Sunday, January 3, 2021

Then and Now: Manhattan Skyline From Dumbo

The Evolving City

View of Manhattan from Dumbo
Manhattan Skyline from Dumbo, 1978.
We're all familiar with the typical postcard view of the Manhattan skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground and Manhattan Island looming above it. The above photo from 1978 is a slight variation of this well-known scene, which is usually taken from the riverbank near the bridge. This is taken from a higher vantage point than usual and thereby showing the scene in some detail. I saw that grand view and wondered how it has changed over the years, and so here we examine then and now for the Manhattan skyline from the Dumbo section of Brooklyn.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
To be sure, it's hardly a unique vantage point and has been over and over throughout the years. But, anyway, let's define terms. "Dumbo" here is not the Disney elephant, but a Brooklyn neighborhood. The name literally stands for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass," but it spans the entire waterfront area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges (the Manhattan would be slightly to the right of this photo) along with another section of Brooklyn east to Vinegar Hill.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
The Manhattan skyline during World War I, proving that this particular view has been preferred for over a hundred years. Looks uncannily similar, doesn't it? Note the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, serving as the center point that the World Trade Center later filled (Shorpy).
The fact that the photo at the top of this page was taken in 1978 is particularly appropriate because that was the year that the acronym "Dumbo" was coined. Local residents feared onrushing gentrification and figured giving the area an unattractive or even forbidding nickname - think "Hell's Kitchen" - would keep out the dreaded Yuppies.
This is a view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn showing part of the Manhattan skyline in 1939. Already, the Woolworth Building has been dwarfed by other buildings. Credit: Associated Press.
That didn't happen, and the Yuppies (who morphed into a new breed of invaders called tech workers) could not be held back. While the nickname somewhat ironically stuck anyway, Dumbo is now the most expensive neighborhood in Brooklyn and the fourth for the entire city. Perhaps giving the area any nickname at all helped to give the somewhat ramshackle area (at the time) an identity and actually brought attention to it. Now, it's home to tech firms like Etsy, and their employees have bid up rents so much that they eventually forced out many of the original residents. It's an old, old story, and the people of San Francisco and many other places can tell you all about it.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
I have a confession to make, and that is that I personally feel the photo at the top of the page is "the" Manhattan skyline as seen from Brooklyn. As we'll see, it has changed quite a bit in some respects, but the classic view of the Twin Towers serving as a solid background for this scene will always be my favorite. I actually prefer the new World Trade Center for several reasons, but in this one respect - the view along with the memory - I just don't think New York City looks complete without those two fateful projections into the sky. That's my hangup, I suppose, but judging from the many posters and prints of that view from the 1970s that are for sale, I doubt I'm the only one who feels that way.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
Standard recent postcard view from the same location.
Anyway, the Manhattan skyline was irrevocably changed in September 2001, leading to its present state. The basic scene remains unchanged - a bridge over a river leading into a grand city - but the Great Clock, as Tolstoy would call it, has done its work all around it. For better or for worse.
View of Manhattan from Dumbo
Manhattan skyline from Dumbo recently ca. 2020 (Google Earth).
I hope you enjoyed this walk down through time from a specific point of view on planet earth. Changes in the world around us can be dramatic or they can be subtle, but they can't be stopped and they can't be avoided. All we can do is understand them, appreciate them, and hope for the best.
Please visit some of my other pages in my "then and now" series!


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