The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman is an excellent book about the origin of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. Middle-class townhouse renovators invented the term Brownstone Brooklyn in the early 1970s to describe an amorphous belt of 19th and early 20th century housing and industrial buildings surrounding the borough’s central business district. They were hard pressed to find any historic neighborhood in maps in archives. Clear neighborhood borders in Brooklyn never existed: from the moment developers laid down the 19th century street grid, labels were always elastic and contested.
Brownstone Brooklyn before gentrification was not a premodern gemeinschaft with aging Brahmins and Old World ethnics shielded from mass consumer culture. No authentic communities or traditional neighborhoods sat ready to be discovered –or, alternatively, destroyed- by young urban professionals (yuppies). Brownstone Brooklyn offered a rich sense of place and history. But it was a landscape that was perpetually changing, fluid, polycentric and hybrid.
The small sandstone fronted row houses gave the area a particular sense of place. Rather than high-rises or single-tract homes found in the rest of the borough, Brooklyn’s Victorian brownstone cityscape with its rows of trees, stoops and smaller street block became the template for a new romantic urban ideal. Because no great architectural vision underlay the design of Brownstone Brooklyn, they varied from Federalist, Greek Revival, Neo-Gothic, Italianate and Queen Anne. The result was an inconsistent and colorful mishmash. Also its antiquated manufacturing sector, an incredible diverse collection of small firms, had a colorful international waterfront culture with about 200 piers.
Brownstone Brooklyn’s hardscape alone did not provide a sense of place for the new middle-class. When new arrivals described the area’s authenticity, they referred not just to its array of brownstones and apartments or assortment of lofts and piers, but also to its people. It was a social web of personal relationships, ethnic diversity and religious lines.
There is clearly much more to say but in short, this book is about gentrification, the creation of a sense of community, the cultivation of a sense of place, bottom-top and back-to-the-city movement, a new urban romanticism, and more in a Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood like Brooklyn Heights.
Osman, Suleiman, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn”, New York, Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011, p20, 27, 28, 34