General Brooklyn: Baghdad Big Tucker Reed Tackles Downtown, Giving Businesses Their Marching Orders

Tucker Reed grew up in Newtown, Conn., trading on both his physical and mental intelligence. When not practicing his blitz on a tackling dummy, he was practicing for the coming season’s play. Junior year, he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Newtown is a town of about 25,000 just outside of Danbury, where Mr. Reed spent most of his time growing up except for regular trips down to Manhattan to catch a Giants game or go to the theater or a museum. It was a journey his 94-year-old grandfather made seven days a week until about six months ago, traveling to the Illustration House, a small Chelsea gallery that he ran for the past four decades with Mr. Reed’s uncle. It was through him, and a Brooklyn-bred grandmother “who never left the city too far behind” that Mr. Reed gained much of his appreciation for New York and for the arts.

“It makes for a richer life a more well-rounded experience,” Mr. Reed said. “I never deluded myself beyond the karaoke floor that I’d have a future in the arts or entertainment, but it certainly informs a bunch of the fun work I get to do now with cultural organizations.”

Mr. Reed was raised by his mother, a fact he credits with stoking his self-reliant spirit. The family lived what he calls a modest, working-class life, which drove Mr. Reed to overachieve in his pursuits but also to want to give back. “You like to think that if you are a good person, and you are trying to do the right thing, that there are people out there to help, and for government to help as well,” he said. “That wasn’t always my experience, so I’d like to think that I have a responsibility to improve people’s lives.”

He decided to attend nearby Wesleyan, which, in addition to all the artsy kids from afar there to start electronica bands and celebrate Zonker Harris Day, attracts a number of locals looking for a good school (which is not to say that Mr. Reed shied away from the more-than-occasional drink, as a former member of the football team, who now works at a financial firm in Downtown Brooklyn, explained).

Mr. Reed not only played football to help pay his way through school but also joined the National Guard. After those two torn ACLs in sophomore year, Mr. Reed was given a medical discharge, a stroke of bad luck that may well have saved his life—Mr. Reed graduated in 2002, which would have almost certainly have put him on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Still, Mr. Reed found time for his other pursuits, taking a role in the student government and acting in, among other pieces, 7 Minutes in Heaven, the first original piece by his dormmate Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later achieved fame with In the Heights. During the summers, he ran an ice cream shop on an island off the coast of Maine with another college buddy.

After graduating with a bachelors degree in government, Mr. Reed spent a year on the island teaching high school social studies while also making time to travel to India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The following year, Mr. Reed arrived in New York on a Coro public service fellowship, which took him through a number of internships at City Hall and the community lending division at JPMorgan. In 2004, Mr. Reed officially joined the Bloomberg administration in the Department of Small Business Services. He spent a little over a year there integrating two older departments that had now been combined into one while also focusing on expanding and reforming the Workforce1 career centers.

It was Rob Walsh, commissioner of the department, who recommended Mr. Reed to Jed Walentas, the DUMBO scion and up-and-comer in his own right taking over his father’s empire in DUMBO. The Bloomberg administration had become staunch advocates of businesses improvements districts—their number has nearly doubled in the past decade—and Mr. Reed was tapped to launch this latest effort. “He has this rare understanding of both the public and private sector and how to get them to work together,” Commissioner Walsh said.

Mr. Reed used to jog over the Brooklyn Bridge many mornings from his apartment in Carroll Gardens, and he was always struck by how many tourists would walk over from Manhattan and immediately turn back around. “My goal was to put DUMBO on the map,” Mr. Reed said. In the span of two years he had, converting a nonexistent advocacy group into one of the foremost BIDs in town.

He built the first pedestrian plaza in the city, at Pearl Street, opened the archway under the anchorage to the Manhattan Bridge, formerly a DOT storage lot, and launched a program to install free wifi in the neighborhood. He presided over a landmarking of DUMBO that preserved its character, then pivoted to a rezoning that carved out room for new development.

“He just has an instinctual understanding of how urban spaces work,” Mr. Walentas said. Meanwhile, a tech sector blossomed and a residential market boomed into the poshest in the borough.

For all the good Mr. Reed had done in the city in his five years here, he still had a longing for greater fulfilment. “I felt like everything that was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan was really the challenge of my generation, and I wanted to be a part of that in some way,” Mr. Reed said. He found a posting for an adviser to a provincial reconstruction team, a small group of 100 civilian and military experts assigned to Division Headquarters in Baghdad.