Tales From the Stoop

Gentrifiers in my native Park Slope, Brooklyn, often boast of having lived there "before it was trendy." Invariably, these braggarts moved to the Slope in the 1990s. I arrived as an infant in 1981.

No one -- from New York's Lower East Side to Chicago's Wicker Park -- should indulge the fantasy that he got there first and that the neighborhood was "authentic" until They came. It may have been rougher, cheaper, and more diverse, but it wasn't born that way, either. Suleiman Osman, author of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn and an American studies professor at George Washington University who grew up in Park Slope, sheds new light on the history of the Brownstone belt and how it began to convey the charm and authenticity gentrifiers admire so much. Although the story Suleiman tells is specific to the Western quadrant of one New York borough, the lesson is universal.

The invention of Brownstone Brooklyn predates even the tales of early pioneers from 1960s Brooklyn Heights -- ground zero for Brooklyn gentrification -- when a stately town home could be bought for a song if you didn't mind living near crack houses and brothels. As Osman reports, and as I learned from Truman Capote's lovely memoir about living in the Heights in the 1950s, middle-class families, artists, and writers first moved to the neighborhood in the late 1940s. Even that migration has earlier roots; many were exiles from what may be truly the country's first bourgeois bohemian neighborhood, Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where the influx of creative professionals began in the 1910s.

Nor was the trend unique to New York. In 1973, a brownstone Brooklyn resident started a newsletter called Old House Journal to share tips with his neighbors; it quickly grew to a magazine with subscribers in all 50 states. By that time, the trend of people buying and renovating undervalued old houses was happening in the majority of large American cities.

The invention of brownstone Brooklyn is really the invention of a new class of Americans -- sometimes known as bourgeois bohemians, more commonly called yuppies -- that can be found in every coastal city. While most histories of the postwar American city focus on de-industrialization, white flight, and the rise of the Sun Belt and suburban Reagan conservatives, Osman tells us what became of the hippies who provoked so much disdain in the first place. "Brownstoners' frontier imagery drew as much upon the language of the emerging counterculture and environmentalist movements as it did the Old West," Osman writes. "The back-to-Brooklyn movement was the twin of the back-to-the-land movement on the rural periphery."

These folks are no longer relegated to the counter-cultural fringe. One of their own -- a highly educated former community organizer who chose to settle in Hyde Park, Chicago -- now inhabits the White House. Meanwhile, their reformist Democratic groups have often displaced the old white ethnic political machines that ran most cities. "The corrupt blue collar machine that once formed the bedrock of urban Democratic politics had begun to collapse," Osman writes of the first successes, in 1972, of the Brownstone Brooklyn reform Democrats. "Ascending in its place was a new postindustrial liberal coalition forged in the middle cityscape that united college students, white-collar urban professionals, and the poor."

Political membership in the "Bobby Kennedy coalition" was not the only thing poor and rich Brownstone Brooklynites had in common. In the 1960s and 1970s the area experienced an influx of both minorities and professionals. Both were alien forces to the working-class white ethnics who were largely fleeing for the suburbs.

Those kinds of complexities may confuse the uninitiated reader. Osman uses the verb "brownstoning" to describe a process that happens in various housing types in other parts of New York -- the rehabilitation of tenements downtown, grand apartments uptown, and industrial lofts in Queens and North Brooklyn -- and in other cities. Many of the "brownstones" are actually brick row houses or limestone townhouses -- a point Osman readily admits -- and even "real" brownstones aren't clad in brownstone anymore. Most, like the one I grew up in, lost their original sandstone to the elements long ago and had it replaced with brown concrete.

But the idea of what a brownstone is has changed over time, anyway. Today's architectural landmark was the Victorian era's suburban tract house, or McMansion, decorated with mass-produced moldings and clad in sandstone from Connecticut because it lent an air of grandeur but was cheaper than marble. "While they would later be viewed as authentic, contemporaries dismissed brownstones as modern and artificial," Osman writes. The early renovators planted many of the trees that now famously line the streets of Brooklyn's most desirable districts. Even many neighborhood names and boundaries were invented ex post facto. As the undifferentiated mass of "South Brooklyn," experienced an influx from Manhattan, the newcomers organized community associations to lobby against misguided urban renewal efforts and for cachet-enhancing protections like landmark status. Taking the Brooklyn Heights Association as a model, these associations drew boundaries and concocted names such as Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.

Much of the authenticity that gentrifiers seek to find and preserve has a similarly ironic pedigree. Often ethnic diversity is a product of earlier waves of gentrification. Many of the first people to buy Brooklyn rooming houses and turn them back into one or two family homes were West Indian immigrants. And, as Osman explains, it was the college-educated sons of Irish Park Slope and Italian Carroll Gardens who eschewed moving to the suburbs with their cohort in the early 1960s. Instead they organized local businesses, homeowners, and newcomers to renovate, beautify, and promote their neighborhoods. But it is exactly these elderly minorities and white ethnics who are replaced by each yuppie couple.

Osman writes engagingly for an academic, but he does lapse into jargon, throwing around undefined sociological terms like "Fordist" and "gemeinschaft" with abandon. Osman's narrative also focuses excessively on the cultural shifts that drove gentrification rather than the raw economic fundamentals. As many of his quotes and anecdotes illustrate, gentrifiers often did not want to discover the next neighborhood; they simply could not afford the last one. Osman writes: "Rather than seeking race and class homogeneity, middle class beatniks, radicals, settlement workers, and gay men pushed into poor districts in search of 'diversity.'" Seeking out diversity was certainly one factor, but so was the simple fact that the beatniks could no longer afford to buy brownstones on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Osman acknowledges as much only pages later: "In some cases, white-collar professionals offset their anxiety about racial mixing with their desire for attractive, affordable central city housing."

And the reason for this price surge is an important story, which Osman largely neglects: The government has favored suburban sprawl over walkable, mixed-use urban environments. So while one-third of Americans have stated in surveys that they would rather live in an urban environment, only 10 percent to 15 percent of housing fits that description. This in turn means exorbitant prices for the precious few urban neighborhoods, even ones that just a few years earlier would have been ignored by the wealthy precisely because they had a little too much "diversity."

Osman spends a lot of time, too much in fact, describing the construction of soulless urban renewal spaces in neighboring downtown Brooklyn to set up the contrast between historic, charming brownstones and sterile modern high-rises. But Osman ignores the suburbs where the majority of middle-class Americans live, and which many of his book's protagonists were comparing their new homes to. Nor does Osman look much at the structures forcing those decisions. For instance, he notes that it was difficult to obtain mortgages or home-renovation loans in South Brooklyn's red-lined neighborhoods of the 1960s and mentions the banks' fear that rising numbers of black and Latino residents would cause home values to drop. He doesn't discuss the fact that urban neighborhoods were also red-lined because they lacked off-street parking, despite the fact that not having to drive everywhere is a prime motivator for many people who choose to live in the city.

Indeed, walkability is the essential physical feature that Osman largely overlooks. Walkability and access to mass transit is the precondition that makes possible many of the other Brownstone Brooklynites' other fetishes -- small, locally owned stores rather than chain superstores, interaction with diverse neighbors, etc. Yes, inventing the concept of Brownstone Brooklyn was about building a bubble where gays outnumber Republicans. But the thing that made my childhood so different from the vast majority of my contemporaries is that I didn't need a parental chauffeur to go everywhere. The unique experiences and attitudes that Park Slope gave me flow from that. So, if you think Brownstone Brooklyn could only be invented in a handful of cities that retain an abundance of 19th-century houses, you're wrong. Cities that have seen the most gentrification -- Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco -- have a more important asset in common than attractive old houses, which are just as easily found in inner-ring suburbs: They were developed before the automobile. We could, and should, build new Brownstone Brooklyns, but that's a subject for another book.

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