By Kieran K. Meadows
An old woman pushed her walker out in front of her one morning in late March as she began to cross Wolcott Street in Brooklyn. She stopped abruptly not far from the sidewalk. A gray sedan made a sharp left turn in front of her from Dwight Street, flying past the “no left turn” sign posted above the stop sign on the corner, and coming within a few feet of hitting the woman.
A week earlier, in the same spot, Millie Otero, who lives across the street, stood on the corner and watched a police squad car make the same move.
“They’re not supposed to do it, but they do it too,” she said.
Local residents say this intersection in the center of Red Hook has been dangerous for years. An increase in traffic headed to and from the Ikea furniture store, which opened last year, and the Fairway supermarket, has only added to the danger. Neighbors say they have seen near-accidents here almost every day. People have been injured but no one has been killed at the intersection in the past five years, according to the city Department of Transportation.
The intersection is not of the classic 4-way variety. Instead, where the four streets—Lorraine, Wolcott, Otsego and Dwight—meet forms a 50-foot long triangular island, with multiple intersections in close proximity to one another. There is no traffic signal at the intersection, apparently because the “Bermuda” triangle is privately owned.
“That’s part of the problem,” said Craig Hammerman, the district manager of Community Board 6. “If we knew who owned the triangle, we would certainly bring them into the conversation.”
The mystery triangle island of scattered grass and dirt is surrounded by an iron gate with an entrance that is usually chained shut with a padlock. It is empty inside, except for a tree and a small 7-foot high white wooden shed that sits on one end surrounded by a few bushes. A black Ford Taurus SE sedan, possibly the owner’s, is parked next to the shed on the grass.
On one side of the triangle is the Red Hook Houses—30 buildings of an old red brick public housing project, home to over 8,000 people, over 70 percent of the neighborhood’s population. A block away is a local elementary school, PS 15.
The public library and the senior citizens center are located on another side of the triangle. On the last side sits three stores: a fried chicken joint that also sells pizza; a bodega grocery store; and storefront with “for rent” signs in the window that used to be a barbershop.
Besides the pedestrian traffic around the triangle that results from of the sheer number of people who live here and who walk to these central community locations, there is now more vehicle traffic, much of it from outsiders headed to the big box stores Ikea and Fairway.
“For years, it was only the traffic that was going out of the neighborhood, but now with the Ikea, the traffic is unreal,” said Pat Jones, a B77 bus driver who grew up in the neighborhood. “I would say it has picked up at least 500 percent.”
Adding to the traffic, Jones’ B77 bus makes a wide turn in both directions at points on the triangle, as it winds through the neighborhood.
“You have the bus companies nearby as well, it’s real dangerous,” she said. She said she even remembered an accident four or five years ago when a sanitation truck ran over a kid about a block away.
Due to the constant stream of deliveries and customers to the big box stores, the intersection at the triangle is almost constantly busy. And with many children and seniors crossing here, many residents say that there should be a traffic signal. The residents believe the lack of a traffic signal only makes a dangerous intersection even less safe.
But Hammerman, the district manager, said he couldn’t request a signal at the intersection because the triangle is privately owned—and he didn’t know who owned it.
In fact, nobody seemed to know much about the triangle.
Resident Otero said she didn’t know a lot about the triangle either. She suggested talking to people from the senior citizens center. But one woman seemed to know more. She has spotted a “snotty old woman” going in and out of the gate when the weather gets nice.
According to New York City Department of Finance property records, the block’s lot is owned by Von Crab Athletic Club, Inc. However, there is nothing in the area with the company’s name. It only has a P.O. box and a listed phone number. No one picks up at the number.
One recent Wednesday morning as Jones, the bus driver, made a wide left turn from Lorraine onto Dwight Street through the triangle’s intersection, she pointed to a goateed man wearing a baseball cap who stood near a mailbox on the corner talking to another man walking his dog.
“Go talk to Vic,” she said, “and tell him Pat told you to talk to him.”
Victor Hernandez was born at Cumberland Hospital in 1954 and has lived his whole life in Red Hook. As such, he knew exactly who owned the triangle.
“Carol Von-something,” he said. An old black woman in her 70s or 80s, he thinks, and he said she comes out of her apartment at 80 Dwight Street, across the street, every once in a while now because she has a hard time getting around. Could her last name be Von Crab?
Hernandez’s information jogged Jones’ memory. She remembered Carol too, but said Von Crab didn’t sound right. Jones said she had seen Carol at the triangle.
“If it’s a nice day, she’ll be out there fiddling around, fixing the garden,” she said.
Both Hernandez and Jones remembered that Carol Vonscheper—as her name turned out to be due to some detective work searching public records—bought the triangle lot from the city about 30 years ago.
Vonscheper, using a company name—Von Crab Athletic Club, Inc.— bought the lot on Sept. 8, 1976 for $1,900 from the city at a public auction, according to documents and ACRIS property records kept by the city Department of Finance.
Hernandez said he remembers that Vonscheper had wanted to build a karate school on the lot for her son, but then tragedy struck when her son died after she bought the lot. Hernandez said he thinks drums are kept in the white shed and he thinks the parked car may not even work—rats got to the underbelly, he said.
So will the triangle ever get a traffic signal? That remains to be seen. As Hammerman, the district manager said, he’d be happy to bring the owner into the signal request process.
However, Vonscheper isn’t likely to put in an official request; she is not listed and seldom comes outside. Perhaps, one day, when the weather is nice, concerned neighbors can catch her as she tends “the garden.”