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How Dumbo's Arts Spaces Have Recovered From the Storm

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores how Dumbo's art scene and businesses are faring after the storm.


[In Dumbo, Brooklyn, the future of a growing arts community has been challenged by Hurricane Sandy and the threat of rising sea levels. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

"Dumbo was hit, Red Hook was hit harder... next year it could be Greenpoint," said Lisa Kim, evaluating how Hurricane Sandy has affected Brooklyn's waterfront neighborhoods. "It's not going to stop us from putting art by the water." Kim, the director of the Dumbo Arts Festival and the director of cultural affairs for the Two Trees Management Company, is one of the central figures in the ongoing effort to repair Dumbo after Hurricane Sandy. She is helping to guide the growth of one of the biggest arts communities on the New York waterfront, in a neighborhood where real estate and art are intertwined with rising sea levels. 

"The arts are what made Dumbo what it is today," said Courtney Wendroff, the Visual Arts Director at the Brooklyn Arts Council. "It is the heart of the neighborhood, the arts scene, and that was by design." Dumbo is currently home to dozens of arts organizations and businesses, including the Brooklyn Arts Council, the Independent Filmmaker Project and Etsy. It is also home to numerous galleries, theaters, and event spaces that  have made the area a destination for visitors from around the world. Many of these businesses are located at street level in Zone A, the first zone to be evacuated during major storms. 

When Hurricane Sandy surged into Dumbo's cobblestone streets three months ago, these arts spaces were hit hard. Neighborhood mainstays like Smack Mellon, the powerHouse Arena, White Wave, Rabbithole and Galapagos Art Space all suffered flood damage. "These are small non-profits and mom & pop shops," said Lisa Kim. "When they take a hit like this, any hiccup that causes a new repair... they don't have that money or cushion." And as the recovery effort continues, they are being forced to reevaluate what it means to be located near the water.  

Hurricane Sandy filled the streets of Dumbo with sea water. The day after the storm, this intersection remained flooded, although recovery efforts began quickly. "The clean up has been swift," said Lisa Kim. "Some businesses opened right away."

At Smack Mellon, the gallery was undamaged, but six feet of water flooded their basement studios. "We've cleaned it up, but we haven't rebuilt," said executive director Kathleen Gilrain. "All of it has to be rebuilt."

In the gutted basement, artists' names are still posted on their studio doors. "We've raised $71,000 but we need to raise $450,000," said Gilrain. "I think that there will be more storms. That's why we are trying to figure out how to rebuild." In the meantime, their studios have relocated to a temporary space. 

Smack Mellon's waterfront gallery is donated by Two Trees Management, the biggest property owner in Dumbo. "We've been in Dumbo since 1998 with the support of Two Trees and we are committed to staying," said Gilrain, seated in her office. However, "if someone offered us a free space outside a flood zone, we'd take it."

The powerHouse Arena had a storm surge of almost three feet inside their bookstore and event space. "We found books and postcards down to the east river," said owner Susanne Konig. "Look how close we are to the water."

After the storm, authors, publishers and customers donated to a fundraiser to help repair the space. "I said to my husband, 'Its time to pack up. We are done with Dumbo.' But this fundraiser changed things," said Konig. This March, however, the rent will be doubled by their landlord Two Trees, according to Konig, causing additional concern for their future in Dumbo.

An exhibit of over 1,000 photographs from Hurricane Sandy is now on display at the bookstore. "This will hopefully get people to know they still need to do something," said Jacob Pastrovich, the assistant director of the New York Photo Festival. "We are fine here now, but we had 28 inches of water in this space."

The entrance to Rabbithole, an arts space with a gallery and studios, is 12 steps below the street.  "I guess if Dumbo is at sea level, we are below sea level," said gallery owner Shawn Lyons. Amazingly, the space only had 8 inches of flooding. "We got really lucky."

"Right now I have the gallery filled with a lot of damaged junk," said Lyons, standing below sea level. "We haven't had a show for a few months. We haven't had anything since the storm." The first post-storm show at the gallery will be a benefit on March 9th. The space has also received funds from the Dumbo Improvement District and from Two Trees, despite not being one of their tenants. 

White Wave, a theater that presents work by hundreds of international dance companies each year, had its basement destroyed by six feet of flooding. "We had to throw away everything," said artistic director Young Soon Kim. "It was really painful."

After receiving a loan from the Small Business Association and several grants, White Wave was able to quickly rebuild its basement, which is used as an office, dressing room and warm up space. There is no plan, though, for the next storm. "If it comes again, I don't know," said Young Soon Kim. "I'm worried, very worried."

At the water-themed Galapagos Art Space, "the water rose to five feet inside the building, covering the seating, stage, and, more importantly, totally wrecking their operating systems," according to Artinfo. The space was cleaned with the help of volunteers, and is once again taking rentals for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  

St. Ann's Warehouse, a theater located in Dumbo, experienced minimal storm damage, but was once housed inside a warehouse here on Water Street.  "Had they been on Water Street still, they would have been devastated," said Lisa Kim. A new residential tower is now being built on the block by Two Trees.

The theater is scheduled to return to Water Street in the future, to these roofless tobacco warehouses.  In the interim, the warehouses are used for events. During the storm, they were inundated by seawater.

Inside the warehouses, a group of Brooklyn College students filmed a video exploring the psychogeography of post-storm Dumbo. "This is what artists do - they provide a lens for society,"  said Lisa Kim. "This is how we can deal with a tragedy like this, is to examine it."
?Nathan Kensinger
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