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History, Real Estate

How Do Today’s Brownstoners Compare to Beau Bridges “Landlord” of 1970?

July 5, 2011

Beau Bridges bright eyed character pontificates in The Landlord

Back in May, BAMcinématek featured Hal Ashby’s 1970 film The Landlord starring Beau Bridges as a rich kid who buys a brownston in the “slum” of Park Slope and plans to make it his bachelor pad. That is, after he evicts the current, all black, residents.  In an early scene,  Bridges’ character Elgar, has his hubcaps stolen and is chased down the block by  those angry tenants who just want him to go away.  But like many films from the era, it’s Bridges’ central character who undergoes a transformation, eventually identifying  more with “others” he set out to displace.


WNYC interviewed Mike Woram, the current owner of 51 Prospect Place where the film was set. Back in 1970, the building was falling apart, there wasn’t a tree to be found anywhere and the block was dicey.  All that’s changed now:

Forty years later, the predominantly black, working-class block depicted in the movie is almost unrecognizable. Serrell was one of the first to plant the trees that now tower over the block in every direction — a far cry from the bare, sun-drenched streetscape portrayed in “The Landlord.”

While a handful of longtime black residents remain, Woram says the newest gentrifiers are ironically more like the farcical character of Elgar — whiter and richer — than before.

“We get to live like rich people without being rich people,” he said.  “I don’t know how people buy these things today — it’s nuts!”

Not that the current landlord of 51 Prospect Place is complaining.  Woram says he prefers the Park Slope of the present, except for one thing.

“It seems to be the hardest block in all of this area to get a parking space on.”

The counter-culture Elgar for the most part appears to be typical of the Brownstoners from that era discussed in Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. The author tells Dwell:

Brownstoners who moved to Brooklyn were influenced by the counterculture, environmentalist movements, New Left, etc. Along with cheap real estate, brownstoners looked to the deindustrializing center city as a site of authenticity in an increasingly technocratic society. As opposed to postwar suburbia which they viewed as mass-produced and filled with men in grey flannel suits, they saw the belt of 19th century housing surrounding the central business district as organic, rooted, real, “neighborhoody,” etc.

How do you think the Brownstoner “movement” has progressed from being the domain of bohemians and dreamers 50 years ago? Are some of the Brownstone Belt’s residents clinging to a similar dream of a Utopian Brooklyn when they fight against projects like Atlantic Yards or are they the thin line between civil responsibility and untethered greed? Or is the new guard more apt to desire their own McBrownstones and push the landmark restrictions their predecessors fought dearly for to the limit?


From the Web


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman

May 24, 2011

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.

Deliberately Considered notes about the book:

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.

Bookforum writes:

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)

From the Web