Close-Up on Vinegar Hill


Portions of this article have been updated.

A visitor to Vinegar Hill might wonder, while gazing down a postcard-perfect Belgian-block lane, where was the vinegar made? Surely, in one of these old buildings there must have been vats of that pungent pickling liquid, maybe even a vinegar pipeline, though it’s hard to imagine now. But the neighborhood’s evocative name has nothing to do with acetic acid.

In 1801, speculator John Jackson named his newly acquired chunk of Brooklyn waterfront Vinegar Hill after a 1798 battle of the Irish rebellion—and even that hill probably wasn’t named after vinegar as we know it, but a type of berry. He hoped to draw sentimental Gaelic immigrants to his new neighborhood. It worked so well that the area also become known as Irish Town, and brothels, bars, and gambling salons sprung up to cater to its blue-collar denizens.

The neighborhood once claimed several large factories. ConEd built the behemoth Hudson Avenue Generating Station in 1951. The U.S. government decommissioned the Navy Yard in 1966, and artists and families arrived in the ’70s and ’80s, refurbishing the sagging century-old Greek-revival and Italianate buildings.

Today, the eight-square-block oxbow of row houses and lush dooryards is a throwback to mid-1800s Brooklyn charm—blocked by the towering, monolithic Farragut Houses; hemmed by the Navy Yard; and sheltered by the power plant, with its smokestacks and acres of transformers. DUMBO to the immediate south offers the most open access to Vinegar Hill’s historic district.

And DUMBO’s exploding real estate market is spreading uphill. The noise from saws, shovels, and hammers jars the quiet streets and alleyways of Vinegar Hill as cookie-cutter red-brick-and-steel buildings go up and warehouses are gutted for future lofts. The neighborhood association, as active as any in the city, is fighting to keep this nook precious, but Vinegar Hill, like its cousin Red Hook, has only retained its quiet urban-village atmosphere thanks to its obscurity. Just like the Hook, which Ikea and a hundred other developers are set to sink their own hooks into, Vinegar Hill is an endangered species.

Boundaries: The Navy Yard to the north, the East River to the west, Bridge Street to the south, and Sands Street to the east.

Transportation: The York Street stop on the F train is about a 10-minute walk from most parts of Vinegar Hill. The B61 bus serves Navy, York, and Gold streets. On-street parking is available.

Main Drags: Front Street connects the neighborhood with DUMBO and runs the breadth of Vinegar Hill. Hudson Avenue runs perpendicular to Front and skirts the Navy Yard. York and Bridge streets host minuscule commercial zones.

Prices to Rent and Buy: “Vinegar Hill is a hard neighborhood to gauge because there isn’t a lot of turnover,” says Caleb Taggart, an agent for Douglas Elliman Real Estate. “But when things do become available there, they’re highly sought after.”

Townhouses in the historic district start at $1 million, according to Taggart. A 1,067-square-foot studio in the new loft building at 50 Bridge Street is priced at $480,000, while an 1,845-square-foot unit with terraces in the same building is going for $1.5 million, according to the Developers Group website.

A two-plus-bedroom luxury apartment in a historic-district brownstone just rented for $3,000, said Taggart, and Craigslist has been advertising two Vinegar Hill rentals since late November: a two-bedroom unit in the newly developed 260 Water Street building for $2,200, and a one-bedroom at Water and Hudson for $1,350 per month.

What to Check Out: The Vinegar Hill Historic District comprises century-old brownstones in three separate groups: along Front Street, at the corner of Gold and Water streets, and along Hudson Avenue between Front and Plymouth streets. The bright-yellow Dorje Ling Buddhist Center at Front and Gold streets looks a little like a car dealership bedecked with prayer flags, testifying to the quirkiness of the area, and the center occasionally opens its doors to the public. The former navy commandant’s house also merits a look. The white, gated mansion at the cul-de-sac of Little and Evans streets boasts a sweeping view of the city—but it’s now a private residence, owned since 1997 by a Rockefeller University neurobiology professor.

Hangouts, Parks & Restaurants: Vinegar Hill lacks services. A tiny Fine Food supermarket, Chinese restaurant, and a deli sit opposite the Farragut Houses on York Avenue. Lano’s Family Café on Bridge Street has typical diner fare, while its neighbor Los Papi’s Restaurant serves up Spanish standards. The attractive storefronts of Hudson Avenue are screaming for a funky little café. But residents take advantage of DUMBO’s burgeoning service industry—Superfine, Grimaldi’s, Pedro’s, and the DUMBO General Store are 10 minutes away by foot. Same goes for parks. The jewels of Brooklyn’s waterfront, Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, lie just a short stroll down Plymouth Street.

Politicians: City Councilman David Yassky, State Assemblymember Joan L. Millman, State Senator Martin Connor, and U.S. representatives Nydia Velásquez, Edolphus Towns, and Major Owens, all Democrats.

Crime Statistics: The 84th precinct covers Vinegar Hill, DUMBO, and Downtown Brooklyn. As of September 25, 2005 it reported 0 murders, 6 rapes, 158 robberies, 100 felonious assaults, and 106 burglaries. (As of November 28, the police report zero murders this year, down from one last year; five rapes, up from three this time last year; 193 robberies, down from 276; 131 felonious assault, down from 143; 159 burglaries, down from 165).