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How Brooklyn's Oldest Industrial Area Morphed Into A Hip 'Hood

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Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams of The Weekly Nabe studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

In 1978, acronyms like Soho and Tribeca were the mode: neighborhoods well on their way to becoming synonymous with luxury at the expense of starving artists. And so it was that Dumbo, short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, was coined to attract the hip crowd to a former industrial area of northwest Brooklyn in dire need of a makeover.

At least that's what David Walentas and other developers would like you to believe; the reality was quite the opposite. According to Crane Davis, who helped name the neighborhood, "Dumbo" was a middle finger to an inevitable onrush of investment, one he and fellow residents believed would destroy the vibrant artist community that had gathered in the enormous loft spaces once dedicated to the production of items as varied as soap and corrugated cardboard. But within 30 years, the name had been hardcoded into the DNA of the city's historic districts.

What we now know as Dumbo is Brooklyn's oldest hub, thanks to its proximity to Manhattan; the first Dutch ferry was chartered there in 1642. It's also one of Brooklyn's oldest mixed-use areas. In the late 18th century, near the site where George Washington made his daring escape from the Brookland Ferry after the disastrous Battle of Long Island, brothers Comfort and Joshua Sands founded a settlement called Olympia, near Main Street today, where they set up shop as shippers and as manufacturers of rigging and rope.

The landowner to their east, John Jackson, wanted to attract Irish immigrants, so he named his area Vinegar Hill after a 1798 Irish rebellion that was brutally stamped out by the English. The settling of Vinegar Hill was perfectly timed with the establishment of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1801; men would work on the docks or in the factories and walk (or stumble) home. Particularly in Vinegar Hill, many residents worked in the ground-level storefronts and retired upstairs.

The 1815 introduction of Robert Fulton's steam-powered Nassau ferry led to a boom period for the area, which lasted for about a century. During that time, the City of Brooklyn, like the City of New York, adopted a system of local governance based on geographic units called wards. In 1898, when Brooklyn was consolidated into New York City, Wards 2 and 5 comprised the entire future Dumbo area, divided by Bridge Street. Ward 5 went as far south as Johnson Street.

The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (1883) and Manhattan Bridge (1909) required the destruction of several blocks of buildings, residential and commercial alike. The bridges meant that ferries were no longer a critical link between the two boroughs, and the waterfront was largely forgotten, a blip from the trestles above. One positive, though, was that its out-of-the-way nature kept this historic neighborhood from being torn down and rebuilt, beyond what was required for the bridges. One major exception was the growth of the enormous Con Ed facility that stretches from Jay Street to the Navy Yard, which first opened in the 1920s. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk of repurposing the plant.

That seclusion would change by 1977, the year the city designated the Fulton Ferry Historic District, protecting many of the properties under the Brooklyn Bridge. The government was soon in talks to redevelop much of the rest of the area.

The history since then has been well-documented. In 1979, David Walentas purchased nearly 2 million square feet of space for $12 million, and grew his Two Trees outfit into a multi-billion-dollar empire. Brooklyn Bridge Park grew up, Jane's Carousel moved in, old factories were converted, St. Ann's Warehouse was torn down for luxury housing, and the conversion of theTobacco Warehouse is underway.

In the meantime, the city has designated two historic districts in the area: a smattering of buildings in Vinegar Hill in 1997 and the aforementioned Dumbo area in 2007. Future attempts for government protection appear unlikely, but who knows—if a name chosen as a joke can become a hip neighborhood to name-drop within just a few decades, surely wilder things can happen.
· Blurred Lines archives [Curbed]