The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York

By Suleiman Osman | Go to book overview

1 Urban Wilderness

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.

—Henry David Thoreau

In 1958, a decade before new middle-class residents would invent the name, Harrison Salisbury entered the wilderness of Brownstone Brooklyn. Investigating the city’s rising gang problem, the young New York Times reporter crossed the East River to explore an impoverished waterfront district with one of the highest juvenile delinquency rates in New York. As the subway rumbled through the subterranean darkness, Salisbury apprehensively contrasted the familiar bustle of midtown Manhattan with the untamed dangers of the periphery. The distance was short but the gulf between the two regions enormous. “The subway ride from Times Square to Brooklyn costs fifteen cents. It is a quick trip, just eighteen minutes from Forty-second Street to Smith-Ninth station in Brooklyn. No visa and no passport are required.”

The train soon emerged from the dark tunnel onto a sunlit elevated track. As “the train climbed the steel trestle high over the forest of red and brown buildings that tumbled across the landscape,” Salisbury was presented with a panoramic view of Brownstone Brooklyn. The area appeared an incoherent jumble of old buildings, tenements, and factories, and the reporter tried to make sense of the area by drawing boundaries and referring to place markers. “Close at hand loomed two great black gas tanks. A block away the tubular monstrosity of Gowanus Super-Highway bestrode the city like a giant’s trampoline…. Here and there among the row houses and tenements rose eight- or ten-story plants and warehouses of reinforced concrete, once painted white but long since chipped and fading.” Gazing at the horizon from the elevated Smith/Ninth Street station, Salisbury compared the elegant harmony of the Manhattan skyline to the sorry scene below him. “From the platform I looked back—dim in the foggy distance was the gleam of Wall Street’s spires and the lacy East River bridges. I looked down in the tenement back yards, the rubbish piles and paper tatters brightened by wash lines of blue and pink, purple and

-17-

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