Chapter 4.7: Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion



List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures


1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
    Residential Succession: How "Losers" Win
    Negro Pioneers and White Flight
    Relative Selectability among Minority Invaders
    Symbolic History and Self
    Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations

2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
    The Social Character of the Manor

3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
    Indians, Geology and Transportation
    Protecting the Community: Covenant and Zoning
    Increasing Community Parameters

4. Invasion and Succession

    Irish and Italian Catholics
    Veterans: Undesirable Heroes
    Blacks and the Special Problems of Nonwhite Invaders
    Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion
    The Invasion Mentality

5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
    Involuntary Change: Aging and Death
    Attidues of Heirs
    Apartment Houses: The Big Change
    The Life of a Tenant and a Building
    Understanding Intricate Urban Problems

6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
    Achievement and Residentia Movement
    The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents
    The Community Paradigm
    Implications and Applications


In 1969 there began a new invasion into the Lefferts Manor and some nearby streets. These invaders are part of New York City's Brownstone Revival movement which has been slowly growing. The movement consists mainly of white upper-middle-class urbanites who are seeking to save for themselves the remaining historically and architecturally valuable residential properties in the city. This movement has been relatively successful in the renaissance of such neighborhoods as the upper west side of Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope in Brooklyn. Similar brownstone invasions have occurred in New Orleans, Mobile, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston and other cities with substantial inventories of culturally valuable housing "captured" within the central city. The movement is often referred to more generally and nationally as the "Back to City" movement. Social critics call it "gentrification" or "displacement."

The complexity of motives for brownstoning is of interest to us only in so far as they relate to the aspirations of relatively well-to-do people to retake from the not-so-well-to-do, the inner city neighborhoods that their parents may have abandoned a generation ago. There are many historical periods that are favored by these new city neighborhood aficionados. Because most of New York's Colonial and Federal housing has disappeared, Victorian Period homes, such as those in the Manor, are in great demand. Sample renderings of these desirables were given in Illustration 3.

It appears that the brownstoner has combined the physical appearance and symbolic meanings of venerated historical epochs with the ideal version of the American community. The movement expresses the desire of people to recreate and preserve traditional middle-class residential values in the face of the general assault against community life in the nation's cities. A more cynical, yet sympathetic, evaluation of the people who participate in this movement has been provided by impresario Sol Yurick who lived in the Park Slope neighborhood as it experienced this unusual neighborhood transition.

What kind of people are these, the invading army? Lawyers and professors and doctors and architects and psychologists and social workers and writers and newspapermen and city officials and Mayor Lindsay's daughter and poverty fund richies who've made the transition from idealism to hustler and investment analysts and artists and teachers. Is this an army? Is that fair? They're only people, you see, like you and me, with feelings and individual anxieties, desiring humanity, expression and love. They're of liberal temperament and they've backed all the right causes from Kennedy to anti-pollution to integration.5

With the respect for history and culture brownstoners seem to have, it is not difficult to understand why some Manorites have taken the invaders as potential saviors for the fading fashionable character of the community. The values of the brownstoners and the Manorites are similar, but as could be expected, they are not embraced by all those who live in the Lefferts Manor.

One source of hostility to these new invaders are more racially militant blacks, and sympathetic whites, who see the movement as a refined version of "negro removal." An interesting analysis and description of the "negro removal" process is provided here by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward:

Other federal programs, such as urban renewal, were turned against blacks; renewal projects were undertaken in most big cities to deal with the black invasion through "slum clearance," by reclaiming land taken by the expanding ghettoes and restoring it to "higher economic" use (i.e., to uses that would keep whites, and businesses in the central city)....

...seventy percent of the families thus uprooted were black.... But with local blacks becoming more disorderly and more demanding in the early 1960s, local government began to make some concessions. Urban renewal provides one example. By the 1960s, black protests were mounting against "Negro Removal" in the guise of "slum clearance." (1971:241-42)

According to a report of the National Urban Coalition in 1978, if you are elderly poor, or working class and live in an area undergoing rehabilitation, or in a suddenly fashionable neighborhood, you are a prime candidate for displacement by well-to-do suburbanites longing for the city life they left behind. The Coalition's study of forty-four cities showed that over half of the rehabilitated neighborhoods had higher minority populations before rehabilitation began.6

Even those in the Manor who protest the immigration of whites do so as respectfully as possible. They would not raise their voices in order to stem the movement of whites into the Manor. Typically, brownstoners are given the Manor "cold shoulder." One more enterprising black resident put a sign in his window during a Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens Neighborhood Association house tour which announced: "White racists -- This House Is Not For Sale." Others try to be as rude as is possible when whites come to inspect Manor houses which are on the market.

Homeowners and real estate agents still exercise the power to choose to whom homes are shown, and a "black market" in Manor housing has developed, or rather continued. In Brooklyn neighborhoods, screening of prospective homeowners is accomplished by informal advertising in ethnic and other media with "acceptable" audiences. Also, more discriminating real estate offices are contacted to help sell manor homes. Whites who wish to discriminate against blacks, and blacks who want only whites to move into the community to maintain a presence, accomplish their goals in similar fashion by creating, so to speak, a "white market" in Manor houses.

These illegal, immoral, unethical, but culturally acceptable, practices of racial discrimination have apparent economic benefits that often overwhelm racial pride. Nonwhites and brownstoners are the most likely groups to pay inflated prices for local housing; brownstoners because of the limited quantity of architecturally suitable property, and nonwhites, because of their historically restricted access to decent housing due to city-wide discrimination and racial steering in real estate. Yearly studies of discrimination in home sales by public and private agencies in New York have consistently shown that white and black prospective home-buyers are directed toward different areas even if they are of the same socioeconomic status.

Blacks and brownstoners are therefore in direct ecological competition with each other in many city neighborhoods, and in cities in general that are experiencing the "Back to City" movement. We should expect that some of the future confrontations between these groups will take on violent aspects. There have already been incidents of personal violence against middle-class white brownstoners who have invaded lower- or lower-middle-class neighborhoods. Most have been recorded as ordinary crimes of violence, but one cannot help but feel that they have had a great deal to do with the feelings of black adolescents that their "turf" has been violated. Eventually brownstoners in city neighborhoods, if the phenomenon continues, will demand extraordinary protection from city authorities to protect them from the "natives" of their adopted communities. And if cities are interested in promoting the back-to-city movement as a way to replace its depleted middle-class population, such measures must be adopted. Even the rejuvenation of American cities, then, presents some thorny social, -moral and political problems that will develop from this new form of class warfare.

Although violence against brownstoners has not occurred within the Manor, there have been several reports of problems with local teenagers outside the Manor boundaries, where the invaders have displaced nonwhite families, often renters. Frequently, when a brownstoner buys a house in the inner city for single-family or two-family use, the house has been occupied for many years by several hard-pressed families, or many more single-room occupants. The resentment of the displaced, or their neighborhood friends, when they are put out on the street often lingers for long periods of time. The brownstoners then become a symbol to minority youth of a new kind of oppression, which can result in harassment and intimidation. Many blacks also see the situation as, so to speak, "putting the shoe on the other foot."

It should be expected that even middle-class brownstoners would experience some instances of prejudice and discrimination within the Manor as did earlier invaders. There is always "something wrong" with newcomers to any community. Here one incident shows that the symbolic values of the Lefferts Manor will continue to play a role in reactions to newcomers, despite what outside observers might expect to be the case. In the spring of 1971, a rumor was spread in the Manor that a "hippie commune" was being set up in one of the houses on Midwood Street. The hippies were brownstoners. Those who heard the rumor spoke of the drug problems and wild parties that were certain to materialize in the community. A few months after the rumor was started, it was discovered that the "commune" was merely a young white couple who had recently moved into a large brick brownstone. The "hippiness" was hypothesized by local commonsense sociologists from the appearance of the husband -- long hair and mustache -- and the motorcycle that was parked outside the door. He and his wife both wore patched blue jeans, and occasionally walked around, barefoot, on the sidewalk. They were also overheard employing various obscenities in ordinary conversation. The "commune" suspicion was raised because a few friends had stayed over in the house for a few days to help the newcomers settle in.

<< To Ch. 4.6 | To Ch. 4.8 >>

Notes to Chapter 4.7

5. Sol Yurick, New York Times, July 1, 1972.

6. "Study Finds Suburbanites Displacing Poor in Cities," New York Times, August 2, 1978.

<< To Ch. 4.6 | To Ch. 4.8 >>