Review – Osman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn”

Suleiman Osman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York” (2011) (read by Marc Cashman) – Woof! I needed that week off from reviewing. I do love criticism but I also love “me time.”

I got this book originally during a book-buying spree while studying for my comprehensive exams. The idea is you read, or anyway prepare to answer questions about, as many of the major books in your field as you can convince your examiners you looked at. I did pretty good! But never got to this one. I figured I’d give it a listen in my “nonfiction reviews” slot. It’s something of a minor standard, it appears, in the academic history of gentrification.

Historian Suleiman Osman begins the story of gentrification in Brooklyn well before naive “common sense” understandings of these things, in the seventies or nineties. The story here begins in the immediate postwar period, when middle-class New Yorkers, including recently demobilized troops, started looking at Brooklyn as an alternative to expensive Manhattan living. Osman gives us a capsule residential history of the borough, from farm town to poorly-planned real estate speculation to almost-rival, a sort of Oakland to Manhattan’s San Francisco… these new middle class people postwar inserted themselves into the multi-layered history of Brooklyn, and came to use that history for their ends.

These ends were both self-expressive and monetary, as middle-class ends so often are. Brooklyn presented, if not a blank canvas — they didn’t want that — then at least a palimpsest that people looking for a certain kind of “urban experience” could work with. These were people who specifically did not want to live in the utopian (utopia means “no place” in Greek) suburbs or high rises, both of which were designed to warehouse people like them in comfort. They wanted somewhere with a sense of history and, for lack of a better term, that slippery concept of “authenticity.” All because we can’t pin it down, doesn’t mean the feelings surrounding it aren’t real (even if the term is dubious). Symbolic of all this were the brownstone buildings of South Brooklyn. To the Brooklyn settlers, they represented nineteenth century grace and elegance (even if, in fact, they were often cheaply built by low-balling speculative builders), and refurbishing them — often after they had been converted to serve as low-cost rooming houses for decades — gave the settlers a sense of both sweat equity in the neighborhoods and a metaphor- they were going to fix the mistakes of previous generations (you know, with their pesky need to live cheap) and renew an urban dream.

“Inventing Brownstone Brooklyn” lingers mostly on Brooklyn Heights, arguably the beachhead of the gentrification invasion, and on surrounding areas (it doesn’t touch much north of there, like Williamsburg, the gentrification epicenter when I lived there, or Greenpoint, directly north- not a lot of brownstones, for what that’s worth). Osman talks about the different ways gentrifiers understood themselves, and boy, they wrote a lot- pamphlets, novels, memoirs, articles in magazines. They were the ones who were going to make the new urbanism, most notably that version preached by Jane Jacobs in a few chapters of her “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” (few read that book all the way through, and no one reads her other stuff) a reality. They stood down a number of plans by Robert Moses and other villains in the Jacobs-ite rogues gallery to build superblock construction in Brooklyn Heights. It turned out it was useful to have white middle class people, many of them journalists, architects, and especially lawyers, when you wanted to defend your neighborhood from city hall.

Osman makes much of the confluence of visions between the early gentrifiers and at least some of the people they settled amongst, usually some mixture of working class “white ethnics,” black peoples, and Puerto Ricans. They could work together to save neighborhoods, sometimes, or get improvements. Some of the gentrifiers meant that sixties business. But others either didn’t, or meant it in the bad way. They “meant it” as in they opposed “big government” and “red tape” and anyone getting in the way of their self-fulfillment (which, curiously, usually seemed to coincide with their real estate portfolios). In the end, “saving” a neighborhood from Robert Moses usually meant a stay of execution. Moses wanted to plow highways through neighborhoods and raise brownstones to build superblocks because he thought you needed those to maintain an industrial city (factories need trucks, trucks need big roads). Gentrification went hand in hand with financialization and the service economy, which implied a different spatial order. Neither were great for the working class of late twentieth century Brooklyn.

In keeping with work inflected by “the new cultural history,” Osman soft-pedals the economic factors, especially early in the book. Sure, the settlers of south Brooklyn wanted a good deal, but they also wanted to find themselves, find community, etc etc. He even points out how banks and insurance companies wouldn’t service owner-renovators of brownstones in a lot of neighborhoods, seeing them and the neighborhoods more generally as bad risks! But, even Osman has to admit, eventually, the money was the determinative thing. It didn’t take long for banks and real estate companies to notice what was happening in Brooklyn. These companies seized on the gentrifiers as proof of concept for expanding into “dilapidated” urban real estate. Hell, even a lot of the cultural stuff worked for them, decades before anyone knew what a latte was- the early settlers, looking for “neighborhood” feel where parts of 1960s Brooklyn only offered block or parish or ethnic feel they couldn’t directly accessed, often went deep into the archives of New York history to find some, any, old-timey name to give their neighborhood. This is where “Cobble Hill,” “Carroll Gardens,” “Boerum Hill” (which is flat) come from. Once given a name, these areas could become commodities. Maybe that’s not what the original gentrifiers had in mind (though Osman looked for some who minded and only found a few), but that’s their ultimate importance. ****’

Review – Osman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn”

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