DUMBO: No Dummies When It Comes To Jobs

St. Ann’s Warehouse (Photo by Caroline Culler via Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jerry Seinfeld once claimed the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn was short for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge.” The ‘O,’ the comedian claimed, was added because folks did not want to live in a neighborhood simply called “Dumb.”

In truth, there was a method in the name. The acronym came into use in the late 1970s, when artists began repopulating the former working class neighborhood. They hoped the unflattering name would keep developers at bay. That worked. Today, this neighborhood under the Brooklyn Bridge has only 1,139 residents. Concerning the name, Seinfeld took artistic license. DUMBO is short for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” There’s an ‘O’ in there after all.

DUMBO is not desolate. Indeed, it is part of the hipster Brooklyn that has emerged in recent years. DUMBO is home to up to 500 high tech and creative firms, employing over 10,000 people. That includes the corporate headquarters for the e-commerce retailer Etsy and the home furnishing stores company West Elm. Living in DUMBO costs money, but doing business there is affordable. This year, the City of New York, in partnership with New York University, installed an incubator in the neighborhood to support even more tech start-ups.

View of Manhattan Bridge from Washington Street (Photo by Caroline Culler via Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

DUMBO’s recent history took off in the 1990s when David Walentas and his company, Two Trees Management, purchased the property. Becoming a home for tech start-ups, it continued on the growth it first encountered in the late 1970s, namely as a home for art galleries. Current galleries include for-profit establishments as the Klompching Gallery, and such not-for-profit galleries as the St. Ann’s Warehouse and the A.I.R. Gallery. Bookstores include the Melville House Bookstore on John Street and the Powerhouse Arena Bookstore on Adams Street, while eateries include Chef Jacques Torres’s chocolate factory, a Grimaldi’s, the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and The River Café. In addition, John Fluevog, a Canadian shoe designer, recently opened a store on Main Street. Celebrity fans of his art-deco inspired shoes include Kit Harington, Woody Harrelson and Beyoncé.

The manufacturing prowess of the neighborhood was once represented by a Brillo Manufacturing plant. That building, alas, is being renovated as a condominium building. Both high tech and manufacturing workers need a break from their toils. DUMBO, once again, is the place to be. Clocking in at 7,800 square feet, The Cliffs is the largest outdoor bouldering gym in the country. Back on the manufacturing end, invitations for the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama were printed by Precise Continental.

Tom Fruin’s stained glass house in Brooklyn Bridge Park (Photo by John Marquez via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

With its access to both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, DUMBO, in the late 19th century, was poised for economic growth. From 1904 to 1957, the Jay Street Connecting Railroad ran through the waterfront. In time, the neighborhood was home to not only the Brillo plant, but also Benjamin Moore & Co., Arbuckle Brothers, J.W. Masury & Son, Robert Gair and E.W. Bliss. When the railroad shut down, DUMBO’s time appeared to be numbered. Symbolically enough, the railroad was disconnected the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers left town for Los Angeles. All of Brooklyn seemed to be in a funk. However, history’s wheels kept churning along. The combination of high property taxes in Long Island and exorbitant real estate prices in Manhattan made the Brooklyn waterfront a good bet for commercial and residential development. Today’s DUMBO includes an archway, which is a popular venue for film shoots, live music and art exhibitions. The popular movie The Joker features Joaquin Phoenix running through the archway on his merry romps through the city.

Remnants of the old DUMBO remain. The most prominent is Gleason’s Gym on Water Street, the oldest boxing gym in the city. Throughout the years, Gleason’s has moved its locations, from the Bronx to Manhattan to Brooklyn, but it remains the crown jewel of New York’s boxing history. Countless champions have called Gleason’s home, including Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, Vito Antuofermo, Joey Giardello, Dick Tiger, Benny Parent, Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard, Sandy Sandler and Carmen Basilio. And that’s just for starters.

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Joe Scotchie
Joe Scotchie is the editor of both The Roslyn News and New Hyde Park Illustrated News. In 2009, he won a New York State Press Association award for a sports feature. Joseph Scotchie’s past publications include biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Richard Weaver and a comprehensive history of the city of Asheville, North Carolina.

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