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At its heart, American culture has always been about reinvention and renewal — a fledgling democracy casting off the Colonial yoke, immigrants coming to make a new start, individual freedoms that mean creating a life beyond one’s “birthright.” That renewal happens in communities and cities, too, and a notable one happens to be currently underway in Brooklyn, N.Y. Local writer Anne Hellman offers a guided tour of the transformation in her book “Design Brooklyn.”
As design books go, this volume opens with more history than most. Like most major East Coast cities, Brooklyn has a long and varied past that dates back to early European settlements and has seen many highs and lows along the way. Looming largest is its back-seat status as an outpost of Manhattan, just one of the other four New York City boroughs that reside in the shadow of their showier sibling.
The economic swings have been wide and life-changing, with some once affluent neighborhoods eroding into a discouraging and persistent blight. At the same time, the lowered property values and cheap rents offered opportunities for artists, artisans and working-class residents to stake claims of their own. New energy, investment and ideas have come into Brooklyn, sometimes one building or neighborhood at a time.
The book features four distinct chapters or sections, each highlighting examples of the changes underfoot:
— Renovation: These are mostly rehabbed houses or commercial buildings where remaining older architectural elements are combined freely with new materials, colors and furnishings.
There is an unmistakable sense of the past in these homes and structures, but it’s infused with the freshness and energy that new owners and caretakers have brought. Some just got more daylight and some modern conveniences, others have undergone major structural modifications to better integrate their different spaces or levels. Creative design and engineering solutions have produced better flow, longer sightlines and a greater sense of roominess.
— Restoration: Architectural preservation is the theme here, and highlighted projects include homes, a public park and a restored 1922 carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
— Innovation: This section offers a look at the cutting-edge design and building work in the city, in an eclectic mix of old and new elements. Unconventional materials are common here, in the form of the genuinely new and also in repurposed vintage stock.
— Industry: Brooklyn has always been a commercial center, and while most of its early manufacturing enterprises have disappeared, the old factory and warehouse buildings are often perfect candidates for seeding new business efforts in urban design, artisan work and small-scale urban manufacturing.
The old Navy Yard is just one example of this renewal, and this chapter of the book profiles some of these sites, as well as introduces a number of small design and production companies that have taken root in them.
Reinvention is a quintessential American trait, and this chronicle of Brooklyn’s re-emergence just might offer a template to other communities in need of renewal.
By Bill LaHay, Universal Uclick