A Little R & R in DUMBO Revitalized, Renamed and Reinvented

A Little R & R in DUMBO

The area of Brooklyn known as DUMBO, short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, has been named renamed and named again throughout its history. As early as 1642 as the Dutch settlers moved into Long Island and began establishing farms it was known as "no mans land." As these same settlers began to run ferries between Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront, entrepreneur Robert Fulton came along with the steamboat service and made it an eight-minute commute from pier to pier. Ferry soon became the most popular means of commuting, and the steamboats began to bring people, food, mail and even wagons to the island. This popularity turned the area from "no-man's land" into "Fulton Landing" and soon thereafter into a miniature commercial port for Brooklyn.

But the boats didn't just schlep fish and people; they opened the door to full-on development. Literally paving the way, DUMBO was one the first neighborhoods in the city to make use of formal surveying and mapping for roads, as well as the addition of sidewalks. With these roads open, massive warehouses and factories were constructed in the late 1700's, some of which - like the Sweeney Metal Works - still stand today, albeit serving the community in vastly different capacities. Fulton Landing enjoyed very prosperous times throughout the 18th and 19th centuries; it boasted numerous markets, stables, inns and shops, not to mention the industrial heavy hitters of the time: in addition to Sweeney, companies Tubal Cain Iron Works, Yuban Coffee and Spices, and the Robert Gair Bottle Cap and Cardboard Box Manufacturing company also called the area home.

The late 19th century brought the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and with it the decay of Fulton Landing's prosperity. In 1909, the Manhattan Bridge opened, effectively bypassing the neighborhood altogether. This was the final straw for the area as a shipping and manufacturing center, and it looked as if things could get no worse - that is, until the 1950s, when parts of the neighborhood were razed for the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the area became a true no-man's land once again.

Send in the Artists

In the 1970s and "˜80s, artists looking for affordable dwellings and spacious studios began to bring the district slowly back to life. Realizing the neighborhood's potential, from its accessibility to Manhattan to its large and affordable spaces, word spread quickly. The area's gritty industrial buildings and warehouses offered unforeseen amenities in vast amounts of natural light and breathtaking views of the city that were perks most landlords and management companies had not even begun to think of at the time. This is also the time when Fulton's Landing was re-christened "DUMBO" because of its proximity to the bridge. The culturally rich and visually creative modern pioneers are the ones who turned the district now known as DUMBO into what it is today.

Entering Round Two

In 1998, DUMBO was rezoned by the city and in part of the neighborhood was made legal for housing. Suddenly, the area took off as a residential community, much as it had done before, so long ago. With a new influx of people, the careworn old story of gentrification and displacement of long-time residents began again. Given all DUMBO has to offer - great restaurants like Pedro's Spanish American Restaurant, Grimaldi's, and River Cafe, beautiful green spaces like Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, galleries (The Gair Buildings Complex alone houses 5+5 Gallery, Metaphor Contemporary Art, and M3 Projects) and more shops than one can imagine - it is no surprise that the neighborhood has become so popular in recent years. Given these factors, it also no surprise that living in this now-booming, 24-hour community will cost you.

According to Christopher Thomas, president of William B. May Company of Brooklyn there are - perhaps surprisingly - almost no co-ops in DUMBO, which stands in sharp contrast to the area's sister neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, which has upwards of a 98 percent co-op-to-condo rate.

Just over three years ago, developer and head of the Two Trees real estate company David Walentas introduced DUMBO's first conversion building, One Main Street - often called the Clock Tower. According to Thomas, the 154-unit, loft-style building had upwards of 12 price-hikes in just under a year. "There was an off-the-chart demand," Thomas says, "and it paved the way."

It's hard to talk price-per-bedroom numbers in loft properties, but prices in the Clock Tower building range from just under $500 per square-foot to over $750 per square-foot in a penthouse unit. During conversion construction, Walentas made it a priority to not demolish the core of these historical buildings rather he used much of the original space as part of each unit. "This means that in almost every instance you can't really call a bedroom a bedroom as such," adds Thomas. "However, [with lofts] you end up with extremely large rooms that owners may decide to use as bedrooms, which legally may be counted in the total room count, but not the bedroom count."

Because of this problem of semantics, there are sales of "one-bedroom" units for over $1 million dollars in the Clock Tower - but that unit might be over 2,300 square feet. "The term "˜one-bedroom' can be misleading," Thomas points out. DUMBO's pricing is more or less in line with the rest of Brooklyn and most comparable currently to Brooklyn Heights. Given the pricing of these units, DUMBO's popularity is clearly still on the rise - but the really interesting thing may be just who is contributing to it.

Calling DUMBO Home

According to Catherine Witherwax, vice president of Corcoran's Brooklyn development division, the current demographic mix in DUMBO is comprised of, "young professionals stretching from film editors, fashion designers to bankers - anyone who wants to live close to the city and have views of the city, but may not be able to afford prime Manhattan."

These are the people who generally seem to get the ball rolling in most up-and-coming neighborhoods, but there is another demographic that seems to be finding its way into DUMBO's sprawling loft spaces; the "Empty Nesters," middle-aged couples whose children are grown and on their own seem to be looking for an edgy-yet-quiet place to downsize and settle in, and DUMBO is certainly fitting the bill. Its popularity is also being spurred on by the sheer amount of press it's been getting. Says Witherwax, "I'll have couples calling from the Midwest who know nothing about New York, but have read something about the area of DUMBO and want to take a look".

Pricing in DUMBO today seems to be showing signs of leveling out. "[Pricewise] things have been fairly stable in the neighborhood," says Witherwax. This coupled with the success of One Main, not to mention the rehabbed Sweeney Building located diagonally across the street from One Main, has not only brought the press and services, but businesses like Jacques Torres and other popular establishments that make the area a great place to live. With each business to open its doors in the neighborhood, the ease and convenience of living in DUMBO is magnified.

There are no signs of slowing on the business front and the district is still a haven for families, singles, artists, business people and much more. It's a quiet, trendy, almost affordable, culturally diverse, 24-hour neighborhood, and whether you're inclined to call it "no-man's land," "Fulton Landing," or "DUMBO" the neighborhood is both enjoying and reveling in its rebirth.

David Garry is a freelancer living in New York City.

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