Mar 31 2011

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman

Michael Woodsworth

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"The train climbed the steel trestle high over the forest of red and brown buildings that tumbled across the landscape," wrote Harrison Salisbury in his 1958 account of life among Brooklyn's fighting teen gangs, The Shook-Up Generation. "From the platform . . . I looked down in the tenement back yards, the rubbish piles and bright paper tatters brightened by wash lines of blue and pink, purple and yellow. Here and there I saw the scraggly green of Brooklyn back-yard trees dwarfed by soot and sickened by cinders."

This grim landscape, once an ill-defined slum housing Italian dockworkers, is today a stylish enclave called Carroll Gardens. A forty-year property boom has transformed the neighborhood's historic district, where townhouses built for nineteenth-century laborers now hit the market at prices as high as $3 million a pop. The roots of this transformation are explored in an impressive new book, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman. Discussions of gentrification often generate more heat than light. But Osman, who grew up in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood and now teaches at George Washington University, has crafted a rich and refreshingly ambivalent account of how a new urban ideal—one riddled with contradictions—emerged in Brooklyn between the end of World War II and the late 1970s.

The book might surprise readers living in the Age of Bloomberg: As Osman tells it, the gentrification of Brooklyn was the work not of banks, developers, and speculators, but of a grassroots movement waging war against those very forces. The movement began as a neo-romantic quest for authenticity. As of the late 1940s, members of a highly educated postindustrial middle class (lawyers, teachers, editors, architects) began to discover the borough's once grand but increasingly dilapidated Victorian neighborhoods. Fashioning themselves pioneers in an "urban wilderness," they saw Brooklyn's distinctive brownstone-fronted townhouses as refuges from their monolithically modern Manhattan offices. "In a kinetic modern city," Osman writes, "brownstones were anchors, their heavy facades giving new white-collar workers a sense of rootedness and permanence in a transient urban environment."

Brooklyn Heights, wedged between Brooklyn's downtown and the East River docks, was the first frontier. The neighborhood had been established in the early nineteenth century as America's first suburb. Like the so-called Gold Coast of grandiose mansions bordering Prospect Park's affluent western edge—and unlike other Victorian neighborhoods, such as Carroll Gardens—Brooklyn Heights boasted opulent housing stock originally built for the wealthy. By World War II, it had grown grittier, though its streets still projected aristocratic airs and carried a whiff of literary cachet, thanks to Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Auden, et al. During the Eisenhower years, transplants from Manhattan and the suburbs—almost all of them white—scooped up rundown townhouses at astonishingly cheap prices, then painstakingly restored brownstone fronts and ornate interiors to former glory. Some of these houses had been sitting empty, abandoned by suburb-bound elites; others had been converted by absentee landlords into grimy, overcrowded rooming houses for the poor, the old, and the transient. In such cases new owners faced an uncomfortable situation: In order to make room for their families, they had to turf out tenants. And turf they did. These acts of displacement were the original sin of Brownstone Brooklyn.

Brownstone fever spread during the 1960s and '70s. As New York hemorrhaged industrial jobs and white workers fled to the suburbs and the southern states, members of the new middle class moved in the opposite direction. Brownstoners swooped into areas south and east of Brooklyn Heights, then known collectively as South Brooklyn, where a graying Italian and Irish working class rubbed shoulders with Syrians, Lebanese, and a burgeoning population of poor Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. Early gentrifiers, by and large, were liberal, countercultural types who valued this ethnic mix as a signifier of grit and authenticity. And as you'd expect, they'd read their Jane Jacobs and Herbert Gans, who put forth what Osman calls "a revolutionary form of romantic urbanist writing that humanized the inner-city poor and celebrated rather than disparaged the messiness of city life." Yet these neo-bohemians brought with them a new kind of messiness that transformed the neighborhoods they colonized. Food cooperatives and cafés sprouted amid the old mom-and-pop stores and union halls. Restored townhouses became objects of nostalgia tourism, with homeowners posing in Victorian period costumes for promotional brochures.

As brownstoners nurtured a budding sense of community, they sought increasingly to redefine the physical spaces in which they lived. They poured over musty maps in search of colonial-era names that might invoke Brooklyn's bucolic past and came up with such historical nods as Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Lefferts Gardens, and Carroll Gardens. These names boosted property values and attracted yet more Manhattanites. But they also provided brownstoners with collective purpose and political clout. Upstart community groups staged a succession of "neighborhood revolts": against banks unwilling to issue mortgages in old inner-city districts; against developers and city planners (including Robert Moses) whose bulldozers threatened quaint streetscapes; against old-style machine politicians whose patronage-dispensing Democratic clubhouses were antithetical to the issue-oriented reformism most brownstoners embraced.

This activism thrust Brooklyn's gentrifiers into a series of unexpected political alliances, most notably in the late 1960s, when they teamed up with black-power activists to lobby for community control of schools. Too often, however, brownstoner politics devolved into Nimbyism. Low-income housing projects, manufacturing firms, hospital expansion—all clashed with the brownstoner ideal of slow-growth localism. Blue-collar Brooklynites, ravaged by deindustrialization, coveted the jobs such development entailed. But the brownstoners mobilized their growing political and economic clout in opposition. (A Burger King on Montague Street? Man the barricades!) Such activism reeked of hypocrisy and class privilege. That said, class privilege can have public benefits. Anyone who has ambled through Cobble Hill Park—a lovely half-acre of Victoriana bordering a row of converted nineteenth-century carriage houses—will say a silent word of thanks to the local residents who once upon a time beat back plans to build a branch of the now-defunct Bohack supermarket chain on the site.

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, is a first-rate work of history, especially for a debut effort by a young scholar. Osman impresses with sweeping ruminations on the meanings of modernism and what he dubs the "literature of gentrification" while also remaining grounded in nuts-and-bolts archival research. Further, by locating gentrification's roots in the postwar era, he bravely takes on a historiographical tradition that has had much to say about urban decay and little about urban renaissance. Osman shows how the transformations that created the oft-cited "urban crisis"—capital flight, population loss, political sclerosis—also created a terrain attractive to a new breed of city dweller. Gentrification, in other words, was not a sequel to the urban crisis, but an overlooked episode within it.

This is a compelling point, and Osman makes it well. But the book might've benefited from a broader comparative framework. There is not enough here about how Brownstone Brooklyn differed from back-to-the-city movements unfolding elsewhere around the county, or for that matter, in other pockets of postwar New York. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, for instance, one of Brooklyn's earliest brownstone-revival movements began in the years before World War II. Osman might have spilled more ink on the black professionals, many of them West Indian immigrants, who settled in Bedford-Stuyvesant's own majestic townhouses. These brownstoners shared little of the urban romanticism Osman attributes to middle-class gentrifiers; rather, they moved there because structural racism left them with few other places to go. As the community grew increasingly impoverished in the postwar decades and its white middle class decamped, Bed-Stuy's black homeowners waged an increasingly desperate struggle to counter the "slum conditions" in their midst. As in nearby Park Slope, brownstone restoration was a tool in this struggle. But where Osman's protagonists shared an anti-government streak, Bed-Stuy's black brownstoners vested big hopes in the Great Society programs of the 1960s. This divergence would have profound implications as the New Deal coalition unraveled and the country moved to the right.

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn ends around the time Reagan was elected president. In the 1980s, "gentrification" would become a term of opprobrium, with brownstoners standing accused of displacing their poorer, darker-skinned neighbors. Parts of Brooklyn would soon succumb to what Jane Jacobs had dubbed "oversuccess," as vibrant neighborhoods attracted an increasingly affluent class of residents whose tastes and bank accounts threatened to overwhelm what was left of the area's socioeconomic diversity. "Where once renovators had to cajole banks and insurance companies to invest in their enclaves, Brownstone Brooklyn was now awash in speculation," Osman writes. The dread specter of Manhattanization loomed large—though few would have predicted that it would be along Williamsburg's waterfront, a wasteland in 1980, that the Manhattanization of Brooklyn would reach its apogee thirty years later.

And so the brownstoners' quest for authenticity devolved into farce. Despite gentrification's troubling effects, however, the early brownstoners deserve credit for embracing urban space in an era when most affluent Americans were fleeing it. While large swathes of New York City were literally going up in smoke, the brownstoners planted trees, supported public schools, and protected historic landmarks. As Osman puts it, "In three decades of overwhelmingly bad news for American cities, decimated by white flight, racial unrest, and deindustrialization, how could the brownstone revitalization movement be considered anything but a remarkable and unexpected success?" It's a question his fellow urban historians would do well to take up.

Michael Woodsworth is a doctoral candidate in US history at Columbia University. He lives in Park Slope.

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