Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brownstone Brooklyn, the book

By Meredith Deliso

It’s fun to ridicule Park Slope, but gentrification didn’t begin with the Bugaboo.

For a full understanding of Brooklyn’s transformation from industrial borough to land of hip bars, yoga studios and wildly expensive brownstones, you need to go all the way back to the post-World War II landscape, when neighborhood names, including the all-encompassing “Brownstone Brooklyn,” were just entering the vernacular and community groups just formed.

“It’s a history of post-war New York that’s been largely untold,” said Suleiman Osman, a George Washington University professor, pictured at right in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn - his native Park Slope.

Naturally, that’s where Osman begins in his engaging, comprehensive new book, “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn,” which takes a historical look at Brooklyn from the post-World War II years until the late 1970s.

It’s a period ripe with complex forces at work — the arrival of a new middle class (so-called “brownstoners”) who, filled with idealist, romantic views of authentic urban living, reclaimed blighted neighborhoods, in turn raising rents and displacing long-time tenants. They’re the hallmarks, and, in this case, origins, of gentrification, a force that’s been at work here long before there was a well-known word for it.

“There was never a time when you could point to Brooklyn and say, ‘This is Brooklyn,’ ” said Osman. “It’s always been dynamic and shifting over time.”

One of the lasting contributions of that time, though, was neighborhood names, including Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and, of course, the overarching Brownstone Brooklyn, coined in the early 1970s and proliferated by neighborhood groups, real estate agents and activists alike.

As he traces the invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Osman’s story ends where it might start to become more familiar to readers — the emergence of an anti-gentrification movement in the 1980s — but not before asking a few questions.

“Was this movement a success?” said Osman, who may answer that question at Greenlight Bookstore on March 14. “And what’s the end of the story?”

Sounds like a sequel in the making.

Suleiman Osman discusses “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn” at Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. between S. Elliott Place and S. Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 246-0200], March 14 at 7:30 pm. Free. For info, visit

Photo by Tom Callan


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