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Neighborhoods New York: Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

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Vinegar Hill is one of those neighborhoods that isn’t.

Lots of people probably think that this neighborhood is part of DUMBO, in fact – or that it doesn’t really register as having a name at all. It’s no more than nine square blocks, tucked onto a bump of land just to the north of the old Navy Yard and the east of the trendoid neighborhood surrounding the base of the Manhattan Bridge.

And there isn’t much to look at either, at first blush. It’d have a great view of the East River, except for the huge Con Ed power plant sitting right bang to the north along the edge of the water. No real hub to speak of. No businesses really – and the ones that are there are irretrievably quirky. A pita bakery. Five art galleries. A Japanese antique store. A guy designing custom children’s furniture. An Asian foods importer. One restaurant, which I’ve never seen actually open.

But even so – there is a weird sort of charm to the place. I first found it during walks home from the subway – my typical commute requires taking a bus to the subway, and on the way home in summer, I skip the final leg on the bus and walk instead, walking right through Vinegar Hill.

And that’s how I saw the townhouse with the Bible messages posted in the windows; two different verses, each written on paper in childlike bubble-block script with crayon and exhorting me to “pray every day”. Two blocks away there’s the storefront with a whole other viewpoint – someone’s loaded the front window with a collection of left-wing bumper stickers, with slogans like “I give evolution two opposable thumbs up” or “Give Bush an inch and he thinks he’s a ruler”.  A huge poster of Jim Morrison, with the caption “AMERICAN POET”, fills one side window, beside a sign reading “Hippies Use Back Door”.  There’s an entire Buddhist temple lurking on one block, a huge yellow cement wall surrounding the lot – but gaps in the wall give you glimpses of a smaller yellow building with blocky red trim, and garlands of wildly-colored prayer flags strung all around.

And then there’s the murkier corners.  You’d hardly think a neighborhood so small would have hidden bits, but…there’s one lot, surrounded by a fence and overrun with thick woods, old car parts littering the yard, and a dirt driveway leading about 20 yards into the trees – a glimpse of a French window at the end of it.  The only indication that anyone lives there at all is a mailbox with a fancy artsy sign mounted around it, and a profusion of “no dumping” signs.

And then there is The Commander’s House.  When the Navy Yard in north Brooklyn was an active Navy post, it was the commanders’ quarters; a huge white three-story house, widow’s walk at the top, perched on the hill overlooking the whole Navy Yard to the east. The lawn is still meticulously maintained, and a thick row of trees obscures the view of the blocky Navy Yard buildings.  There’s a huge wrought-iron fence surrounding the property, and a thick gate over the driveway locking anyone out.  

The Commander’s House is privately owned today, and whoever owns it is very protective.  They’ve let a couple of television productions use it (it’s been used for exterior shots of “Nucky’s” house on Boardwalk Empire), but that’s it.  One time when I happened to pass by, the gate was actually open, and I started walking towards it, fascinated – would I actually get to maybe go in? – but before I got within ten feet of the gate, a man sitting in a car I hadn’t noticed opened the door and got out, looking at me in alarm.  He started walking over, but when I waved an apology and backed off, he just got back in the car, going back to his watch.

I don’t pass by every time I walk home through Vinegar Hill, but once in a while I stop by and peer through the gate, trying to see what I can see.


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