Dumbo in 1974. Photo by Danny Lyon

You saw the ads in the subway station, carpeting the walls more thoroughly than service change posters. Maybe you looked up the online coding and realized it included the word “Tidal”, connected the dots, and figured out Jay-Z was dropping a new album. More likely you were some level of confused, immediately moved on with your life, assumed the world was ending and the religious group toting this new unclearly written date had taken out surprisingly tasteful advertising to alert us mortals to the fact, or you Googled some variation of “4:44 subway ad” and “why 4:44 everywhere”. No matter, the question of what the ads were for has been answered, but what hasn’t been answered is why didn’t Jay-Z invest in Dumbo real estate before it wildly appreciated in value?

“I could’ve bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo / For like two million / That same building today is worth 25 million / Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo,” he says on the 4:44 track “The Story of O.J.” In their list of subliminal album digs, Complex noted the reference, stating its “assumed target” as gentrification. The song, which has an accompanying animated music video, is about how, “we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward. We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially,” Jay-Z told iHeartRadio. More immediately, it’s a song about racism, the ubiquitous black stereotypes which even O.J. can’t escape, and the importance of saving your money and, instead of throwing it away on strippers, building credit, like the “Jewish people” who “own all the property in America”.

________

Literally Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Photo by Hannah Frishberg / Brownstoner
Literally Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Photo by Hannah Frishberg / Brownstoner

Assuming a historic point of view and putting lyrical artistry aside for a moment, “before Dumbo was Dumbo” it was more or less nameless, a forgotten, de-industrialized stretch of Brooklyn waterfront known for its old warehouses and trash fires. Before that, it was a manufacturing district, the birthplace of the Brillo Pad, known as Fulton Landing. The Dumbo title, which is an acronym standing for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass, was, adapted “by fearful residents in the 1970s,” in an attempt to, “deter real estate brokers and the looming specter of gentrification”. The artists also considered naming the area DANYA, for District Around the Navy Yard Annex. Jay-Z’s lyrics might’ve then been, “I could’ve bought a place in DANYA before it was DANYA,” which has a much more Russian-sounding undercurrent.

To continue on this historically accurate but musically tone-deaf over-analysis of the lyric, Jay-Z’s got his numbers off. The estimated appreciation of a Dumbo building from $2 million to $25 million in the period during which Dumbo became Dumbo is unlikely. Without formally crunching any numbers, $2 million for most Dumbo properties in the 70s or earlier – the period before which Dumbo was Dumbo – would’ve been a massive rip-off, and $25 million for a property today would be, in many cases, quite the steal.

In 1979, David Walentas paid just $12 million for 2 million square feet of Dumbo. Late last year,  Jared Kushner and other firms paid a combined $345 million for Dumbo’s 85 Jay Street – an undeveloped parking lot.

The lyric is still generally accurate: if you invested in Dumbo real estate back in the day, you’re rich now. Jay-Z would also have made a killing investing in real estate around the Marcy Projects where he grew up, an area he’s assumedly much more familiar with the history of.

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