Brownstone Movement Seen Anew

By Trudy Whitman

Whether they’re tucked under arms, stashed in briefcases, or lighting up tablets, copies of Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (Oxford University Press, $29.95) can be seen all over the neighborhood.

Osman is a Park Slope native. The book began as his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, so don’t expect an easy late summer read, but do expect to get hooked. It begins at State and Nevins in 1966. The neighborhood had recently carved itself out of South Brooklyn by giving itself a name — Boerum Hill. And members of the Boerum Hill Association, placards and bullhorns in hand, were on the corner on November 22, 1966, with the intent of blocking the destruction of an abandoned townhouse.

Nineteenth-century townhouses were providing affordable housing for educated professionals who, according to Osman, were propelled by the counter culture of the ’60s and ’70s to get real and revolt “against the sameness, conformity, and bureaucracy” they saw around them. It was not long after, however, that the homeowners, who saw themselves as socially egalitarian urban pioneers, were accused of forcing out poor minorities, who had themselves replaced ethnic industrial and dock workers who moved to Staten Island, Long Island, and New Jersey.

It was the striking housing stock, of course, that attracted yuppies, who tore out walls that had repurposed the one-families as small apartments and rooming houses, and who preserved whatever detail they could find. As a consequence, both home prices and rents rose. The class and cultural friction that resulted came to a head in the 1980s and can still be felt today.

Among Osman’s primary sources was the Brooklyn Heights Press. It was great fun to read excerpts from articles and letters to the editor about such issues as gentrification, public housing, gays, and race relations. These passages caused me to question the validity of an old adage; The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn shows plainly that while many things may remain the same, some do change, and change dramatically at that.

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In one of her most famous tunes, diva Bette Midler insists, “You’ve got to have friends.” Two Friends groups in Carroll Gardens prove that Midler knows of what she sings. The efforts of Friends of Carroll Park and Friends of the Carroll Gardens Library were showcased spectacularly on Wednesday, August 17.

Karen K and the Jitterbugs rocked Carroll Park. Photo by Trudy Whitman.

In the park at Carroll and Court streets, Karen K and the Jitterbugs had everyone from toddlers to grannies swaying some hip to the beat of her group’s retro rock music in the penultimate Carroll Park kids’ concert of the summer. If you missed it, there’s one more opportunity to get down with the music. On Sunday, September 25, at 4 p.m., Bubble Do the Beatles will perform to benefit the Friends of Carroll Park and Cobble Hill’s P.S. 29.

For those youngsters after a quieter summer afternoon experience, the Carroll Gardens Library offered interactive storytelling with professional teller of tales Getchie Argetsinger at the library branch at 396 Clinton Street.

Storyteller Getchie Argetsinger at the Carroll Gardens Library. Photo by Trudy Whitman

The performance was part of a weekly summer reading program for children sponsored by the library and promoted by the newly formed Friends of the Carroll Gardens Library. Its aim is to make the facility a hub of neighborhood activity. A used-book fundraiser raised $6,500 in April, with monies going toward the improvement of the children’s section. The enthusiasm of these neighbors on a mission is catching, and evening classes and other activities have already drawn new library fans to the branch.

Children’s librarian Adrianna Mitchell confirmed that the efforts of the Friends group has been a boon to the children’s programs, although it was the library system’s Programs and Exhibitions series that sponsored the afternoon of storytelling, featuring stories from all over the world.
The reading program continues on Thursday afternoons for several weeks. Just stop by the Carroll Gardens branch to sign up your child.

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