While on an Ikea trek a few weekends ago, I unexpectedly stumbled upon Red Hook’s Ball Field on my way from the Ikea shuttle to the store. Visiting the ball field vendors and learning of it’s history prompted me to do a bit more research on the immigrant population working to create what NYC blogs and magazine coin some of the best cuisine in the city.
Red Hook is located in Brooklyn, quite inconveniently between the waterfront and the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, with no subway station nearby. Before the establishment of vendors, the neighborhood was declining with a rise of abandoned properties and crime. A public housing development called the Red Hook Houses, only furthered these conditions and made Red Hook known as one of the worst places to live in NYC.
In the early 1970s, Hispanic immigrants started arriving in New York City from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. Red Hook at this time was predominately African-American, with residents also from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – many of who enjoyed baseball as a recreational sport. Different than these residents, the new immigrants from Mexico and Central American preferred to play soccer. Red Hook’s Ball Field provided an excellent place to do so – a vast grass field otherwise unoccupied became the arena for immigrant Soccer Ligas (organized leagues). Soccer players. The players and their cheering friends and family members soon comprised the Ball Field’s daily population and with that developed the need for food in refreshments.
What began as simply bringing food to eat, to feeding soccer players, friends, and family soon became a vendor business by the 1980s. These immigrant-owned businesses honed new skills, employed family members for labor and helped immigrants pool together their often-scarce capital.The food they would sell was prepared traditionally from family recipes as they could remember them, from materials at hand. This would re-create the taste of home, while bringing in some innovative fusions from their new NYC home. This market of traditional products in a where buyers and sellers shared the same language and ethnic background established a common cultural space where immigrants feel welcomed and at home. Meanwhile, non-Latinos stumbling into the Hispanic enclave felt like they’ve walked into an unexpected Little Latin American in the midst of Brooklyn. However, this is not a typical enclave immigrant community – the vendor’s don’t actually live there.
This is perhaps what makes the Ball Field community so interesting; that the identity and cultural importance created by the vendors only lasts till sunset. The immigrants who come here for work and socializing live in other Brooklyn neighborhoods: Bushwick, Flatbush, Sunset Park, and some areas of Park Slope. They come by day and disappear by night, nonetheless creating a community identity in this particular nook of the city.
Aside from created businesses for immigrants and a social and cultural center for Latin Americans to identify with and enjoy, the Ball Field vendors have also caught the attention of many non-Latinos around the city. As many people started visiting the Ball Field, blogs and magazines began raving about this excellent authentic South American food, drawing only more “outsiders” to the fields for a taste. The vendors received a surge of popularity due to this media exposure, which furthers their welcome to the city as well as increases their business.
However, political members did not always meet the vendor community with the same enthusiasm. In 2007, the Parks Department decided not to renew their temporary agreement with the vendors and allowed other concessions to open up for competitive bidding – bad news for the vendors. The immigrants, with the help of the media, local politicians, and loyal patrons like the Food Vendor Committee of Red Hook, were able to fight and secure a 6-year permit as well as a news feature on the Parks Department website, endorsing the vendors and their tradition of providing delicious Latin American food to Red Hook. Since then, the food vendors of Red Hook’s Ball Fields have only furthered into the ranks of popular food in NYC, serving as an inspirational symbol of immigrant business success.
Latin American Immigrant influence is also still affluent around the city. The popularity of soccer and dominance of Latinos in the Ball Fields reflect a large and quickly growing increase in Latin American Immigration since 1985. In that year, New York had one store that sold tortillas, and by 2001 there were 6 tortilla factories owned by Mexican immigrants, producing ten million tortillas a week in a small area of Brooklyn called the “Tortilla Triangle. ”
As in most places, gentrification is inescapable. After the Parks Department put in a pool in Red Hook in 1991, white families started moving in, but luckily this did not drive out the Latino community. According to the 2000 Census, whites comprised 49% of the Red Hook neighborhood – the largest group there, while Hispanics comprised 39% — the largest minority group in the area. Aside from English, Spanish was the most commonly spoke language in the neighborhood. Food vendors still attract a wide scope of customers from all around the city, that visit Red Hook with the purpose of eating some of the best Latino food in New York.