Get Smart About DUMBO, Brooklyn

I remember the trip where I stopped spending so much time planning ahead, and finally started to just go and see what happened. I was living in London, with a week-long trip to China ahead of me, and stayed out at the pub way too late. When I finally started getting ready, I had 30 minutes to pack my bag, remember my passport, and head to the airport.

I don’t remember what I packed, but it was enough. I don’t remember how much of my itinerary was already arranged – other than a place to stay with an American friend –, but I had plenty to fill my days. I learned in that trip that you didn’t have to show up at the airport with the entire trip mapped out in your mind; you could learn, adjust, and experience as part of the process once you were on the ground.

That trip to Shanghai and Beijing changed the way I travel. In a single week, I went from a Type A planner and packer to a relaxed, laissez faire explorer. I haven’t looked back since, much to the chagrin of Mr. Valise, who prefers to have things slightly more planned out than I do.

It’s not really a surprise then that I packed us up and sent us to New York City for two months, without really doing any research. I didn’t know the neighborhood where we’re staying, I hadn’t researched the things we’d like to see during our time, and I barely knew the Subway map.

Thankfully, Local Expeditions reached out to me on Instagram, and offered to correct my abysmal lack of knowledge with one of their local tours. They said it would be a Citibike tour of DUMBO. Where? I had to Google it – as I learned on the tour, this reaction isn’t so uncommon.

Turns out, based on initial Google research and the immense amount of knowledge that Local Expeditions founder Nancy Blaine shared during our Citibike tour, DUMBO stands for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” Huh!

But wait, there’s more… So DUMBO is a silly name, right? Turns out it’s silly on purpose. We have to go back in time to understand why, okay?

In the earlier days of New York City, there was a massive debate in the city planning community. Jane Jacobs, a journalist, author, and activist, strongly opposed a plan to build overpasses through several parts of Manhattan, including Greenwich Village. Can you imagine what an overpass would do to the Village? Yuck, right? Exactly!

It turns out, Jacobs was one of the first people to propose what we all know to be true – when you build an overpass, the things under the overpass have a tendency to suffer, like flowers cut off from the sun. You can’t build communities under an overpass, and you certainly can’t build ones that flourish.

Jacobs successfully managed to prevent an overpass through Greenwich Village, and this philosophy about overpasses is still widely true. If you want proof, go hang out under the Alaskan Way viaduct in Seattle. The city and local businesses are trying to reclaim the space now, but for over 50 years, it’s been a place people avoided, despite its proximity to the stunning Seattle waterfront.

This brings us back to DUMBO. How could one of the fastest up-and-coming neighborhoods in Brooklyn – the main borough in New York experiencing an astronomic rise – be under an overpass?

DUMBO hasn’t always been fashionable or hip – through the mid-20th century, it was a secret alcove of artists and industrialists who took advantage of the close proximity to Manhattan while carefully guarding the value their location provided. In fact, it was these residents who came up with and spread the name DUMBO, as a way to try and discourage people from even visiting the neighborhood. They knew how much others would want to flock to the stunning waterfront with picturesque views of the city and stunning Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges – that’s exactly what has happened now, in the early 21st century.

To be fair, this kind of secret couldn’t be hidden away from ravenous hipsters forever: affordable housing, great location, and a few brave local businesses helped pave the way for the proud neighborhood that is flourishing today. DUMBO can’t help but be up-and-coming: from the Brooklyn Flea we wandered through to the stunning views of the city – it’s the kind of place I would want to keep secret too, but I can’t help but share.

Nancy, also our guide from Local Expeditions for the tour, spoke from her own perspective at having watched DUMBO’s transformation. Embodying her company motto to ‘Do As Locals Do,’ she guided us across Manhattan Bridge into DUMBO; to several of her favorite local spots including a lovely bakery on a side street and a stunning view of the bridge; and along the waterfront to enjoy city skyline views. There, she shared personal stories of 9/11 and what it’s like to be a real New Yorker. I may never be one of those, but I loved hearing her stories throughout the tour.

From a logistics standpoint, this Local Expeditions tour was a hit with both Mr. Valise and I. It paired physical activity (cycling and walking) with history and food. Talk about hitting all the major categories for a tour I’m likely to enjoy! Local Expeditions offers all kinds of tours throughout the New York area, and I saw tours in other cities as well when I first learned about their business (including one in Boston coming up!).

Since the tours are provided by locals, the schedule and calendar of tours varies; anyone is welcome to start their own tour too – and Nancy explained that they have a generous revenue sharing policy for guides, plus make donations to charity for each tour that runs.

Our particular tour was the Citibike DUMBO, a three-hour tour that took us from Manhattan across the Manhattan Bridge to DUMBO, through the neighborhood, and back across the Brooklyn Bridge. The tour is $40 per person, plus the cost of the Citibike rental (typically $10 per bike).

On the whole, the cycling is not too challenging, but it does involve riding on some city streets and, at the time of our tour, through some construction. Crossing Manhattan Bridge is not too challenging, but coming back across the Brooklyn Bridge is an exercise in doing your best not to hit pedestrians taking selfies in the bike lane (hint: use the bell on your bike liberally!). Those who are not physically active on a regular basis may get a bit of a workout, but if you can handle all the stairs of the New York subway, you’ll probably be fine.

If cycling isn’t your forte, check out their site for other upcoming tours. As of today, I’m tempted by the Photography Coney Island tour, as well as the Power Walk Prospect Park (near my own neighborhood!). I’m confident to say you can find at least one tour that would interest you, and likely of a neighborhood you haven’t yet considered visiting in New York.

Not that you should skip out on the obligatory Top of the Rock views and Statue of Liberty cruise, but Local Expeditions supplements your NYC itinerary with local knowledge you’re simply not going to find elsewhere – even if you’re still a Type A trip planner like I was!

My Citibike DUMBO tour with Local Expeditions was provided at no charge by Nancy (though we did pay for our own bikes!). That said, my opinions and stories are mine – all mine! – and unaffected by the partnership relationship.

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