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Finding history in DUMBO

Finding history in DUMBO
Beacon Tower on York Street could not have been built if DUMBO had been a historic district.

An existential conundrum is brewing in the neighborhood known as “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”: what do you name a historic district whose name is a modern concoction?

City officials are moving ahead with plans to create a historic district in DUMBO — whose acronymic name was created by developer David Walentas when he started buying up buildings in the 1980s to evoke an earlier uber-hip neighborhood, Soho.

“What to name the district is an ironic question,” said Rob Parris, district manager of Community Board 2.

“We know it as ‘DUMBO,’ but certainly in history there have been names more associated with [it].”

The area between Fulton Ferry Landing (the old name for where the River Cafe now is) and Wallabout Bay (the Navy Yard) has changed names pretty much every 50 years since it first appeared on European maps in the 16th century.

The first name was Rapailie, after the family who owned most of the land. But in the centuries to follow, the area would be called “Olympia,” “Fulton Landing” and finally “Gairville,” after the early-20th century industrialist Robert Gair, who manufactured paper bags and corrugated cardboard boxes at 45 Washington St.

Gairville has the best claim, historians say, but the name is unlikely to even be suggested. Why? Because Landmarks designation is about marketability, just as much as history.

“Can you imagine saying ‘let’s go out for dinner in ‘Gairville’?” said Simeon Bankoff of the Historic District Council.

But other historians say that history does not need to be lost to real-estate hipsterism.

“ ‘Olympia’ sounds just as good as ‘DUMBO’ and it goes back to the history,” said former borough historian John Manbeck.

So far, the commissioners are undecided: “It’s not a forgone conclusion that ‘DUMBO’ will be the name of district, but we will look at how the neighborhood is known to the people in the community that exists now,” said Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The DUMBO Neighborhood Association wants the district enshrined before more old buildings are lost.

Last week, notorious landlord Joshua Guttman began to demolish a 19th-century foundry built by Brooklyn Bridge builder E.W. Bliss. The slim brick building at 205 Water St. would be within the boundaries for the historic district suggested by the DUMBO neighborhood group — but city officials said they can’t stop Guttman until the neighborhood is landmarked.

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