Living In: Dumbo, Brooklyn: Preserved in Amber. Sort Of.

Living in

Dumbo, Brooklyn: Preserved in Amber. Sort Of.

The once-quiet neighborhood, one of the city’s most scenic, is now decidedly upscale — and a major tourist destination.

As scenery goes, it’s hard to beat Dumbo.

The restored century-old buildings have bricks the color of merlot. Antique railroad tracks glimmer on streets lined with stone. And two of New York’s most handsome structures, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, are front and center.

But while Dumbo offers stimulating sights, its soundscape may be even more distinctive. “Ba-bump” go cars as they bounce across Belgian blocks. “Thup-thup-thup” comes from helicopters flying along the East River. And when subways rumble overhead, the resulting howl, particularly at Plymouth Street and Anchorage Place, can pause conversations.

There is also plenty of noise, residents say, from the throngs of visitors who prowl the neighborhood, turning what was once a sleepy, postindustrial backwater into a somewhat unlikely tourist attraction.


East River


St. Ann’s








Empire Stores





High St./


Bridge station









By The New York Times

“Everything in life is comparative,” said Clement Price-Thomas, 47, a visual artist and set designer who relocated from Manhattan in the pre-tourism year of 2005. “We used to have a neighborhood that was a dead-end, where you never saw anybody at night.”

Now the same blocks often teem with dozens of people, he said, and he has accepted the new popularity.

“Everything evolves and changes,” said Mr. Price-Thomas, who initially rented a 1,200-square-foot, one-bedroom in a condominium building, before buying it from the unit’s owner, who was the condo’s developer. The apartment, which Mr. Price-Thomas shares with his wife, Zena Sfeir, a film editor, and their 8-year-old son, cost just over $1 million in 2009, he said.

As the artists who once settled Dumbo’s roomy ex-factories have given way to affluent inhabitants, the area’s restaurants and shops have become fancier as well, particularly in the last few years. Gone are many of the mom-and-pop shops that anchored the area. A longtime bookstore, P.S. Bookshop, closed in 2016; the space it occupied on Front Street is now an outpost of Scotch & Soda, a Dutch clothing chain with $175 men’s jeans.

Living in Dumbo — an acronym for “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass” — means frequent encounters with towering bridge supports, which punctuate many blocks. Picnic tables line this beneath-the-bridge space near Water Street.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Other arrivals have filled buildings that sat empty for decades. In 2016, after an elegant restoration, a coffee warehouse that had been vacant since the 1960s became Empire Stores, a shopping mall, though not the typical suburban variety. Metal shutters frame its arched windows, and nicked wood columns support the interior.

“Man, has it changed a lot here,” said Lawson Harris, a Pilates instructor who lives in the neighborhood. Ms. Harris, 52, said she had to close her 11-year-old studio in 2017 because the rent had more than doubled.

In 2005, in search of more space for her family, she relocated from neighboring Brooklyn Heights, buying a three-bedroom duplex in a onetime soap factory for $930,000. After a divorce in 2010, Ms. Harris left Dumbo for a few years, then made her way back in 2015, to a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in a 1908 building where teakettles once were manufactured. The apartment, which her partner, Ray Dorado, an attorney, bought in 2011 for about $1.5 million, might today fetch $2.2 million, based on local sales, she said.

While Dumbo has a preserved-in-amber feeling — most buildings have landmark status, courtesy of two historic districts — what really helps set the place apart, Ms. Harris said, is something much newer: Brooklyn Bridge Park. The busy section that threads through Dumbo includes a salt marsh, pine trees, a pebbly beach, a playground and a climbing wall, and a 48-horse, two-chariot carousel that revolves to bouncy organ music (tickets: $2).

“I’m nowhere near a car when I go running there,” said Ms. Harris of her regular three-mile jogs through the park, to Cobble Hill and back. “It’s just crazy beautiful.”


Jane’s Carousel, a restored 1922 merry-go-round, sits near the water in Brooklyn Bridge Park, against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Dumbo — an acronym for “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass” — sits between the Brooklyn Bridge, Bridge Street, York Street and the East River. Some residents describe it as an island, cut off from points south by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

But far from being marooned, most feel privileged to be part of one of the borough’s most exclusive enclaves. And with many of the basic amenities — grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, wine shops, art galleries and coffee shops — nearby, Dumbo offers few reasons to leave, they say.

Although the paint, steel wool, and coffee companies that dominated life here at the turn of the 20th century may be long gone, Dumbo still has some rough edges. barbed wire twists across a fence near Plymouth Street; a city maintenance shop adorned with oversized wrenches can be found on Adams Street. And a large power plant hugs the shore along John Street.

As for that racket, residents say extra-thick windows usually do the trick. Settling east of the Manhattan Bridge, where tourist traffic is lighter, also helps.


30 MAIN STREET, No. 2B | A four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom duplex condo with 11-foot ceilings and a laundry room, in a doorman building, listed for $3.2 million. 646-594-7052CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

For those looking to buy, condos are the only option. Many are conversions, like 1 Main Street, a 1914 clock tower-topped structure that was originally a can factory and, later, state offices. Converted in the late 1990s, 1 Main was Dumbo’s first major residential project and the start of a widespread reinvention effort by Two Trees Management, a prominent local landlord.

The company, once headed by David Walentas, and now by his son, Jed, also owns seven rental buildings with a total of 650 apartments, including Nos. 25, 30, 65 and 81 Washington Street.

Although fans of modern architecture may not find much to like in the neighborhood, contemporary residences do exist, including the soaring J Condominium and the metal-faced Nexus.

There is also One John Street, a new 42-unit offering from Alloy Development and Monadnock Development, inside Brooklyn Bridge Park. Residents chip in for the upkeep of the open space, as part of a larger goal of making the park self-sustaining.

And coming down the pike is a doozy of a development, 85 Jay Street, which will eat up an entire city block. Codeveloped by CIM Group and LIVWRK, the mixed-use mega-project will have more than 700 apartments, 408 of which will be condos, according to state filings.

In an area with limited inventory, prices are steep.


1 MAIN STREET, No. 2L | A one-bedroom, two-bathroom condo, with a sunken living room and a home office currently used as a sleeping area, listed for $2.29 million. 646-431-5764CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

In early January, 25 condos and co-ops were listed at an average of $2.59 million, according to StreetEasy. The most expensive was a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom penthouse for $9.75 million — Brooklyn’s third-priciest apartment. The least expensive was a studio with a washer and dryer for $825,000.

But as in the rest of the borough, the market has swooned. In 2017, 135 condos sold in Dumbo for an average of $2.15 million, according to information from StreetEasy; in 2018, just 63 condos sold, for an average of $1.98 million.

But the prices are still elevated. Boroughwide, the average home sale price is $987,000, according to Stribling and Associates, while Dumbo’s average seems more on par with Manhattan’s, at around $2 million.

“Prices may have not increased much, but they haven’t fallen a lot either,” said Julie Leedes Bienstock, a Halstead saleswoman who bought a three-bedroom with water views — her second home in Dumbo — in 2017 for $2.8 million, the same price that the seller paid in 2015.

As for rentals, studios go for about $3,300 a month, according to StreetEasy, while one-bedrooms rent for around $4,300.


57 FRONT STREET, No. 405 | A two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo, in a building with a part-time doorman, listed for $1.085 million. 917-674-7900CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

If Dumbo is a blast from the past, it is hardly a museum. By day, it is a bustling commercial district with many creative businesses, including art galleries, furniture makers and design firms. The furniture company West Elm has its headquarters at Empire Stores, lined with large windows and easily visible to shoppers, giving corporate transparency a whole new meaning. Other tenants of Empire Stores include the restaurant Cecconi’s Dumbo, offering cocktail-fueled river-gazing. Time Out Market, a food hall with a roof deck, is slated to open there this spring.

Dumbo’s streetscape has charmed film and television directors, who frequently use the neighborhood for shoots, sometimes rankling residents. But the rank and file also swarm for perfect shots. Women in wedding gowns are a common sight, especially in Max Family Garden, a leafy courtyard dotted with salvaged scraps of bluestone sidewalk, part of St. Ann’s Warehouse, the tobacco warehouse turned theater.

The zoned elementary school is P.S. 307, the Daniel Hale Williams School, just outside the neighborhood. It offers prekindergarten through fifth grade to about 325 students. On last year’s state exams, 27 percent of students met English standards, versus 46 percent citywide; on math exams, 27 percent met standards, versus 47 percent citywide.

From there, most head to Dock Street School, a middle school that opened in 2016 in the heart of Dumbo. The closest high schools are in Downtown Brooklyn.

The F subway line stops at York Street. The A and C serve High Street, a couple of blocks outside the neighborhood. Also nearby is a ferry stop with service to Manhattan, past the Brooklyn Bridge.


Empire Stores, a shopping mall in a Civil War-era coffee warehouse, opened in 2016. CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

If the Walentas family has shaped modern Dumbo, the late 19th-century champion was Robert Gair, a Scottish immigrant who made a fortune with mass-produced boxes. Mr. Gair also built much of the neighborhood’s western half, and left an imprint so massive the area was called Gairville.

Mr. Gair arrived in Brooklyn in 1887, after running out of room in TriBeCa, and soon constructed Nos. 25 and 30 Washington Street. Other buildings followed, including 45 Washington, which was considered unusually fireproof for using reinforced concrete, a standard that was quickly emulated.

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Published at Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:01:16 +0000