D(own)U(nder)T(he)M(anhattan)B(ridge)O(verpass): Not just another NYC gentrification story

(D)own (U)nder (T)he (M)anhattan (B)ridge (O)verpass: Not just another NYC gentrification story

Copyright © 2014 by Lindsey Okubo


          Bob Melzmuf speaks in brushstrokes, his gaze inhales and exhales on its own accord. He's one of those people who's known what he's wanted to do in high-school and has been doing it ever since. "I'm an abstract painter, just lost in my own world that I've made", says Melzmuf. The world he's made has noon skies as sublime as a sunset, sunrises straight from the breath of a synonym for nirvana and paying rent a thing of the past; but, Melzmuf in painful actuality lives in this world, our world, where he spends 60-80% of his income on rent, might be evicted from the place he's been living in for the past 21 years under the new loft laws and works a series of part time jobs, one of which is at the galleries on the second floor at 111 Front st., in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

            It's without coincidence that Melzmuf was found in DUMBO as this 98 block face neighborhood with a residential population of 4,000 and a workforce of 8,000, is too, very much a fantastical reality in the tale of New York City gentrification where real-estate developer Two-Trees plays the role of creator divine. DUMBO has already been gentrified but has retained its sense of culture through the arts--which is now being threatened as the tech industry moves into the area. DUMBO once had arrived in the most hipster outfit imaginable but now it's trading bucket-hats for blazers, and in doing so would lose its community, its identity; someone check for a pulse, please.


            Two-Trees owns more than three-million square feet of DUMBO, is the host of the annual DUMBO Arts Festival, has allowed for its cobblestone streets and rasping walls to be covered with 17 pieces of public art and provides a home for over 16 galleries. "They're a corporation that exists for profit but they've also done a lot of good things; the fact that they were so willing to go out of their way to support the arts beyond what you would expect developers to do, there's something credit to be said for that", Melzmuf said.

            Down the hall is Todd Masters, the owner of Folioleaf, one of the galleries on the second floor. Hanging on the walls are seemingly familiar faces of someone famous, printed and collaged with an almost painfully vibrant color palette; a pink circle, its paint dripping, halos the eye. "To get more galleries in, they've been offering reduced rates to galleries and only allowing galleries to come into this space for like 5 years", he said, "I'm not sure how long it will last or what their plan is going forward but that's where the art scene started." Masters likened DUMBO to an emerging artist, who would either pursue his or her passion and make it to the mid-career level and bump up the market, or would trade passion for security, pursuing a day-job in the tech industry.

            The Mighty Tanaka gallery hailed for its hand over the street-art niche can also be found on the second floor. Alex Emmart, the owner, has been located in DUMBO since 2009, originally at 68 Jay Street where from his corner of the 4th floor, he watched the tech industry move in, pushing the artists out, floor by floor. "On one hand it's really frustrating to see this thing happening, but at the other side of things, I feel like Two Trees acknowledges this and they're doing what they can to be encouraging of the arts. Like this whole gallery floor, they could easily come and be like screw you guys, you're out, we're gonna move tech here, but they don't. This woman named Lisa Kim is really fighting for us as galleries to be able to exist here", said Emmart.

            "I think they're actually really compatible industries", says Lisa Kim, the Cultural Affairs Director at Two Trees. "This neighborhood, this city, the creation of art is all about innovation, and artists are the first to use new materials, new technologies, new anything. They are the original innovators and I think the tech industries certainly borrow from artists and get ideas; they speak the same language", said Kim. DUMBO is home to 500 tech companies, according to a USA Today article from 2013, and that number has only grown since.

            Down the street, Hal Oral leans back in his armchair in the conference room at Datalot, a start-up tech company that’s been in DUMBO since 2010, making the move over from Union Square. "This is the Silicon Valley of New York. This still seems to be a hot bed, everybody wants to come here to work down in DUMBO for all these tech start-ups. We bring innovation and a different way of thinking. We have to use creative thinking to get our business out there", said Oral.

            But even if the same language were spoken between the technology sector and the arts domain, the looming question of what would happen to DUMBO if the arts community were to be replaced by the tech community remains?

            Stephen Romano, owner of the Stephen Romano Gallery, has been in the business for over 25 years and had looked at spaces in Chelsea and the Lower East Side before choosing to be in DUMBO. "DUMBO has a really distinct energy. People come here for an adventure, because they have a sense of exploration", said Romano. "If you don't have the artists here you don't have a creative community. Once the artists are gone, you become like SoHo is now and it becomes inaccessible to the artists unless they bought their lofts 50 years ago. To maintain the artist presence here in the community has to be the highest priority to keep DUMBO as an exciting cultural context that continues to grow", said Romano.  

            The future of DUMBO matters because this neighborhood has a chance to paint a new face for gentrification. "In my personal vision, we become this creative, dynamic ecosystem that supports both small tech start-ups and emerging artists but also capitalizes on larger digital growth in a way that's equitable for everyone", said Kristin Labuz, the director of marketing and events at the DUMBO Improvement District, a non-profit organization dedicated to an ever-more progressive DUMBO.

            Lisa Kim proposes a new way to look at gentrification, it's population growth multiplied by the gravitational pull of New York City on the heartstrings. "The biggest lesson to take from DUMBO is to build a community with the community in mind", said Kim. DUMBO's population will continue to grow and a natural self-selection will start to take place. The quality and cultural credibility of everything here will be elevated.  "Everybody's growing up together. Things incubate here but it doesn't just stay in DUMBO, the message should be sent around the rest of New York, the rest of the world. And that's my hope for DUMBO that the people and businesses here thrive", said Kim.

            DUMBO only has one Starbucks, basically everyone eats lunch at Foragers City Grocer, and on any given day you can head down to the "beach", but don't bother to bring your surfboard. "There are no Walmarts or any of that nonsense, everything is very grassroots kind of business so it still retains this awesome sense of community. It's disgusting when the advertisers move in and push out this local, cultural feel of a certain place at a certain time. That's the last thing I want to see happen to a neighborhood like this. DUMBO does a really good job of preserving the identity of this area and keeping this as an autonomous neighborhood; a unique blip in New York City", said Emmart. 

Photos by Lindsey Okubo

Written in Spring 2014