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

By Suleiman Osman | Go to book overview

4 The Two Machines in
the Garden

While new middle-class arrivals avidly described Brooklyn Heights in the mid1950s, few formally outlined the boundaries of the enclave or listed systematically the exact characteristics that distinguished the “real neighborhood” from the inauthentic cityscape that surrounded it. With no legal or political definition, the Heights remained a vague in-between zone. On the northern periphery, the neighborhood transformed abruptly into downtown Brooklyn; to the south, it blended into the peripheral slums. By the mid-1960s, however, Brooklyn Heights had legally recognized boundaries, a new political party, new books commemorating its history, and a bevy of civic groups dedicated to preserving the area from development. Brooklyn Heights became Brownstone Brooklyn’s first invented neighborhood.

In the history of the American city, the neighborhood has often coalesced when mobilizing against a perceived outside threat. The arrival of a new ethnic group or the threat of a development project inspired residents to exchange the class, ethnic, gender, and religious turf lines that divided an area for a collective neighborhood identity whose boundaries needed to be defended. For Brooklyn Heights—as well as the West Side of Manhattan, Greenwich Village, and other postwar middle landscapes throughout the city—the catalyst for neighborhood formation was the intrusion of the machine. The machine, although a metaphor, represented real political, architectural, and social forces. In fact, two machines threatened Brooklyn Heights in the eyes of new residents, each version encroaching from opposite sides. From the slum of South Brooklyn lurked the old machine: the industrial cityscape of polluted factories, corrupt ward politicians, violent youth gangs, and frightening crime syndicates. From Manhattan threatened a modern and more potent new machine—a matrix of centralized public authorities, city planning agencies, and private development groups spearheading a program

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