The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn

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Sueliman Osman. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Post War New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. x plus 280 pp., $29.95, ISBN 978-0-19-538731-5

Summary

Suleiman Osman offers a counter argument to the twentieth-century historical narrative of urban post-industrial decline and “white flight” from the inner-city to the suburbs; an example of this historiography would be Kevin Kruse’s White Flight. As the author states in his introduction, there was a concerted effort on the part of white middle class professionals and artists to romanticize and colonize “an imagined urban frontier” (13) of Victorian housing and light industrial zones within the proximity of urban central business areas. Osman argues that “brownstoning” or gentrification gave rise to a new “postindustrial middle class”(11) that was the amalgamation of cultural forces present in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The author defines these cultural forces as “The New Left”, “the counterculture”, “the environmental movement” and “the student movement”. This eclectic mix gathered in these areas to create a micro clime of place and ideology that rejected modernism and post World War Two notions of social progress. Instead “Brownstoners” sought authenticity within the micro clime of Brooklyn as opposed to what they saw as the vacuous society of suburba. Further, Osman argues that this new middle class, Brownstoners, created a system of “new politics” that helps to explain the decline of New Deal Liberalism and the boss system of borough politics.

Throughout of the work, the author incorporates three interrelated concepts that are of importance in understanding what transpired in Brownstone Brooklyn over four decades and how these ideas came to create the phenomena of Brownstoning: the “middle ground” within mental and physical space, the urban wilderness, and imagined community.

Osman borrows heavily from the ideas presented by Leo Marx in his work Machine in The Garden. Central to the romanticization and creation of a mental and physical landscape of Brownstone Brooklyn is the need to construct a mental and physical micro clime of urban pastoralism with the advantages of technology. By inventing Brownstone Brooklyn, Osman’s postindustrial middle class fulfills this need by creating a cultural and social enclave that became the “middle landscape” of a culture that craved technology and connection to the pastoral past, yet rejected the corruption of civilization.(89) The author asserts that this pastoral ideal was the genesis of the class and political consciousness of the imagined community of Brooklyn. Building on Marx’s concept of the machine (technology) spoiling the idyllic garden, Osman extends the metaphor when he asserts that it was precisely the intrusion of two political machines, one old and the other new, representing the corruption of civilization. The author describes the old machine as the urban blight emanating from South Brooklyn: “the industrial cityscape of polluted factories, corrupt ward politicians, violent youth gangs, and frightening crime syndicates” (119). The author asserts that the fight against the old machine often threatened to expose the fault lines within the imagined community of Brooklyn, as the Brownstoners assumed the ideology of Jeffersonian democracy.(131) However, the older denizens of Brooklyn resented the attack on ward politics as an intrusion on a system that benefited their wants. Indeed Osman asserts that it was a “fight between the old and new politics thus was a clash between an older male industrial landscape and a new mixed-gender postindustrial landscape.”(133) Brownstoners gained ascendency through numbers and organization. The second, new machine, “Manhattanization” lurked to the north. To the author, it was precisely this perceived threat that coalesced the disparate groups (blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, immigrants, middle-class and poor New Yorkers) into a somewhat united front to oppose New Deal based programs of slum clearance and modernization. Personified by Robert Moses and exemplified by Cadman Plaza, slum clearance and modernization posed a direct threat of the machine to urban pastoralism and imagined community. By successfully challenging development schemes through historic district zoning, Brownstoners were able to thwart further incursions of “Manhattanization” and forge a community.

Tying into the concept of urban pastoralism is the image of Brooklyn as an urban wilderness. Further Osman asserts the white middleclass considered themselves "pioneers" or "settlers" within this wilderness.(192) Eschewing a cosmopolitan mass consumer lifestyle that was the product of what they considered “alienating technology” (80) the Brownstone "pioneer" attempted to create a sense of place and authenticity. As such, the author defines this form of pioneering as a term “… that mixed youthful idealism with problematic racial and class imagery.”(194) Because of financial considerations individuals settling “new” areas often had to resort to innovative methods of obtaining financing for colonization. Major lending institutions and real estate concerns often refused to entertain requests towards financing brownstone purchases because of risk perceived of investment in mixed racial areas. Subsequently Brownstoners were often forced to compromise ideology and become landlords until enough capital could be amassed to evict their tenants, turning multifamily units into single-family homes. Also, many of the white-collar pioneers became Do It Yourselfers when they rehabilitated the structures. More importantly, these people also saw themselves as “place missionaries” who created community out of the urban wilderness, “to physically transform as well as creatively reimagine a long impoverished landscape.”(194) Indeed Osman asserts that the pioneers often renamed these communities after colonial farm and family names. Poignantly, the author gives the example of the name change from North Gowanus to Boerum Hill, after the imaginative urban pioneers enlisted the help of the Long Island Historical Society to come up with names for their “imagined” communities. (198)

The concept of “imagined community” intertwines with urban pastoralism and urban pioneering in Inventing Brownstone Brooklyn in that the author asserts at the beginning of his work that Brownstone Brooklyn “was an invented landscape”(19) by the brownstone movement. Instead, as the author suggests, Brownstone Brooklyn should be viewed as a palimpsest, a manuscript that that was written over and over again: “a text that Salisbury and other middle-class migrants creatively read and rewrote.”(21) In the author’s view, the “imagined community” attributed to this micro clime is merely the scraping of vellum in the history of a place. By coming together against the urban blight and Manhattanization the neighborhood movement was formed. Indeed, Osman terms the new ideology of this movement as “localist politics”: “both anti-statist and anti-corporatist”(269). Though the future of the movement may be questionable, Osman asserts that its creation through imagined communities and basis in urban pastoralism and individual self-reliance was a contributing factor in the decline of New Deal Liberalism. Indeed this movement, based on tenuous ties of disparate ideology (such as the Brownstone pioneers political alliance with the Black power radicals) imagined communities were created, but the author questions not only the survival of localist politics but what form would it take on?

Commentary

Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

Sueiman Osman has written a very interesting micro history of Brooklyn. In tying in the counterculture search for authenticity with the imagery of a Brooklyn as a garden besieged by two machines, modernism and post-industrial urban blight, Osman largely succeeds in showing that gentrification or Brownstoning was one cultural alternative to white flight from the inner city, albeit a small segment of the population that cultivated a micro clime. Further Osman offers a narrative of an imagined and contested space. Both of which tie in to his frontier imagery and the myth of the American frontier. However, it should be noted that the author limits this phenomena to “Europe, San Francisco, and New Orleans”(91). Thus it can be seen as a relatively limited phenomenon, and a minor exception to the historic migration of white middle class America to the suburbs.


Commentary Alan S. Brody

What is a city? What is an imagined community? How do residents exercise political power? What does the built environment mean and to whom? Who has naming rights to place? What is ‘authentic’? To public historians, these are familiar questions. In Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman answers them from the vantage point of the social historian. Brooklyn is a place that resonates with me, my father grew up in 1940’snd 1950’s Bushwick - the ‘worst slum’ in Brooklyn and for him, Brooklyn is a place one runs from, not towards. This begs Osman’s central question, what is Brooklyn?

For the ‘brownstoners’, Brooklyn was a place of economic opportunity and a chance to urban homestead. For the long time residents, Brooklyn was a place of urban removal and for neighborhood associations and local politicians it was a battle ground. None of this is surprising in urban or even suburban history, what is unique is the story that Osman tells of the young and professional classes who conceived of Brooklyn as a place of rebirth and renewal. Paralleling the return to immigrant heritages these young professional escaped Manhattan and, renamed communities and created a lifestyle that both emulated and rejected the values of The Village for example. Brownstoners in Osman’s retelling were guilty of conscious affectation couched in terms of authenticity.

Neighborhoods like Park Slope saw the many juxtapositions and confrontations in urban environments. There was more at stake here then rich versus poor, immigrant versus newcomer, political machine versus neighborhood group, all of these binaries became very symbolic of one of America’s oldest cities. For the historian, Brownstone Brooklyn offers a unique insight into several larger American themes that go beyond race and class, Brownstone Brooklyn was a political movement and another story in a long history of overcoming the city machine. The City of New York is also an amorphous concept and one that looms large in this story, particularly when it involves urban redevelopment projects.

I agree with Osman that a postindustrial landscape works on many levels and brownstoning and gentrification do useful work in recovering how differing agendas and groups all laid claim to blocks or neighborhoods. The question of contested space is the central theme of this book and one which allows multiple entry points to a study of a place. A recent New York Times Magazine article (March 20, 2011) decried the building of Brooklyn high rises and the methods that architect Robert Scarano used to skirt zoning laws. Today, places like Park Slope are teeming with restaurants serving local fare or branches of Manhattan favorites, what New York magazine called in a recent article “Brooklyn Eats Manhattan”. Those interested in the ‘authentic’ restaurant head to places like Flushing, hoping to find ethnic eateries that have left Brooklyn in the face of gentrification. The cycle continues.

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