Two-Story 19th-Century Backhouse


Location Vinegar Hill (Brooklyn)

Rent $850 (market)

Square feet 1000

Occupant Nick Terry (abstract painter; media projects coordinator, American Museum of Natural History)

The most terrible thing happened. I was walking along these quiet, sunny streets thinking how civilized the industrial DUMBO-Vinegar Hill area has become over the years, but then I saw this crowd of people across from the red and yellow Dorje Ling Buddhist Center. A man who works at the furniture factory nearby was there with blood on his forehead, and he said—he speaks Chinese—that a strange man on a bicycle threw him on the ground and attacked him with a knife. Then all these police cars came. I think I know him. He’s such a nice man.

As I walked a few blocks to your street with all the ancient storefronts—one with “Barber Shop” letters smudged out on a window—only a cat was moving on the ripped-up cobblestones. Then I noticed you have a violet glass doorknob and a mysterious garden full of big yellow and red autumn leaves. Inside your house—the brick floors, wood beams, simple table, white bed, bowl of bananas—it all reminds me of a house that belonged to an Iranian artist in another city. My wife is an Iranian artist.

You have a wife! You didn’t tell me. Where is she? She lives on the Upper West Side. Maryam Amiryani, she’s an artist. She has a studio and apartment there. She does come to visit. Actually we go back and forth. Neither of our places is big enough to have a work space for both of us. I paint upstairs here; to paint, you need to be alone. I renovated all this before I met her, but her persona has had an influence. I moved here seven years ago. I’d just come back from a year in Asia. I’d grown up in Westchester, lived in Williamsburg. I ran into a friend who’d seen the place and thought of me. I saw it the next day, fell in love with it. It was great luck. The main thing is you’d never know it’s here. It’s really tucked away from the street, like something in the south of France. There’s a sense of an enclosed, very simple sanctuary. This structure itself is brick, which has a sense of solidity that is becoming more and more rare these days. Vinegar Hill is just a cluster of a few streets east of DUMBO. This was probably a backhouse where an Irish worker lived when he worked in the Navy Yard. This was a large Irish community. To lure more Irish over, the developer called it Vinegar Hill because they thought it would be a strong memory for the Irish. Vinegar Hill was the name of the place in Ireland where the Irish had their climactic battle during their rebellion against the British.

I read that thousands of Irish died in the 1798 battle. Then I also read that since this Vinegar Hill was a navy village it was bawdy with brothels, and they say gold coins were buried by Captain Kidd underneath the cobblestones. The area declined with the Navy Yard, which was closed as a military shipyard in 1966. We have a neighborhood association. Monique Denoncin, the president, is the grande dame of the neighborhood. I’m sure she’ll look into what happened to that man. We don’t see each other a lot, but we’re tight. We’ve gotten trees planted, which is good for the air because of the Con Ed plant nearby. Have you seen Admiral Perry’s former house? He was the Navy Yard commandant. It’s around the corner.

Let’s go! [We walk there] It’s so big and white—with a gate like a mansion in a ’70s movie mystery—three sports cars inside. I just realized your sanctuary is surrounded by the former house of a North Pole explorer, the 1390-unit Farragut public housing project, a Con Ed plant, Jehovah’s Witnesses buildings, the Navy Yard, fancy DUMBO lofts . . . The juxtaposition is crazy.