Tom MacWright

I read The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman on


This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. On its surface, this is a history of Brooklyn, focused on the area near Brooklyn Heights - the area where I live. It’s a fascinating history.

Rather than simply the collapse of New Deal liberalism and the rise of conservatism, Brownstone Brooklyn saw the emergence of a new and dynamic type of localist politics that was both anti-statist and anti-corporatist, and which emphasized neighborhood autonomy, private rehabilitation of existing housing stock, devolution of municipal services to community nonprofit groups, mini-planning, ethnic power, and bootstrap do-it-yourselfism.

But it’s so much more than history: The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn explains and reveals the psychology of people’s relationships with government, establishment, neighborhood, and society itself. It sparked so many new ideas. I realized that my posture toward government was quite different than that of many of my peers, that where I dream of a competent government providing services and creating infrastructure, a lot of people dream of a radically smaller role for government. I think a lot of folks are aligned, technically, with liberatarian socialism, wanting decentralized political structures?

There’s a lot to process here. How has my life – free of incarceration and even generally-bad experiences with the government, but full of negative experiences with local-government NIMBY forces – shaped my opinion of government planning and power?

Is the process circular? Have the neighborhood-driven anti-authority pro-small-private-capital forces, starting in the 1960s, led to an environment in which city governments are incapable of transportation and other megaprojects, which then reduces our faith in government even more?

Is there a libertarian-socialist (or other non-statist leftism, choose your term) future that I can see and believe in, that doesn’t remind me of the current status quo of decentralized neighborhood power, which is bad and has produced bad outcomes? This future - of networks and communities, rather than government agencies - is hard to see, it requires imagination, or maybe it has a real-world example somewhere I haven’t looked.

This book also dissects the ideas of authenticity, urbanism, and political power. There’s so much there. I highly, highly recommend it.