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

By Suleiman Osman | Go to book overview
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5 The Highway in the Garden and
the Literature of Gentrification

After the West End was torn down… the area’s slightly
European atmosphere and the increasing sentimentality with
which ethnic areas began to be viewed starting in the 1960s
helped transform the remembered West End… the area was
recalled as a tight-knit, cohesive, even “primordial” community—
a place said to have avoided the anomie, anonymity and alien-
ation often thought by intellectuals and writers to infect
cities—and since the 1950s suburbia too. I may not have helped
when I called the book I wrote about the area Urban Villagers.

—Herbert Gans1

In 1961, assistant professor of art and Brooklyn Heights resident Martin James released “Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn Heights: A Study of the Misuse of Public Power and Funds in Urban Renewal.” To attack the city’s high-rise development plan, the James report offered a scathing indictment of urban renewal and modernist planning. Where city planners relied on abstract statistics and scientific diagrams to label the area a “slum,” James instead offered a romantic and colorful description of Brooklyn Heights that evoked its vibrant diversity and rich sense of place. Rather than simply a collection of dilapidated buildings, the Heights was a rare vestige of an authentic neighborhood in a rapidly modernizing city. “The unique character is more than a sum of its parts,” explained James. “It grows out of the complexes of handsome facades, the clean lines of short and narrow streets bordered with trees. It grows out of the suggestion of age and history, and the views of harbor and skyline. It grows out of the rim of small shops, galleries, artisan quarters and studios, out of glimpses of gardens and well-tended back yards full of trees and flowers.” Not only was the landscape unique, but the community was diverse as well, as a new middle class mixed with the elderly poor. “The social makeup of the Heights is an unusual, organic unity of diverse elements: old Brooklyn families, young professional people, artists, musicians and writers, small shop owners and local employees. There are also a number of single people, most of them elderly, living on benefits and pensions. People of many different

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