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’s a highly nuanced investigation into the oftentimes contradictory interests at play during the period.
As opposed to many studies of postmodern redevelopment, Osman 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 19th century mansions overlooking the East River that, by the end of the Second World War, had physically declined and whose property values had dramatically fallen. Many of these stately townhouses had been abandoned or subdivided and converted into low-cost rental units.
But by the end of the ’40s, 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 more upscale version of one those units on Monroe Place, a magnificent five-story brownstone, originally built in the 1840s, that had been renovated by an advertising executive who purchased it in the ’60s. 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 20th century urban development to retrieve an array of ostensibly premodern 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’s 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, Herbert 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.
Yet at the same time, Osman recognizes the brownstoners’ achievement. Where others fled the myriad problems of city for the comforts of greener pastures, the denizens of Brownstone Brooklyn stayed and, in the final analysis, did invent a new version of the civic ideal that still has much to recommend for it, at least to those who can afford it.