Beginning his Ph.D. studies in urban history at Harvard over a decade ago, Park Slope-reared Suleiman Osman recognized something: the plethora of books describing the post-World War II deindustrialization and decline of the American city didn’t explain what had happened in Brownstone Brooklyn.
While the 1970s, he said in an interview, might have been seen as “the climax of the death of the American city,” in the orbit of Downtown Brooklyn, it was instead a period of transition, forming the roots of some of today’s best-known neighborhoods.
Middle-class newcomers who considered themselves “pioneers” renovated townhouses, defying the banks and the real estate industry, and created new neighborhood monikers (such as Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill) out of what was once the undifferentiated area of “South Brooklyn,” an area largely considered blighted. But the process was hardly simple: some issues that emerge today in stark relief — affordable housing, class/race conflict, “Manhattanization,” the trade-off between housing and industry, and “authenticity” — have roots in that period.
Osman tells that complex story in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, just published by Oxford University Press.
The book covers the years 1950-1980, shortly before Osman moved with his family to Park Slope at age eight. His choice of time period is not an effort to avoid personal history, he said, but rather recognition that gentrification accelerated in the 1980s, and has already been studied.
Osman, now an assistant professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said he tried to avoid “two easy stories”: that brownstoners were heroes who saved Brooklyn, or that they were invading yuppies.
Rather, he aimed to describe a subtler dynamic.
"The early history of gentrification is less a story of rapacious real estate speculation and more a tale of dashed idealism, contradictory goals, unintended consequences, and at times outright hypocrisy,” writes Osman in the introduction. “But if gentrification is a saga of mixed intentions, sincere racial idealism mixed with disdain toward the non-white poor, and class populism blended with class snobbery, that is what makes it so rich a way to describe the cultural and social complexities of the nation's new postwar middle class."
Key to the development of Brownstone Brooklyn was Brooklyn Heights, with a patrician core, discovered and expanded by those who sought an “authentic” urban experience no longer available in overdeveloped Manhattan, nor possible in growing suburbia. Then came an expansion to other areas, with block associations, street festivals, and house tours serving to define and organize the neighborhoods.
While the book draws on interviews with some pivotal figures such as Salvatore “Buddy” Scotto, who helped establish the Carroll Gardens Association to distinguish the neighborhood from impoverished Red Hook, and Joe Ferris, who fought blockbusting in Park Slope in the early 1960s (and later served in the Assembly), Osman mainly relied on documentary research.
He plumbed the Municipal Archives, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection, and the archives of the Park Slope Civic Council. He scoured back issues of newspapers like the Brooklyn Heights Press and the Brooklyn Phoenix.
And he read the literature of gentrification, from Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, to later, more ambivalent accounts, like L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life. While Osman credits Jacobs for her crucial critique of contemporary urban renewal, he notes that Jacobs’ acolytes in Brooklyn embraced the general theme of the book but not her prescription for mixed-use districts that included manufacturing.
And their presence — and resistance to relatively benign forms of government planning — inevitably encroached on poorer residents.
“Gentrification was the central tension in her work, but in 1961 Jacobs did not yet have the vocabulary to make sense of it," Osman writes. He notes that “brownstoning” implied a search for a sense of place, while “gentrification” suggested displacement.
“I think one of the modern inheritors of Jane Jacobs in a really interesting way is Spike Lee,” Osman added in an interview, suggesting that Lee’s portrayal of a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant in his classic Do the Right Thing echoes Hudson Street, home of the “street ballet” Jacobs described so lyrically.
Lee’s block has its shopkeepers, stoop-sitters, and friendly homeless guy, observed Osman, “and then he interrupts it by showing that, within the street ballet are all sorts of tensions that eventually erupt.”
Suleiman Osman will appear at several local events over the next few months, including at the on April 6 and the Brooklyn Historical Society on April 30.