How did Dumbo become Dumbo? The story of a neighborhood

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This is the story of how Dumbo went from an underutilized waterfront area to a thriving industrial, commercial and tech hub.

 

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

This is the story of how Dumbo became Dumbo. How does a neighborhood go, in just a few short decades, from being an underutilized waterfront area—a manufacturing wasteland of abandoned cars and oil barrels—to a thriving industrial, commercial and tech hub, and a hot residential address with one of the highest rents in the city?

Legend has it that the acronym for Dumbo—District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass in Brooklyn was coined by local artists in the hope of alienating developers: a sort of leave-us-alone move. For a long time, it seemed to work. In the 1970s, a square foot of land in Dumbo cost under six dollars, but cheap as it was, few were willing to invest in what was considered worthless. Today, one would be hard pressed to buy land in Dumbo, and condominiums are routinely sold in excess of $1,000 a square foot.

Across from the Manhattan skyline, the post-industrial landscape of what is now a designated historic district is striking. The erstwhile warehouses are refurbished glassbrickmetal offices housing cutting-edge tech start-ups. The renovated cobblestone streets are lined with quaint and modern shops, hipster boutiques, cafes, taverns and art galleries. The area is home to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and a carousel where yuppies come to relax in the evenings with friends and family. But the same artists who made the neighborhood hip and cool can no longer afford to live here.

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Before Dumbo became Dumbo, it was known by several names. Initially, it was called “Rapailie,” after the Dutch family that took control of the land in the 1700s. Then came “Olympia,” “Fulton Landing” and, in the early 20th century, “Gairville”—after the prominent industrialist Robert Gair who manufactured the first cardboard box straight out of the buildings in present day Washington Street.

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

The area was pioneering on many fronts. It was among the earliest areas in Brooklyn developed for residential use and many of these residents were immigrants who came to work in the city. But by the 1830s this gave way to more commercial establishments—industrialists attracted to the connectivity the East River afforded began setting up factories and warehouses along Water Street. With skeletons of steel and wood, their brick facades boasted large windows, their spacious interiors with terra cotta flooring, which would eventually be replaced by cement when reinforced concrete began trending in the early 20th century.

What would eventually be Dumbo was an important industrial and manufacturing hub through the 19th and 20th century. As of 1919, there were nearly 7000 industrial establishments in Brooklyn. Some of the most important businesses in the area—printing and publishing, paints footwear, food products and machine parts—were concentrated in Dumbo.  By the 1920s, however, businesses began moving out in a wave of deindustrialization, and by the middle of the century, most had either relocated elsewhere or shut down post-Depression, leaving the area to stagnate—an industrial wasteland for next two decades.

 

A Tale of Two Trees

 

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Dumbo began to become Dumbo.  Back then, all the action was in Manhattan, and Brooklyn was characterized by slow disinvestment and suburban flight. A number of neighborhoods were still steeped in crime. Dumbo was the rundown industrial corner of the borough. The waterfront area was dirty from years of industrial traffic, smelly from the ubiquitous garbage. Water wasn’t seen as an asset unless you relied on shipping. The area was pockmarked with buildings with low rents and marginal businesses—a hub for squatters and poor artists attracted to the tall windows, as wealthier artists and others later would be.

It was an artist that first introduced real estate developer David Walentas to Dumbo. In previous interviews, he mentions joking at a social gathering in the 70s in an exchange that would shape history: “When I was in NoHo, I asked one of the artists, one of the kids, SoHo, NoHo, what’s next? And somebody said, “Dumbo.” I said, Where the hell is Dumbo? He said, “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” So I came over one day, walked around the neighborhood and said, Wow!”” Where most saw a wasteland, Walentas had a vision, and Dumbo was never the same again.

“Today we take it for granted that the artists are the first to find the best neighborhood, then come the gay community, and then the techies,” said David Lombino, Director of Special Projects for Two Trees Management Company—the real estate firm Walentas founded. “But at the time, the idea was revolutionary.”

Today, Two Trees is widely acknowledged as having accelerated Dumbo becoming Dumbo. In 1981 the company bought several properties, including the historic Gair complex, from business magnate Harry Helmsley. The initial vision involved transforming the waterfront neighborhood with retail and posh residencies. But aesthetics and entertainment would play as significant a role in attracting the right buyers: “Walentas understood that residents would want to pay a premium to have culture and art,” says Lombino. The developers created space for galleries and art activities and events. For instance, by offering free rent to certain local businesses, most famously to St. Ann’s Warehouse, a wildly popular space for live performance that received free rent for nine years.

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

The initial years were a struggle—the development projects ran into a lot of resistance. It wasn’t until Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was pro-development, and the maturing of the New York City real estate scene in the 1990s that Two Trees and other developers got traction.  Fifteen years may seem like a long time but developer Jed Walentas, David Walentas’ son, says that Two Trees being able to acquire some of the properties at a relatively low price point allowed them to make some decisions about retail that would be “very hard” for a developer with a lot of debt to make: “There would be pressure for them to lease to large, national retailers…We had the ability to be more selective.”

As the old buildings were made fit for residential occupancy, many developments on the commercial side occurred serendipitously. Tenants now pay a premium to live in a converted old industrial building, but it wasn’t always the case. Meanwhile, in 1999, one couldn’t have predicted, that during the tech boom, tech companies would want spaces exactly like these. It was a happy accident. “When we started it was unclear that the commercial portfolio would become popular with tech startups or other creative class tenants,” says Jed Walentas, “Another developer might have been quicker to convert the entire portfolio to residential, and you’d have a much different neighborhood today.”

Two Trees divided commercial buildings in a way that accommodated start-ups. For instance, it allowed leases of two to four years, as opposed to the usual ten year leases, as a lot of start-ups didn’t want to or couldn’t commit to that long. Credit requirements were lowered too. These things combined with other small factors, such as the decision to leave the buildings “raw” OR the policy on permitting dogs in the building, all contributing to a start-up appropriate vibe.

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

In the late 1990s, Brooklyn, too, started changing and growing and a number of factors came together to fuel the growth in Dumbo: the first and second tech boom, the slow development of the East River, and rising prices in Manhattan. Such factors, combined with the fact that Dumbo was just one stop away by train, made it a very attractive neighborhood.

Academics in the past have often blamed Two Trees for the accelerating the gentrification of Dumbo postreccession in the 1990s, from (as Urban Planning expert Jason Hackworth put it) “a small neighborhood of moderate income and rent levels” to its present state. Although a small trickle of wealthy artists began gentrifying Dumbo in the 1980s, the Farragut Public Housing Complex further east helped maintain a semblance of balance. However, once more aggressive development efforts began, opposition to the Walentas projects came from the small but vocal  Dumbo Neighborhood Association (a group of artists) and the Brooklyn Heights Neighborhood Association. The groups were concerned about the repercussions of the scale of development, rather than the looming threat of displacement. Residents living illegally in the converted lofts could not afford to be vocal about the stricter enforcements of loft laws and visits by City officials.  However, once City Hall gave Walentas their blessing, lenders became more compliant and public resistance fizzled out.

Homes and Offices

Sharanya Haridas/ The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/ The Brooklyn Ink

Historic tensions between the residential and the commercial appear to be an ongoing theme, if not a defining feature in Dumbo.  In 2009, with the launch of the Dock Street project, Two Trees aimed to convert a particular strip into to a residential area. Once complete, the project will provide 300 unit residential housing. A fifth of this will be affordable housing, i.e.; lower than market rate rent for low income families earning within $50,000 for a family of four. It will also establish Dumbo’s first ever public school. As of October 2013, Jared Kushner, the prominent investor (and Donald Trump’s son-in-law), bought out four major properties in the area with the aim of turning them into a commercial tech hub with a “campus like” environment and housing larger and more mature companies than the existing startups in the vicinity. Robert Perris, District Manager, Brooklyn Community Board 2 under which Dumbo falls, says that commercial and industrial buildings are harder to acquire than the residential units, which are only slightly more available. Two Trees presently has a 0% vacancy on its commercial portfolio and says its residential spaces lease very quickly.

A lot of residents are quick to point out that Dumbo—if you can afford to live there—is a family friendly neighborhood.  Its geographically constrained nature is often cited as contributing to the sense of community.  Lambino agrees—“You’re either in Dumbo or you’re not”.

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/The Brooklyn Ink

 

It is unclear whether Dumbo in its present form is a place to raise children, though, for it is still very much a neighborhood in progress. Mollie Komins, a sales assistant at Half-Pint Citizens, a children’s clothing store, observes that Dumbo has mostly elderly, established residents or wealthy ‘young’ families with babies. “The lack of schools, especially private schools, does pose a problem. Once children grow up, the families tend to move out or the teens are sent to school in a different area,” she says. “The Dock Street project sounds great and is absolutely necessary.” The absence of a school in the vicinity, and the plans to set one up, are both testament to the changing demographics.

 

Tech, Art and the Weekenders

Dumbo, along with Downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is part of the Brooklyn Tech Triangle—a strategic coalition that aims to attract and grow start-ups in the region. It aims to improve and increase the affordability of infrastructure in the area and revolutionize the blueprint for tech hubs in the City.  Once launched, its dream is to generate over 60,000 jobs and 3 million in revenue. However, space remains a key obstacle. As of October 2013, Made in NYC—a new economic initiative from the mayor’s office that brought together 900 city tech companies to create jobs in the industry—set up an 18,000 square foot Media Center in Dumbo. The space will serve to bring together entrepreneurs and creative professionals from a variety of disciplines to work, train, network and collaborate.

Alexandria Sica, the Executive Director of  DUMBO Improvement District, an organization formed in 2006 of partnerships between business and cultural organizations in the vicinity, believes that art is central to shaping the neighborhood. The BID, as it is called, has been working to beautify and reprogram the public spaces with art. They work to modernize Dumbo—beautifying existing infrastructure, as through art murals, while simultaneously preserving the old, such as the cobblestone streets, which have historic value. Sica says that the City had “rightfully” expressed concerns about weaving art into public infrastructure initially—the execution can take time and safety precautions need to be in place —but the skepticism was replaced over time and that the Bloomberg administration was cooperative.  Once they witness neglected streets transform through the splash of color artwork offered, Sica says people quickly realize “the potential such projects have to add vibrancy to a community”.  Kristin LaBuz, Director of Marketing and Events echoes similar sentiments, “People are motivated to engage with and improve the community as there is a return on the investment.” Art in public spaces not only alters the ambience and vibe of a neighborhood, but also, over time, adds value to the real estate.

Sharanya Haridas/ The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/ The Brooklyn Ink

Along with the influx of professionals and wealthy residents, the growing weekend population bears testament to Dumbo’s growing popularity. The latter includes both out-of-station tourists and residents from the rest of the city who visit to relax at the scenic Brooklyn Bridge Park, check out various hotspots, or attend one of the many events in the neighborhood.

A neighborhood in progress

 

Sharanya Haridas/ The Brooklyn Ink

Sharanya Haridas/ The Brooklyn Ink

Dumbo is changing. It’s difficult to predict the exact long-term impact of these changes, except to say that the days of gentrification are long since over. Residentially, Dumbo is no more a middle class neighborhood. Commercially, space is still affordable although less available, particularly in comparison to Manhattan. Economically, Dumbo is very much in the vanguard of New York City’s burgeoning tech scene and is poised to shape it in the coming years. The manner in which bigger and smaller companies coexist or drive the other out will play a role in shaping the neighborhood, as will the entrepreneurs and creative professionals they will attract to the place.

The local businesses will evolve to accommodate the changing demographics. And given that so many people come to Dumbo as part of a floating population of professionals, tourists and visitors attending the various shows, the public infrastructure and amenities will need to evolve accordingly.  Aesthetically speaking, Dumbo’s appearance and architecture have grown to become quite central to its identity—and have come to mean more than just the bridges, waterfront and various public parks in the vicinity. As Jed Walentas confirms, “[Art] continues to shape the neighborhood today in a way that makes it distinct from a lot of other newer neighborhoods.”

Was Dumbo as we know it today inevitable? Jed Walentas believes it was anything but. “It is of course inevitable that Dumbo would have developed,” he says,  “The entire East River Waterfront from Astoria to Red Hook has undergone a tremendous transformation in the last decade, but how it was developed could have been dramatically different with another developer with their own set of priorities. The way the neighborhood did evolve, piece by piece and in response to different challenges and opportunities, was in part due to luck and in part due to us making some good decisions and adapting to the changing environment.”

In ways, Dumbo is both new and ancient—a curious place where a cutting edge technological start-up can be found nestled in a hundred year old Greek Revivalist-style building that was once a warehouse; a place where a squatter’s  former hideout now sells for millions. Stories abound in every corner and both history and innovation hang thick in the air in this place where future is being actively shaped in the present. It seems much of Dumbo lies in the details—a mural on a wall, the absence of it or its tearing down—can spell the difference between a facelift and a more visceral transformation.

Dumbo is still becoming.

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One Response to “How did Dumbo become Dumbo? The story of a neighborhood”

  1. Venkatesh Seshamani
    November 6, 2013 at 6:04 AM #

    interesting article Sharanya. keep it up. Sesh

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