Beneath the shade of two bridges is an urban bohemia. Worn railroad tracks line the cobblestone streets, a West Elm sets the tone for Washington Street, and residents holler at each other by name from sidewalk to sidewalk. There is something raw and unfinished here—a community of artists in the throes of social flux. In the midst of this society, with one foot in and one foot out of gentrification, DUMBO's circus once again comes into town.
The DUMBO Arts Festival will take place for the 18th year this weekend in the Brooklyn enclave of DUMBO. Both indoor and outdoor installations are erected throughout the neighborhood, many of which have an interactive element.
"Every artist treats it differently. Some works are confined to a canvas or a specific format," festival director Lisa Kim, BC '96, said. "But these days, art is much more about them presenting the experience of creativity and inspiration, and what that spark could mean. So that does involve social interaction, that does involve engagement, and it really takes a participant to activate an artwork."
During the past two decades, the DUMBO Arts Festival has helped solidify the arts identity of DUMBO to those outside the community. However, adjacent with this increased public interest in the area's art is a growth in interest in its real estate.
Following decades of industrial residency on the waterfront, artists began to take up residency in the abandoned factories in the 1970s. It was during this time the name DUMBO—Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass—was coined. Soon after, in 1981, real estate developer David Walentas began what would be a long-term development of the DUMBO area with his Two Trees Management Company. There seemed to be a harmony between the developers and artists until the swift exodus of artists in recent years, due to rising rent of these industrial studio spaces.
According to the United States Census Bureau, while the median household income of DUMBO residents in 1990 was $42,153 ($75,366 adjusted to 2012 dollars), that figure had risen to $170,481 by 2012, an increase of around 226 percent. At the same time, the percentage of DUMBO residents age 25 and over holding a bachelor's degree has risen from 44.7 percent in 1990 to 80.9 percent in 2012. The MNS Brooklyn Rental Market Report claims that monthly average rent in the neighborhood for a studio reached $3,657 in August 2014.
Dale Kaplan, a local artist and DUMBO resident for 20 years, has witnessed the evolution of the community, as well as the festival.
"It [the festival] used to be about artists, but it's not really anymore because they all left the neighborhood," Kaplan said. "I still think it is a good thing, but I could definitely do without the corporate sponsorship. It kills it. They [the sponsors] need to get out of this neighborhood. They're making a lot of noise and they don't need to be here. They have their own place in society, and it's not in this neighborhood."
However, because it is a free event, corporate sponsors like Two Trees, business coalition the DUMBO Improvement District, M&T Bank, and industrial estate Dumbo Heights seem to be unavoidable, despite the uncomfortable reminder of gentrification they bring.
"I think it's the nature of the beast, and we need these dollars," Kim said. "We need these dollars to pay artists' fees and production costs and marketing dollars. It's not cheap to put something like this on, so we depend on money, so we balance it. It's a little bit of selling your soul to the devil, but we're pretty good about not having corporate advertising blasted everywhere."
This dance with the devil of wealth seems to be a never-ending ritual artists must live with. The wealthy are patrons of the arts, but the wealthy also raise rent when they come into town. Appreciation of art versus the struggle of its creation is at the crux of the issue within the DUMBO Arts Festival and its community.
But not all artists share Kaplan's views on the perversion of the festival. Artist Heather Hart, whose installation "Barter Town" explores possible future trade models, sees the festival as a place of positive collaboration between artists and the developers who help sponsor it.
"In New York, it's been chang[ing] so fast, people move out of necessity, economies change really quickly," Hart said. "With DUMBO, I like the role of the festival and Two Trees in a way because I feel like they at least try to give. I feel like the festival is important to remind people that it was kind of an artist's neighborhood, to keep that culture going."
There is a certain realism in the attitude of most artists involved in the festival. The reality of gentrification does not paralyze their ability to create. Rather, they find a way to compartmentalize the consequences and benefits of development within an arts community.
"The change [in the neighborhood] has got a lot of good points because it's great for the economy, and it's good for the artists," Kaplan said, citing the recent expansion of her own retail business thanks to affluent newcomers to DUMBO. "But the thing that's a little sad for me is that everyone in the neighborhood used to know each other. You would walk from the F train to work every morning, and four people would kiss you good morning. ... Everybody used to have their own studio, so everybody wanted to know each other."
"And now because the studios were taken over by companies instead of individual artists, there was a camaraderie that has been lost in the neighborhood. But I would say, in comparison to other neighborhoods, that it's still really a neighborhood. Definitely is."
The economic opportunity the festival brings to the community is a coup for arts and companies alike (who are often one and the same in DUMBO).
"It's really packed, it's like Christmas for us," Ilse Eriksson, owner of DUMBO fashion boutique Mel en Stel, said. "It's not like I participate [in the festival], I just get ready for it. I do special pieces, more artsy-oriented. So whoever comes here for the first time from wherever, to give them a nice impression and hopefully they come back."
Even those who have been directly affected by the changes in the area look forward to the energy of the festival. Nadia Block, who has lived and worked in DUMBO for over a decade, does not currently have a studio space in the district, but her participation in the festival remains strong. Block will be showing art in three different locations at this year's festival, including the exhibition "A Flight Between Two Bridges."
"The first time I came down to DUMBO was for the arts festival," she said. "I fantasized about having a studio down here."
"We used to be more community-based, the artists used to just open their studios," Block said. "Now we are seeing less of that. But I am looking forward to work with my artist friends here."
During the festival, any DUMBO artist with a studio space can open it to the public, regardless of their participation in the installation aspect of the festival. Artist Karen Mainenti, who maintains a space at DUMBO's Studio Milo, is presenting her first installation piece, "DUMBO Underfoot," during this year's festival, after years of participation in open studio.
Mainenti's piece highlights the abandoned train tracks throughout DUMBO by painting allusions to their former industrial purposes.
"I think people [who reside in DUMBO] have more of an awareness of the industrial history than I might have had. Once I started talking about this, so many people mentioned different things to me that I hadn't noticed before," Mainenti said.
This industrial history is one more chapter in DUMBO's constant evolution. The area's ability to maintain an awareness of its industrial roots could indicate the future status of the arts community there: DUMBO does not dispose of its history, but rather seems to weave it into its current identity.
Hart suggests that it is the artists themselves who have the potential to change the face of the economy and bring innovation to how society exists and develops.
"I think the one thing that across the board people learned in art school is how to think outside of the box, how to be creative and kind of push boundaries," Hart said. "So we often are the pioneers into territory, both physical and conceptual territory, that people might not be looking at yet."
In the face of gentrification, the DUMBO Arts Festival seems to maintain its appeal and accomplish connectivity through art.
"I think that it brings more people from other boroughs and also from all over the world because it becomes one of the most known, biggest art festivals in New York," DUMBO resident and artist Sara Frohlich said. "I think it has a great impact on everybody who heard about it and came and see it. I don't think the arts festival would have any negative impact on artists, I think that if anything it would bring closer attention to the art of today."
The DUMBO Arts Festival brings attention to the realities of gentrification and the commercialization of art, but also to the resilience of the creators involved and to the connection between artists and the local community. With the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, the energy of the festival and the weight it carries will be palpable to patrons who wander the streets of DUMBO this weekend.
"It's that moment on Saturday afternoon of the festival, and you feel this incredible positive energy all around the neighborhood," Kim said. "People are walking in the street and there's this incredible collective sense of delight and discovery and sometimes awe. And many times laughter, sometimes confusion, and maybe even disgust, but that's OK."
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