Back here in red hook

Zach halberg & lucy moloney


With IKEA in sight and one of the best views of the Statue of Liberty anywhere, David Sharps' Waterfront Museum floats along the southern edge of Red Hook. A restored 103-year-old shipping barge that also serves as his family's residence, the Museum is a place where form meets function and education and entertainment collide.

In the words of Roberta Weisbrod, Chair of the Working Harbor Committee, the Museum is "a spiritual as well as physical grace note of Red Hook." Its role as a showboat, she says, can help us "understand that we too can make magic in the lives around us."

The morning before the Museum's annual fundraising gala, I spoke with David about how he got here, why the barge exists, and what it means to live on the outskirts. (Video: Lucy Moloney for Newest York)

I got this barge 31 years ago at the young age of 29, full of about six feet, seven feet of mud. Over the course of two years, I emptied the hull of the mud and got it afloat, working with a great carpenter-surfboard artist, Desmond Kovic. He and I and a bunch of volunteers took it to Hoboken, New Jersey for its first port of call.

My introduction to the waterfront was really through the eyes of a clown, of all things. Teaching myself to juggle, I became a clown and juggler. I worked the street in New Orleans for a little bit, went to Baltimore, and then met during college a friend who put me on a stage and choreographed something and we created an act that got onto cruise ships.

I was on cruise ships from '77 all the way up through '82 when I went back to school at what they call Jacques Lecoq in Paris. And there, I had a two year training with a master Jacques Lecoq, who did music and movement, mainly, but also theater: movement theater, a lot of creating, looking at the creative process. That gave me, I think, the courage to try something a little bit different.

So I came to New York City to look over this mud puppy. My juggling partner and I moved in, and we made home amongst a bunch of houseboats, a guy that lived on a tug, and another guy that had a two-story Lehigh Valley barge. We were on a barge that didn’t float, and there was another house-boat that I think that had been constructed out in Long Island, and Ray the Rower, who came down every day and rowed in the river. A sixty-some year old man.

Photo: Jackson Krule

Photo: Jackson Krule

Having been a clown and a juggler, I guess you could then put fool on my resume, because I had no experience with industrial arts, you know. It could be argued that it was a foolish thing that I did in buying this. But you've got to love the fool, because he'll get himself into something that nobody else maybe would. And lo and behold, the barge is the only one left.

You can't underestimate the power of patience, whether it's foolishly applied or not. At the end of the day, you may have pushed the bean a little bit up the hill. But you may have also had a bad day and you scratch your head and ask yourself, “What am I doing?”

We all decided that coming to Red Hook would be a wonderful thing. Nobody came to Red Hook, so we needed a bus. Con Edison sponsored our first bus. And the bus would go down Court Street in Cobble Hill with a big sign that said. “Circus Sundays: Sunset Music Series” to bring people down to the Waterfront.

I have seating for about a hundred of these beautiful New York City school chairs. We’d fill the place and boy, the locals would be going like this. [looking around] We’d ask, How many people are coming to Red Hook for the first time? And there were lots – lots of people were coming down for just something a little bit different. You know, the music and the circus on the barge. We say probably over a 100,000 people have been aboard the barge. 

Photo: Jackson Krule

Photo: Jackson Krule

It's the only one of its kind. So an oldtimer will come across the gangway and step on the boat and the tug will go by and boy, you can see him get his sealegs, and he starts telling stories.

Education is one of our big components. We try to tell what the barge was used for, why it became obsolete, the changes and the shifts in transportation and commerce history that made it such that we didn’t need the railroad. The long and short of it is the box and containerization. That’s the era that we're in now: containerization and free shipping. Man, you could probably bet an old-timer 150 years ago a month's pay that you'd see a time when there would be free shipping. I mean, free shipping! That's quite an achievement. 

Historic preservation: I love to think and talk about that. Tough fight, though. There’s so much that’s so beautiful about Red Hook. The light you get because we don't have tall buildings along our shorelines, the cobblestone streets – you still have some. The historic charm of back here in Red Hook – it's beautiful. I hope we make good decisions going forward with urban planning. I hope to be a part of it.

I think finding a home for this took out the mid-life crisis that I might have had if I hadn't floated the boat. I could have gone on and maybe done something else, but the barge did float. It may not be afloat forever, but she made it to 103.

Photo: Jackson Krule

Photo: Jackson Krule


When people step onto the barge, they know something's different but they don't know what. And it is kind of a step back in time – you don’t see two-by-fours and plasterboard in a lot of modern materials. When they come aboard, I hope people forget they're on a boat. And then I hope that they get that feeling of a boat going by, and it jostles you and everything kind of wakes up a little bit. I hope they get a chance to see some of the egrets and the blue herons, and the turns.

There goes a butterfly.

The waterfront is an edge. And it's a beautiful edge. Sometimes, though, it's right at the edge, so that when the weather comes you get hit pretty hard. I don't know if the barge will always be here, but we've been through Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. My goodness, you can't take anything for granted. We're all on an edge. We try to surround ourselves with all kinds of comforts and work real hard feel like we have things, but everything's kind of on the edge.

A boat can be a great analogy – we're all on the same boat. It's a fun concept. I have a friend who's given us load of materials and advice. One time he says to me, “Geez, I feel like my boat's sinking and on fire at the same time.” I say, “Aw Jerry, I’m sorry you feel that way.” And he said, “No, I really thought about it.” And I didn’t really know where he was going, and he says, “I figure, if I let it sink at least it would put the fire out.” And that's true. But then you have to deal with the remainder.