Brooklyn's Gentrifiers: They Came, They Stayed, They Changed Everything

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Few social forces have altered New York City more profoundly than the young, white newcomers who began arriving in neglected neighborhoods in the mid-1960s. And no borough has been more affected by these arrivals—call them brownstoners, homesteaders, gentrifiers, or what you will—than Brooklyn. In his new book, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York” (Oxford University Press, 360 pages, $29.95) Suleiman Osman finds not only that the brownstoners were a more complex phenomenon than depicted by their cartoon images as urban heroes or villians, but also that they reflected a history of post-WWII New York more complicated than the standard narrative—a story of multifaceted economic change and the evolution of new political ideologies. This excerpt comes from the book's introduction.

On November 22, 1966, a small group of city construction workers arrived at the corner of State and Nevins Street in Brooklyn with orders to raze an abandoned brownstone. Having recently gained possession of the dilapidated four-story building through non-payment 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 and 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, and 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 To stem the spread of "blight" and urban decay, ambitious city planners hoped to raze and rebuild, replacing outdated Victorian housing with modern high-rises, open space, and green parks.

On this morning, however, workers were confronted with the unexpected: a group of 30 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 townhouse-lined block. Some sat in front of the equipment. Others held signs saying "Don't Destroy Our Neighborhood," and "People Need Homes – Not Parking Lots." Two housewives sat at the entrance holding infants. Another group of mothers lined up five strollers bumper-to-bumper in front of the stoop, forming a “baby-carriage brigade” of protest.

They called themselves “The Brownstoners.”

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They first began to appear in Brooklyn Heights in the late 1940s. Artists, lawyers, bankers and other white-collar workers migrated to the aging Gold Coast district restoring old townhouses and moving into run-down tenements. By the 1960s, white-collar professionals priced out from Manhattan flooded into surrounding areas in search of cheap housing. “More and more people now are packing up, moving out of their aseptic uptown apartments,” explained New York about “brownstone fever” in 1969, “making new homes out of old, forlorn but solid and roomy brownstones, restoring them to pristine glory.”

As brownstoners spilled past the boundaries of Brooklyn Heights, they created new names for revitalizing blocks. “Cobble Hill” was named in 1958. “Boerum Hill” and “Carroll Gardens” soon followed. By the mid 1970s, few people remembered the name South Brooklyn. In brochures, newspapers, and real estate guides, the area had become “Brownstone Brooklyn” – a constellation of revitalized townhouse districts like Clinton Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights.

Brownstoners, however, believed they were involved in something more than a renovation fad. “Brownstoning,” as they called it, was a cultural revolt against “sameness,” conformity and bureaucracy. In a city that was increasingly technocratic, Boerum Hill was a “real neighborhood,” a vestige of an “authentic community” lost in a modernizing society. “On Wyckoff Street, an eccentric block of three-story workmen’s cottages have been rescued by young homemakers and turned into a happy, house-proud community,” described The Boerum Hill Times in 1974. “Indeed it’s quite possible to feel, while walking tree-lined streets, that one has broken through the time barrier and landed smack in the middle of the 19th century. Gentle ghosts of ladies in hoops skirts and gentlemen in frock coats can almost be seen among the leafy shadows.”

Brooklyn’s young white-collar émigrés moved there with a sense of zeal. They started block associations, organized street festivals, and opened food cooperatives to foster a sense of “community,” “place” and “history.” As they planted trees and dug community gardens in abandoned lots, they described themselves as “greening” the city and echoed the themes of a nascent environmental movement. They avidly renovated houses, stripping away paint and tin siding, as well as symbolically ripping off the trappings of mass consumer society to return to an older, more authentic form of life. But as their poorer neighbors warily eyed them hammering and planting, some brownstoners had a gnawing sense of doubt about their project. “I wonder … are my own home improvements and those of my neighbors,” wondered one brownstoner in 1969, “all part of a trend that is turning our own neighborhoods into suburban-like middle-class ghettoes?”

By 1980, Boerum Hill had dramatically changed. Fifteen years after they demonstrated on State Street to protect the fledgling enclave, the members of the BHA found themselves the targets of a new wave of protests. In August, “The Displacement Report,” a pamphlet produced by Accion Latina and the Tenants Action Committee, began to circulate around the neighborhood. “Revitalization,” the group complained, was resulting in the displacement of low-income renters from the area. Most striking though was a new word that the pamphlet had adopted from headlines in the media: “gentrification.” The members of the BHA perhaps read the pamphlet with a sense of defensiveness. Had they not arrived in Boerum Hill with the fresh idealism of the 1960s? How had they become villains? Some perhaps read the pamphlet more wistfully. Decades ago, they had arrived in search of an authentic community lost in Manhattan and suburbia. But had they ironically destroyed the authenticity they once craved?

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Whether referred to as “gentrification,” “brownstoning,” “neighborhood revitalization” or the “back-to-the-city movement,” the influx of white-collar professionals into low-income central city areas has been one of the most striking developments in postwar urban history. Once red-lined by banks and slated for large-scale urban renewal in the 1950s, Brownstone Brooklyn’s enclaves by the 1980s had some of the most expensive real estate in the nation. A Brooklyn brownstone, once considered a symbol of blight in the 1940s, today is de rigeur for New York’s wealthy and educated. Once dismissed by sophisticated Manhattanites, Brownstone Brooklyn since the 1990s has even begun to eclipse its neighbor as an intellectual and cultural center. “Manhattan: The New Brooklyn?” asked a local magazine in 2002, playfully inverting the relationship between province and metropole.

The history of brownstoning is the story of the formation of a new postindustrial middle class. Brownstoners represented a new labor force working in expanded administrative services in the central business district that dramatically reshaped the cultural and political landscape of American cities. A 1976 survey of the Brownstone Revival Committee, for example, found that the eight professions most represented in their membership were law, writing, teaching, editing, architecture, banking, psychology, and psychiatry. Close behind were accounting, computer technology, construction, interior design, art, medicine, engineering, finance, acting, insurance, photography, and library work. Brooklyn’s new middle class was not alone. Another poll that year revealed that 60 percent of Harvard’s Class of 1968 class was engaged in home restoration.

As a new middle class landscape, Brownstone Brooklyn provides a new spatial context to the social and cultural revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. Just as brownstoners refashioned and renovated new enclaves, Brooklyn’s brownstones and tenements helped spark the political awakening of postindustrial workers. A new middle class moved to aging Victorian districts as part of a search for “authenticity” they felt was lacking in the new university campuses, government complexes and corporate skyscrapers they worked and studied in. As brownstoners absorbed ideas from the grassroots movements of the urban poor and struggled with city bureaucracy, they joined calls for community planning boards, reform politics, ‘participatory democracy’, and ‘democracy in the streets’. The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s -- the New Left, the counterculture, the environmental movement, and the student movement -- all emerged on an imagined “urban frontier” along a belt of Victorian housing surrounding the expanding central business districts and university campuses of cities like New York and San Francisco.

The story of gentrification thus is also a political history that can contribute to the work historians have done to explain the collapse of New Deal liberalism. While historians have detailed well the tensions between white ethnics and African-Americans in declining working-class residential districts, few have examined the “silk-stocking rebellion” of white-collar professionals, artists and students in neighborhoods like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. Brownstoners forged a “new politics” and formed a new reform wing of the Democratic party that imagined itself in a battle against the two “Machines” that made up the older New Deal liberal coalition. First, young reformers engaged in acrimonious battle against an “old machine” of aging ward bosses in neighborhood clubhouses. At the same time, brownstoners described an existential battle against a “new machine” – the New Deal “pro-growth” coalition of realtors, planners, business leaders, politicians, civic groups, and non-profit institutional directors who since WWII spearheaded a program of urban redevelopment in cities around the country. They fought against urban renewal and expressways, using their financial and political clout to promote neighborhood conservation. Whereas earlier middle class reformers fought to centralize city government in the hands of a scientific, impartial, city-manager, brownstoners championed the decentralization of municipal power, replacing the ideal of a regional, integrated city-system with a “diverse mosaic” of local participatory democracies.

Rather than the death of liberalism, [there emerged] a new postindustrial version spearheaded by white-collar professionals. By the 1970s, Brownstone Brooklyn formed a powerful wing of a national, interracial “neighborhood movement” that expressed a deep distrust of large institutions, expertise, universal social programs, and private-public consensus. Suspicious of the metanarratives of highways and urban renewal “master plans,” brownstoners and their allies championed voluntary service, homeownership, privatism, ethnic heritage, history, self-determination, and “do-it-yourself” bootstrap neighborhood rehabilitation. Rather than an example of right-wing politics, the “new localism” of the 1970s contained both progressive and conservative strains as white-collar reformers formed complex coalitions with angry white ethnics, black power activists, small business owners and other members of a new “anti-growth” coalition.

By the late 1970s, this new localist version of liberalism unintentionally dovetailed with a national conservative movement that was similarly hostile to government regulation and regional planning. The result was a new type of anti-statist politics with origins in both on the right and left. To say that the origins of neo-liberalism were in Park Slope and Haight-Ashbury rather than Orange County and the suburban South might be overstating the case. But as many recent works by historians have shown, conservative thought emerged in unexpected places.

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More than a political and social history of a “postindustrial” middle class, the history of gentrification in Brooklyn also charts the evolution of a new type of “postmodern” urbanism. Rather than a scheme by developers and real estate agents (who were uniformly hostile to brownstoning in the early stages), “Cobble Hill,” “Carroll Gardens” and other gentrified enclaves were the spatial expression of a broader cultural revolt against urban modernism. Gentrification in its early years was a form of white-collar urban romanticism with links to the counterculture and New Left. Describing themselves as “urban Thoreaus,” Brooklyn’s new middle class recast brownstones and industrial lofts as an organic and authentic “middle cityscape” lodged between over-modernized skyscrapers, suburban tract homes and the “wild” ghetto.

Brownstone Brooklyn represented a radical postindustrial reimagining of a declining industrial landscape. Where modernist city planners and union leaders hoped to rebuild the borough’s decaying infrastructure of industrial lofts and townhouses, Brooklyn’s new white-collar residents commemorated their “historic” value. While a “growth coalition” of city planners and businessmen looked hopefully to new highways, airports and automobiles to create a kinetic “open city,” brownstoners celebrated Brooklyn’s aging Victorian street grid as site for walking, face-to-face contact, and intimacy. Modernists hoped with science and top-down planning to “integrate” spatially and racially a disparate megalopolis. Brooklyn’s new middle-class instead championed unplanned “mixed-uses” and “diversity.” Rather than renewal, neighborhood groups talked of preservation: preserving old buildings, preserving ethnic identity, and preserving authentic communities.

Finally, the trajectory of gentrification in many ways ran counter to broader pattern of white flight described by historians. White brownstoners moved into older districts alongside African Americans and Latinos. In some cases, white-collar professionals offset their anxiety about racial mixing with their desire for attractive, affordable central city housing. In other cases, white liberal activists and countercultural artists actively sought to live in neighborhoods with African-Americans and Latinos. Brownstoners, African-Americans, Latinos and white ethnics also formed political alliances to battle urban renewal and “redlining” (the practice of banks, insurance companies and other lenders refusing to provide mortgages or other financing for homes within a poor, and often largely non-white, area).

But Brownstoning was from the onset a movement rife with racial and class conflict. While some new arrivals sought to progressively engage locals in political and community organizations, the relationship with existing residents was tense from the onset. Some brownstoners described themselves as urban “pioneers” building settlements in the wilderness and drew comparisons between poorer residents and hostile “natives.” Others sought to rid neighborhoods of “inauthentic” rooming-houses and blocked modern public housing and affordable supermarkets. Brownstones clashed with politically conservative native white ethnics and shared an uneasy coexistence with poorer migrant Blacks and Puerto Ricans. Revitalization led to high rent prices and at times the eviction of poorer residents.

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Was the migration of white-collar professionals to Brooklyn something to be condemned or celebrated? Brownstoning was a bundle of contradictions. Rather than pernicious developers or city bureaucrats, “gentrifiers” drew from the language of Jane Jacobs, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Saul Alinsky, the student revolts of 1968, the civil rights and environmental movements, and the counterculture. Rather than rapacious real estate speculation, the early history of gentrification is more a story of dashed idealism, contradictory goals, unintended consequences, and at times, outright hypocrisy. But if gentrification is a tale of mixed intentions, sincere racial idealism mixed with disdain towards the non-white poor, and class populism mixed with class snobbery that is what makes it so rich a way to describe the cultural and social complexities of the nation’s postwar new middle class.