Economy and Society

Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York

I have a friend, a longtime resident first of Carroll Gardens and now Cobble Hill, who refers to Brooklyn as “God’s country.” This notion of the borough as a site of pristine authenticity is central to Suleiman Osman’s book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. Osman, an assistant professor of American Studies at George Washington University, grew up in Park Slope toward the tail end of the era he surveys, but his study is informed by a comprehensive understanding of the forces that have shaped the urban environment not only in New York but in other parts of America in the years 1950 to 1980. It is a highly nuanced investigation into the oftentimes contradictory interests at play during the period.

As opposed to many studies of postmodern redevelopment, Suleiman finds that gentrification in postwar Brooklyn wasn’t the work of a cabal of bankers, real estate speculators, and government bureaucrats but more the generally unintended result of a well-meaning grassroots effort that sought to negotiate a middle ground between the alienating effects of large-scale, top-down urban renewal projects on the one hand, and the perceived banality of life in the suburbs on the other. The culprits, if one wants to call them that, were typically lawyers, academics, artists, and other well-educated members of the postindustrial service economy looking for a sense of terroir, i.e., local rootedness, against the anomie of modernist administrative society.

The first of the so-called urban frontiers to be rehabilitated was Brooklyn Heights, the area of early nineteenth-century mansions overlooking the East River that by the end of the Second World War had physically declined, with dramatically falling property values . Many of these stately townhouses had been abandoned or subdivided and converted into low-cost rental units. But by the end of the 1940s these structures were being restored and less-affluent tenants displaced by the forebears of what David Brooks has called “Bourgeois Bohemians.” (Indeed, I, a BoBo as I live and breathe, for a while rented a much more upscale version of one those units on Monroe Place, a magnificent four-story brownstone that had been renovated by an advertising executive who had purchased it in the 1960s. Norman Mailer lived a few blocks over on Columbia Heights.)

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.

One of the more satisfying aspects of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn is its close reading of the literature of what Osman dubs the “romantic urban ideal.” In particular, the classic texts of Jane Jacobs, Hebert Gans, Alfred Kazin, and others are deconstructed to reveal a certain amount of class (un)consciousness that one might justifiably say condescends to urban inner-city residents even as it attempts to embrace of the diversity of city life.

And yet at the same time, Osman recognizes the brownstoners’ achievement. For where others fled the myriad problems of city living for the comforts of greener pastures, the denizens of Brownstone Brooklyn stayed and did in the final analysis invent a new version of the civic ideal that still has much to recommend for it, at least to those who can afford it.

  • malgo

    I’m really looking forward to reading the book – but even more, I’m waiting for it’s “sequel” to describe the complexity of gentrification process in Brooklyn nowadays.
    I happened to live in Williamsburg, and as many students I finally couldn’t afford to live there, so moved out to BedStuy. For more than a year already, I’ve been watching the process of transformation of this neighborhood happening literally NOW – and listening to old inhabitants complaining about “the New that’s coming”, and some new inhabitants complaining about “the Old has not yet left”…
    The New happens to be young up-and-coming not-really hipsters; the Old – ghetto, drugs and shootings on the streets. But at the same time, the New brings in faster, more aggressive and less sympathetic culture of atomized strangers, and the Old cultivates neighbors’ community habits and self-support. BedStuy is a peculiar stage of “clash of lifestyles” (“clash of civilizations?”).
    The optimists predict BedStuy to become new Williamsburg within the next 5-7 years. That’s definitely a sufficient amount of time to run a thoughtful survey on this area. And to investigate at what cost this process will complete.

  • vince carducci

    You might try Sharon Zukin’s recent book: “Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.” There’s a section in it on Williamsburg, also one on Union Square. I reviewed it for PopMatters when it first came out last year. Click here to read the review. I had a friend who lived in BedStuy years back. One time a drug courier was shot and killed on the stoop of her building. When she said something about it to one of her neighbors, he replied, “Be glad, it’s what keeps the rent down.” Zukin’s books “Loft Living,” which looks at SoHo, and “Culture of the Cities,” which has a lot about Brooklyn, are also worth checking out.

  • malgo

    When they shot a man on the other side of the walk, I was just instructed to hide behind a parked car next time, as the bullet might have hit me by accident… I guess this part of the BedStuy hasn’t changed.
    Thanks for the information on the books!

  • Amy Stuart

    I have lived in Bed-Stuy for five years and it is a wonderful community where people know their neighbors, greet each other in the street and the coffee shops, and work together to support the neighborhood. (I’m told we have the best-attended community board meetings in the city!) While the crime rate is higher than in many other areas (as is the poverty rate), it is not the defining characteristic of the neighborhood by a long shot; it’s defined by its beautiful architecture and gardens, its African American history and culture, and its strong sense of community. There has always been socioeconomic diversity, even during the most difficult times. Of course, Bed-Stuy is huge and should really be seen as several neighborhoods, each with a distinct character. But if it should ever turn into “the new Williamsburg,” it would be a tremendous loss for the community and for Brooklyn as a whole.