Monday, May 17, 2010

Vinegar Hill

Hudson Ave. at Plymouth St.

I like Vinegar Hill. Whenever my walks take me to downtown or through downtown I try to swing up through there if I can manage it. It always sounded to me like a place that belonged with Tombstone, Dodge City, or the OK Corral, though it turns out that the name comes from the last battle of the (unsuccessful) Irish Revolution of 1798, named thus by the man who bought the land in 1800. Most of this factual background on the neighborhood (as opposed to my own opinions), by the way, I get from that invaluable book The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Plymouth St. looking toward Bridge St. and the Manhattan Bridge beyond

Sands Street, once considered the main street of Vinegar Hill, from the mid-1800s on attracted bars, gambling houses, brothels, drug peddlers, and thieves. In fact, the commandant of the Navy Yard finally closed down the Sands Street entrance to the yard to try to keep the sailor's from being led into temptation.

Plymouth St. and Hudson Avenue at the Con Ed Plant

You wouldn't know that from walking through there today; there is an almost preternatural quietness around there on the weekend. If you wander those streets on a Saturday or Sunday you could hear a pin drop, as the saying goes. It's probably because most of the area is still commercial, light industrial, with a very large Con Ed plant along the river. What the weekdays are like I don't know.

Plymouth St. from Bridge St. toward Gold St.

Also, it's tucked away in a corner hard up against the East River and the Navy Yard, and Sands Street, still the main route over to the BQE and the Manhattan Bridge, is no longer part of a smaller Vinegar Hill. It reminds me of one of those fictional small towns you read about that were once bustling with activity until the new highway bypass gets put in and then sink into obscurity. Sort of. All the signs direct traffic, bikes and cars, down Sands Street before they get near Vinegar Hill.

Hudson Ave. at Plymouth St.

But keep walking up the hill on Navy Street beyond Sands and beyond the Farragut Houses and you're suddenly in what appears to be a tiny village with tree-shaded cobbled streets and frame houses and small two- to three-story brick buildings. This part of Vinegar Hill is only a few square blocks but it's worth stumbling on.

Hudson Ave. at Plymouth St.

I think the wonderment of small, special places like this is all the more for finding them accidentally which, if you're reading this, you won't be doing any longer. Still, it can be a pleasant surprise walking into it for the first time even if you know it's there.

Hudson Ave. at Water St.

Since I was speaking of Walt Whitman in an earlier post, let me quote some lines that came to mind when I first strolled Vinegar Hill:

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer

Hudson Ave. at Water St.

Well, okay, take away the orange cones and maybe you can loaf at your ease better, but even they don't interfere with the sense of calm that pervades the place. I like those doglegs you sometimes find in smaller older neighborhoods; the way they break up the tedious regularity of the street grid and make a place seem a little more informal.

Looking down Hudson Ave.

The ironic thing is that when Whitman wrote those, Vinegar Hill was known as Hell's Half Acre and nothing like a place to loaf; it probably made even the old Times Square look like a walk in the park. My only fear right now is that the area known as DUMBO is going to slither it's way northward like a kudzu vine and smother the place with little boutique stores and salad bars and Starbucks . . .

Hudson Ave. at Water St.

Evans & Little Sts.

That is a gorgeous home and from what I can tell from looking at maps of the area, it's always been part of the Navy Yard. Whether it still is, or is in private hands now, I don't know. As a Navy Yard home, though, it sure as hell has fared better than Admiral's Row down at the bottom of Navy St. Of which more the next time.

A General View of Vinegar Hill

A Closer View of Vinegar Hill

In the views above, the Con Ed plant is at the top along the East River and the tree shaded streets are in the curved patch of trees on the right hand side, hard against the Navy Yard. The Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges are out of the picture further down on the left.