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

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

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

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


The gentrification of Brooklyn has been one of the most striking developments in recent urban history. Considered one of the city's most notorious industrial slums in the 1940s and 1950s, Brownstone Brooklyn by the 1980s had become a post-industrial landscape of hip bars, yoga studios, and beautifully renovated, wildly expensive townhouses.

In The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman offers a groundbreaking history of this unexpected transformation. Challenging the conventional wisdom that New York City's renaissance started in the 1990s, Osman locates the origins of gentrification in Brooklyn in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Gentrification began as a grassroots movement led by young and idealistic white college graduates searching for "authenticity" and life outside the burgeoning suburbs. Where postwar city leaders championed slum clearance and modern architecture, "brownstoners" (as they called themselves) fought for a new romantic urban ideal that celebrated historic buildings, industrial lofts and traditional ethnic neighborhoods as a refuge from an increasingly technocratic society. Osman examines the emergence of a "slow-growth" progressive coalition as brownstoners joined with poorer residents to battle city planners and local machine politicians. But as brownstoners migrated into poorer areas, race and class tensions emerged, and by the 1980s, as newspapers parodied yuppies and anti-gentrification activists marched through increasingly expensive neighborhoods, brownstoners debated whether their search for authenticity had been a success or failure.

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyndeftly mixes architectural, cultural and political history in this eye-opening perspective on the post-industrial city.


On November 22, 1966, a small group of city construction workers arrived at the corner of State and Nevins streets in Brooklyn with orders to raze an abandoned brownstone. Having recently gained possession of the dilapidated four-story building through nonpayment of taxes, the city had become concerned that the empty townhouse was a gathering place for homeless men and drug users and decided to demolish it. For local residents, the sight of helmeted workers and bulldozers was a common one. Although only a few blocks away from the borough’s downtown, North Gowanus, as some locals called it, was a struggling inner-city district hit hard by the same trends affecting most American cities in the 1960s. A once thriving industrial economy centered around the Gowanus Canal and waterfront was fading as firms left for the suburbs or the South. Working-class white residents anxious about the changing racial composition of the area and declining work opportunities fled for Staten Island, New Jersey, or Long Island. African American and Puerto Rican migrants arrived on the heels of departing white ethnics in search for work, but soon found themselves trapped in decaying tenements surrounded by abandoned townhouses. To stem the spread of blight and urban decay, ambitious city planners hoped to raze and rebuild, replacing outdated Victorian housing with modern high-rises, open space, and green parks. A few blocks away, the city had recently blasted several square blocks of brownstones and would soon complete the enormous Wyckoff Gardens lowincome housing project.

On this morning, however, workers were confronted with the unexpected: a group of thirty members of the Boerum Hill Association stood in front of the building protesting with placards, bullhorns, and pamphlets. An organization of young homeowners who recently moved to the area, the BHA demanded that the city halt demolition of the building. An abandoned lot would scar the . . .

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