The desire for an authentic urban experience began as a reaction to the urban crisis of the 1960s, when American cities were described as hopeless victims of a fatal disease. … In truth, cities were losing their competitive advantage (efflux to the suburbs). … Cities would target investors and visitors by rebuilding the center and making themselves look as attractive as suburbs. Beginning in the 1970’s, developers of downtown shopping centers turned derelict industrial and waterfront land in profitable attractions to compete with suburban malls. In the 1980s cultural districts, ethnic tourists zones, and artists’ lofts presented a clean image of diversity for mass consumption. … But city officials forgot about the cities origins.
As a result Brooklyn Heights was the birthplace of a new romantic urban ideal. Sitting on the edge of the modern Civic Center, the Heights was an imagined “neighborhood” located in the aging Victorian industrial districts surrounding the central business district. As they restored townhouses, the so-called brownstoners recast Brooklyn’s townhouses, waterfront piers, and industrial lofts as sources of anti-bureaucratic authenticity. In doing so, Heights residents formed a template for Brownstone Brooklyn’s future neighborhoods. They also forged an alternative to the dominant modernist ideology of the 1950s and developed a distinctly urban identity for a new middle class.
We can describe 1960s Brooklyn as the place of the via media, the middle course. Many residents of Brooklyn view themselves as a kind of Third Force between the city and the suburbs. Theirs is the vitality of the city without the penalties of big-city life, the grace of suburban living without its invasion of privacy. They dismiss the Great City as ‘phony’ and the suburbs as ‘conformist’. Brooklyn, they insist, has the best of both worlds. Lodged between the modernist landscape of the Civic Center and the slum periphery, the Heights represented a middle cityscape.
|impersonal Manhattan |
This middle landscape sat surrounded by three non-places: impersonal and modern high-rise Manhattan, artificial and conformist suburbia, and bleak and blighted working-class Brooklyn. In critiquing these three spaces – Manhattan, suburbia, and the ghetto – Brooklyn Heights residents invented Brownstone Brooklyn’s first “neighborhood” and developed a cohesive identity as a new urban middle class.