During a recent visit to New York, we took in an interesting tour beneath the bridges of the ‘Big Apple’, Manhattan and Brooklyn, which also takes in the neighbourhood known as, believe it or not, Dumbo.
Over the past 15 to 20 years, Dumbo has undergone a huge transformation. From an area that was considered a ‘no go’ area after dark during the mid-90s, it has been regenerated into an authentic part of New York city, full of cafes, artists and stunning views of the Manhattan skyline and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.
Via BQETours.com, Dumbo can be negotiated via an insightful walking tour provided by a hospitable New Yorker, John Garay (also a writer and artist), full of stories and anecdotes, making him a good fit with us visiting Irish!
Our son Killian, who lives in Brooklyn, had questions galore for John and he in turn went out of his way to help us throughout our walking tour.
John took us to two local artists studios in old factory buildings, including woodworker Mark Jupiter who restores old timbers into quality furnishings, while nearby is a special coffee house on the water, called the Brooklyn Roasting Company.
The area has been a firm favourite for film and television drama makers, given its industrial architecture.
Some of the iconic productions shot there include Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time in America’ starring Robert De Niro and ‘Spiderman 2’, a movie considered by many as the best comic book movie yet made and of course, the backdrop in so many of Woody Allen’s movies.
During our visit, we saw many couples, Asians in particular, going down there to have wedding photos taken against the backdrop of magnificent Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge skyline. It’s a vista which can never fail to impress.
New art galleries have been installed; we noticed a new music venue under construction as a once thriving industrial area reinvents itself. Were funding possible, there might be some lessons for Waterford’s North Wharf as the City & County Council ponders a potential use for the site. The area has become ‘gentrified’, a far cry from bygone decades.
Back in the day, before container ships, the Brooklyn dockside we frequented was a port area. Ships were unloaded here with many teams of stevedores and dockers at work, including a cousin of ours, who was a student back then.
In the past he told us the tale of giving 10 per cent of his wages to the gaffer, who, back in the 1960s, picked him for work. Others were not so lucky, such was the way down there a half century or more ago.
Life in Brooklyn, in a more criminalised time, was once considered cheap; many gangster killings took place here, our guide told us – the mob once dumped bodies from the ‘trunks’ of cars here. ‘On The Waterfront’, directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando (“I could have been a contender”), which was primarily filmed at Hoboken, New Jersey, was inspired by author Arthur Miller, who had written of corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront.
When night fell, we checked out a nice craft bar on Front Street called Superfine NYC where live music is played on Sundays, with Bluegrass at lunch and jazz in the evenings, with meals also served there.
The co-owner used to organise warehouse parties in her youth but now happily runs a successful bar and restaurant in a much safer area, with the welcome help of an understanding landlord.
One of the most significant developers in the area for many years has been David Walentas, whom Forbes said “made his fortune by building the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Dumbo into arguably New York’s hottest area”.
Walentas gave artists cheap places to live, and led to Dumbo being ‘discovered’ so to speak, which led to older residents moving to cheaper locations in Brooklyn, upriver to Williamsburg.
It remains a place of great variety and alternatives, populated by dance studios, yoga centres, Chinese herbal shops, tarot readers, second hand stores for clothes and records, and some high end labels as well.
You get there from the York Street Subway on Line F or High Street Brooklyn or via a downhill walk or over the bridge from Manhattan, which we did another sunny evening when it was really busy with walkers and bikers.
Among the art studios we visited was one by Janusz Obst from Poland who works with rubber moulds and has great pieces like his 9/11 angels, where women are depicted, almost biblically, jumping from the World Trade Centre on that appalling day 14 years ago. Some of his works are in 3d style and sell for between $10,000 to $30,000.
Kevin Kelly’s studio, which also offers stunning views of the bridge, works with 12 sided cubes for hotel foyers. While we visited, he gave us a nice piece of cheese and glass of wine during our tour, having earlier enjoyed pin wheel pizza at Front Street Pizza.
Open since the 1980s, they had to close at dusk in the early days for security reasons, but now there are no such concerns.
Nearby, there’s a lovely chocolatier, with beautiful home made chocolates by Frenchman Jacques Torres, who had previously worked in Manhattan
Perhaps the nicest place was the Brooklyn Roasting Company, located in the Arbuckle Building, housing the Ariosa coffee brand.
In the days of the ‘Wild West’, Arbuckle brought coffees to the cowboys out west in freeze dried bags for coffee, which kept the material fresh.
Mr Arbuckle made a fortune from this, the coffee was a great part of life in the American west and was shipped there form Brazil and elsewhere via Brooklyn.
Today, a lovely coffee maker and blender called Ariosa has a very comfortable old style cafe there, resplendently furnished with old style Brooklyn furniture.
Nearby is Mark Jupiter, from a fourth generation joinery and timber making business. Old style warehouse timber is very popular these days and visitors can see him at work there; he’s currently working with old timbers from the Coney Island boardwalk damaged in the Hurricane Sandy disaster two years previously.
The inventiveness of New Yorkers during our time there was plain to see. This area has many small start-up craft makers with up to 10 employees.
Besides port work, the area had also hosted clothing and engineering firms in the past, as well as general manufacture – but such skills are being used again but in a smaller more high value way.
Combined with artists, small self-owned stores it gives the area a certain eclectic style different to the affluent Manhattan across the river.
Like Dublin’s Grand Canal Docks, Brooklyn and Dumbo is now a centre of IT start-ups.
Williamsburg is the other established area in Brooklyn, while many art-minded types now venturing into nearby Bushwick.
Dumbo, and Brooklyn in general, emits a cool, relaxed, contemporary vibe, with something for all age groups and ethnicities to enjoy.
Be it by foot or the A train, in the Dumbo Archway, on the waterfront or at Rockaways Beach, we found it an endlessly fascinating place, and couldn’t recommend it more highly.
The BQE tour in Brooklyn runs for three hours and costs $65, which includes a snack and drinks. For further details email info@BQEtours.com or Telephone: 347-628-2088.