Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, beside the East River in southern Brooklyn, is known to the wayfarer as DUMBO, or that new place where the arty people live. It is also where Al Pacino was pulled over in Scent of a Woman. A walk down the streets here is a stroll through history. The buildings we walk between were warehouses once. Corrugated cardboard was invented in DUMBO, and inns and horse stables were common here. It is now said to be the new East Village – a hip place where the coffee is exorbitantly priced, and yoghurts are available in several exotic flavors.
Over a few winters, I watched it change from a private enclave into something larger, more moneyed, and decidedly commercial; this was, after all, in keeping with its past. The year was 1999, and my professor, Michele Washington, sought an apprentice, while I, a student, was in need of a job. We shook hands and smiled, and I was struck by the considerable thrill of personalizing the relationship between teacher and student. We did not discuss money, instead she advised me on how to find my way to her office. I did not know that business was done this way among a few in DUMBO.
The first time I visited the place, a biting breeze blew through narrow lanes over cobbled roads from the East River and up the slope I descended. The street ended at the Manhattan Bridge, an extraordinary sight. Along it, tall brick buildings were set into neat blocks. These were the Empire Stores, large buildings that stored imported goods when the place was an important port. In the 70s they were declared protected structures. Now they are lofts, studios, and office space.
I found the office, a quaint graphic design studio in an abandoned warehouse, and worked there for a few years. Other tenants would stop by. Down the corridor was a wood craftsman who carved tables and cabinets with delightful care. Above, the proprietor of a web business worked several hours everyday and stepped into the next room, home, for sleep. We designed identities for them. They did things for us. This, in a sense, was what DUMBO was about. It was a familiar community of artists and small businesses, of people who stopped on the street to chat, who visited for coffee on a cold evening. It was a comfortable enclave. Of course it grew. Galleries sprung up, prices went up, everything went up. Undersized studio apartments overlooking the river and Manhattan sold for $600,000. A store dedicated to healthy eating was overrun every evening by painters, designers, and those who liked banana yoghurt.
In a few winters the glitz began to show. Building entrances were widened and made more alluring. The area began to revel in its bohemian skin. Artists were forced out by costs, but DUMBO once again grew prominent. The people on streets were more varied, but its pace remained constant. With the Manhattan Bridge as their wallpaper, Manhattan the view, and its graffiti like paintings, it had become a place to be in.