The invention of public-hating, brownstoning urbanism

City Observatory just published my review of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the most thought-provoking books I read in all of 2016:

At this point, brownstoning might have reevaluated what kind of movement it was. As this process pushed the frontier of “authenticity” (and affordability) further south, they might have realized that “modernity” was not something that could be left on the other side of the East River; that their idyllic urban villages were in fact sites of increasing competition for housing and cultural expression.

Instead, in Osman’s telling—and in passages that will ring true to many observers of local politics today—the movement doubled down on a politics of authenticity and local purity. Sometimes this politics had a progressive gloss, as when they opposed the mass displacement of locals for urban renewal clearance. But that reading became harder to sustain when they opposed large middle- and low-income housing developments in an area with rapidly increasing housing prices, or when they lobbied against school desegregation. The common thread here is a commitment to local control as a way of preserving cultural distance, and local authenticity, from mass society—as represented by both freeways and public housing.

Please go read the review! And then go read the book.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts here, or at City Observatory, or on Twitter (@danielkayhertz). There’s a lot in the book that’s worth talking over.

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2 thoughts on “The invention of public-hating, brownstoning urbanism

  1. Thanks for this post. I read the book a while ago, and I think I like it a bit more after reading your review. When I read it, I found the author’s doggedness in debunking brownstoners’ specific claims to authenticity and tradition somewhat puzzling; surely all traditions are constructed, and is there anything more tedious than arguing about what is and isn’t authentic? But of course when those claims are used as the basis for land use decisions they become problematic.

    1. But “all traditions are constructed” isn’t something that a lot of people take for granted! And ironically, some of the most sort of deconstructivist, postmodernist people (in a sort of casual way, not a rigorous academic one) are the ones who–consciously or not–put the most stock in the kind of social “authenticity” of these sorts of neighborhoods, and use that perceived authenticity to inform their politics in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from what Osman describes. But yes, I take your point that the basic philosophical issue isn’t really groundbreaking. It’s the application to this specific scenario that seems most interesting, and genuinely surprising in some ways.

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