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Industrial Brooklyn neighborhood transforms into art mecca. (DUMBO, Brooklyn).

"It was horrific--lots of muggings, an attempted rape on my street, no cops anywhere. But what was I going to do? I have to have space." In 1994, unable to afford soaring Manhattan rents, artist Carol Bruns moved into a studio in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Situated on the waterfront surrounding the Manhattan Bridge (DUMBO is an acronym for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"), the abandoned industrial neighborhood, on the surface, had little going for it other than affordable rent and spectacular views of nearby Manhattan.

These two attributes, however, were enough for artists, who began moving into the area in the 1970s, many living and working illegally in dangerously run-down buildings. Little changed until the '90s, when long-dormant development began to change the face of the neighborhood.

Architect Vito Acconci moved to DUMBO in 1979. Though talk of neighborhood growth was always in the air, he said, "it's only been in the last five years that we've seen more drastic change." These changes have brought shops, restaurants and residentially geared businesses such as laundry service and grocery stores. For artists, it has also brought galleries, dealers and growing recognition from the outside world.

One of the driving forces behind this recognition has been Joy Glidden, director of the not-for-profit D.U.M.B.O. Arts Center (DAC) and a co-founder of the annual D.U.M.B.O. Art Under the Bridge Festival, a three-day festival of exhibits and performances begun in 1997 to unite and identify DUMBO as an area rich in the arts. The first festival attracted 8,000 people and international press coverage; this past year, despite the fact that the October event fell on the heels of the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 100,000 people came.

"The festival was really the first time people had ever come down here in droves," said Glidden. And why would they otherwise? "There was nothing here. It was a weird, desolate area. The police referred to the F train [the local subway station] as `the pit,'" she remembered. "But I didn't mind it, I liked the quiet."

She also liked the freedom. "Dealers in SoHo had so much control over access to and quality of art--which was really terrible at the time. As an artist, I was dead set against that level of control." Glidden became involved in various open studios occurring in DUMBO and used these contacts to help create the festival.

In addition to the annual event, DAC also hosts several group exhibits each year which showcase works from the growing number of neighborhood artists. When Glidden moved to DUMBO in 1990, she estimates there were about 25 artists living there--now, she said, there are thousands.

Whether or not this growth will continue remains to be seen. The pattern is a familiar one in New York: Driven by their need for affordable space, artists move into a marginal neighborhood and gradually make the place seem livable. Developers take note, and rental prices begin to increase, leaving artists no choice but to move on. Already, this is happening to DUMBO. "It's gotten so expensive," said Acconci. "It's still cheaper than other places, but I don't know if it's a viable place to live for people just out of graduate school."

But DUMBO may escape the insane rental prices that typify so many New York neighborhoods. A little over 20 years ago, David Walentas, the head of real estate company Two Trees, began buying DUMBO property. Today, Two Trees owns eight commercial buildings in the area and about 130 rental apartments in four different buildings, in addition to managing a 124-unit condominium. Ten years ago, Two Trees began building artist studios in its buildings and renting them at bargain prices. The scope of Walentas' holdings enables him to take a broad approach to DUMBO development. The company currently rent around 250 studios and has plans to build more, pledging to maintain affordable spaces for artists.

While renting space below market value "might not be optimal for an individual property, it makes sense because of the scale of our investment," said Jed Walentas, Two Trees' project manager. "We recognize how integral artists are to DUMBO."

While some residents resent DUMBO being so influenced by one company, few argue that its influence has been positive. Two arts organization have been given free or below-market space. In return, the artistic directors of both groups help Two Trees identify artistic organizations they believe would add to the DUMBO community.

In addition to Walentas, a word heard often in DUMBO is "community." "There are so many artists here," said Bruns. "It's very beneficial to be able to casually intersect with other artists without some sort of formal contrivance. [DUMBO's] not about famous artists who get segregated from the world, it's about a community."

Five years into his DUMBO residency and with business booming, Michael Counts, director and co-founder of Gail Gates, said he will never leave. "I never have had a sense of community like I have here," he said. To listen to Counts, the sky is the limit when it comes to DUMBO. But Gail Gates was well established before moving to DUMBO and, like neighbor gallery Smack Mellon, is non-profit. The real test for DUMBO's emerging gallery scene, according to Smack Mellon Executive Director Kathleen Gilrain, is whether or not new, commercial ventures can survive.

5 + 5 Gallery is, as owner and printmaker Raphael Fodde said, a good experiment in this sense. Opened just a couple of weeks after Sept. 11, Fodde is definitely not making "tons of money." But he's happy with its success, and nonetheless said he is here to stay. "I feel very comfortable here. It is a real community."
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Author:La Rocco, Claudia
Publication:Art Business News
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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