I’ve just started reading The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman. In the book, the Park Slope native now an Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, explores “Brownstoners,” the group of new arrivals to Brooklyn who in the mid 20th century renovated old tenements, flophouses and townhouses. Characterizing them as “urban pioneers” or “gentrifiers” is too simplistic, Osman says, and his book delves into who this group really were and how they interacted with others in their new neighborhoods.
Have you read the book? Discuss in the comments below.
The model set in Brooklyn Heights — meticulous attention to period architectural detail, the maintenance of unique small-scale neighborhood amenities, an emphasis on “local color,” etc. — soon spread to other areas of what was once called South Brooklyn. Those areas are now known by often manufactured neighborhood identities that leapfrog over twentieth-century urban development to retrieve an array of ostensibly pre-modern references, for example, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, both named for imagined aristocratic founding fathers while at the same time evoking Brooklyn’s rural past. In the process, the brownstoners’ (as they still call themselves) ideal of incremental growth clashed with both the managerial impulses of the welfare state as well as the parochialism of urban machine politics. It is to Osman’s credit that in recounting this history he takes pains to objectively represent the positions of all parties, even the much-maligned Svengali of modern urbanism, Robert Moses.
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.”
Excerpt from The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn:
They first began to appear in Brooklyn Heights in the late 1940s. Artists, lawyers, bankers and other white-collar workers migrated to the aging Gold Coast district restoring old townhouses and moving into run-down tenements. By the 1960s, white-collar professionals priced out from Manhattan flooded into surrounding areas in search of cheap housing. “More and more people now are packing up, moving out of their aseptic uptown apartments,” explained New York about “brownstone fever” in 1969, “making new homes out of old, forlorn but solid and roomy brownstones, restoring them to pristine glory.”
As brownstoners spilled past the boundaries of Brooklyn Heights, they created new names for revitalizing blocks. “Cobble Hill” was named in 1958. “Boerum Hill” and “Carroll Gardens” soon followed. By the mid 1970s, few people remembered the name South Brooklyn. In brochures, newspapers, and real estate guides, the area had become “Brownstone Brooklyn” – a constellation of revitalized townhouse districts like Clinton Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights.
Brownstoners, however, believed they were involved in something more than a renovation fad. “Brownstoning,” as they called it, was a cultural revolt against “sameness,” conformity and bureaucracy. In a city that was increasingly technocratic, Boerum Hill was a “real neighborhood,” a vestige of an “authentic community” lost in a modernizing society. “On Wyckoff Street, an eccentric block of three-story workmen’s cottages have been rescued by young homemakers and turned into a happy, house-proud community,” described The Boerum Hill Times in 1974. “Indeed it’s quite possible to feel, while walking tree-lined streets, that one has broken through the time barrier and landed smack in the middle of the 19th century. Gentle ghosts of ladies in hoops skirts and gentlemen in frock coats can almost be seen among the leafy shadows.” (more)