Place  /  Longread

The Invention of a Neighborhood

In the early years of Brooklyn’s gentrification, a 1977 New Yorker piece by Jervis Anderson captured the process in a freeze-frame.

In 1977, a staff writer for The New Yorker named Jervis Anderson journeyed to Dean Street in Brooklyn, to the neighborhood now known as Boerum Hill, to interview the people who lived there. His article in the November 14th issue, titled “The Making of Boerum Hill,” portrayed the place as a microcosm of “one of the remarkable urban developments in recent times—the brownstone-renovation movement.” What drew Anderson to Boerum Hill isn’t certain. It’s possible he’d lived there when he first moved to the city from Jamaica, in 1958, to study at N.Y.U. In an autobiographical essay from 1966, he wrote, “In those early days, New York was to me Washington Square, the A train, and Brooklyn.”

What seems to have fascinated Anderson about Boerum Hill was the tenuousness of the neighborhood’s creation. “The name had been coined so recently, and by such a small number of the residents, that people who had been living in the area all their lives had never heard of Boerum Hill and hadn’t the slightest idea where it was,” Anderson writes. Initially, he explains, the campaign to establish the neighborhood, undertaken in order to protect dilapidated row houses from being condemned and demolished, “faltered in the face of a firm conviction that Boerum Hill existed only in the heads of the people who had thought it up.”

Boerum Hill was thought up in my lifetime, by people I knew. Anderson’s account of them is prescient. It reveals a white middle-class population not only dislodging a poor and diverse one but defining them out of the picture. Yet few seemed aware that they were doing anything wrong.

The blocks that became Boerum Hill were ringed, mostly, by older and more clearly defined precincts, like the traditionally posh Brooklyn Heights, the Italian-immigrant enclave Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope and Fort Greene, shaped by long-standing Irish and Black homeownership, respectively. None of these places were simple. Their fortunes rose and fell with changes typical of urban life in the postwar twentieth century—white flight, and redlining by banks that preferred “urban renewal” projects and deals with developers to the renovation of old buildings. But those had been recognized neighborhoods to begin with.