Vinegar Hill is a four block sliver of a neighborhood nestled in between Dumbo and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
It’s effectively a dead end so you wouldn’t find yourself there unless it was your destination.
I rode my bike there as part of a series of weekend outings I started during the pandemic because everything was closed, traffic was light and riding was “socially distant.”
My first stop in Vinegar Hill was Cafe Gitane, the cousin of the legendary Nolita breakfast spot that remains closed due to Covid. This location recently opened up on a shortened schedule.
My waitress, who used to work in the Nolita restaurant, was pessimistic about the future.
She lives on the Lower East Side and people are leaving in droves. No one has any work and they cannot pay the rent. Things don’t seem like they will change anytime soon, she said.
She said Gitane is launching a clothing and apparel line based on its vintage chic appeal and that may help pull them through.
There was such a disconnect between her grim outlook and the sunny afternoon.
I sat out front at a table and had this lovely view of the Belgian Block street and a series of row houses.
Looking down the street to the left I could see the smokestack at the Con Edison substation on Hudson Street.
It feels like it could be Philly or Boston. You couldn’t feel farther from New York City. It’s quiet even though its just a few blocks from the crowds of Dumbo, with its chic modern apartments and busy waterfront park.
There is all sorts of quaint packed into these few small streets, including homes from the 1830s and 1850s when it was an Irish neighborhood.
In the late 1880s the neighborhood was full of illegal distilleries that were eventually raided by the U.S. Army for failure to pay taxes.
There are still old row houses and a number of overgrown lots, including one with a truck that has to be 70 years old. It is mysteriously parked among a glade of trees.
The most amazing sight is the former Navy commandants house, located off a cul-de-sac at the end of Little Street. The house was built as part of the development of the Navy Yard in 1806. Commodore Perry lived here in the 1840s before his famous trip to Japan.
The Navy Yard played a huge and somewhat forgotten role in American history. As many as 70,000 people worked there during WWII. They built the Battleship Arizona, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor, and a few years later the Battleship Missouri, where the the Japanese signed the peace treaty after the bombing of Hiroshima.
After the war the Navy Yard was closed. The Commandant’s house was sold in 1964 and has been in private hands ever since. You can peer through these awesome gates to get a glimpse.
You cannot see this house and not want to live in it.
Currently the house is owned by Charles Gilbert, a neurologist from Rockefeller University who bought it in 1997. He turns out to be a rather distinguished and interesting fellow. According to the university’s web site:
“The Gilbert lab studies the visual cortex, including a series of areas mediating object recognition and perceptual tasks. The job of the visual cortex is to take signals from the retina, group features belonging to objects, and determine their shapes. The lab investigates the mechanism by which this occurs at the level of cortical circuitry.”
Unfortunately, he is a private person and doesn’t open the house for tours.
Vinegar Hill has a few other surprises. There is an old firehouse that’s been converted to lofts and weirdly, a Buddhist temple that is located on the spot of a former gas station.
The Dorje Ling Buddhist Center looks like it was lifted from Singapore and dropped into Brooklyn.
Across the street from the temple there is a modern apartment building, a smaller version of the type you find cropping up everywhere in Dumbo, Williamsburg and Long Island City.