Remembering the Dumbo Wilderness by Paul Raphaelson

(Photos by Paul Raphaelson)

There is a photo exhibit at the Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library by artist Paul Raphaelson. He lived and photographed in Dumbo from 1995 through 2004 before being evicted from the artist loft building on Plymouth Street. (The most famous of the evictions in Dumbo was the 247 Water Street building which we referenced in a previous post.) Raphaelson’s photos are a reminder of what the community of Dumbo Brooklyn used to be and how much it has changed in just 5 years. “While walking the streets of DUMBO with a camera, I was vaguely aware that these pictures might be of historical interest someday. And that day came sooner than I ever expected. The changes have been so swift and indelible that the old neighborhood already seems gone forever.” We asked him about Dumbo past and present:

When did you live in Dumbo? Why did you leave and where are you now?

I lived in Dumbo from 1995 to 2004. I left when my landlord, who is probably the best known of the artist slumlords east of the Brooklyn Bridge, decided to clear out the building. I had it easy… he gave me plenty of notice. In previous years he tried to empty buildings by flooding people out, orchestrating raids by the Department of Buildings, and even arson. In my case it seemed his plan was to empty the whole block, get it rezoned, and convert the buildings to luxury lofts. But zoning attempts were thwarted by the state, and most of those buildings, including mine, are still empty.

I moved to an old brewery in Bushwick. It’s a very different neighborhood. It lacks DUMBO’s grandeur. It also has a thriving local population. In DUMBO the artists were pioneers; in Bushwick we’re guests.

Why did you first move to Dumbo and how would you describe the area when you first moved there?

My friend Anne McDonald lived there. I met her at the opening of a group show that we both participated in, and she persuaded me to visit. I had been living in Providence and considering a move to the city, so the timing was perfect. After walking down Jay street and Water street and setting foot in her space, I knew I had to live there. I gave notice at my job and started packing immediately.

Back then the neighborhood felt huge and empty. You could walk blocks without seeing a soul. There was something powerful in the quietness and austerity of the landscape. That quality is still there, but it’s been heavily diluted by the crowds and development. Today it feels a bit more like a film set than the real thing.

You titled your exhibition, Wilderness, which is what Dumbo was in the 90s. What are your thoughts on what Dumbo has become?

Upper West Side South!
Which you might be able to say about most of Brooklyn, and Manhattan, and Queens…

Very true. There will no doubt be many more changes to Dumbo in the next 5 years, and it’s not easy to live in Dumbo affordably, but we hope the artists here today will continue to be a part of the community.

October through December 2008
Brooklyn Public Library
Brooklyn Heights branch (1st floor)
280 Cadman Plaza West at Tillary St.
Brooklyn, NY 11201

If you would like to be considered for an interview, please contact us at

Artist’s statement from

October 8, 2008 – December 31, 2008
Business Library, Auditorium Gallery

Ten Years Under the Manhattan Bridge – Remembering the DUMBO Wildness
by Paul Raphaelson, Photographer

I lived and photographed in DUMBO from 1995 through 2004. When I arrived, wild dogs roamed the streets down by the Jay Street pier. Groceries were a half hour away by foot and backpack. By the time I left, ten years later, tourists had displaced the dogs. We could easily lose ourselves among visitors to the bars, delis, bistros, and ABC Carpet and Home

Now, apartment towers loom above sanitized Victorian spice warehouses, whose tenants include bank branches, galleries, and baby supply stores. SUVs fill the parking spaces, and couples with strollers meander the promenade, where buckled concrete and timbers once sloped under green tides.

The social landscape has changed along with the physical one. Most of the artists are gone — priced out, thrown out, or in some cases prodded out by changes to the community they found too distasteful to weather. Some remain. Non-resident artists pack into rustic studios at 68 Jay Street. A dwindling community still clings to affordable lofts, sometimes with help from lawsuits dragged for years through the housing courts. And a few are rich enough live side-by-side with the advertising executives, Silicon Alley savants, and various Manhattan refugees filling the newly renovated luxury lofts between the bridges.

My friends and I weren’t as fortunate. When our community was torn apart by evictions and rent hikes, we scattered all over the globe. Some of us found lower rent factories deeper in Brooklyn. Others landed in Philadelphia, California, Georgia, France, or Germany. The individuals I’ve kept up with are doing well, but the community is gone.

The photographs shown here come from a larger project, one that explores weathered and overgrown landscapes all around Brooklyn and Rhode Island. It shows neighborhoods where I lived and walked, but more essentially, it’s a meditation on a kind of place and a kind of mood. I photographed places where I saw reflections of my life and aspirations: uncertainty, chaos, sadness, and also measures of beauty and hope. I called the project Wilderness. It was an introspective endeavor. The wilderness explored was a personal one more than an urban one.

Nevertheless, while walking the streets of DUMBO with a camera, I was vaguely aware that these pictures might be of historical interest someday. And that day came sooner than I ever expected. The changes have been so swift and indelible that the old neighborhood already seems gone forever.

I’m nostalgic for that old DUMBO. I liked that no one knew about it except for the cab drivers who were afraid to go there. But mostly I miss our community, and the feeling we shared that there, on New York’s last frontier, we could create or become anything we imagined.

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