Forty three years ago, a gaggle of artists, writers and other creatives assembled in a Brooklyn loft, just next to the East River, to party — with a mission.

The group lived in a no-man’s-land of industrial warehouses that had never attracted any interest from developers. Indeed, it was such a scruffy — blank — space on New York’s map that the district did not even have a name.

But the residents, who were mostly squatting illegally in these warehouses, had heard rumours that wealthy developers were planning to buy up the area and christen it “Fulton Landing”.

The artists were terrified that this would start the same type of gentrification process that had occurred across the river in Manhattan districts such as SoHo, and push them out. In a bid to fight back, they decided to name the district themselves. They held the loft party to collectively decide on the worst moniker they could imagine, one that might scare developers away.

“In those days we had great loft parties,” recalls Crane Davis, a writer who lived in a warehouse and was a neighbourhood leader. “This was in the time before the internet, so parties were how we communicated with neighbours.”

As the party got going, Davis and three friends — a playwright, a ballet dancer and a science journalist — tossed out two ideas. One was DANYA, or “District Around the Navy Yard Annex”; the second DUMBO, or “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” The latter won out, since nobody thought a developer would embrace a place called after a flying elephant in a Disney cartoon. “We were hoping it would be so unattractive, nobody would want to live there,” Davis says. “A piece of Dadaist anti-marketing.”

Not so. Instead of alienating all the developers, the unusual name caught the attention of one who subsequently drew up plans to revitalise the place: David Walentas. “It’s magical!” he recently told me. “Fulton Landing could be anywhere, like a suburb in Ohio. Dumbo is New York.”

And Walentas’ plans would subsequently have such unexpected results that today Dumbo has become one of the most expensive corners of New York for residential real estate, forcing many of the people with whom Davis partied to flee in the face of gentrification.

This is more than just a story about the creative energy of New York, however, or even the law of unintended consequences. It also illustrates two bigger points about real estate and culture. The first is that our cultural labels can be surprisingly malleable. Humans constantly spin “webs of meaning” around the physical elements that surround them — to cite the phrase pioneered by Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist — and assume that these are as permanent as stone. But they never are; the meanings of the words we toss around often have contradictory layers or tensions and shift in subtle ways. The word “company”, for example, first hailed from the old Italian con panio, meaning people who are “with bread”, or eat together; now, however, company means both a balance sheet and social constructs. The fact that the word “Dumbo” today means both a Disney cartoon and a cutting-edge real estate district to New Yorkers is thus not so odd.

Second, when people spin these “webs of meaning” to classify the world, there are always blank spots on their physical and mental maps. Places and things fall between the cracks of a taxonomy, or get overlooked because they seem arcane, dull or taboo. Or, to invoke another anthropology concept from the French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu, in our everyday lives we are not just beset by noise and sights, but by areas of social silences — and blank parts of the map we ignore, often because we do not have a name to describe this “nothingness”.

What the story of Dumbo shows is that it pays to notice and think about what exists in this physical and mental no-man’s-land; and the power of giving a place a name.

The history of this East River waterside has always been a little odd. As architectural critic Paul Goldberger notes in his forthcoming new book on Dumbo, the first recorded use of this land occurred in the 17th century, when it was acquired by Dutch immigrant Joris Rapelje. He created a farm on the banks of the East River, a base that his great grandson John used to support the British king during the war for independence. “[John] Rapelje reportedly used lanterns atop his own house to send messages to the British command centre across the river in Manhattan about the movement of American troops located in Brooklyn Heights,” Goldberger writes.

Map of Dumbo, New York

After independence, Rapelje was stripped of his land by the victorious American rebels. The Sands family farmed it, and hoped to create a tranquil riverside town called Olympia. But in the 19th century, the region became a manufacturing district instead. The Gair packaging company, which essentially invented the prefabricated cardboard box, based its industrial operations there, lured by its waterfront transport links. So did the Arbuckle sugar and coffee company.

This transformed the area — to some degree. In the 19th century, Goldberger notes, citing a biography of Robert Gair, the area was a “dreary, slum-ridden district . . . and an abode of wretched poverty . . . [filled with] sour-smelling dilapidated gin mills”. However, industrialists such as Gair also erected sturdy warehouse buildings using “concrete reinforced with steel, a new technology that had just begun to be used for the construction of large buildings in France.” This put the district on the map, in a commercial and design sense, since these buildings were not just unusually large, but more robust and fire resistant than anything else in New York at the time.

In the 20th century, the area sank into oblivion again. The Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges left this part of the waterfront sandwiched between and under the thundering structures. The bridges enabled traffic and trains to flow above the warehouses. But it was not easy for trucks to reach the waterfront through Brooklyn’s congested streets, and the waterways were becoming less useful as transit routes. Gradually, the industrial groups fled for cheaper and less crowded sites. As the warehouses were sold, the Helmsleys, a New York real estate family, scooped many up at cut-price rates, as part of a citywide acquisition strategy. But they did not develop or turn the commercial buildings into residential units. That would have required redrawing the zoning laws, and thanks to a mix of politics and pride, there was vehement opposition to this: New York’s politicians did not want to admit that manufacturing had fled their city.

Almost the only businesses willing to operate out of the reinforced warehouses were tiny operations, such as textile sweatshops. There were virtually no legal residents. From the early 1970s, a few dozen artists and writers, priced out of places such as SoHo, started squatting in the lofts. The city leaders did not want to turf the creatives out, and actually created some initiatives to let some live and work there legally. However, they did not want to peer too closely at what the artists — or sweatshops — were doing, and the residents wanted to stay invisible too. It suited everybody that the district was hidden in plain sight, without a name.

This tale of limbo started to change in 1979. One trigger was a chance encounter in the Silk Building over in NoHo, which was owned by Walentas, then a hungry young real estate entrepreneur. He bumped into some of the artists who were fleeing the area as it gentrified. “I asked the kids what is next after SoHo and NoHo, and they said ‘Dumbo’,” Walentas recalls. “I didn’t know what it meant.” Curious, one day he drove the short distance across the Manhattan Bridge to see it for himself. He was stunned: he thought he already knew the city well, but had never peered under the arches of the two bridges. On close inspection he could see that the warehouses had stunning Manhattan waterfront views, and were barely a mile from Wall Street.

Furtively, he approached the Helmsley family, offering to buy the warehouses. They could not imagine much future for the structures, since the city insisted that the waterfront was zoned for commercial use. So they initially offered to sell one warehouse for $800,000, or $10 per sq ft — Walentas eventually bought them all for $12m or $6 per sq ft, giving him control of the entire neighbourhood.

“I thought it was a no-brainer [that you develop it], but nobody else could see it,” Walentas says.

“Everything was there. All you had to do was change the use of the properties.” And, of course, the name.

Achieving the former — changing zoning laws — turned out to be extremely hard. During the 1980s and 1990s, Walentas lobbied the city. Bitter political feuds erupted. But the City would not budge. In desperation, Walentas tried (without success) to attract Wall Street entities, and then attracted (with more success) small commercial clients such as Jacques Torres, the chocolate company. But soon Walentas “was losing $150,000 a month carrying the 11 industrial buildings he owned in the neighbourhood,” as a piece on The New York Times reported in the 1980s.

Then two things occurred: firstly, the region began to get a trendy buzz, largely because he used the odd name — and the lure of plentiful warehouse space — to attract art galleries to the waterfront. Second, as the 20th century came to an end, city leaders finally accepted that New York was unlikely to retain manufacturing jobs. Reluctantly, they agreed to let Walentas renovate one Gair building, at 1 Main Street, into 121 apartments, at a price of $80 a square foot. They sold out immediately. A host of other hefty industrial buildings were then converted too. “[The re-zoning] took 20 years, twice as long as I expected,” he says. “But I sold one apartment the other day for $15m. Fifteen million!” That odd name “Dumbo”, in other words, finally became hot — and reportedly turned him into a billionaire.

Today Dumbo is so firmly on the tourist map — and the cultural imagination of local New Yorkers — that when I went down to the waterfront last week to meet Goldberger, we were surrounded by amateur photographers. Almost anyone who descends below the bridges now feels inspired to snap selfies of standing against the stunning vista of the river and Manhattan skyline.

And there is plenty more to attract them: the neighbourhood is teeming with trendy boutiques, cafés and restaurants. There is an attractive park with a quasi beach and old-fashioned, restored carousel. The district is also filled with trendy digital start-ups. No, this is not the type of industrial commerce that the city leaders fought so hard to retain in the mid-20th century. But it is creating jobs — even though few of those workers can afford to live in the ultra-expensive flats. The mix leaves the streets throbbing with a vibrant, artsy feel.

Gentrification cannot remove the sound of the subway carriages thundering across the bridges, high above the buildings, and to newcomers, the sounds can seem intrusive. But to longtime New Yorkers, the rumble and roar is part of the tapestry of their life — and a constant reminder of what makes the district so distinctive. It is also (yet) another sign of how malleable our cultural symbols can be: for decades, evidence of New York’s grimy industrial past was seen as fuddy-duddy; now it has almost been redefined as cool — at least by people who lead gilded, elite lives, or glide about in cyber space.

“How many people have built a whole, great neighbourhood in a major city like New York that will matter in 100 years?” says Walentas, who still professes amazement that so few people saw the potential 40 years ago.

And the original artists and writers who once created the Dumbo name in a bid to foil development? “We moved on,” says Davis, who now lives in upstate New York, in a vastly cheaper rural neighbourhood that (happily) is still largely hidden in plain sight.

Paul Goldberger’s ‘DUMBO: The Making of a Neighbourhood and the Rebirth of Brooklyn’ is published by Rizzoli New York

Gillian Tett’s next book, ‘Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life’, is published next month by Penguin (in the UK) and Simon & Schuster (in the US)

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