Sounds of New Life in Red Hook

By    Published May 23, 2011

BROOKLYN – Geoff and Lynette Wiley had a theory: If we build it, they will come. The Wileys own the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music, a one-stop shop that sells and repairs vintage instruments and serves as a music school, art gallery, and a place to hear live bluegrass, folk songs and other tunes. After the Wileys opened up shop in 2006 in a three-block-wide section of Red Hook known as the Columbia Street Waterfront District, musicians quickly flocked to the neighborhood – first to play or listen, and then to live.

The artists made the move against all odds. Red Hook is few people’s destination of choice. In 1988, Life magazine named the area one of the worst neighborhoods in the country and called it “the crack capital of America.” Public School 15 Principal Patrick Daly was killed there in 1992, shot buy drug dealers as he looked for a student. The district is out of the way, a 15-minute walk from the nearest subway stop, and located west of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway ditch, cut off from the bustling shops and restaurants of Carroll Gardens.

Nonetheless, the place is thriving. The neighborhood experienced one of the biggest population booms in Brooklyn, according to the 2010 census — growing by 24 percent in the last decade along Columbia Street between Degraw Street and Atlantic Avenue.

Jalopy Drives Business

Emma Graves, a guitarist and banjo player who lives two doors down from Jalopy, is one of the musicians who migrated to the neighborhood to be closer to the theater. She said Jalopy is responsible for drawing a small but significant group of musicians like her to the neighborhood.

“I think it was the energy of Jalopy that brought people here,” said Graves, who gigs at the theater every other month. “The owners are just special people and they’ve basically invited everyone into their home.”

Literally. The Wileys, who moved from Seattle to start their new business, live in an apartment above the theater, but they spend most of their time downstairs at Jalopy. They restored the space with care, adding gilded ceilings, rows of pews – a sign of their reverence for the music – and a small proscenium theater.

The Wileys considered opening Jalopy in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and even Lisbon, Portugal, before they finally settled on New York, a city with a vibrant music scene – but without an adult, folk-based music school.

The Wileys, who heard about Red Hook from friends, made a trip to the neighborhood to scout for storefronts. They eventually came upon a 19th century brick building on the edge of Columbia Street. They put an offer in that same day, and won out against higher competing offers because the owner at the time, an artist, loved the Wileys’ vision for Jalopy.

“We felt like we really had made the right choice, as far as finding people that were like-minded,” said Lynette, 39.

The neighborhood was vacant but for a few bars and restaurants—including Moonshine, a popular bar next door, and Alma, an upscale Mexican restaurant. That was perfect for the Wileys, who prefer to stay off the beaten path.

“I didn’t want to be close. I wanted to be remote,” said Geoff, 42. “I wanted you to have to try to work a little bit to get here.”

Geoff saw potential in the neighborhood, which he thinks of as a “cool, gritty old sailor town,” reminiscent of Ballard, the Seattle waterfront neighborhood where he once lived.

A Five-Pronged Plan

The venue is one of a kind. Banjo Jim’s in the East Village and the Good Coffeehouse in Park Slope offer similar music, but they can’t compare to Jalopy’s five-pronged business – selling and repairing instruments, teaching and showing art as well as playing music. Musicians streamed in for guitar, ukulele and banjo classes, and Cajun fiddle and West African guitar workshops. They popped in for nightly live Americana acts, New Orleans jazz sextets, or Mexican folk bands.

Tony Scherr, a popular jazz and folk singer, guitarist and Columbia Street resident, frequently plays at the theater with his trio. R. Crumb, the celebrated comic book artist and banjo player, swings by for occasional sets. Though some still consider the venue a well-kept secret, musicians such as the Tillers and Clifton Hicks have traveled from Cincinnati and North Carolina to perform at Jalopy.

But it’s the locals who spread the word about Jalopy. Graves initially heard about Jalopy in 2008 from a fellow folk musician who lives in the area. Her first thought was, “Red Hook? That’s really far.” But Graves, who lived in Prospect Park South at the time, visited Jalopy and fell in love with the neighborhood. She signed up for fiddle lessons at the theater and made weekly visits. Within a few months, she quit her job, moved into an apartment two doors down from Jalopy and started a skincare business.

“I have to admit that I am the great gentrifier,” she joked. “I am the white girl business owner. You can blame me.”

But the bustling neighborhood is too busy to point fingers. To accommodate the growing population, new businesses – such as Clockworks Puppet Theatre and Calexico, a Mexican chain food stand – popped up on Union Street. Apartment buildings and housing developments appeared on nearby Hicks Street, and waterfront warehouses morphed into apartments.

A ‘Come as You Are’ Vibe

Singer and songwriter So Brown, a Jalopy regular, moved into a walk-up apartment near Columbia Street to be close to the theater and other musicians. She said Jalopy brings eccentricity to the neighborhood.

“There’s also this ‘come as you’ are vibe. It’s very open-minded,” Brown said. “I get the impression that it doesn’t really matter what you are. You can crawl out of the woods and cross-dress and have a beard and shave your head and it’s like the perfect place. Like, oh, that’s Wednesday night at Jalopy.”

Karen Duffy, a guitarist and singer who lives in Sunset Park, was also drawn to the Columbia Street Waterfront District because of Jalopy. She tried to move to the district a couple of years ago, but was surprised to find that rents had risen.

Duffy, who is the production director for the new community paper Columbia Street News, still considers the neighborhood her home away from home. When she’s not jamming at Jalopy or having a glass of wine next door at Moonshine, Duffy sells Jalopy like it’s her job.

She is just one of the patrons the Wileys count on to spread the good word about Jalopy – and the Columbia Street Waterfront District.

“The musicians have been so good to us,” Lynette said. “They’ve been willing to come down here and then slowly convince their fans to follow them. We were able to convince them to take a chance on us and I think it’s worked out well for everybody concerned.”

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