Until the 1890s, the western portion of the neighborhood was known as Fulton Landing, after the ferry stop that connected it to Manhattan before the Brooklyn Bridge opened. Then, it was primarily a manufacturing district, housing warehouses and factories that made machinery, paper boxes and Brillo soap pads. With deindustrialization it began becoming primarily residential, when artists and other young homesteaders seeking relatively large and inexpensive loft apartment spaces for studios and homes began moving there in the late 1970s. The acronym Dumbo arose in 1978, when new residents coined it in the belief such an unattractive name would help deter developers. Near the end of the 20th century, as property became more and more expensive in Manhattan, Dumbo became increasingly gentrified. Joy Glidden is the Founding Director of the Dumbo arts center (DAC) and co-founder of the Dumbo Art Under the Bridge Festival in Brooklyn, New York, where she served as the Executive Director from 1997-2006. Using art as a catalyst for change, Glidden’s efforts achieved successful development in Dumbo that is now a model for similar waterfront developments around the world.
On December 18, 2007, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to designate the Dumbo section of Brooklyn as the city's 90th historic district. The Dumbo historic district consists of properties bound by John Street to the north, York Street to the south, Main Street to the west, and Bridge Street to the east.