The Nabe Back In The Day

Many people live in cities, but what allows an urban citizen to claim that they live in an urban neighborhood? Knowing your neighbors? Giving a neighbor a key to your place while your away? Being recognized by the guy at the deli, the woman and the market, and the other local trades? Participating in local government? Sending the kids to the neighborhood school and giving money to the PTO?

For those of us educated urban dwellers, middle and upper middle white collar professionals, with our without children, urban life presents challenges and opportunities for connection, identity and meaning. It has been my experience that for those of us in these groups, we make house in the same areas, shop in the same stores, read the same publications and profess many of the same values. I have often wondered how we end up this way and why I know so many people who know Dwell and the same restaurants. We tend to claim that we are living differently, that there is something special to our block or our stoop. I wonder if that is truly the case, or whether we have just fashioned a lifestyle that suits are likes, wants and conveniences – and then have dressed it up for when we talk with people who live elsewhere.

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: gentrification and the search for authenticity in postwar New York is a reworking of Suleiman Osman’s Harvard dissertation. It is a sexy topic, one that should generate the sort of cross-over appeal that would make an academic press editor happy. Brooklyn is hot, brownstones are desirable – and more to the point, people who live in Brooklyn brownstones often buy academic books. In fact, it is easy to picture a book signing at the Park Slope or Brooklyn Height’s Barnes and Nobles, with sincere academicians and journalists asking pointed questions. I should know. I used to live there and buy those kinds of books at B&N. Osman is on to something, too, for the believers in brownstone Brooklyn have their counterparts throughout the nation. Neither yuppies nor traditional liberals, these folks share similar values about diversity, urbanism, and the role of the educated individual in the modern world. They are journalists, academics and lawyers. They play a large role in our media and do not fit traditional categories of race and class. Be they Florida’s “creative class” or something different, they emerged as a vital force through a period of substantive economic change. Osman’s work covers part of that shift and he does a fine job lifting this trend out and giving it much deserved sunshine.

Wishing Osman, who grew up in Park Slope Brooklyn a fine beginning to his academic career (he is an assistant professor at George Washington University) still leaves us the question of his book. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn is not about the current century and Brooklyn today. It begins with the end of World War II and some what loses its punch by the early 1970s. With changing demographics and a great deal of movement and migration, Brooklyn after the war was perhaps best characterized by its “messy incoherence.” Osman selectively charts changes in the borough through a series of vignettes, focusing on a particular issue or area. He writes neither a local history nor a regional study, moving back and forth from the grass roots to the theoretical. The overall effort is a hybrid, trying to capture the “authentic” but not fully coming together. And can one write about early gentrification without the weight of current gentrification shaping the dialogue? It is a challenge. As for my criticisms, they stem stem, in many ways, from an unfair desire. I wanted this to be different, a more decisive volume. Had he made it more theoretical, allowing his observations to take flight I think that it might have been a more successful work, one that opened the reader up to the possibilities that make Renovation Hardware a multimillion dollar enterprise. On the other hand, if he had given more to the voices of Brooklyn’s inhabitants and their lives on the ground, making it a more patient, narrower local history I believe that we could have seen gentrification through different eyes. Instead, Osman wants it all and the result falls, somewhat, between two stools.

The development of Concord Village, a housing development on “super blocks” close to downtown Brooklyn and the Civic Center, receives the opening chapter to establish part of the larger argument. Osman posits the Village’s modernity in contrast to the urban blight. Called “Manhattanization” by both foes and critics, the creation of the modern residential high rise in difficult economic times because of industrialization was essential as a sign of progress. Concord Village and its difference was, in essence, modern. Lacking from Osman’s account, though, are the nuts and bolts facts about the area’s economy, its demographics and its denizens. He describes Brooklyn as almost incomprehensible in its complexity, a “balkanized mess of local fiefdoms.” The hard choices that led to Concord Village are missing, as are the commercial and financial effects. Osman waxes eloquent on high modernism as a way of establishing order and clarity. The planners, the authorities, and the influential government of Robert Moses all have a place here, and Osman believes that their failures were greatest on the cultural front.

Culture is important, but more than not real estate is about money and power.

In the chapter on Brooklyn Heights as middle cityscape, the importance of writers and artists gives weight to the argument about the “authentic.” Victorian brownstones offer a different urban identity than the soul-less modernism of the super block, just as they establish a different kind of living than the suburbs. Osman claims that gentrifying post-war Brooklyn Heights was an invented neighborhood, shaped by a collective urban identity. I have no doubt that for some, that collective identity was shared. I also am equally confident that many who lived in the Heights after the war held significantly different understandings of their neighborhood and its meaning. For example, while Truman Capote’s time in Brooklyn was influential, Osman overstates his importance to the borough or to understanding the changes the neighborhood faced. The activists in the Heights, who organized and fought redevelopment in its large-scale format in the 1950s and 1960s, found a different kind of public.

Osman links the resistance to the development of Cadman Plaza with the works of Jane Jacobs and Herbert Gans. Marshall Berman and Robert Caro offer anti-Moses perspectives, too, but missing is the voice of Brooklyn. Osman finds it in the early 1970s with the growth of brownstones. Neighborhoods like Park Slope, Cobble Hill, and Boerum Hill were revitalized with middle class pioneers renovating homes and looking for a different kind of urban lifestyle. Romantic, possibly, but also motivated by a desire for a sense of local place, these new arrivals were particularly effective at organizing themselves and publicizing their good works. They demanded new services, from the city and from their neighborhoods. They are the Brooklyn brownstoners.

Osman is very good at describing the brownstoner’s values. He emphasizes, rightly, the search for authenticity and place. He notes the alternative views of race and multiple lenses through which the city, its options and constraints, are perceived. Unfortunately, he places less emphasis on the context: the economy, the massive shifts in manufacturing and the waterfront, and the increasing demand in Manhattan for the white collar skills of the brownstoners. The larger environs are only lightly sketched, and its absence undercuts his argument.

It is important, for example, to know why brownstoners did not go in large numbers to Jersey City. It was just as blighted with equally fine Victorian housing stock. Osman does not explore this path. Nor does he spend much time on schools, a critical oversight. Urban pioneers only become settlers when they can be assured of their children’s future. Outside of a short reference to a successful small private school, analysis of schools in Brooklyn is absent. The role of small developers is missing, too, as are changes in the city’s codes and regulations for small landlords and rent regulations.

Speaking from personal experience, both as a renovator of real estate in Brooklyn, a landlord and as a renter, authenticity matters. But lots of other things matter more. Infrastructure, the ability to buy food, services and safety. Can an urban neighborhood be successful if women cannot walk alone? Younger couples move if their children cannot receive a decent education. Hoboken stands as the preeminent example of that phenomenon.

Osman’s book is provocative. It recasts the changes in Brooklyn from a different perspective. It makes an important claim for the identification of urban brownstoners, and helps to recast more traditional questions of class and race in new and exciting ways. It asks very good questions about early gentrification. What did authenticity seem like to an urban pioneer and later generations of gentrifying middle class homesteaders? By default, the pioneers are interlopers and threats. Their ability to blend into a ethnically homogenous working class neighborhoods is limited, at best, and their successes necessarily come at the expense of those communities. Once a critical mass of educated middle class homesteaders is reached, is living in brownstone all that different from living in a suburb? Can proximity, along with the right architecture, create community? I am not sure, but it might pave the way for its inhabitants to feel as if they have a community.

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