Brooklyn’s waterfront docklands, warehouses, and factories have been derelict for years, cut off by grim Robert Moses–era elevated highways from the revitalizing, conventionally cozy brownstone neighborhoods. Most DUMBO, Gowanus, and Red Hook residents have been hardy artists and squatters priced out of the rest of the city. The three neighborhoods share the fact that they weren’t built to be residential and only began drawing serious interest in the past year or two. “When I first moved here, I rarely saw an artist,” says Richard Van Buren, a sculptor and longtime Red Hook resident. “Now I see them every day, young families too. You see more Volvos.”
TIPPING POINTS: In July 1998, developer David Walentas opened the Clocktower at 1 Main Street, a condo conversion that brought the cobblestoned area into mainstream realty speculation. “We had a sign on the building: DUMBO LOFTS,” says Ruth McCoy, who oversaw the sales effort. “I’d get calls from people on the FDR Drive on cell phones.” Despite its isolation, DUMBO always had its brick-pile romance. Getting people to live on the banks of the chemically infused Gowanus Canal was harder, but the city took care of that last year when it finally fixed the pump that circulated its sulfurous waters out into the harbor. Brokers began to hawk it as “the Venice of Brooklyn.” Red Hook—best known as the brutish setting for Last Exit to Brooklyn—is still scented by its garbage-transfer stations but saw its Beard Street Warehouses transformed into artists’ studios and a trolley museum.
STREET LIFE: “I don’t have to get out of bed to watch the boats,” says Clocktower resident Ingrid Johnson, who moved from East Harlem and finds it safe. Gowanus sees fewer abandoned cars, and the Department of Sanitation sponsors regular graffiti cleanups. Red Hook’s Van Buren loves “all the romantic stuff, foghorns, the Louis Valentino Jr. Pier at end of Coffey Street where folks fish.” Still, it’s not tamed: “You just have to stay awake without being paranoid. It’s not suburbia; there are no sprinklers.”
CREATURE COMFORTS: Before gourmet grocer Peas & Pickles arrived, DUMBO residents carpooled to Pathmark across the Manhattan Bridge. “It was like a field trip,” says Johnson. Gowanus residents have to walk a few blocks to the bustling fringes of either Carroll Gardens or Park Slope, but they have Costco and Home Depot. Diners on Van Brunt Street, Red Hook’s commercial strip, still cater mostly to workers during the day, though there’s a bank, a bar, and a drugstore. And they’re fighting for a trolley to connect to downtown.
PROGNOSIS: Buyers in DUMBO have the most at stake, but the views, proximity to the Heights, and the size of the apartments should prop up its value. And there’s no place for Gowanus and Red Hook to go but up.
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