In our New York issue, on newsstands now, we take a look at all five boroughs of America's biggest, most vital city. One that ends up getting quite a bit of play in Dwell is increasingly-less-scrappy Brooklyn. A subject professor Suleiman Osman of George Washington University takes up in his new book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. Out this month from Oxford University Press, the book takes a look at the wave of "brownstoners" who moved into what was then known as "South Brooklyn" (you might now know it as Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Clinton HIll and other neighborhoods) in search of cheap real estate, a sense of neighborhoody history, and an antidote to suburban living. I chatted with Osman about the book, the future of Brooklyn, and the legacy of the brownstoners of the late 60s and early 70s.
You seem to be using the term Brownstoner to suggest much more than a resident of a particular type of building. What is a Brownstoner culturally?
“Brownstoning” was an early form of what today is referred to as gentrification. The book traces the phenomenon back to as early as the 1920s in areas like Brooklyn Heights. But in the 1960s and 1970s, artists, writers, lawyers and other white-collar professionals began to move in large numbers into low-income and working-class brownstone districts in what was then known mostly as South Brooklyn. Because many of them purchased and renovated brownstones, new arrivals began to describe themselves as “brownstoners.” This was part of a broader phenomenon in New York City, San Francisco and cities around the county. Although a London sociologist coined the term gentrification in 1964 to describe the trend in that city, “gentrification” didn’t enter the popular lexicon in the United States until the early 1980s. Newspapers and commentators in the 1960s and 1970s used a variety of terms to describe the phenomenon: “return-to-the-city,” “brownstoning,” “brownstone revitalization movement,” “urban revitalization,” and others.
Brownstoners were members of a new and growing postindustrial labor force working in white-collar professions and the arts. But dwelling was important part of their identity. They described themselves as distinctly urban and juxtaposed themselves to their suburban counterparts. Academics have struggled to find a term to describe this group: managerial class, white-collar class, new class, new middle class, creative class, etc. Perhaps the most popular term, albeit somewhat loaded, is “Young Urban Professional,” or “Yuppie.”
Next, what does a Brownstoner tend to do physically to her brownstone? To her block, to her neighborhood? What kind of architectural impact does a Brownstoner make?
Brownstoners really saw themselves not just moving to Brooklyn, but as rejecting conformity and returning to an older and more authentic form of living no longer available in modernizing Manhattan and postwar suburbs. Brownstoners often in cooperation with local residents, started hundreds of block associations, homeowners groups, tree planting drives, community gardens. They formed merchant association groups to try to revitalize retail districts struggling with disinvestment. They lobbied the city for more services. They started new Reform Democratic clubs and pushed the city to decentralize municipal services to local communities. They often renamed areas – Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, and even Brownstone Brooklyn itself are all names coined during this era. They were most passionate about restoring brownstones to their original detail. As they sandblasted paint or stripped off siding, they symbolic pulled away layers of fakeness to return the structures to their intended and authentic use as single-family homes. As many of these brownstones were home to low-income renters or roomers, this all had a troubling side as well which the book explores.
Early in the book you claim that the Brownstoners of the late 60s and early 70s had an aversion to certain brands of modernism. What then were they interested in stylistically?
Brownstone gentrification was primarily an economic phenomenon that was a product of a shift in the city from manufacturing to a service economy. But brownstoning was also an outgrowth of the cultural shifts among the middle class in the 1960s. 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. But they had their greatest aversion for the wave of Modernist redevelopment that transformed cities during the “urban renewal” era after World War II. They particularly viewed institutional buildings – public hospitals, new university dorms, public housing, playgrounds – as alienating. They described the unadorned structures as being placeless and looked to the 19th century industrial cityscape for what they described as a sense of “historic diversity.” The brownstone was particularly rich symbolically for them. They looked to the structures both as the authentically aristocratic homes of a former gaslight-era bourgeoisie, as well as the authentic remnants of a working-class, stoop-sitting, urban village in danger of being wiped out by modernization. In the book, I call this a “romantic urban” reaction to the modern city.
It’s a great question. I don’t think I know enough about contemporary trends to answer it though.
You seem to straddle the issue of gentrification in your book. Though Brooklyn brownstoners might deserve our adulation as preservers of historic neighborhoods and urbanites searching for more than life in Midtown Manhattan or Great Neck, hasn't this movement also pushed a lot of low-income people out of their homes?
I think that’s right. It would be misleading to tell a story of heroic brownstoners “pioneers” venturing into Brooklyn and rescuing brownstone districts from decline. Alternatively it would be too easy to tell an alternative story of pernicious yuppies marching into and destroying low-income neighborhoods. Both brownstoners and long-time residents were far more conflicted about their intentions. Many brownstoners in the 1960s were quite idealistic with links to counterculture, environmentalist movement, reform democratic politics, etc. Yet brownstoners pointedly targeted rooming-houses for renovation, blocked public housing plans, and at times displaced low-income residents. Rather than developers or bankers, brownstoners were inspired by Jane Jacobs, Herbert Marcuse and Saul Alinsky. Yet many of the brownstone enclaves are today more homogenous than the postwar urban renewal projects and suburban landscapes they loathed. Low-income and middle-class African-American, Latino and white ethnic residents in some cases resented and resisted brownstoning. In other cases, local residents formed political coalitions with brownstoners to fight red-lining and preserve rent control, as well as participated in renovation efforts. It’s a complex story. The book of course goes into all of this in much more detail.
Do you see today's brownstoners as having significantly different values from those of the late 60s? And if neighborhoods of Brooklyn like Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill are successfully brownstones, where are today's brownstoners at work? Bushwick? Red Hook?
I’ll leave that up to the readers. I would love for the book to spark a conversation about brownstone Brooklyn today.
Is New York in danger of running out of cheap brownstones?
It’s good question, but I’m not qualified to answer this.
Is there something particular to the brownstones themselves that have caused the kind of development you describe in the book? Might Castro Victorians in San Francisco or LeDroit Park rowhouses in DC also have some of the same qualities that have made them ripe for similar sorts of change?
Yes definitely. This was not a trend limited to Brooklyn. Similar trends occurred in cities around the country in rowhouses, industrial lofts, warehouses, Victorians, etc. Cities after WWII had a ring of 19th and early 20th century buildings both residential and industrial around downtown. Many planners saw these areas as blighted and targeted them for redevelopment in the 1940s and 1950s. But in many cities, a new postindustrial middle class began to migrate into this belt as well. Because of their emerging role as coastal financial centers, New York City and San Francisco were the most thoroughly reshaped by this process. Other examples abound though, for example, Washington DC’s Capitol Hill, Atlanta’s Inman Park, Boston’s South End, Cleveland’s Ohio City, San Antonio’s King William, to name but a few. The story is also an international one. Some of the best studies of gentrification are about London, Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney, etc. Then there is the rural side of this movement – the reimagining of de-agriculturalizing farms and fishing villages in Vermont, Maine and Long Island as sites of new middle class cultural consumption – but that is a topic for another book.