Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Other Part of the Story

(photo credit Tyler Wright)

For those not familiar with recent American historical scholarship on urban history over the past two decades, the book that defined the field was Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crsis: Race and Inequity in Postwar Detroit. Sugrue’s Origins launched a reconsideration of the standard narrative of America’s post-war urban decline. In this influential work, Sugrue documents the spatial and racial tensions within Detroit after 1945 that created fierce battles over housing, employment, and space, which led to a white conservative city leadership that drew support from white neighborhood groups and downtown business interests. However, the city’s leadership was unable to stem the massive deindustrialization that occurred within Detroit over the next twenty years, as manufacturing firms moved to modern facilities in the suburbs smaller cities, laying off numerous workers whom were predominately African American. As city residents adjusted to rising economic insecurity, residents struggled to define spatial boundaries of race, leading to ferocious grassroots activism from white neighborhood associations against African American residents seeking residential and social mobility.

By pushing the start date of “discontent” with growth liberalism back to 1945, Origins allows for a broad understanding of growth liberalism’s tensions, especially between African Americans seeking economic security and whites seeking property security within the confines of the New Deal coalition.

The ideologies of grassroots racial and individual liberalism formulated in Origins remains somewhat incomplete. Were members of these coalitions motivated by economic and property interests alone? Such a limited definition reduces the powerful role that religious conservatism played in developing the rise of individual liberalism in Michigan, especially amongst white ethnics whose sense of place was dominated by spatial religious boundaries. At the same time, racial liberalism was also strongly influenced by a rising religious ideology of liberation and social justice theology that replaced the cautious religious conservatism that marked much of the African American leadership.

If Origins focused on the dismantling of “growth liberalism” (ie New Deal liberalism) through the forces of spatial segregation, deindustrialization, and political fracturing in places like Detroit, Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York looks at another story that began in the midst of the old order shattering. Osman’s work, which came out in March, provides a stunning addition to the literature on post-war urban America and fully deserves the status acclaimed to Sugrue’s work. Both Origins of the Urban Crisis and Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn are books well worth adding to your summer reading list.

As its title suggests, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn looks at the gentrification of the brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were largely built between 1830 and 1910. These neighborhoods are now familiar to a generation of hipsters, as places such as Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Fort Greene seem to provide a level of urban authenticity that may children of a suburban nation seek to reshape their identity. Yet this present day understanding of Brooklyn as a patchwork of distinct neighborhoods is largely a creation of the new residents who arrived in the post-industrialization of Brooklyn, residents who were overwhelmingly whiter, wealthier, better educated, and closely identified with the grassroots urban rebellion best exemplified by Jane Jacobs. In order to create a sense of place, both to establish their communities and identify their neighborhoods as marketable places for other potential likeminded homebuyers, these residents researched their neighborhoods, using history to create an identity in the urban wilderness, often using geographic identifications that predated the industrial metropolis.

A resurgent localism is a hallmark of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. The local neighborhood, having been freed from being part of the working class urban wilderness, was reclaimed as an organic and authentic neighborhood that rested in historical value. The new residents rejected the growth liberalism of Robert Moses that stressed new highways, new buildings, and the Corbusian model for the city in the garden, and instead pushed for “the ballet of the street” that Jane Jacobs spoke elegantly about in The Death and Life of American Cities. This localism was also expressed in political identity, as the new residents rejected the ethnic Democratic “machine” politics and instead joined reform Democratic organizations that eventually gained political prominence.

If Origins of the Urban Crisis focused on the conflict between ethnic white and African Americans, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn finds that a three-way battle occurred between the white-collar whites, the ethnic whites, and African Americans. Much as in Anthony Lucas’ Common Ground, the bitterest conflict was often between the ethnic and white collar whites, the latter who tried to identify and work with African Americans, but at the same time helped bring an economic revitalization of neighborhoods that pushed out these residents with high real estate prices.

Does Osman’s case study of Brooklyn fit in the larger context of urban America? In certain other northeast metropolitan regions like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Chicago, what happened in Brooklyn is similar. On a much smaller scale, this is what happened in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill and Wealthy Street neighborhoods. However, the post-industrial centers such as metropolitan Detroit and many other declining Midwestern regions, it would be hard to a similar situation unfolding. While the Midwest as a whole has struggled economically, I would think that the twin factors of economic decentralization and the resulting job sprawl limits the possibility the feasibility a Brooklyn-like revitalization occurring.

That is not to say that such an urban reinvention could not occur in the Midwest. Given the incredibly low cost of housing, one would think that regional or state-wide policies would be helpfully ingredients to add to the revitalization toolkit, including college tuition support, consolidation of duplicative governmental services, and increasing the costs of greenfield development while encouraging urban redevelopment to reduce job sprawl. Given the important of regional economic and housing strategies today, policymakers would be well advised to consider creating additional tools to ensure that both the local neighborhoods and regional employment base can thrive in a world ironically closer to the brownstone than to the assembly line.

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