Brooklyn architecture
April 27, 2010 9:15 PM   Subscribe

Why does the Williamsburg/Grenpoint area of Brooklyn look so much different, architecturally, than Ft. Greene/Cobble Hill/Park Slope/etc.?

I notice this every time I go between the two. The southern part of Brooklyn is brownstones and trees, while the northern part (in my mind, the other side of the Navy Yard) is full of houses with clapboard or aluminum siding, Feder air conditioning units hanging off the side, and less greenery. Much less picturesque, and seemingly less well-built houses. What are the historical reasons that explain the differences in architecture and development between the two areas?

(Note: I've only lived in New York a relatively short time and have only explored relatively small parts of Brooklyn. It might be that "brownstone" Brooklyn is anomalous and "real" Brooklyn is much closer to the look of, e.g., Williamsburg.)
posted by decoherence to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Greenpoint/Williamsburg were once industrial areas.
posted by schmod at 9:22 PM on April 27, 2010

"South Brooklyn" is a misnomer, by the way, as that area is really very northern in the borough. The actual southern part of Brooklyn isn't "brownstones and trees" at all. Neighborhoods in the borough can differ wildly. Go check out Dyker Heights sometime. Then compare it to Sheepshead Bay. There is no one "real" Brooklyn.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:37 PM on April 27, 2010

Yes, and as you keep traveling down the L, its the same. Morgan and Jefferson still have lots of industrial things going on there.
posted by mattsweaters at 9:37 PM on April 27, 2010

I think partly what you are perceiving is based on what kind of development went on in an area when, and part of it is based on the fact that certain old things look more the same to you than maybe they are, by virtue of being old.

First of all, using modern neighborhood labels can be kind of confusing when you look at stuff like this. For instance, Greenpoint, IIRC, was never industrial, but it also stretched down a lot further south in the olden days. Rosemary's Greenpoint Tavern (N5 and Bedford), for instance, was in Greenpoint in living memory (e.g. Rosemary, Peggy, et al describe that area as Greenpoint). Williamsburg was its own city until very shortly before the formation of Greater New York. I think this is part of the reason now that the neighborhood considered to be Williamsburg is so much bigger than other NYC neighborhoods (obviously, another big contributor is real estate marketing). The reason I bring this up is that you can frequently point to specific land developers, or land use patterns, in history that influence a large area, but they often don't match up with modern understandings of where a neighborhood's boundaries are, and if you try to look at things from our end, you might miss stuff. Is the area just south of Division Williamsburg? Does Williamsburg Street run through Wiliamsburg? Is McCarren Park in Williamsburg? Until recently, the answers were definitively yes, yes, and no.

Williamsburg was and is in parts industrial, but it wasn't always just industrial. You can still see on Grand Street where the old streetcar tracks that went to the Grand Street Ferry are (before the Williamsburg Bridge was built), and you can see in the architecture of those buildings that they used to be saloons, theaters, and other places well-suited to skim some money off people waiting for a boat. The Williamsburg Savings Bank that looms over Downtown was started in Williamsburg, and the domed HSBC on Broadway was, I believe, the original one. It was a bank for wealthy industrialists, like the Havemeyer that ran the sugar company and lent his name to the street. The little area that we now think of as 'prime' Williamsburg went through several phases of development from industrial, to low-income residential mixed with industrial, back to industrial, to largely low-income residential, and so on. Honestly, to do the story justice, you'd have to break even this bit of Williamsburg into smaller chunks.

So partly, you are looking at when the housing stock was constructed. You can see the same thing in Manhattan. It's partly, but not entirely, class-based. Much of the housing stock in what is now Greenwich Village was not originally constructed for wealthy people, but it was constructed to a much nicer standard than housing built for similarly middle- and lower-income people as you move west in geography and forward in time. There's a confounding factor here in shifting fashions regarding exterior decorations of houses. New York City has gone through various fads where rich people have shunned external markers of wealth on their houses, so at some periods a brownstone can be a normal person's house, a boarding house, or one-half of a very wealthy person's house.

A lot of the neighborhoods with the vinyl siding and the Fedders have more recent residential construction in them. It's also worth pointing out how much historic districts throw this off. Brooklyn Heights has been a protected area for quite a long time, so you can't just run around tearing down Federal style houses and throwing up Fedders condos. In Williamsburg, you can tear down a 19th century mustard factory and put up as many Fedders condos as you want.

The area right around the Navy Yard that you mention is a good example: the Vinegar Hill historic district is all old 19th century housing, and in the Navy Yard proper, you've got the Federal style Commodore's mansion and the Officers' Row houses. But the area right around the Navy Yard, which was once largely Navy-supporting industry, was partially filled in with really rough bars and other businesses catering to sailors, and the homes of the people who ran them in the early 20th century (note: I heard this from my Grandma, who's Irish, and this may be entirely Irish folklore about this formerly Irish neighborhood. This might be BS is what I'm saying.), so most of the buildings are built the way people of limited means would build a building in the first half of the 20th century: wood balloon construction, siding that either was was ultimately replaced with low-maintenance vinyl or wood, no high stoop because the streets aren't filled with (as much) horse poop anymore, etc. (remember, the Navy Yard stopped serving the Navy after the Verazzano was built and the Navy was afraid it would block in all the ships if it was bombed, which was in the 60s I think).

The other issue I'm talking about, the compression of history in architecture, you see when you look at Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn Heights has a lot of residential architecture in the Federal style (I swear when I started writing this it wasn't meant to be about Federal style housing in Brooklyn) in the early 19th century, and probably a decent amount of housing dating back to the late 18th century. By comparison, the big booms in higher-end residential development that took place in e.g. Park Slope were 1870s and later. So you've got as much time separating when those buildings were built as you've got separating Trump Tower from them. As much as Brooklyn Heights might seem similar to Park Slope, to a person who lived in 1890, they were as different, architecturally, as Williamsburg is from Park Slope now.
posted by jeb at 10:37 PM on April 27, 2010 [27 favorites]

I'd feel safe guessing that South Brooklyn had more money 100 years ago. I'd further feel safe attributing that to to transit options. The Brooklyn Bridge opened 20 years before the Williamsburg Bridge. Most commerce used to be located in the southern tip of Manhattan. South Brooklyn and its subways and bridges get right to that. North Brooklyn misses it. So if you were a rich person 100 years ago, you moved to South Brooklyn. And once you have beautiful brownstones, tree-lined streets, and parks, you might protect them. And once you have a district of factories, warehouses, Polish, Italian, and Puerto Rican immigants, and Feder air conditioners, you have your own inertia too.
posted by oreofuchi at 10:39 PM on April 27, 2010

Well, brownstone Brooklyn is a product of the subway system. It's very complex and will be different for every neighborhood, but you'll find much of the answer in transportation infrastructure, commercial activity, and era of development. For many large cities, changes in immigration law and pattern are also key.

200 years ago almost the entirety of Brooklyn's interior -- Kings County -- was farmland. The urban areas were almost all along the harbor. It was its own city, with its own downtown and suburbs. Many neighborhoods were their own towns before they were incorporated into the city, and had their own street plats. Beginning well before consolidation with New York, the borough took on a character increasingly connected to and dependent on Manhattan. Neighborhoods developed in lean times would be more utilitarian, those in boom times more lavish. Neighborhoods developed for mass numbers of immigrants or industrial workers are going to have simpler architecture and fewer amenities overall. Then, once that architecture is in place, it has some pretty substantial entropic durability.

You might like the Brooklyn Historical Society's neighborhood guides.
posted by dhartung at 10:41 PM on April 27, 2010

Based on my somewhat casual understanding of Brooklyn history, I'd guess it goes back to the late 1800s-early 1900s. At that time, "Brownstone Brooklyn" was, as it is today, a fairly middle-to-upper-middle class area dominated by families that had been in NYC for at least a few generations, who could afford nice houses - or at least nice apartments in brownstones.

Williamsburg (and, I suppose, Greenpoint) was a much poorer area, dominated by recent immigrants who lived in tenements. If you've read anything about the 19th century immigrant experience in NYC, you'll know this means the tenements were of extremely poor quality, and built very, very closely together.

I'd guess that the brownstones survived, because they were well-built, while most of the tenements did not. Most of the "older" North Brooklyn housing stock looks like it's from the postwar boom, when the emphasis was on fast, boxy housing that could be thrown up quickly to accommodate soldiers coming home. Kind of the urban version of the Levittowns you see all over the Midatlantic region.

As for the trees, I think that goes back to the 19th century too. The brownstone areas have trees because there's a bit of space for them, and because there have been trees there for as long as there have been the brownstones. But as for Williamsburg, well, there's a reason the book was called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, right? I imagine that even after the tenements gave way to the newer construction, the land stayed zoned the same, so that the plots allotted to each building were the same as they'd been before. So the buildings may be slightly nicer, but there still isn't much room for trees.

Again, this is all based on a pretty casual understanding of NYC history, and if someone knows better than my educated guesses, please say so!
posted by wholebroad at 10:41 PM on April 27, 2010

Bear in mind, in particular, that Greenpoint and Williamsburg had a huge immigrant influx in the 19th century, which is why it's got so many shoddy wood tenements (that's what's under most of the vinyl siding). Fort Greene had similar-looking sections, most of which were north of Myrtle and are now buried under the BQE. The nice parts were mostly built as single-family housing, but as you head into the shabbier parts of Bed-Stuy that fade into Bushwick and Williamsburg, they look a lot more like Greenpoint than the older, more traditionally wealthy parts of, say, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene.

Speculative development played a big role also. Carroll Gardens, for example, has very attractive houses that hadn't been high-class since the 1870s -- a minor boom-and-bust cycle in the 1850s and 1860s led to ornate houses being rented out by floor for lack of buyers, and many stayed that way for 100 years.
posted by zvs at 11:37 PM on April 27, 2010

and in re jeb's excellent comment: Probably not apocryphal. My family came from the Navy Yard District too, and it's very well summarized in the WPA guide from 1939. Warning: addictive link.
posted by zvs at 11:39 PM on April 27, 2010

A couple decades ago, the apocryphal story on this very subject was that there had been a craze for the siding in the 60s and 70s because it was modern, lower-maintenance, and the siding salespeople were locals, and many building owners actually flattened the facades and brickwork on their nice old buildings to put it up. If you walk around the sidestreets of Greenpoint you'll often see a building (industrial or otherwise) with lovely turn of the century brickwork or a facade stuck in between a whole row of vinyl/aluminum-fronted buildings of the same proportions, which may give a little credence to this story.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 1:37 AM on April 28, 2010

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