can bring in other children to make sure we are serving the greater Red Hook,” she said. “The rec center allows us to serve more than just the students we serve at Summit Academy, the school we are currently running programs out of.”

Davis was getting the paperwork together and registering her students for recreation center memberships, she said, so they would be able to access the space outside of her classes. Now, she said, she’s “out of luck.” Schools don’t have large enough spaces to accommodate the program and most close their doors too early anyway, she said. 

“It’s kind of a burden on the community because the children don’t really have any place to go now that is a safe space that they are familiar with,” she said. “For them to just close because of heat seems to be not fair to the low-income community, when they can just fix the problem.”

Heat and hot water have been ongoing issues at Red Hook Houses, she said, and residents now have one fewer option if they’re looking to get out of their apartment for a while.

Elected officials toured NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses in July to highlight its state of disrepair. State Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Office

Small, along with several neighbors, have been trying to get in contact with local elected officials to see if anything can be done to get the center open again, but was frustrated with slow response times and a lack of information provided when he did get a call back.

On Thursday, he said, he decided to head to the district offices of Councilmember Carlos Menchaca and Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes, who both represent Red Hook. Both offices are in Sunset Park — not far from his neighborhood in theory, but a journey by public transportation.

“You should not have to get on a bus to a train or a bus to a bus and still have to walk,” he said. “And I’m not supposed to be riding a train, but I had to do what I had to do.”

Constituents contacted Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes earlier this week to raise the alarm, said communications director Emmitt Mendoza-Gaspar. Parks had not been able to provide a timeline for reopening.

“We are working to see what, if anything, our office can do to expedite the restoration of heat and hot water. Especially given that the temperatures are dropping and we know residents of the nearby Red Hook Houses don’t always have heat in their homes,” Mendoza-Gaspar said via email.

Mitaynes hosts mobile office days in Red Hook every two weeks, he said, and will be holding a resource fair at the Red Hook Initiative on Dec. 9 starting at 10 am, followed by a community forum for residents of Red Hook Houses at the Red Hook Public Library from 6-8 pm.

“The rec needs to be open,” Small said. “It doesn’t need to be another months and months and months and years. How long does it take to get the temporary boiler? Surely it doesn’t take a week.”