The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, by Suleiman Osman (Oxford University Press, 360 pp., $29.95)
One of the strangest Brooklyn naming developments of recent years has been amalgamated neighborhood titles like “ProCro” (for Prospect and Crown Heights) and “BoCoCa” (for Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens). It’s nothing new to give small spaces their own identities; see New York’s recent feature on “twenty under-the-radar microneighborhoods.” It’s quite another thing to begin splicing together perfectly good neighborhood names in pursuit of ever more bistro-like acronyms. Then again, as Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn reminds us, the acronyms are no more artificial than the names they abbreviate. Not long ago, Osman points out, all these neighborhoods were part of a swath simply labeled SOUTH BROOKLYN on most maps and barely a gleam in the eyes of real-estate firms.
One of the best studies of gentrification yet written, Osman’s book picks up where the Robert-Moses-versus-Jane-Jacobs story leaves off, looking past the no-longer-imperiled neighborhood of Greenwich Village to Brooklyn, where transplants began to forge new neighborhoods. An important moment arrived in 1964, when the controversial Cadman Plaza West tower development, which had faced political pressure for years, finally went forward after the city government took steps to protect Brooklyn Heights’ adjoining blocks. These became New York’s first designated historic district the following year. Residents with an appetite for renovation (and renaming) began to fill Brooklyn Heights. They spread south of the formidable Atlantic Avenue, which Truman Capote once described as a street where “seedy hangouts, beer-sour bars, and bitter candy stores mingle among the eroding houses.” There they began overhauling real estate and coining new names—Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens—fashioned largely out of historical wishfulness. In the 1950s, for example, Nation writer Helen Buckler, while examining Brooklyn maps with the curator of the Long Island Historical Society, discovered significant landholdings by a Boerum family in the eighteenth century. She began urging the neighborhood association to call an area in the northwestern part of the borough “Boerum Hill,” and the name stuck.
Soon books were appearing with titles like You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone and Prospect Park Handbook, as well as periodicals like Old House Journal, launched by a new Park Slope brownstone owner. By 1982, Osman writes, the number of hardware stores in Park Slope was more than three times the per-capita average in the rest of the city, and surveys indicated that a majority of Park Slope residents were undertaking most improvements themselves. In the current age of multimillion-dollar brownstone sales, it’s easy to forget the more modest roots of these neighborhoods. Osman argues convincingly that “the history of brownstoning is the story of the foundation of a new postindustrial middle class,” and indeed a 1976 study revealed that the most common occupations of the Brooklyn Brownstone Revival Committee were “law, writing, teaching, editing, architecture, banking, psychology, and psychiatry.” Another poll revealed that 60 percent of Harvard’s Class of 1968 was engaged in some sort of home renovation. For this emerging class, Brooklyn neighborhoods represented a possibility of community midway between the chaos of Manhattan and the atomization of suburbia—a “middle cityscape,” as sociologist Marshall Berman put it.
The new Brooklyn residents began to exercise political clout. By the late sixties, brownstone residents were well represented in the Lindsay administration, from the mayor’s director of the New York City Planning Commission to his economic-development advisor. New, politically savvy residents sometimes found common cause with local residents in lobbying for services and opposing large-scale development. In 1975, the Fort Greene Non-Profit Improvement Council was powerful enough to obtain a court injunction halting study of the construction of a new Giants Stadium on the Atlantic Terminal site. Such coalitions, however, don’t always hold together. Today, on the Atlantic Yards site, construction is under way for the Barclays Center, which will serve as the basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets. Lower-income residents appear to have favored the development for its perceived job prospects, while upper-income residents vigorously opposed it. Similarly, Park Slope contained 4,500 manufacturing jobs in the 1940s, but the new breed of brownstone residents, eager to drive industry out of their backyard, actively contested efforts to retain these jobs.
A similar story of gentrification was unfolding in the 1960s in numerous urban neighborhoods: Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; the South End in Boston; Lincoln Park in Chicago; Inman Park in Atlanta; and Haight-Ashbury and the Castro in San Francisco. The pace may have been slower in these cities, but the process was much the same—a grassroots rediscovery of urban America by a rapidly swelling, postindustrial population, long before most cities thought to entice such residents. In 2011, when gentrification seems increasingly to signal a march of condos, Osman’s book is an invaluable guide to its early stages.