A long journey from warehouse to hothouse • Brooklyn Paper

A long journey from warehouse to hothouse

Hard to remember, but this is what DUMBO looked like in the 1980s. This view of Washington Street is now one of the most-photographed places in Brooklyn.

For 21 years, the St. Ann’s Warehouse performance space was in Brooklyn Heights before it moved to DUMBO in 2000.

Prior to the move, almost all that Artistic Director Susan Feldman knew about the then-wilderness between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges was that it was used in the Ferrari scene in “Scent of a Woman.”

She had never been there, despite the neighborhood’s rep for being an artists’ enclave amid the rundown warehouses and abandoned ferry slips. Even so, for years it had been largely desolate. After all, a blind guy supposedly could drive a sports car through there and not hit anybody.

When St. Ann’s moved to DUMBO, the neighborhood as we know it now had started to take shape. Grimaldi’s, of course, was there, as was Rice restaurant, but back then Jacques Torres was just starting his chocolate factory and David Walentas’s Two Trees Management was beginning to change the skyline.

“We felt, along with the developers, like we were building a neighborhood,” Feldman said. “Now it feels like it’s built.”

DUMBO is an ironic name. Walentas, who bought up most of the warehouses in the 1970s and ’80s, came up with the absurd acronym to give the neighborhood some panache. The name, though, didn’t come into common parlance until the last decade. Even into the late 1990s, the always-late-to-the-party New York Times still referred to the neighborhood as the (gag) “inter-bridge area.”

When St. Ann’s opened in 2001, “people had no idea where it was,” Feldman said. There wasn’t even an ATM back then — that didn’t come until Brooklyn’s Independence Bank opened there in 2003, she recalled. Feldman’s group had to put up signs to direct patrons to their events. “Safety was still a concern” as well, she said. Now, the theater draw up to 60,000 people a year.

In that time, many of the individual artists who lived and worked down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass have been pushed out by rising rents. Still, the neighborhood has retained its artistic character with major artistic spaces taking up residence there. Galapagos Art Space, for example, relocated there from Williamsburg. The DUMBO Arts Festival is a major draw.

Since 2001, the city has moved to reclaim its waterfront, perhaps most dramatically in DUMBO where down every street along the rivers edge is a spectacular view either of the bridges or the Manhattan skyline. In the last eight years, the city resolved decades-old differences about how to build Brooklyn Bridge Park from the bridges down to Atlantic Avenue and also rehabilitated Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, which attracted people to the neighborhood with outdoor movie showings and other events.

The ultimate sign that DUMBO had become a destination was when U2 performed there in 2006. A year later, Starbucks opened — the same year the neighborhood was named New York City’s 90th historic district.

— Michael P. Ventura

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