Join our email newsletter to get Local Brooklyn News, Events & Offers in your inbox:

Subscribe

   •   Read our

Newsletter Archive

In 1800, a John Jackson bought a piece of land in the northeastern most section of Downtown Brooklyn and named part of it Vinegar Hill, after the location of the final battle in the Irish Revolution of 1798.

Its earliest residents were Irish-Americans followed by Lithuanian-Americans, Italian-Americans, Latin-Americans and African-Americans.

By the mid-1800s, the main street of the area, Sands Street, was home to a row of bars, gambling houses and brothels that attracted thieves and drug dealers. In the 1920s, the commandant of the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard ordered the Sands Street entrance to the complex closed so that his sailors wouldn’t be enticed by the activities.

The neighborhood was cleaned up after the building of the Farragut Houses public housing project and the razing of all of Sand Street’s neighboring houses in the 1950s.

  • A national historic landmark from the early 19th century stands gated-in at the end of Little Street in Vinegar Hill. The Commandant's House was built for the commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
  • The Commandant's House is now kept safe behind a tall gate.
  • A building is decorated with quirky posters and signs.
  • Many messages speak to passersby of this Vinegar Hill building.
  • Vinegar Hill's residential blocks closely neighbor a Con Edison power plant.
  • The neighborhood's eastern side meets DUMBO with cobblestone streets.
  • The Con Edison power plant at the southern end of Vinegar Hill takes up multiple blocks near the waterfront.
  • A mural painted by Tanya Lynn Albrigtsen-Frable and young volunteers tells the history of the Navy Yard. Brooklyn Navy Yard sits directly on the other side of the wall.
  • The Farragut Houses public housing complex was built in the early 1950s as a way to clean up crime in the neighborhood.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Vinegar Hill Got Its Name

The name of this small neighborhood has been around a lot longer than you might think. And it has nothing to do with vinegar.

The roughly six-block area, which runs from the East River waterfront to Front St. and from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Bridge St., was part of the original 17th-century Dutch town called Breukelen.

Among the first to buy land from the native Canarsie Indians there, in 1637, was the Rapelje family, French Huguenots who had sailed from Amsterdam in 1624. But John Rapelje was a Tory — he supported the British in the Revolutionary War — and the property was confiscated by the victorious new Americans.

The brothers Joshua and Comfort Sands — who gave their name to Sands Point, L.I., as well as Brooklyn’s Sands Street — bought that 160 acres of farmland from the government for $12,000 in 1784. They called the area Olympia and hoped to develop the property — it was then bigger than its current size — for summer visitors from Manhattan. 

John Jackson, an Irish shipbuilder, bought a part of that land in 1791 and built the area’s original shipyard as well as 10 houses for his shipbuilders. He sold 40 acres to the federal government in 1801 for use as a Yard. The rest he called Vinegar Hill, a small village of mainly Irish immigrant workers. (It was also popularly known as “Irishtown.”)

The name came from the Battle of Vinegar Hill, which ended the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

In the mid-19th century, the area around Sands Street became home to bars, brothels and gambling houses and was nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre.

Today, the quiet community is modernizing, but still features a 19th-century look with cobblestone streets and Federal style and Greek Revival homes.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.