9 things to see, eat and drink near Brooklyn’s new Wegmans
Eye on Real Estate: Welcome to waterfront Brooklyn, Wegmaniacs.
The long-awaited 74,000-square-foot Wegmans grocery store in the Brooklyn Navy Yard has been open for about a month, gladdening the hearts of devoted shoppers who refer to themselves as Wegmaniacs.
I’ve got a suggestion for all of you who are schlepping a long way to Wegmans. Why not turn your shopping trip into an urban adventure?
There’s so much cool stuff to see in the area — including historic architecture, driverless cars and places to day drink. Wegmans stays open until 11 p.m., so you have lots of time to do other things before you hit the produce department.
Go and see Vinegar Hill, a quiet, picturesque waterfront neighborhood that combines 200-year-old rowhouses with a Con Ed substation that extends for blocks and blocks along the shoreline of the East River. The neighborhood is right up the hill from Wegmans’ Sands Street entrance.
The area was named after the Battle of Vinegar Hill, which took place during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Irish immigrant shipbuilder John Jackson owned a lot of the land on which the neighborhood was built. He chose the name to honor his homeland.
At the top of the neighborhood’s highest hill, behind a fence and gate, there’s a landmarked mansion built in 1805 and 1806 for the Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy. It has been privately owned since 1979. The address of the Commandant’s House is 24 Evans St., if you’re looking for it on a map.
Charles Bulfinch designed the house, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report about it says. Of course his name rings a bell. He designed part of the U.S. Capitol.
The Vinegar Hill Historic District consists of several blocks in various parts of the neighborhood. It includes Greek Revival-style rowhouses located at 67, 69 and 71 Hudson Ave., which were constructed in 1817.
The Naval Cemetery Landscape
At the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, there’s an extraordinary 1.5-acre park with a winding boardwalk built a few feet above a former burial ground. It is open to the public.
This somber and peaceful place is called the Naval Cemetery Landscape. It is part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative.
When you’re walking around the area surrounding Wegmans, this is NOT the next thing you will see after finishing a Vinegar Hill stroll.
But I’m mentioning the Naval Cemetery Landscape now because I want to suggest that you see it early in the day while there’s plenty of daylight. It takes a good long while to walk there.
You have to head down Flushing Avenue and go all the way to Williamsburg Street West, then turn left.
People who died at a hospital in the Navy Yard were buried in this hallowed ground. But in the 1920s, this cemetery was decommissioned.
Many of the dearly departed’s remains were taken to Cypress Hills Cemetery where baseball great Jackie Robinson is buried.
However, other bodies were possibly left behind in the Naval Cemetery, archival and archaeological investigators realized in the 1990s.
The raised boardwalk is a sign of respect for the unmarked graves that are probably on the site.
There are also two lines of gigantic stones that form pathways in the park.
The terrain is planted with native meadow grasses, wildflowers and photogenic milkweed plants.
In one corner of the park, semi-circular rows of benches form an amphitheater.
In another corner, there’s an area called the Sacred Grove with a wooden bench for quiet contemplation. A compartment on the bottom of the bench holds a notebook in which visitors are invited to write their thoughts.
If you turn your head while sitting on this bench, you can catch a glimpse through the trees of the former Navy Yard hospital. It was built in 1838 and is made of Tuckahoe marble.
Several years ago, developer Doug Steiner of Steiner Studios showed me around the Naval Annex, which is the area where the hospital is located. He’s restoring the buildings in the 20-acre complex and turning it into a location for film and TV production.
The Navy Yard
The Brooklyn Navy Yard where Wegmans is located is an immensely historic place. President John Adams established it in 1801, when the American Republic was young.
Famous ships that were built at the 300-acre site include the USS Arizona, which the Japanese sank in their Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Women worked at the Navy Yard during World War II — Jennifer Egan’s novel “Manhattan Beach” delved into that historic phenomenon.
In this day and age, the Navy Yard belongs to the city. It’s now an industrial park full of businesses that make innovative products such as bomb-proof underwear (Crye Precision) and tools that are used on the Mars Rovers (Honeybee Robotics).
Most of the Brooklyn Navy Yard is closed to the public. But there are guided tours that share some of its most interesting secrets.
One provides an overview of the Navy Yard’s past and present; another offers an inside look at the businesses located there now. One tour focuses on the Navy Yard’s architecture, another’s about the Navy Yard’s role in World War II and another’s about urban ecology. Sign up for them on the Navy Yard’s website.
A few years ago, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. President and CEO David Ehrenberg gave me a tour of the facility. It was great fun.
Russ & Daughters
One spot in the Navy Yard that is open to the public is the ground floor of Building 77 at 141 Flushing Ave., where you can get a bite to eat.
The Lower East Side’s famous century-old bagels and lox purveyor, Russ & Daughters, opened a shop and food-production facility in Building 77 a couple years ago. It’s a good spot to sit for a bit and nosh on bagels and smoked Scottish salmon, or Irish salmon, or sable, or … the list goes on and it’s all good.
Building 77 was constructed in the 1940s as a storage facility. It didn’t have any windows. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. recently renovated it.
The self-driving car
Have you ridden in a self-driving car yet? You can try one out in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
When you’re done with your Russ & Daughters snack, walk out the back of Building 77 and head for the NYC Ferry landing.
A path for pedestrians and cyclists passes alongside Dock 72, a 16-story office building I recently toured (this was a tour for reporters). It’s the first new-from-the-ground-up commercial building to be constructed at the Navy Yard in more than 10 years.
At the end of Dock 72 by the ferry landing, a spot is marked for the self-driving cars that a company called Optimus Ride is operating in the Navy Yard. The vehicles will shuttle you to the Navy Yard’s Cumberland Gate — or if you’re a timid passenger, you can take a very short ride that ends outside Building 77.
The car moves verrry slooowly, less than 20 miles per hour, as the Brooklyn Eagle reported earlier this year. And a human being, who’s referred to as a safety operator, sits in the driver’s seat in case anything goes wrong.
The Optimus Ride cars are New York’s first commercial self-driving vehicles.
There’s a vineyard in the Brooklyn Navy Yard called Rooftop Reds — on top of Building 275. And it’s open to the public.
It’s “the world’s first commercially viable urban rooftop vineyard,” its website says.
You have to make a reservation, which is free of charge, to get access to Rooftop Reds. Also, you have to go to the Navy Yard’s Sands Street entrance to be allowed into the complex.
It’s a unique experience to stroll down rows of grapevines with industrial buildings all around you and the top of the Empire State Building rising up from the horizon. This time of year, the vines are leafless and austerely beautiful, like wiry modern sculptures.
There are hammocks to hang out in, and picnic tables, if you want to stay outside and stare at the superb scenery while you sip your vino. There’s indoor seating as well.
At the end of the vineyard where the hammocks are set up, you see Downtown Brooklyn’s new high-rise apartment towers standing in a row. Off to the left, you get a glimpse of the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank Clocktower Building.
When you sit at the picnic tables, you get a view of Navy Yard buildings located on one side of Flushing Avenue and homes on the other, which are in a neighborhood called Wallabout that I’ll tell you about in a minute.
There are historic exhibits at the Navy Yard’s Building 92 at 63 Flushing Ave. It consists of a glamorous brick home constructed as the Marine Commandant’s residence in 1858 with a modern addition in the back.
Also, in Building 92’s Yard Work Gallery, there’s an exhibit of works by artists whose studios are in the Navy Yard’s Building 30.
Off Flushing Avenue just steps away from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, there’s a shop whose address is 14 Clermont Ave. Head Hi, as it’s called, sells books, art, coffee and snacks.
The book selection is beautiful. It’s a good spot to stop and refuel with caffeine before you head off to the serious business of shopping at Wegmans.
The body of water where the Brooklyn Navy Yard is situated is called Wallabout Bay.
Once you know that, you’ll be less surprised to discover that Brooklynites with a sense of history call the neighborhood bounded by Flushing, Carlton, Myrtle and Classon avenues Wallabout.
In this neighborhood, you find the city’s largest concentration of mid-19th century wooden houses. There’s a city-designated Wallabout Historic District on Vanderbilt Avenue. Greek Revival-style Lefferts-Laidlaw House at 136 Clinton Ave. is an individual city landmark.
Preservation activists are campaigning for landmark designation for Wallabout’s most culturally significant house — 99 Ryerson St., where famed poet Walt Whitman lived when he published the first version of his ground-breaking volume “Leaves of Grass.” To keep things simple, the advocates refer to the neighborhood where Leaves of Grass House is located as Clinton Hill.
A petition urging the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate 99 Ryerson St. has 7,000 signatures.
Whitman was the Eagle’s editor in the 1840s.
So. About Wegmans. The dazzling new supermarket has an entrance at 21 Flushing Ave. As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, there’s also an entrance on Sands Street.
My colleague Paul Frangipane and I toured the Wegmans right before it opened and created a list of reasons people are obsessed with this grocery chain.
Now that it’s fully stocked and full of shoppers, the Brooklyn Wegmans is even cooler than I thought it was on tour day.
On a recent visit, I tried out the store’s Burger Bar. The hamburgers and French fries were great.
There was quite a crowd at the cheese counter, where a misting system keeps the goods moist without forming puddles.
There were beautiful orchids in the floral department and bounteous bread displays in the bakery.
Did I mention there’s a cocktail lounge on the mezzanine? It was full.
Eye on Real Estate is veteran reporter Lore Croghan’s weekly column on Brooklyn’s built environment. Whether it’s old as Abraham Lincoln or so new it hasn’t topped out yet, if a building is eye-catching, Eye will show it to you.
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