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Red Hook and the Brooklyn Bridge

“This is Red Hook, not Sicily. This is the slum that faces the ,bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge. This is the gullet of New York swallowing, the tonnage of the world.” A View from the Bridge

Brooklyn’s Red Hook district remains one of New York’s most iconic and mysterious neighbourhoods. Surrounded by water on three sides, the residents of this enclave in the 1950s were isolated from the rest of the city and widely mistrusted because of it.

Dominated by immigrants, most notably Italians, many of its 21,000 residents were longshoremen living in the Red Hook Houses. It was also the stalking ground of gangsters and small-time criminals such as the notorious Albert Anastasia – even Al Capone started out there.

Despite its gangland reputation, Red Hook was also a place of hard-working families and fierce loyalty. This is where Eddie Carbone lived with his family who, like the rest of the Italian immigrants, had settled there after fleeing mass poverty in southern Italy. American immigration laws at the time meant that quotas were set for different nationalities, and the only option for many was to enter the country illegally, the looming threat of the Immigration Bureau a constant worry. For the families of Red Hook, the act of informing the authorities was seen as an unforgivable betrayal.

Arthur Miller researched Red Hook extensively prior to writing A View from the Bridge. His investigations into the murder of a young dockworker called Pete Panto who challenged corrupt union leadership resulted in a screenplay entitled The Hook.

But Miller abandoned it after Hollywood producers demanded fundamental changes to the story. However, during his research, Miller came across another story that caught his attention:

‘a longshoreman who had ratted to the Immigration Bureau on two brothers, his own relatives, who were living illegally in his very home, in order to break an engagement between one of them and his niece… Some whispered that [the squealer] had been murdered by one of the brothers.’

This was in 1947. Eight years later Miller would return to this story as the foundation for A View from the Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge of the play’s title overshadowed the Red Hook docks. This structural masterpiece, completed in 1883, can be seen as the representation of a span between two very different worlds.

Stretching from deprived Brooklyn to cosmopolitan Manhattan, the bridge was a pathway between poverty and opportunity. To the residents of Red Hook, those who lived on the ‘other side’ were, according to Eddie Carbone, ‘a different kind of people’.

Miller’s masterpiece immerses us in Red Hook’s strange world of secrets and sacred rules, a powerful portrait of what happens when societal bridges are broken.

References | ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Albert Wertheim, in The Cambridge Companion to Arthur Miller (ed. Christopher Bigsby, Cambridge University Press 2008).