Brownstone Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Law School Library recently added to its collection The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman (Call #F129.B7 O79 2011). The author, an Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC, grew up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. The book is a study of architecture, culture and politics in the history of gentrification in what was once one of the New York City’s most notorious industrial slums in the mid-20th century, an area that in the 1980s became a neighborhood of beautifully renovated expensive townhouses and trendy bars and restaurants. Osman dates the origins of Brooklyn’s gentrification to the cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s when, in contrast to the practice of replacing slums with modern architecture favored by postwar city leaders, “brownstoners” preferred renovating historic buildings and industrial lofts in older ethnic neighborhoods. Often joining poorer residents to battle city planners and local machine politicians, race and class tensions arose as the newly arrived yuppies faced anti-gentrification protests in ever more expensive neighborhoods.

Osman explains that the gentrification of Brooklyn was not the result of the efforts of banks, developers, and speculators, but of a grassroots movement. After the World War II, the first area for gentrification was Brooklyn Heights, America’s first suburb established in the early 19th century. Its housing stock, originally built for the wealthy, had become the distressed home of literary figures such as Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, W.H. Auden, and Truman Capote. In the 50s, mostly white transplants from Manhattan and the suburbs bought up rundown townhouses at cheap prices, and restored them to their former glory. Some of these houses had been abandoned in the era of white flight while others become the overcrowded homes of the poor, the old, and the transient many of whom faced eviction by the new owners. These acts of displacement show the downside of gentrification: class privilege.

The gentrification movement reached beyond Brooklyn Heights to Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Lefferts Gardens, and Carroll Gardens. What followed were new community groups who fought banks unwilling to issue mortgages in old inner-city districts; developers and city planners bent on bulldozing old neighborhoods; and machine politicians who preferred patronage over the reforms which the newcomers advocated. The story of the Brooklyn Brownstone is worth reading for anyone interested in urban planning. As the book’s author states: “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?”