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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman
Oxford University Press, 2011
Hardcover, 360 pages



The first Historic District created by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was not Greenwich Village or another section of Manhattan, it was Brooklyn Heights, designated in 1965. Districts in nearby Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and Park Slope followed in the ensuing years, helping to cement a low-scale urban fabric marked by residential brownstones. But the history of these places, now common names but hardly well-defined neighborhoods in the middle of the 20th century, is more complicated than these designations may attest. Moreover this history unfolds in the interactions between gentrification, grass-roots politics, urban renewal, and "a new romantic urban ideal" shared by middle-class people moving to the area. This book by George Washington University professor Suleiman Osman traces that history from the late 1950s to the tail-end of the Reagan era.

What led to the "invention of Brownstone Brooklyn" and the neighborhood movement that helped preserve the architectural character of these neighborhoods west of Prospect Park, shifting their economic and racial demographics in the process? Osman devotes most of the book to these factors, from the perceived authenticity of this "urban wilderness" mid-century and the encroachment of top-down planning in the form of Concord Village, to what the author calls the "middle cityscape" of Brooklyn Heights and the old machine politics and industry that new residents had to contend with as much as City Hall. One of the highlights of this background focuses on the urban literature that shaped people's impressions of these neighborhoods and served as templates for action, most obviously found in Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Osman's readings of a handful of important books is careful and critical, pointing out things like the blurring of liberal/conservative distinctions in their positions as well as the selective interpretations of readers at the time.

In a sense, only two of the seven chapters are devoted to the direct shaping of these neighborhoods south and east of Brooklyn Heights, but the exposition is needed to understand the process and appreciate the complexity of the history. Throughout the book a plethora of voices can be heard, quoted sometimes at length -- many paragraphs resemble Zagat reviews structured with quotes. The notes are voluminous, and the references are treated such that the appropriate paragraphs are numbered, not the individual quotes within. These characteristics certainly are not deterrents, they are products of research focused on contemporaneous writings. One can see the polemics that permeated discussions around the transformation of these parts of Brooklyn; or to put it another way, arguments from all sides are documented, pointing out how contested this terrain was. Ultimately the period and changes covered are political, and Osman devotes a lot of text to the way individuals and neighborhood groups worked in the realm of politics to affect change, be it in stopping a chain supermarket from infiltrating or the improvement of public schools. His conclusions paint a current-day picture of Browstone Brooklyn that is as malleable as the canvas upon which it happened: the search for authenticity has bred its inverse, but for residents in the area that may not be such a bad thing.


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