How can you escape from the New York City grind on an MTA card budget? Make a break for Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill, the sleepy neighbourhood that’s managed to safeguard its 400-year-old, cobblestone streets from the clutches of big development. It’s on small but hallowed ground, bound together by a tight-knit community whose homes look like they were teleported-in by a 19th century European city. We let ourselves get lost in its charm — and even discovered a few clues to unlocking its best kept secrets along the way…
First, there’s getting there. The enclave is perched on a hill by the old Navy Yard with a waterfront view of Manhattan, and many of the remaining historic houses date back to the 18th and 19th century.
As for the name, well, it owes that moniker to a clever marketing scheme “to attract Irish immigrants,” explains New York Times journalist Dulcie Leimbach. “It comes from the site in County Wexford, Ireland, where Irish rebels fought the English in 1798.”
Indeed, the Dutch had started settling the area as early as early as 1637, but it was the hoards of hard-working Irish immigrants who put down roots in the neighbourhood. And if the Irish are infamous for one thing, it’s their work hard, play hard mentality. Today, the area is so quiet you could hear a pin-drop at rush hour — but back in the day, it was a pretty raunchy spot. “At the time, Sands Street, which now runs through the Farragut housing project” of the area, says Leimbach, “was the home of bars and brothels. For a while, it had earned the name Hell’s Half Acre”.
As fate would have it, that “Hell” has turned into an anachronistic paradise, a place whose miniature (and mainly residential) streets are still packed with low-slung buildings from the late 19th century, vintage cars, and sun-bathing cats.
If you’re looking for a watering-hole, you’ve got one choice: Vinegar Hill House. With it’s wily plant and grandma-centric decor, one could easily hole up here for an entire Sunday afternoon until the ships come in…
That said, take note: it serves a mean brunch on Saturday and Sunday, but is only open for dinner during the week.
Once you’ve loaded up on farmstead cheeses and scotch, head back out to wander the streets in silence. Take your pick from Front St., Water St., Plymouth St., and a handful of others — they’re a stone’s throw distance from each other, and each one deserves a double-take.
There is one Catch-22: you can stumble into the bubble of Vinegar Hill as quickly as you can be slapped out of it, because it’s impossible to miss the Con Edison Power Plant at its far reaches. It’s been looming over Plymouth Street’s shoulder since the 1950s, along with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and creates a surreal contrast with mom-and-pop shops.
Case in point: the view down the street from the enigmatically named “Department of Signs & Symbols,” which is a “repository of archetypes and images that also happens to be the laboratory of artist Daniel Horowitz” (Who knows, ask nicely enough and you might be able to poke around). Some neighbours are adamant about shutting down the plant, while others carry on, turning a blind-eye to the kind battles it represents. “Whaddya going to do, throw a rock at it?” one local tells us, “Ain’t gunna do much.”
Finish gawking at the industrial beast, and then make a break for Front street: the undisputed Queen of the area’s residential stretches, boasting some of the last attached brownstone buildings in the city:
As for the reigning King of Vinegar Hill, that title belongs to the reclusive resident of an all-white mansion on a dead-end street, “the Commandant’s House.” It was built in 1805 for Commodore Matthew C. Perry, but it’s fallen into mysterious hands of late. Unless you’re keen on hopping spiked, barbed-wire gate, you’re not likely to sneak a peak past the driveway…
It’s had many ups-and-downs over the years, swinging between states of complete abandon and utter luxury. At once point, a woman walking her dog tells us, she heard there were throngs of Rolls Royces lining its driveway. “Oh who knows what goes on in there now,” she says before leaving.
It’s a shame, because the house has quite a few bets riding on what it looks like today. It also carries some serious historical weight, as it was designed by the very same architect who built another white house — you know, that one in Washington, D.C.
In fact, it’s said that one of its rooms shares the exact dimensions of the President’s Oval Office. We think this archival photograph makes a pretty good case in that legend’s favour…
It’s a fitting final stop for our adventure to Vinegar Hill, and a reminder that its streets are just as enchanting as they are tight-lipped — but just as we’re about to leave, the gate swings open, with a car driving slowly enough inside for us to pull-off a polite knock on its window.
So who on Earth is tending to the mystery mansion? We can’t say much, but we can tell you this: he’s got great taste in sunglasses. “That’s one beautiful home you’ve got there,” we say before calling it a day, to which lowers his shades, and cracks a smug smile. “Yeah,” he says, “I know.”
The Vinegar Hill neighbourhood can be reached on the Line F at the York Street subway stop.
By Francky Knapp, our beatnik at heart and die-hard Anaïs Nin fan living in New York City.