The Red Hook Coalition – non profits working for the community, by George Fiala

The roots of the Red Hook Coalition may be said to lie at the ornate Atlantic Avenue building that today houses Trader Joes. For many years that building was the home of the main branch of the Brooklyn’s Independence Savings Bank.

A recent meeting of the Red Hook Coalition - discussing the emergency recover plan for Red Hook.

A recent meeting of the Red Hook Coalition – discussing the emergency recover plan for Red Hook.

A bank moves to Red Hook
Back in 1997, a local committee spearheaded by activist Wally Bazemore, was successful in getting Independence to open a Red Hook branch. Prior to that, the closest bank was the Chase at 79 Hamilton Avenue – a long walk for most Red Hookers. The Daily News wrote: “Bazemore expressed the hope that the arrival of the Independence branch would spark a commercial rebirth to Red Hook, a waterfront community dominated by a sprawling, crime-plagued housing project and isolated from surrounding neighborhoods by the elevated Gowanus Expressway.”

Things didn’t work out at first. Four years later, the Times wrote: “…the economic rebirth of Red Hook never completely happened. Residents have been slow to patronize the bank, preferring instead to use a local check-cashing company or go to banks in neighborhoods near their jobs. Two years ago, bank officials estimated that the branch was losing $250,000 a year and talked of permanently closing it.”

Pushed by local politicians, NY State Comptroller H. Carl McCall invested $10 million in state pension money with that branch, ensuring its profitablity.

Indendence, originally called South Brooklyn Savings Bank, was chartered as a non profit bank, and had a history of community giving.

In 1998, CEO Charles Hamm decided to split off the bank’s charitable work into a separate arm. Christened the Independence Community Foundation (ICF), it was armed with both a $50 million endowment from the bank, and the services of Marilyn Gelber.

Gelber began her career as a NY City Planner specializing in low-income neighborhoods. She was Brooklyn Borough President Charles Hamm’s chief of staff for ten years. In 1994 she became the NYC Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEC). As DEC head she oversaw a landmark deal with upstate communities ensuring a long term supply of clean drinking water for the city.

Gelber, a lifelong New Yorker, lives in Boerum Hill. In her new position as Executive Director of the Community Foundation, she was able to fund non profits throughout the borough – including Red Hook.

Familiar with neighborhood
Gelber was familiar with Red Hook, dating back to her work as a city planner. In the 1970’s she worked on the city’s unsuccessful plan to turn a large part of Red Hook into a container port. Quoted in a 1981 NY Times article, she said ‘’Red Hook is one of the best examples I know of a neighborhood that has seen both the positive and the negative effects of government.’’

In a 2010 Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece titled “Doing Good Right Here – Re-Imagining Red Hook,” Gelber wrote of her experience as a grant giver.

“Turning patches of concrete into parcels of farmland; converting a business need into an employment opportunity; encouraging low income community residents to become philanthropists; creating a second chance high school; building affordable homes for public housing residents — impossible dreams? No, real changes wrought by smart nonprofits with investments in Red Hook and supported by the Brooklyn Community Foundation.”
A few years after the 2006 sale of Independence to Sovereign Bank, the Foundation repurposed and renamed itself. It became a non-profit, so in addition to being a grant giver, it could increase the endowment by grant receiving. Renamed the Brooklyn Community Fund (BCF), Gelber remained at the helm. She finally retired in June, 2013.
Local ICF grant recipients have included Added Value, Red Hook Initiative, Dance Theatre Etcetera, Cora Dance, Kentler, BWAC, Good Shepherd Services, Southwest Brooklyn IDC (SBIDC) and Falconworks.

Game changer
Sandy was a disaster of epic proportions. Brooklyn is surrounded on three sides by water. Many communities were devastated. The Brooklyn Community Foundation stepped right up and created the Brooklyn Recovery Fund. Partnering with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and the Borough President Marty Markowitz, $1.5 million was raised in the first month after the storm. Among their initial, immediate disbursements were:

  • Added Value – $10,000 for a pop-up farmers market to bring badly need fresh fruit and vegetables to impacted communities.
  • Dance Theatre Etcetera – $10,000 to hire a short term volunteer manager to assist the relief efforts of the Red Hook Coalition.
  • Good Shepherd Services – $10,000 for emergency cash assistance fund for Red Hook residents.
  • Mercy Home – $10,000 to replace destroyed equipment and food at a Red Hook group home for developmentally disabled adults.
  • Raices / Red Hook Senior Center – $10,000 for hot dinners at NYCHA Miccio Center, plus support to retain staffer who will raise funds to repair damage sustained by the Red Hook Senior Center.
  • Red Hook Initiative – $10,000 for temporary external relations coordinator at this local organization which took on a key coordinating role in the days immediately after the hurricane.
  • Restore Red Hook – $10,000 for assistance to impacted business owners
  • Southwest BK Industrial Dev Corp – $10,000 to hire four organizers to manage volunteer labor.

The Recovery Fund created six groups in the most affected Brooklyn communities. They were named ‘community collectives’ and consisted of:

  1. Canarsie Coalition
  2. Red Hook Coalition
  3. #Coney Recovers
  4. Empower Sheepshead Recovery Coalition
  5. Gerritsen Beach Long Term Recover Project
  6. Brighton Beach Housing Coalition

All these coalitions are composed of community non profit organizations, many of them with existing relationships with the BCF. The coalitions have all been funded through BCF, holding regular meetings to achieve their post-Sandy goals which include creating recovery plans, building resiliency, rebuilding homes, mold remediation, and providing education and training for local residents.

This is how the BCF describes the Red Hook coalition in their literature:

The Red Hook Coalition (RHC) is comprised of various community-based organizations and social service centers, with expertise ranging from disaster case management, to industrial development, to racial and economic justice. The RHC mission is to create an inspiring and practical vision for the entire Red Hook community that defines a clear path toward the community’s wellness and vitality, while facilitating a process to address long term challenges and impending disasters. Committed to the fulfillment of this mission are partners in sustainable development and youth leadership (Added Value), youth empowerment (Red Hook Initiative), youth development and disaster case management (Good Shepherd Services), recovery and volunteer management (Red Hook Volunteers), business recovery and revitalization (ReStore Red Hook), and local job creation (Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation). Previously, RHC received a community-wide collaborative grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation to allocate micro-grants to small businesses, meet immediate social service and food needs, and hire a coalition coordinator to build internal capacity and identify local employment opportunities.” Contact: Ian Marvy

BRF closed out at the end of January, leaving behind a December 2013 report called Brooklyn Communities Speak. Published last December, they included the Coalition’s accomplishments. “Among the many achievements of the Red Hook Coalition and BRF-funded projects to date are: a Red Hook Summit, which brought community members together to inform the vision for long-term community recovery; $80,000 to 60 small businesses; $25,000 to support the work of Red Hook Volunteers in coordinating thousands of volunteers, who have provided mold remediation and rebuilding help in over 150 homes; repairs and mold remediation in 31 affordable housing units for 106 residents.”

Financial setup
The Coalition is, by itself, not a non-profit entity, at least as far as the Star-Revue’s research could determine. All financial matters are handled by the Fund for the City of New York. The Fund is a Ford Foundation organization mandated to assist non-profits and government organizations. They perform a similar service for the Red Hook Justice Center. President Mary McCarthy, in a phone conversation with the Star-Revue, expressed an abiding admiration for the Red Hook community. In addition to their bookkeeping contributions, they offer financial grants as well.

The Red Hook Coalition (RHC) still uses the domain, registered by Reg Flowers of Falconworks in June, 2013. The website consists of five pages, plus a link to a page which lists the grants they have received, their purpose and the amount.
The Coalition has received five grants totaling $479,344. The first, for $100,000, came right after the storm and was the original impetus behind RHC. The money was made available by Gelber right when the Van Brunt Street businesses were wondering how they could afford to stay alive after losing so much in the flood. A consensus among this tight knit group of business owners that included Home/made, Fort Defiance, The Good Fork, and Bait and Tackle, was that it was vital for the continuity of the neighborhood that nobody leave.

ReStore Red Hook was quickly formed, spearheaded by Monica Byrne of Home/made. They became a conduit between the money and the businesses. Initially using a local 501(c)3 corporation to accept the funding, they soon connected with The Fund for the City of NY, legitimizing everything.

Restore went on to raise much more money, and were able to give out a series of grants to over 50 local businesses. ReStore Red Hook is no longer part of the Coalition, as it looks toward becoming a business oriented organization.

Today RHC is a steering committee consisting of these members: Added Value, Good Shepherd Services, Red Hook Initiative, Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Corporation (SBIDC), Dance Theater Etcetera, Falconworks Artist Group, and the Red Hook Volunteers.

Community party
The next grant listed on the sheet is from the Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC. $12,000 was given to fund a Community Celebration. Most probably this funded the Red Hook Summit, held last summer at Pioneer Works and other locations.

Item 3 is a $50,000 grant from the Fund for the City of New York It was designated to fund the following: the Red Hook Volunteers, SBIDC (for a preparedness plan for businesses); and a preparedness plan for the community (used to hire Emergency Management Methodology Partners (EMMP).

SBIDC hired a Dewberry consultants, a Virginia consultant that does these things all over the country. They prepared a report and held a luncheon. The report can be found online at
EMMP has been holding a series of planning meetings this spring which will lead to a communtiy plan.

The Red Hook Volunteers continue to help locals in fixing up flood damage. They provide free carpentry and other services. There are still many in Red Hook who have not been able to return to their damaged homes. Many are still waiting for promised grants from the NYC Build It Back program.

The last two items on the Grants Summary page are a $100,000 grant from the NYC Housing and Neighborhood Recover (Donors Collective); and $217,344 from the Brooklyn Community Foundation and the American Red Cross. Some of this money seems to overlap previous grants, and other goals are vague. They include:


  • Hiring of a RHC coordinator
  • Create model of disaster preparedness & community planning within Red Hook Houses
  • Preparedness and Recover activities for 60 adults and 75 teenagers through programs such as CoastSmart; CERT; First Responders; Trade Skills traning.
  • Community Resiliency Planning Summits/Resiliency Workshop 300 persons
  • Build a strong coalition
  • Enhance local disaster preparedness
  • Support housing and rebuilding
  • Create a health and wellness database/professional collaboration
  • Strengthen community food independence.

The Coalition has hired a Coordinator. She is Pratt Alumna Sapna Advana. Advana has a background in architecture and urban planning, with special experience with the Brooklyn Waterfront. According to her Linked-in page, she was hired in December, 2013, and lists her title as Coordinator: Long Term Recovery Project.

On April 16th, the Star-Revue asked Advana by email for a timeline on future Coalition projects and was told that someone from the Steering Committee is working on a response.
The final public meeting of the Red Hook Coalition’s Long Term Community Recovery Plan will be from 6 pm to 7:30 pm on Wednesday, May 7 at the South Brooklyn Community High School, 173 Conover Street.

EMMT’s Noel Kepler informs us that “The long-term Community Recovery Plan will be completed as a document and distributed to all community residents and elected officials who have been involved. Then, over the early summer, the Red Hook Coalition has contracted EMMP to conduct a community-wide, real-time exercise of the readiness section of the plan. It will be a fun day, where the community can come together, see the community response piece in real-time, and hopefully walk away confident in their readiness as a community, a better understanding of individual roles among community partners, and inspired to better prepare their individual households.”







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