Berman’s Children

Michael Galinski and Suki Hawley (directors). Battle for Brooklyn. 2011.

Suleiman Osman. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. Oxford. 2011.

John P. Stevens, et al. Kelo v. New London. Supreme Court of the United States. 2005.

Earl Warren, et al. Berman v. Parker. Supreme Court of the United States. 1954.

Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights Historic District comprises over 850 buildings, mostly Neo-Grec, Romanesque, and Renaissance Revival rowhouses from the mid- to late 19th century. The District occupies the bulk of a parallelogram formed by Eastern Parkway and Atlantic, Flatbush, and Washington Avenues. Of the 102 historic districts in New York City’s five boroughs, only four are larger than the one in Prospects Heights.

At the northern edge of the District sits the construction site of Atlantic Yards. Infamously, the twenty-two acres of land were in part purchased by Forest City Ratner (FCR) and in part handed over by the state of New York through the exercise of eminent domain. Announced in 2003, Atlantic Yards was initially to contain a Frank Gehry–designed complex of residential towers and an arena for the Brooklyn (née New Jersey) Nets. Since then, largely economic troubles have led to a cost-conscious redesign — Gehry’s out, prefab’s in — and a de facto extension of the completion schedule from ten to twenty-five years.

Efforts to designate the Prospect Heights Historic District began in 2006 and came to fruition in the summer of 2009. The Yards, in some sense, created the District.

In The Invention of Brownstone BrooklynSuleiman Osman describes two mirrored ideologies that took hold in postwar New York as the city found its postindustrial identity: urban modernism and antimodern, romantic urbanism.

Urban modernism was the ideology of City Hall. With midtown Manhattan’s rising business district serving as a model, city government (aided by federal funding and private institutional partners) sought to transform the largely obsolescent, decaying, yet stubbornly rooted cityscape into one that was fluid, dynamic, and detached from nature’s vagaries. This new built environment, effected under the banner of “urban renewal,” would unify the city and connect it to the larger infrastructural and economic systems that were fast developing outside its borders. This meant Robert Moses’s highways, parkways, and thruways, but also better public transit, better communications technology, larger buildings, super-neighborhoods, and straighter streets.

Creating an integrated system required scientific expertise and the ability to exert political power over the city as a whole. As a result, urban modernism naturally assumed the political form of a centralized bureaucracy. In the immediate postwar years, the city delegated its planning powers, including the power of eminent domain, to newly formed agencies run by small boards of “experts.” These entities, often explicitly formed as corporations, worked with the private sector and without electoral accountability to build the modern city. The system would be planned efficiently and rationally, rather than through the democratic process, with its often irrational results.

The romantic urbanism of the city’s young, largely white professional class developed as a direct counterpoint to this dominant modernism. They were brought to the city by the same economic transformations that supposedly necessitated integration; they sometimes worked for the same institutions that helped execute it. Yet many of them sought a sense of place, a human scale, and community in their increasingly placeless, giant, and alienating cityscape. Moving to (or, in their parlance, “discovering” and “settling”) neighborhoods like what are now Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights, the group (they would come to be known as “brownstoners”) embraced a selective narrative of the neighborhoods that conformed to their emerging urban-pastoral ideal.

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