It’s a Brooklyn phenomenon so common as to be a trope: the old neighborhood, over the sound and the fury of locals, succumbing to the forces of change. But in Vinegar Hill, the ten-block waterfront enclave wedged between DUMBO, Clinton Hill, and the sprawling Brooklyn Navy Yard, the old neighborhood has stood its ground, the result of a preservation-minded campaign for what’s considered the last surviving relic of Old Brooklyn. Holding down the fort as the president of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association is Aldona Vaiciunas, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, who still wakes up in the house on Hudson Avenue in which she was born.
We spoke with Aldona about the neighborhood’s history, the looming cranes of DUMBO, and what could become of her home.
Last month, the New York Times published a story with the headline, “Brooklyn’s Sleepy Enclave, Vinegar Hill, Awakens.” Have you seen any type of awakening?
Awakening for other people coming here. But for us, we would just rather stay a quiet, little neighborhood that nobody knows about. I was born and raised here. I believe we’re one of the few neighborhoods that still has that old aesthetic feel. We have our cobblestones and landmarked streets. We’re only a ten-block-wide neighborhood. There’s not a lot you can do, although many people would like to. We struggle very hard to fight against development that we feel is not proper.
Areas like Crown Heights, DUMBO, and Brooklyn Heights are expansive; Vinegar Hill is only ten blocks wide. Do you think the comparatively small size of neighborhood has played a role in shielding Vinegar Hill from rapid development?
DUMBO has rapidly progressed in the last five years. We haven’t. In DUMBO, a lot of old buildings have been lost, which is really heartbreaking because there were a lot of buildings down there that were from the turn of the century. Because of landmarking issues, it wasn’t done quite as fast as one would have liked. Whereas, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do here. People aren’t selling their homes. People aren’t selling their lots. But for the people that do have warehouses, we have to maintain vigilance. We don’t want these monstrosities being built.
Vinegar Hill was landmarked in 1996, and this neighborhood holds a special place for me. I’ve seen good people come and go. People who couldn’t afford to live here anymore because their landlords raised the prices up to phenomenal fees. I see a lot of new people are coming here that have really enhanced the neighborhood, such as the Vinegar Hill House. In the beginning, the neighborhood was very anti-restaurant. They’ve been very good with us. These restaurateurs live in the neighborhood. They know what it’s like to live here.
Does landmarking help prevent outside encroachment at all?
It’s a yes-and-no answer. I think so. I wish more streets were landmarked, but at the time, we had empty lots here, so there was nothing to landmark. Unfortunately, there was a Lithuanian church on York Street that was knocked down. It was not landmarked. It was my church and it broke my heart to see it go down. You had the old-fashioned statues and the wood and the pews. They just destroyed it, and replaced it with a condo.
We’re afraid of development that will overlap our existing buildings. We don’t want some 40-story monstrosity like they did on Jay Street. I believe we’re a Mixed Use R6, which means you can’t go higher than these buildings. Of course, any developer can come in and make an appeal to change that. We’re always vigilant on that part to see who’s come and made an application. There’s very little here to sell. These houses have been owned by people for many years. There is one huge lot owned by Con Edison.
Do you think the Con Edison plant has served any role in the neighborhood landscape? Has it deterred any development in the area?
It’s hard to say. This is my backyard. It never bothered me, although it was one of the dirtiest plants in all of New York and we got it shut down. But hey, I grew up here. For me, it’s a protector. I just look and see what’s going on at Brooklyn Bridge Park and it’s not a park anymore. It’s Brooklyn Bridge Battery Park, with the hotels and condos going up. Where’s the park? I can’t tell you how many people have gone to that park. Where are those people going to go? It’s for the rich, as usual.
I’ve read that before Vinegar Hill House opened in 2008, the last restaurant on Hudson Avenue was a diner that closed in the 1970s. What do you remember about the neighborhood growing up here as a child? When did the streets go quiet?
The streets went quiet in the ’70s. I was going to high school at the time. There was a lot of drug use going on back then. It was a long time ago — I don’t like to think of those days. It was very quiet here. Now, the Vinegar Hill House is the only restaurant at all, whereas, when I was growing up, here you had a whole plethora of stores that were open. You had a barber shop. You had a candy store. At the bottom of my house, there used to be a luncheonette and next door was a bar. Across the street there used to be a general store. It was a fabulous place. The Con Edison plant was in full bloom. The Navy Yard was in full swing. So there was a lot of people here and a lot of work to be done.
Then, the Navy Yard closed.The Con Edison plant was still alive, yet slowly but surely, people started moving out of the neighborhood. Things started to close up. People died. The 1970s were very hard here. It was very crime-ridden. People getting mugged because the projects were in close proximity. You would come home and you wouldn’t come out after 5 o’clock at night. It just didn’t happen. Once the economy changed, and people started moving back in, there were a lot of artists that came to live here. I think my mother, who’s still alive, has been here the longest. She’ll be 90 this month.
My parents came in 1949 and settled here from Lithuania. Since my great-aunt and -uncle lived on Hudson Avenue, they were able to sponsor them here. At that time, you had to be sponsored to come to the States. There were a lot of Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian immigrants. Before that, it used to be called “Irishtown.”
There’s an incredibly varied history here. Originally, Vinegar Hill was a neighborhood of immigrants. Then, at one point during the ’70s, there were artists and artisans making up the community. How would you characterize the culture of the neighborhood now?
It’s a mixture. There are artists still living here. There are about maybe ten or twelve people who’ve been here for 30 or 40 years. People of different religions and different faiths. It’s wonderful having these kids. It breeds new life into the neighborhood, which we desperately need. As a matter of fact, one of the firstborn kids was born on my birthday. I said, “This is a sign!” I was very proud of that.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, nobody was here. Nobody was here to care. For me, it was a ghost town because there were no kids. I had no one to play with. There were no children. No babies. Nothing. Now, there’s an influx of kids. I love it. I love seeing the youngsters here. I love seeing new life bred into Vinegar Hill that could go on for more and more years. I’m hoping one of them, when they grow up, will be president one day.
What would you say is on the minds of the residents living here?
They don’t want any change in Vinegar Hill. Whether it be the change of our cobblestones, the Brooklyn Greenway coming through, even these tour buses are the residents that come in. There is going to be a big construction coming through Water Street very soon, because new pipes have to be put in. We fought very hard for our cobblestones to stay the way that they are. They wanted to put gentrified and manufactured stones in. These are the same stones in DUMBO that are cracking. This is our character. This has been this way since the 1600s. They’re still here. Whereas, you have pavement and blacktop which crack full. We sometimes have problems with our cobblestones. They come loose, but neighbors will come out with bags sand to fill the space. We have different companies like National Grid and Version who dig up our streets and think they can just blacktop over it, which they can’t.
What is the Vinegar Hill Association responsible for, in terms of keeping up the neighborhood, and what does your role as the president entail?
On Wednesday night, I was re-elected again for another term. It’s a hard job. It’s very hard. I get very tired. I work a full-time job at the Teamsters. My mother is 90 years old and I take care of her. It’s very hard for me to go away. If there’s a hearing, I have to decide whether to go. I’m thankful I have a close relationship with our council members. I have a very good relationship with Steve Levin. He’s been our sounding board for many things and helped us quite a bit in backing us up.
It’s not a paying job. We do it on our own free time, our own personal time. I take vacation days from work in order to attend hearings. You do what you have to do because of your love for the neighborhood. I serve my neighbors. I was elected by my neighbors, because they thought I could do a good job. I don’t take anything into account without consulting them first. That’s the way I’ve always been. That’s the way it needs to be. No matter what happens here, we try to maintain the integrity of how it’s built and how it should remain. There are many fights that are going to be coming up. Unfortunately, as development progresses and more people move into DUMBO and the surrounding areas, you have more foot traffic and bike traffic. There are constant issues coming on. We always keep a close eye on development.
Like, for example, at the time I became president, we had issues with the show, Boardwalk Empire. They would just film here anytime they wanted and take up parking. Neighbors were insane with anger. I held meetings with them and Councilmember Levin. Once we finally sat down with Boardwalk Empire, everything was okay. They would recreate the 1930s with the old cars. Across the street from my house, they recreated one of the commercial units into an old-fashioned butcher shop. It was amazing to see. I was saying, “I remember when I was a little girl.” They didn’t really have to do much recreation, though. They became very, very much into hearing what the neighbors would say.
There’s an incredible house on the corner of Evans and Little Street, the Commandant’s House. I’ve read that when the Navy Yard was open, it was once the acting admiral’s home. What’s become of it now?
Now, it’s owned by private doctors. But I remember what it was like as a kid. They had a beautiful rose garden in the back just like the White House. There is also a greenhouse. When you were a kid and the Marines were standing guard, they knew who you were and would say, “He’s not here. Go ahead and play.” You couldn’t do that when the admiral was there. When he was, he would have these lavish dinner parties. You would see these fancy limousines come up the driveway with flags of different dignitaries. You would see the Marines in their full dress. There were always two guards posted outside, and one in the guardhouse. There was also a staircase leading from the house to a dock down below. That’s where the Navy ships docked. They were being repaired. They were being built. It was an amazing time. Then the Navy Yard closed in ’64. It’s changed so much since.
What will become of Vinegar Hill?
I hope not to see anything drastic happening here. It would destroy one of the last few enclaves that was old Brooklyn. There are many, many people who would love to see that happen. It amazes me how many people fail to understand what preservation or historical significance is. It’s increased over the years. Where’s your sense of history? Because you were in an apartment house in a city, and you see building done all of the time, nothing registers. It bothers me that this has occurred with no one interfering. If we didn’t have an association, this neighborhood would not be what it is now. This neighborhood would be full of apartment houses and cars — all kinds of things going on here. It would be such a loss. You see the influx from the building of DUMBO and Brooklyn Bridge. Just trickling in every weekend like, “What’s this?!” If we could lock ourselves down, we would. But we can’t.
It bothers me that when we’re gone, I don’t know who’s going to maintain the neighborhood. We’re not young anymore. When we die, who’s going to take over? It worries me. Where are you going to find these houses? My house was built in 1895 and it’s still standing with the same doors. People say, “Oh, like Brooklyn Heights!” No, we’re nothing like Brooklyn Heights. Definitely not. We don’t have these brownstones. The brownstones we have on Front Street — those were always there. But this area on Hudson is nothing like Brooklyn Heights or Carroll Gardens. In those neighborhoods, you have a beautiful brownstone right next to a modern piece of shit. Vinegar Hill is nothing like any neighborhood that I’ve ever seen. We’re our own entity. I’ve never seen something like this, unless it’s on a soundstage that’s been built. At night before I go to sleep, it’s so quiet that I can hear a pin drop. In the mornings, I hear the birds singing. As long as I’m still alive and standing, I’ll be fighting. That’s what the neighbors entrust in me to do. That’s what I want to do. There’s no place I’d rather be but here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.