Brooklyn’s Brownstone Belt Strapped on by Pioneers

Three Decades of Restoration Spread From Heights to Fort Greene

By Carl Blumenthal

This row of brownstones on Lincoln Place in Park Slope shows the type of housing that attracted young professionals who moved to, and renovated, historic 19th century houses in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The movement began in Brooklyn Heights; spread to Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens; and later spread to Fort Greene and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

BROOKLYN — In a recent Brooklyn Broadside column, Dennis Holt looked forward to the benefits of such new or expanded developments as Brooklyn Bridge Park, Barclays Arena, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Coney Island amusement district.

Looking back on books about urban development in 2011, one especially comes to mind: The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (Oxford University Press), by Suleiman Osman.

Osman, a young professor of American Studies at George Washington University, grew up in Park Slope. He delves into the nitty-gritty of the early brownstone movement, beginning with revitalization of Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s, then spreading to Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Park Slope through the housing boom of the 1980s, when “brownstoning” turned into “gentrification.”

Anyone expecting Osman to take sides on the question of whether gentrification caused displacement will be disappointed, since he says that the debate remains unresolved.

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn does document the fact that lower-income tenants were often evicted in order to transform the homes into single-family residents. However, Osman emphasizes that a city cannot survive without a significant middle class, especially New York, with its wide disparity of wealth and poverty.

But what interests Osman most are the contradictory impulses of a white-collar middle class, which, while rejecting the conformity of the suburbs and the scale of Manhattan, wanted to transform rundown areas around Downtown Brooklyn and the Gowanus Canal into lively urban villages. They mixed conservative values of private space, free-market capitalism, homeownership and highbrow culture with liberal values of personal liberation, communal institutions and grassroots democracy.

The book’s main lesson is that what we take for granted as Brownstone Brooklyn today — including areas east of Flatbush Avenue, from Fort Greene to Bedford-Stuyvesant and down to Prospect-Lefferts Gardens — was refurbished with blood, sweat and tears.

Especially for Brooklynites who arrived in the borough after the stock market crash of 1987, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn makes fascinating reading.

For instance:

Brooklyn Bridge Park wouldn’t be possible at its projected scale if the Port Authority hadn’t built six steel-and-concrete piers in the 1950s to replace a dozen-and-a-half obsolete docks.

A new stadium was proposed for the Atlantic Terminal area, across from the present Barclays Arena, both before the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957 and after the football Giants moved to New Jersey in 1973.

Conceived in 1973 but not opened until 1983, the Fulton Mall was supposed to attract brownstoners to the largely African-American working-class shopping area; and The three residential towers built on Cadman Plaza in the 1960s and 1970s were middle-class cooperatives, rather than luxury or low-income housing, because of a compromise that marked the beginning of the end for controversial building czar Robert Moses.

Like the urban homesteaders who removed dirt, paint, siding, dropped ceilings and extra walls to reveal the historic value of their dwellings, Osman digs deep through cultural, social, economic and political factors to arrive at the truest portrait of the early brownstone movement to date.

Part of the historical context is the irony that these mass-produced, machine-manufactured row houses were part of the Levittown of their day (1880 to 1920), when Brooklyn was a move up from the Lower East Side and development along rail and subway lines was gobbling up the remaining farmland.

The later brownstone generation of pioneers faced a different frontier. White flight to the suburbs, as poorer African-Americans and Puerto Ricans moved in, and the decline of manufacturing resulted in deteriorated living and working conditions and building abandonment.

As non-white migrants competed with existing white working-class residents for dwindling resources, the city administration, in the guise of Robert Moses, tried to modernize the area with “slum” clearance and large development projects, such as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Civic Center, the Gowanus Houses and the Brooklyn House of Detention.

By displacing residents and merchants and leaving sites vacant for years, these efforts often made things worse before making them better. Osman calls this process “Manhattanization,” the same name given to the Atlantic Yards development years later.

Thus, the brownstoners had to struggle on two fronts to secure their gains: to reinforce, revive, or invent village life with house tours, street fairs, tree planting, community gardens, ethnic restaurants, and arts and crafts stores; and also to prevent, stall, or limit “sterile” development that threatened their new way of life. In addition to sweat equity in their homes, brownstoners created a myriad neighborhood volunteer efforts, advocacy groups and even a string of reform Democratic clubs.

Then as now, the area around Atlantic Avenue was a major battle zone, with citizen groups from Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Fort Greene stopping or stalling one large development project after another.

Each of these battles reinforced the identities of their neighborhoods. Thus, the unsuccessful fight against Cadman Plaza, along with the destruction of Penn Station, is credited with the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the naming of Brooklyn Heights as the city’s first historic district.

Not only does Osman place these efforts in the context of neighborhood revitalization around New York City and the rest of the country, he also explores the shifting alliances and conflicts with poor blacks and white working-class ethnics. These folks possessed equally authentic claims to the territory and sometimes expressed hostility to the much smaller, yet more powerful, group of middle-class “settlers.”

As for the pioneers who were not later priced out themselves, some may object to the cultural symbolism he finds in their intentions and actions and wonder why he did not provide more of their reminiscences. Perhaps he largely avoids oral history because of its inherent biases.

However, he frequently quotes brownstoners and their opponents from the editorial pages and publicity brochures of the time. This gives the reader a ringside seat at the fight for neighborhood preservation and revitalization.

Osman turned his Ph.D. dissertation into this first book. He keeps academic terminology to a minimum, but the book suffers from the fault of stretching a clever idea — that of the reborn urban village standing between skyscrapers and slums — too far. Still, in the end, the reader is grateful to Osman for giving enormous insight into an important part of our community.

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Filed under Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, History

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