Monday, March 10, 2014

Brownstone Fever 1969

Last week, we talked about hyper-gentrification, the brand of urban change we're living with today, a very different process from old-fashioned gentrification. In my long essay, I referenced "brownstone fever" and this 1969 feature in New York magazine.

(For an analysis of how New York magazine helped to market a new urban lifestyle, see Miriam Greenberg's Branding New York.)

The 1969 article is a fascinating historic artifact, an in-depth piece about the New Yorkers who were moving out of their "aseptic uptown apartments" and making new homes from fixer-upper brownstones in no-man's land neighborhoods like Chelsea, the East Village, the Upper West Side, "even Brooklyn." Says the article, "Strange but true: People from Scarsdale are now alive and well in Brooklyn; contented in places called Fort Greene and Boerum Hill and Park Slope." From the writing, it's clear that the magazine's readers might never have heard of these far-flung locales. For them, Brooklyn might as well have been Ultima Thule. Said one resident of Clinton Hill, "To people from Manhattan, this whole place is Siberia."

Who were these first-wave gentrifiers? Textbook editors, museum administrators, television writers, mostly (not all) white couples and gay men, middle-class people who braved lesbian whorehouses and gun fights. They showed up with $25,000 in cash--saved from years of working and supplemented by the deaths of relatives--and couldn't get mortgages because the neighborhoods they were moving into had been redlined by the banks. Houses were available for less than $20,000.

Many of New York City's first gentrifiers believed they were doing good--helping their neighbors and preserving the diversity of the city. They worried about the future, about what might happen if the neighborhoods got too fixed up.

Of course, it wasn't so much the fixing up that was the problem. In the late 1970s, the city government got on board, realizing that gentrification could be used as a tool to push the poor out of the central city, and to remake New York exclusively for the rich. The city started partnering with banks and later with corporations, making gentrification the core of contemporary urban strategy, a scheme that came to fruition under Bloomberg.

They got the problem started, but today we could be nostalgic for those old-school gentrifiers, those editors and writers with their quaint notions about diversity and preservation, their utopian dreams for mixed neighborhoods of poor and middle class people--an image that's a far cry from the increasingly homogenized and sterilized luxury city of the 2000s.


liza said...

What on Earth is a Lesbian whorehouse? I seriously doubt such things existed. On the other hand, In a quickly gentrifying Park Slope in the 90's I did live a few doors down from a "hotel" that everyone knew rented rooms by the hour and was assumed to be used for trysts and such. It was a gorgeous building, which I assume has now become a coop or single family residence.

Anonymous said...

Those types of gentrifiers have been, for the most part, completely replaced with the Jonathan Butler of Brownstoner type gentrifiers. The "I am going to make a quiet place for myself in a marginalized area" are now "look at meeee, I'm a pioneer, let's get all the douchbags with money to come with us and open expensive beer halls and eateries" type of people. The internet can make this happen at warp speed now thanks to the efforts of real estate/media hype machine collaborations. Brownstoner, curbed, gothamist, L magazine...

Philip McGregor Rogers said...

"First wave gentrifiers" wow. Shame on them. Little did they know what havoc they would wreak upon cities across the United States.

In general great blog.

But its also the world view according to someone obsesses with gentrification.

A bigger issues is what happens to Manhattan when sea levels rise.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the need to condemn people who want to make NYC a home for their families. NYC neighborhoods are ever evolving and they will continue to do so. These people don't set the policies that make NYC so expensive.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother lived on the 15th floor of a building on Grand Army Plaza, and I clarly remember a bill boadr visitble from her apartment that read "Buy a Brooklyn Brownstone for $1.00" this would have been right around '69. -e-

Anonymous said...

I get alot of crap from alot of my friends about my so-called 'nostalgia' for the 60s especially the 60s in New York City. Maybe this is a tad off-topic here but it seems to me that the people of New York City back in those days ran just a little deeper intellectually than people do now. In fact our culture in general, not just in New York, is significantly anti-intellectual compared to that time period, and the reshaping of the city right now is a reflection of that. Say what you want, mock me for bringing up 'the good old days', but I think it's pretty much an irrefutable fact that a generation or two ago people actually put some *thought* into what their environment was all about rather than bulldozing it to make way for corporate and luxury interests. Take a look around and tell me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Well: its hard to know for certain, but it seems that much of the motivation behind that first wave was a) voluntary and b) driven by a desire to have a single family home & yard - ie, a suburban motivation, or "urban homesteading".

This is a marked difference from the past decade in which, for every rich DB that's moved to Brooklyn/Queens/etc to live their single family home with Dog + Volvo dream, a dozen people have been involuntarily displaced to those locations by spiraling rents.

In that sense, I don't see any substantial difference btwn the present DB generation and the past urban homesteader - both glow in the supreme entitlement of Choice, and opted for the suburban idyll at the cost of the urban present.

And, as a result, the "gentrified" boroughs are now embarking on the project that most of the country went thru 50 years ago: replacing density with parking lots and remaking the landscape for cars.

Go see the future of NYC at the Gowanus Hole Foods: never have so many anti-fracking bumper stickers gathered under twee crafted windmills to celebrate & engage in industrial-scale suburban consumption.

This is the real crime of gentrification: the cars are coming, and with them, a landscape increasingly hostile to pedestrians.

Anonymous said...

This is how the great city we live in was saved: that is, not abandoned for the suburbs or clear-cut for high rises, but rather restored, fetishized, diverse and desirable and, in time--over 40 years now--too wealthy. But only because we got here too late or get paid too little, lets face it. It's next to impossible for us at this distance to imagine the context both for their decision and the article being written. But this blog is about anxiety over the affordable, restored but funky city these people--now in their 70's or older--appreciated and created, vanishing, as much as anything, under the pressures of people who have even more cash, decades on--they did too good a job maybe.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can boil it down this way: amongst all of the arguments for and against the current hyper-gentrification one thing is pretty certain, most people that come here to debate this seem to have done some extensive homework including our host Jeremiah. Now because this has become a topic not just here in New York, but also in international news we can come to the conclusion that this type of gentrification is uniquely and drastically different from anything in that's happened in the past. The whole argument of 'it's happened before' means absolutely nothing. Yes middle class white people have moved into areas that were previous populated by a more ethnic social and working class. Yes, stores, restaurants and night clubs have come and gone, and no, people in general do not want to go back to an era of crime ridden streets and the notion of putting yourself at risk just by walking down the street. The reason why there is such a heated back and forth about this is *because* in addition to all the aforementioned this is changing, for the worse in my opinion, the identity of New York City more than it's been changed in at least the last 100 years. If people want to dismiss that then either they haven't been here long enough, just don't care, or both. That's really all there is to it.

Anonymous said...

Hal Ashby had their number:

Pete said...

LJ Davis's 'A Meaningful Life' is a great, vicious, dark satire about brownstone gentrification in Brooklyn at the end of the 60s. Really worth a read.

Ken Mac said...

New York City as alternate universe in a galaxy far far away

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous March 10, 2014 at 11:57 AM

I think intellectualism express itself on various forms. Maybe people on your little personal cocoon gave you that impression, but I doubt that changed much.

There is plenty of intellectual activity going these days compared to the 1960s, it just doesn't manifest itself in ways that you, personally, would hold dearest.

To make a comparison: for many centuries, religion and spirituality in general were a mainstay of philosophy, oratory and the very most contended debates of that time. This doesn't mean that if people are not fiercely concerned with discussion some religious paradigm today they are, henceforth, anti-intellectual.

So, yes, you are wrong.

Anonymous said...

I prefer the word- generica.

It means to create a corporate
based business district, while destroying all traces of charm,
character, and uniqueness of an
existing neighborhood.

Examples can be seen in most major cities, where local neighborhoods that once attracted locals and visitors, for something
different, have been bulldozed into a bland, lifeless area of chain stores and restaurants, with a glut of overpriced apt. or condo buildings, thereby driving out those who once lived there.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:52:

To follow up on my earlier note about cars taking over NYC, I'd like to suggest your term be modified to become Genericara, since the big-box corporate sprawl that began to consume upper crust brooklyn with costco, lowes and ikea is obviously picking up pace and wholly car dependent.

It is the modern, unspoken form of redlining, seeking to exclude character & uniqueness, and allowing individuals of means to avoid using public transportation; to send their kids to schools outside there districts because their local schools aren't "diverse enough"; and other forms of anti-urbanism.

We should never forget the automobile companies are too big too fail, and will stop at nothing to make sure people can't get around without them - hence, we have the disgusting spectacle of people who should know better lining up at the BMW urban lab. To serve mankind.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, but maybe you should interview some modern gentrifiers to see what they are about. It's easy to demonize people we don't know.

laura r. said...

anon 2:52 this generic bulldozing is happening world wide. the same developers are in this together. sometimes you forget which country you are in. this is especially in "developing" countries. they rarely renovate, they tear down. they replace beautiful historic sturdy structures w/cheap box like houses, malls, & they love parking lots. fast food rules, thats the global MO. small business are pushed out, people lose their homes, even the wealthy. williamsburg looks pretty good all things considered. thought i would mention about NY becoming a car city: recently saw a woody allen film from several yrs ago. he was driving a car around NY. in reality i cant imagine woody doing that. i wonder if that set a trend? in all my years living in the city, theonly person i knew who did this owned an antique shop. he would make deliveries that way. @ night for social events, he took cabs or subways.

Michael Simmons said...

"It seems to me that the people of New York City back in those days ran just a little deeper intellectually than people do now."

I agree, Anon 11:57. Pre-'80s New York had public intellectuals ranging from Norman Mailer to Susan Sontag to William F. Buckley. Intelligence for the sake of intelligence -- as opposed to the kind adept solely at Hedge Funding -- was more plentiful than today.

And as you say, it ain't just New York.

Anonymous said...

Reading back issues of New York on Google, you sometimes are strike by how far out it spied a trend or at least how far out it was able to start hyping it.

However, they did sometimes get it wrong. There's an article in the August 16, 1993 issue ("The Village Under Siege") where Michael Gross writes about Greenwich Village is about two weeks away from being abandoned to urban savagery forever.

Anonymous said...

A few things:

1. Does anyone recall the old Home Journal, or a similarly named publication, that was created and written by Park Slope homesteaders in the 1970's? It contained detailed and illustrated articles for practical DIY restoration projects such as how to return a coal burner to working condition, and how to safely clear a chimney and restore the flue. These gentrifiers did not move into fancy places pre-kitted with Vulcan stoves and Sub-zero refrigerators.

2. Buildings used to be created from local materials, as evidenced by the brownstone quarried from the northeast. Generica buildings can be made anywhere in the world with materials from anywhere in the world, like glass panes from Turkey and steel from China; they all look the same.

3. Larger economic forces are at play here. Part of the reason that real estate prices are soaring beyond the scale of the average NYC income is because very wealthy people from all over the world are investing in real estate here; the return is a surer bet than the stock market or bank interest. And it's not just NYC where this is happening.

Anonymous said...

In reply to Anonymous March 14, 2014 at 3:41 AM:

I believe you are thinking of "The Old House Journal" which gave do-it-yourselfers very detailed and helpful information. Sometimes the details were so painfully specific that one concluded one ought to hire a professional!

It had, if I remember correctly, a feature on the back cover (or inside-the-back cover) showing a different "remuddled" house in each issue - with before & after photos, along with an example of a "good" (meaning "un-remuddled") example of what that type of house *ought* to look like.

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

In 1966, my parents bought a really nice suburban 4 bedroom split level in a nice wooded lot in a nice NJ neighborhood with a NJ transit train station 5 miles away. It was a 45 minute commute to NYC. They got a good deal on the house with a 30 year mortgage. It was approx $32,000.

Buying a place in sketchy parts Brooklyn or the EV for $20,000-$25,000 in 1969 was still a lot of money, esp without the mortgage.toexfhwas

AL Unique said...

This article is reminiscent of the 1970 film "The Landlord", which documents the phenomena in Park Slope's "first wave" of gentrification. Check it out: