Initiatives Place, Displacement, & The Politics of Housing

"Brownstone Brooklyn: Pioneers in the Gentrification Movement" at Brooklyn Historical Society

Row of brownstone apartments in Brooklyn

To recent generations, the term gentrification is ubiquitous, often associated with the rampant displacement affecting low-income people. So, it may be surprising to most that the term was coined more than fifty years ago by the British sociologist Ruth Glass and entered the popular lexicon in the United States in the early 1980s.[1] Before “gentrification” was the word of choice to describe the return of affluence and capital to the long-decaying city, the media labeled this phenomenon “urban revitalization” and, in a New York context, “brownstoning.” Both were generally looked upon favorably by media outlets at a time when New York was emerging from both the fiscal and urban crises.  How brownstoning altered patterns of settlement in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the racial and ethnic landscapes of the city, however, are still under-examined.

On July 7, 2016, Brooklyn Historical Society brought together a group of panelists to discuss this history, which scholar Suleiman Osman formally explored in his 2011 book, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity. The panelists included Osman; Sandy Hornick, an urban planner and Principal of Hornick Consulting, Inc.; and Walis Johnson, Clinton Hill resident, filmmaker, and educator. Jarrett Murphy, executive editor and publisher at City Limits[2] moderated the panel.

The conversation began with a discussion of the phrase “brownstone Brooklyn,” which then led to a consideration of who might qualify as a brownstoner. For Osman, “brownstone Brooklyn” constitutes an area including Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights, and other neighborhoods in a part of the borough that was throughout the twentieth century more traditionally called South Brooklyn. According to Hornick, “brownstone Brooklyn” describes the neighborhoods to which the middle class chose to move – neither the neighborhoods that contained the most brownstones, nor the neighborhoods containing brownstones that continued to experience disinvestment during this period of revitalization. Osman agreed, adding that small, primarily middle-class, business owners started businesses in these areas, supported by a consumer base comprising young professionals and “back to the city” suburbanites, who began to rehabilitate the houses in the area. Johnson, who moved with her family to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn from Queens in 1968, echoed these definitions, though her emphasis was on those long-time residents who were not necessarily middle-class.  A “complex set of things was going on” in her neighborhood, she said, and there was a sort of “activism” at play. Osman pointed to what may have motivated this activism – “people started thinking ‘maybe this [influx of the middle-class into South Brooklyn, and “urban revitalization”] is a form of displacement’” instead of just reinvestment.

While people of color were often victims of this displacement, Johnson, who is African American, noted that her father was also “allured” by the brownstones. She claimed “I think it’s really important to say that black people [such as her father] were involved in this [brownstoning]” and that they “had a voice.” Here, Johnson presented a point of view which adds nuance to the history of brownstoning in Brooklyn. Though many low-income people of color were upset by and agitated against their displacement and that of others in their community, some people of color living in Brooklyn were also attracted and perhaps also unopposed to the new developments.  Still, as Osman contends and the other panelists agreed, many long-time residents, no matter their racial background, judged the invention of Brownstone Brooklyn to be an “unwanted change.” Others, such as one member of the audience, actively advocated for change, but took issue with the negative connotations of “the word ‘gentrification,’” noting “I’ve hated [the term]” and “I don’t like being referred to as the pioneer anymore.”

Meanwhile, as Osman explained, the role of government in this early process was somewhat ambivalent.  Before and at the time of these renovations, city planners and banks did not support private development or investment in what were deemed blighted or deteriorating parts of Brooklyn. In fact, a number of banks were redlining low-income areas in the New York City area, including the majority of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. (Redlining is the often racialized banking, insurance, and loan practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate the areas where such financial institutions will not invest.) This disinvestment resulted in the denial of services to people of color based on the presumed investment viability of the neighborhoods in which they lived.[3] Yet, at the same time, the city’s planning department was interested in large-scale public redevelopment in Brooklyn, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.  Thus the “urban revitalization” that was occurring in the borough’s brownstone neighborhoods was often viewed by planners as something of a “nuisance.”  As critics of mid-century urban renewal and the destruction it wrought on so many neighborhoods, brownstoners resisted government development and public investment.  They believed that the smaller, private interventions they made through home renovations and the establishment of community-based businesses was not only a more effective form of urban revitalization, but also a more just one.  According to Johnson, “the whole ethos of what it meant to live in the city shifted” as Brownstoners poured into the area. “Maybe [it] became more of a status symbol,” she postulated.

Clearly, there is a whole spectrum of perspectives on the issue of gentrification, or what some would call “urban revitalization.” However, it is continually important to hear and respect the voices of the people who have been or whose families have been displaced by the increased land value, higher housing costs, and cultural shifts that accompany gentrification.  Additionally, it is vital to recognize all of the often invisible but deplorable components to the gentrification process, including landlord harassment or neglect, issues that did not come up very often in this discussion.  This panel provided a nuanced perspective on gentrification in Brooklyn, with consideration for the history of the borough and of the evolving terminology used to refer to displacement and prejudice in its various forms. I only hope that future discussions of property ownership and place incorporate similar historical background to help future generations to reflect on gravity of some of the liberties we take at the expense of others.

[1] The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity by Suleiman Osman and
[3] In the past decade, this kind of discrimination has continued, though perhaps more subtly.  These days, Black and Latinx[3] homeowners are more likely to receive subprime loans from banks than white people, and consequently suffer from an increased rate of foreclosures when mortgage rates skyrocket and, as a consequence, a greater loss of wealth. Charles Falck, “Equitable Access: Examining Information Asymmetry in Reverse Redlining Claims Through Critical Race Theory,” 103. (Texas Journal on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Rights, 18(1), January 2012)