My boyfriend, Michael M. Thomas, moved into his apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo early in 2000. A decade ago Dumbo, despite being a 10-minute bike ride across the Brooklyn Bridge to Wall Street, was what is politely known as “gritty”; empty, wind-blasted canyons lined with old factories and crumbling, abandoned warehouses. Feral packs of dogs roamed the gap-toothed cobbled streets at night, and one bodega-type corner store pretty much represented the area’s commercial activity.
But the bones of those warehouses were beautiful. Their big, open loft-type spaces were seized on by squatting artists, who jerry-rigged the plumbing and electricity to make them habitable and get around the non-residential zoning laws. They also attracted the attention of real-estate developers—or, mostly, one developer, who started buying up blocks of Dumbo in the 1980s and eventually began turning them into residential lofts. It was a hard sell at first, but the guy was smart: he let the artists stay on, sometimes for free and often at rents well below market. Eventually some galleries opened up, a few cool furniture stores, a couple of restaurants, a dry cleaners, a fancy chocolate shop… Gradually those old warehouses were converted into condos, and they weren’t cheap. But they had gyms and river views, and young hedge-fund types who worked across the river on Wall Street but coveted a bit of Brooklyn cool bought them in droves.
One by one the artists moved out, because they couldn’t afford the condos, and the developer wasn’t letting them use space for free anymore. The young hedge-fund types started having babies, and there were twin Bugaboos on every other corner instead of the lady who kept two potbellied pigs and walked them on leashes. On weekends our street was so thronged with tourists, it was like living in a New York City version of Disneyland.
Dumbo had undergone the SoHo effect.
An eternal cycle
Remember SoHo? Once it was synonymous with deserted, cobbled streets lined with high-ceilinged, light-filled former factories that the artistic descendants of the New York School and Pop took over and turned into studios and living spaces. Anyone familiar with the streets south of Houston now would hardly believe what they were like 30 years ago; deserted at night, very badly lit, graffiti-adorned and slightly scary—the action was all in a few divey old bars and occasional wild and crazy parties in somebody’s loft, which you’d go up to in a huge old freight elevator that opened directly into the apartment. Sometimes you’d have to find a phone booth to call the host from so they’d unlock the elevator, or you wouldn’t be able to get off on their floor. A bit like Bushwick today, maybe. Bushwick is just a couple of miles north of Dumbo, and well into its cool-artist period.
In SoHo it’s all gone now, needless to say. The buildings are still the same, but the downstairs storefronts are Prada and Dean & DeLuca and Balthazar and J.Crew. The artists who saw the appeal in the empty factories are dead or long gone; even the ones who can afford it have moved out now, because why would you want to live in a place whose streets are like crowded supermarket aisles full of shoppers? Saturdays in Dumbo may be like Disneyland, but Saturdays in SoHo are more like some special Dantean circle of hell where New Yorkers only fight their way through the swarming tourists-from-many-lands because they have to get to Old Navy to buy jeans when their kids go back to school.
Of course, it’s an eternal cycle. The starving artists seize on the cheap, rundown housing, bring the neighborhood to life, create a cool factor—and behind them come the people with the money, looking for that instant cool. And the artists move out, and the ordinary punters move in until one day the rich people realize it’s not cool anymore, and then they move out… and the cycle starts all over again. Meanwhile, we in Dumbo have achieved the SoHo effect. Can Old Navy be far behind?—TAMARA GLENNY