Term for the large swath of Brooklyn
neighborhoods dominated by elegant Brownstone
architecture, the largest concentration of such architecture in the world.
Brownstones were the popular form of upper middle class housing built in America from the 1840s through around 1900. They usually featured rows of elegant, mostly identical stone row houses, sometimes featuring imposing porches, fancy staircases, and elaborate Victorian interiors. Brownstone developments were usually built all at once or block by block by major developers on previously undeveloped land, much like today's suburban subdivisions, although in a more beautiful and much less environmentally destructive and tacky way.
Throughout much of the era in question, the city of Brooklyn was a suburban town for the upper middle class, and consequently Brownstone architecture dominates the neighborhoods that were developed in that era. The first Brooklyn neighborhood to be populated was Brooklyn Heights, directly across from Manhattan, which became fashionable in the 1840s after regular ferry service made it possible to commute to Manhattan for work. The brownstones in Brooklyn Heights are some of the oldest and most elaborate in America.
In the following decades, brownstone development proceeded from Brooklyn Heights south to the adjacent neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill, and Vinegar Hill, and farther south to Caroll Gardens, which was a large planned community with elegant gardens. At this point the primary method of transportation for these suburbanites was still the horse and carriage, so many of the homes and neighborhoods were built to accommodate them. With the emergence of the network of elevated commuter railways in Brooklyn in the last half of the 19th century, and the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, and elevated transit links to Manhattan (see Brooklyn Manhattan Transit), many new areas were opened to development, and this 19th century version of suburban living became accessible to many more people. The brownstone districts of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights were built to the east of downtown Brooklyn along the Lafayette Avenue and Fulton Avenue elevated lines respectively. Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park were developed as playgrounds for these neighborhoods.
In the 1880s and 1890s, brownstone developments advanced further, as the city of Brooklyn consolidated all of Kings County. Park Slope emerged on the Western side of the new Prospect Park, served by the Fifth Avenue Elevated, and to the east of Prospect Heights along the Fulton elevated Bedford-Stuyvesant emerged. As the brownstone era drew to a close, the northern area of Windsor Terrace, to the south of Park Slope, was developed, as were a few blocks on the eastern side of Prospect Park, part of Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
After 1900, the rise of the private automobile made longer commutes and unwalkable neighborhoods possible for the upper middle class, and suburban development changed. Now homes could be spaced out with lawns, and located farther from city centers and away from public transportation. The era of brownstone development was thus over. The neighborhoods of Prospect Park South, Ditmas Park, and Kensington were developed as upper middle class quarters in this new suburban model, but, with the coming of the subway and ever easier transportation links to Manhattan, soon new developments in Brooklyn would be oriented toward housing the working class and immigrants.
Over the course of the 20th century, the Brownstone Belt has deteriorated and been threatened with destruction, but has reemerged as a group of viable urban neighborhoods, many of them returning to the exclusivity and wealth that characterized their development. The decline of New York City and urban America in general took their toll on the Brownstone Belt neighborhoods. A 50s era plan to basically destroy Brooklyn Heights with a freeway was thankfully scaled back, but various other urban redevelopment schemes took their toll on other neighborhoods. Bedford-Stuyvesant became synonymous with urban blight, much like its Manhattan brownstone era cousin, Harlem.
Finally people rediscovered the unique beauty and utility of the Brownstone Belt neighborhoods. One of the first to revitalize was Park Slope, now one of the most expensive areas of New York City and a center of urban life to rival anywhere in Manhattan. The revitalization of Park Slope spilled over into nearby Prospect Heights and Windsor Terrace. Caroll Gardens was similarly rediscovered, with Court and Smith Streets becoming one of the many restaurant rows of New York City. In the 90s, as everyone not on a trust fund was priced out of Manhattan, this phenomenon increased further. Even Bed-Stuy is becoming a coveted neighborhood, with its Brownstones being rediscovered. The Brownstone Belt neighborhoods are some of the many Brooklyn neighborhoods, along with non-brownstone neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, DUMBO, Greenpoint, and Kensington, that are replacing Manhattan as the center of urban vitality and culture in New York City.