In the middle of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn—a book published in 2011, but no less relevant today—Suleiman Osman turns the tables on the people who have long been the heroes of urbanist lore.
Speaking of the insurgent middle-class professionals who, starting in the 1950s and 60s, began to organize to stop to the massive urban renewal projects of Robert Moses and others, Osman says: “Perhaps the anti-Moses movement deserves an inverted version of the charge thrown at modern planners. If Brooklyn’s new white-collar professionals loved people, they hated the public.”
What does it mean to hate the public? And how could the people who stood up to clearance for highways be villains?
Brownstone Brooklyn tells the story of the first generation of gentrifiers in the rowhouse neighborhoods across the East River from Lower Manhattan. For Osman, it is an essentially countercultural movement. The “brownstoners” struck out for Brooklyn because the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village were getting too expensive, sure. But they also rejected those places—and the people who lived there—as part of a corrupt modern society, caught up in a deracinated, atomized culture increasingly dominated by the impersonal global market. Brooklyn was a place where you could live an authentic life in a “real neighborhood”: one deeply connected to local history (even if, as Osman writes, much of that history had to be rediscovered or simply made up), and where commerce meant a corner bodega owned by a family on the next street instead of a national chain.
But though some brownstoners may have claimed a kind of grassroots populism, from the very beginning they had a tense relationship with the working class Italians and Puerto Ricans they encountered in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. On the one hand, their presence created the kind of “diversity” and “authentic” characters that made Brooklyn different from Manhattan to begin with.
On the other, brownstoners’ project of neighborhood renewal often meant restoring townhomes that had been broken up into boarding houses to their original single-family conditions, evicting several low-income households in the process. Many of the people who thought of themselves as refugees from the harsh real estate market of Manhattan may have been anguished to realize they were landlords and villains in Brooklyn. But the fact that their movement was commonly referred to as “unslumming” shows that a kind of economic restructuring was integral, not incidental, to the project.
Moreover, the move from Greenwich Village to Boerum Hill was an escape from larger market forces only in a very incomplete way. After all, most of the new arrivals still commuted back to white collar jobs in Manhattan; a 1971 survey of brownstone owners found they were 99 percent white, 60 percent held graduate degrees, and 98.7 percent had earnings in the top fifth of New York City households. As they brought their purchasing power to Brooklyn, they more deeply implicated their neighbors in the very markets they had supposedly been trying to flee. And in some cases—as in their long campaign to convince skittish banks to make loans to support the purchase and rehabbing of “obsolete” 19th century townhomes—they explicitly lobbied to bring to bear the massive power of Manhattan capital to transform their new neighborhoods.
At this point, brownstoning might have reevaluated what kind of movement it was. As this process pushed the frontier of “authenticity” (and affordability) further south, they might have realized that “modernity” was not something that could be left on the other side of the East River; that their idyllic urban villages were in fact sites of increasing competition for housing and cultural expression.
Instead, in Osman’s telling—and in passages that will ring true to many observers of local politics today—the movement doubled down on a politics of authenticity and local purity. Sometimes this politics had a progressive gloss, as when they opposed the mass displacement of locals for urban renewal clearance. But that reading became harder to sustain when they opposed large middle- and low-income housing developments in an area with rapidly increasing housing prices, or when they lobbied against school desegregation. The common thread here is a commitment to local control as a way of preserving cultural distance, and local authenticity, from mass society—as represented by both freeways and public housing.
And this is where, finally, we get to what it means to love people but hate the public. Brownstoning was a movement that romanticized the participants in Jane Jacobs’ “street ballet,” but which was committed to holding the city as a whole at arm’s length. Ironically—and unfortunately—this way of relating to urban life is the progenitor of much of contemporary gentrification and anti-gentrification thinking. When Osman quotes the very same people speaking of their roles both as “frontiersmen” transforming “wild,” “undiscovered” Brooklyn and as defenders of these wilds from the rapacious, homogenizing forces of capitalism and government-led development, he could just as easily be capturing Crown Heights in 2016 as Brooklyn Heights in 1959.
That is, the people who are most invested in building their ideal environment—which almost always means reshaping an existing community to new specifications—are also the most sensitive to new forces whose influence threatens their own. That’s not just an observation about gentrification: it also applies to the family that bulldozes a farm to build a dream home on the edge of the city, only to complain bitterly when someone else ruins their pastoral view when they bulldoze the next farm over. But it certainly applies to the people who invented Brownstone Brooklyn, “reclaiming” a very particular (and often ahistorical) historical identity, and then just a few years later fought furiously to retain their particular interpretation of the neighborhood against the next wave of newcomers. Maybe debates about gentrification feel so circular and unproductive because what presents as two opposing sides is in fact a snake’s head and its tail.
There are two mistakes holding each other up here. The first is defining “urbanism” primarily as a countercultural project, which inevitably means rejecting any number of “incompatible” cultures and the people who identify with them. In some cases, this looks like brownstoners telling their working class neighbors that the longstanding practice of modifying their homes had to end in deference to professional class ideas about historic preservation. At other times, it looks like a 1970s anti-Burger King campaign that alternated left critiques of mass consumer culture with warnings about people who eat fast food being “purse-snatchers, muggers, and criminals.”
The second, related mistake is retreating to neighborhood-level politics, rather than broader political movements to reshape the city. Osman argues convincingly that the brownstone movement, in both its pro- and anti-gentrification forms, contributed to the breakup of the New Deal coalition, as much of the “new middle class” decided that unions and working class political machines were part of the establishment against which they were rebelling.
Of course, many of their critiques—and those of the unlikely sometimes-allies they found in radical black and Puerto Rican political organizations—were correct and necessary. Modernist planning really was profoundly indifferent to the “collateral damage” of its great public works, and the New Deal coalition really was profoundly influenced by racism.
But the new localist order they helped to create didn’t shed these problems. By closing down boarding houses and preventing the construction of new housing, both market and subsidized, the brownstoners’ “renewal” ultimately created neighborhoods nearly as homogenous as if they had been swept clean by Robert Moses’ bulldozers. (In fact, those modernist campuses are now some of the more demographically diverse parts of New York’s wealthy areas. The Cadman Plaza development, which was furiously fought by new Brooklyn Heights residents in the 1960s, sits in a Census tract that is 64 percent white; across the street, a Census tract with pristinely preserved brownstones is 82 percent white.) And in reinforcing the local power of those increasingly homogenous communities, they created durable coalitions against change, whether in the form of new housing or school integration.
The question Brownstone Brooklyn raises is whether this movement might have taken a different path. Could they have joined an urbanist movement whose first principles were not about a personal search for authenticity, but rather a commitment to a common well-being—the kind of housing, schools, public spaces, and access to regional amenities that anyone might need to build their own version of the good life? Could they have helped to transform Moses-era New Dealism to be democratically accountable without giving up on powerful citywide policy tools—ones capable of reshaping, rather than reinforcing, massive inter-neighborhood inequality?
Most importantly: Can it be done today?