Vinegar Hill – – Brooklyn’s Front Line for Civic Change

Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill gets its name from a famous battle in Ireland where Irish revolutionists fought the British in 1798. Now, the neighborhood is the front line for a different kind of battle – – one with civic change.

Historic World War II Navy residences blend with ultra modern, high-rise luxury residences. Abandoned storefronts and warehouses sit face to face with upstart art galleries and mom and pop storefronts. Old timers and neighborhood newcomers, singles and families alike, share walking and jogging space on the narrowly paved European-esque city blocks.

“Vinegar Hill shows the signs of a changing landscape,” said local artist Nicholas Evans-Cato. “It makes an impression that it is this mysterious time capsule because people really don’t know it exists.”

Stationed on Vinegar Hill’s south border, like a medieval rampart guarding stone castle walls, are the brick apartments of York Street’s Farragut housing project. With all of the focus rested on revitalizing Vinegar Hill, Farragut residents like Brenda Miller wonder what the future holds for their home.

“People are scared that they are going to be taken out of here,” she said. “A neighborhood group started to put flyers on our door saying we have to fight for our homes and keep our neighborhood. We are crazy over here.”

Miller also said that the members of the group knocked on her door “numerous times” inviting her to meetings on the issue. However, she did not remember the name the group responsible for the flyers or the meetings.

Howard Marder, a representative of the New York City Housing Authority, said that NYCHA has no plans to sell any of its buildings at Farragut. “I don’t know who these people are,” he said of the unknown civic group. “But I can assure you that there is no reason for residents to fear being ‘thrown out of their homes.’”

Doreen Gallo, Executive Director of the DUMBO Neighborhood Association, said York Street serves as the beachhead for the neighborhood’s financial disparity. “Between Farragut Houses and Vinegar Hill is this invisible division line,” she said. “I’m just worried that you have this affordable housing complex that might be at risk.”

History attests to the ever-changing nature of Vinegar Hill’s landscape. At its height in the early 20th century, Vinegar Hill was a factory district for industries like coffee production, metal works, and varnish manufacturing. Many of today’s nationally known companies began in this area, including spice giant Durkee and paint maker Benjamin Moore. In 1952, the city saw the need for residential expansion and built the Farragut Houses, according to a New York City Landmarks Commission report.

But, eventually companies abandoned the area’s cramped streets for the sprawling, inexpensive spaces of mainland America. And in 1966, the United States Navy decommissioned the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which employed over 60,000 people in its heyday.

Residential old timers said that Vinegar Hill’s living conditions deteriorated after the Navy Yard closed. “The garbage was baled up on the streets,” said Monique Denoncin, former Vinegar Hill Association president. “The large delivery trucks destroyed our trees and plants as they went through every day. And we had a lot of prostitutes and crime. People wondered, ‘Wow, can I even raise a child here?’”

Then came the 1970’s and an influx of families and artists who searched for real estate close to, but outside of the reach of Manhattan’s high rental prices.

Denoncin said this became an opportunity for residents to improve living conditions. “We who came in the 1970’s and 1980’s saw this neighborhood as a very special place,” Denoncin said. “We all knew each other and worked together, planting trees and flowers. We were always doing something to help make the neighborhood a lively community.”

According to Denoncin, the neighborhood association and the city argued and struggled over Vinegar Hill’s future for twenty years.

Then in 1997, the City Planning Board landmarked three sections of Front Street, Water Street and Hudson Avenue as historic districts, according to an official City report.

Vinegar Hill Association president Margo Hirsch said this was the turning point for the neighborhood. “The City just gave up on industrial development here,” she said. “There’s has been more done to develop the residential part of the neighborhood.”

Today, Vinegar Hill undergoes a similar revitalization like that of the 1970’s. But this time the artists originate from nearby DUMBO, not Manhattan, looking for relief from the trendy neighborhood’s steep real estate rates.

Yet, Vinegar Hill commuter Rhonda Johnson said she worries more about Farragut’s future than that of the surrounding neighborhood. “I’ve seen the all construction around here,” she said. “I see all the expensive houses getting built around here and it concerns me that the poor people will be pushed out from the neighborhood.”

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