Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn:
Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity
 in Postwar New York
 by Suleiman Osman
Oxford University Press, 2011
$29.95, hardcover 360 pp
I have a friend, a longtime resident first of Carroll Gardens and now Cobble Hill, who refers to Brooklyn as "God's country." This notion of the borough as a site of pristine authenticity is central to Suleiman Osman's book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. Osman, an assistant professor of American Studies at George Washington University, grew up in Park Slope toward the tail end of the era he surveys, but his study is informed by a comprehensive understanding of the forces that have shaped the urban environment not only in New York but in other parts of America in the years 1950 to 1980. It is a highly nuanced investigation into the oftentimes contradictory interests at play during the period.

As opposed to many studies of postmodern redevelopment, Osman finds that gentrification in postwar Brooklyn wasn't the work of a cabal of bankers, real estate speculators, and government bureaucrats but more the generally unintended result of a well-meaning grassroots effort that sought to negotiate a middle ground between the alienating effects of large-scale, top-down urban renewal projects on the one hand and the perceived banality of life in the suburbs on the other. The culprits, if one wants to call them that, were typically lawyers, academics, artists, and other well-educated members of the postindustrial service economy looking for a sense of terroir, i.e., local rootedness, against the anomie of modernist administrative society.

The first of the so-called urban frontiers to be rehabilitated was Brooklyn Heights, the area of early nineteenth-century mansions overlooking the East River that by the end of the Second World War had physically declined and whose property values had dramatically fallen. Many of these stately townhouses had been abandoned or subdivided and converted into low-cost rental units. But by the end of the 1940s these structures were being restored and less-affluent tenants displaced by the forebears of what David Brooks has called "Bourgeois Bohemians." (Indeed, I, a BoBo as I live and breathe, for a while rented a much more upscale version of one those units on Monroe Place, a magnificent five-story brownstone, built in the 1840s, that had been renovated by an advertising executive who had purchased it in the 1960s. Norman Mailer lived a few blocks over on Columbia Heights.)

The model set in Brooklyn Heights -- meticulous attention to period architectural detail, the maintenance of unique small-scale neighborhood amenities, an emphasis on "local color," etc. -- soon spread to other areas of what was once called South Brooklyn. Those areas are now known by often manufactured neighborhood identities that leapfrog over twentieth-century urban development to retrieve an array of ostensibly premodern references, for example, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, both named for imagined aristocratic founding fathers while at the same time evoking Brooklyn's rural past. In the process, the brownstoners' (as they still call themselves) ideal of incremental growth clashed with both the managerial impulses of the welfare state as well as the parochialism of urban machine politics. It is to Osman's credit that in recounting this history he takes pains to objectively represent the positions of all parties, even the much-maligned Svengali of modern urbanism, Robert Moses.

One of the more satisfying aspects of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn is its close reading of the literature of what Osman dubs the "romantic urban ideal." In particular, the classic texts of Jane Jacobs, Herbert Gans, Alfred Kazin, and others are deconstructed to reveal a certain amount of class (un)consciousness that one might justifiably say condescends to urban inner-city residents even as it attempts to embrace the diversity of city life.

And yet at the same time, Osman recognizes the brownstoners' achievement. For where others fled the myriad problems of city for the comforts of greener pastures, the denizens of Brownstone Brooklyn stayed and did in the final analysis invent a new version of the civic ideal that still has much to recommend for it, at least to those who can afford it.

"The Bonds of Debt" Inextricably Binds Us Together

The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against
the Common Good 
by Richard Dienst
Verso: 2011, $24.95, 200 pp hardcover

The issue of debt, both public and private, has been a top news story ever since the financial collapse of 2008, but especially in recent weeks with all of the reporting on federal budget negotiations and the debt ceiling. (Another noteworthy item: The New York Times recently reported student loan debt has now exceeded credit card outstandings for the first time and is likely to top $1 trillion by the end of this year.) The problem cultural critic Richard Dienst claims in his new book The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good isn't that debt levels are too high; it's that they aren't high enough.

A critical and literary theorist, Dienst expands the concept of debt from its purely economic connotation to include social reciprocity more broadly understood. The "magic" of debt, Dienst asserts toward the end of the book, is that it ultimately constitutes a common good by binding us inextricably to one another. Debt as narrowly conceived under the capitalist system has in the current environment been revealed as a tool of exploitation that has reached its penultimate "terminal crisis" to use Giovanni Arrighi's term, opening the door to new world-historical possibilities of social interdependence and human understanding.

Dienst begins by reviewing the ideas of several key theorists of late capitalism. From Robert Brenner he takes the notion of global capitalism as a system in perpetual turbulence, with boom and bust cycles necessarily following one another. He places Brenner alongside Arrighi's application of the Kondratiev Curve in the modern world-system analysis of the development of capitalism since the fifteenth century, which essentially tracks that turbulence at a macrolevel. He finds further complement with David Harvey's recent books on neoliberalism that extend the primarily economic arguments of Brenner and Arrighi into the realm of politics and ideology. And as Dienst notes, the recent financial crisis came as no surprise to any of them as any regular reader of the alternative media would know.

The question Dienst raises is: If we agree that these thinkers have aptly described the circumstances that have brought us to our present state, then where do we go from here? As he looks to the horizon, Dienst observes: "All roads to the future lead through an immense pile of debt." How to negotiate that terrain is the central problem.

As previously noted, Dienst is a cultural and literary theorist not an economist or other social scientist. His book doesn't specifically examine the economic and social foundations of the credit system and its role as the obverse of modern mass production, the mechanism that allows demand to absorb excess capacity over time. (For an excellent study of the role of debt in the rise of consumer society, see Financing the American Dream: A Social History of Consumer Credit by Lendol Calder.) Instead he analyzes media images -- Bono's famous (or infamous in Dienst's view) 2002 photo op with George W. Bush on the issue of global poverty most notably -- and other aspects of culture, such as retail display design, that constitute the spectacle mystifying the true relationships of power that keep debt under the control of the world's haves and have-mores.

More pragmatic readers may find this path less than satisfactory. But in deconstructing the hegemonic representations of debt that have been deployed to now promote austerity as the only viable solution to our economic and social travails, Dienst calls on the reader to consider is what is truly owed by whom to whom. Thought of in this way debt becomes a medium for the expression of political consciousness. And from this perspective, breaking the bank doesn't sound like such a bad idea at all.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: "Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth" by Juliet B. Schor

"Plenitude: The New Economics of True
Wealth" by Juliet B. Schor
272 pp. Penguin Press, $25.95
"Austerity" is a watchword in the media these days in both domestic and international economic news. The recent downturn, the story goes, has meant that governments can no longer sustain entitlement obligations or take on any more debt. So too must citizens reduce their expectations and assume more personal responsibility, accepting less in return.

In her book "Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth," economist and sociologist Juliet B. Schor presents a different narrative, one that suggests the current environment is an opportunity to live a more satisfactory, which is to say richer, life. She offers a solution to the "work-and-spend" dilemma of modern consumerism she initially described in her 1992 bestseller "The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure" and continued in the follow up "The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need" of 1999. Her thesis rests on four principles: freeing up time by reducing work hours outside the home, shifting that free time to more self-provisioning, developing low cost, low impact but high satisfaction consumption, and reinvesting in community and other forms of social capital.

Why "Business As Usual" No Longer Works

One of Schor's main assertions is that we must find another way to define wealth and well-being because, in a phrase, there is no alternative. The supposedly endless cycle of material expansion that fueled economic growth as part of what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls the "consumers' republic" of the postwar era has been exhausted in America at least. Double-digit unemployment, evaporating home equity, and eroding pension balances have taken the gloss off the consumer spending that accounted for between two-thirds and 70 percent of the US economy in recent years.

But more than that, business as usual (or as Schor refers to it "BAU") has run into another, less malleable barrier: the environment. Mainstream economics has by and large failed to account for the environmental effects (so-called externalities) of growth, a charge many progressives will no doubt find familiar. In particular, Schor debunks the Environmental Kuznets Curve that projects a bell-shaped ratio of economics to environment, that poor nations pollute until they reach a certain level of wealth, which they then use to buy ecological amelioration. The math has never worked in reality, Schor asserts, as every scientifically accepted measure of environmental degradation continues to rise, threatening impending disaster.

Whether anyone not already attuned to Schor's sensibility will be persuaded by "Plenitude" is debatable. Going back to the Progressive Era, "the good life" in America has been defined by the potential of an unlimited horizon of material comfort, a central ideological construct of modernity that is still hegemonic despite the strains of recent contradictions. Even those who embrace choices such as conscientious consumption of both the green and blue varieties may not be able to picture themselves canning vegetables and living in DIY yurts, two of Schor's examples of the new economics of plenitude (which seem like very old-fashioned economics to me).

Indeed, the fundamentals of plenitude are largely compatible with austerity. Working less and therefore spending less seem to go hand in hand in either scenario, and we must take it on faith that because they are of our own choosing we will somehow enjoy them more. Of the four principles, the reactivation of community seems to be the most compelling. And to give Schor her due, many of the tactics of plenitude she describes are being practiced in local communities, such as Detroit and other inner cities, that have been abandoned by consumer society and left to their own devices. In that regard, "plenitude" may be in store for us all.