Brownstone Voyeurism in the Slope

Photos Harlan Erskine

In homage to the voyeuristic artwork of Shizuka Yokomizo, we sent Harlan Erskine to Park Slope to see if its browstone dwellers would let us photograph their home interiors through their curtainless windows. He left the following note at dozens of Park Slope brownstones:

“I am a Brooklyn-based photographer and would love to photograph the exterior of your home for a photo story referencing the work of Shizuka Yokomizo. In the acknowledgement to Shizuka’s ‘Distance’ piece, the essay places the same amount of emphasis on the design of the home as it does as the participation of the resident. Therefore, I would like to call on you in hopes that you might participate in this feature, to leave your lower level lights on from the hours of 10pm-11pm TONIGHT and arrange the apartment as you would like it to be seen. I would also encourage you to engage in the space or in front of the window if you too would like to be photographed.”

A Brief History of the Brownstone

Brownstone had its heyday during and after the Civil War: Victorians were partial to earth tones, and the stone was cheap, allowing for large homes to be built on small budgets. But it went out of style by WWI: its color had become passé, and damage to homes gave it a bad rap, which proponents say was the result of poor extraction and shoddy construction. A new home made of real brownstone hasn’t been built in Brooklyn in almost 100 years. (Plans for one in Brooklyn Heights recently fell through.) But its erstwhile popularity is glaringly present in neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvestant, Cobble Hill, and, of course, Park Slope.

That neighborhood had been rural through much of the 19th century. But around the turn of the 20th, it began to urbanize—which included construction of new brownstone housing—thanks largely to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, which facilitated commuting to Manhattan. Beginning in the 1950s, those old brownstones fell into disrepair; many were converted into rooming houses by the elderly widows who’d inherited them. But by the mid-60s, urban idealists started buying them up and investing in their restoration. Property values started to rise. “The great fear is that the real-estate people will take over this place too,” Pete Hamill wrote in New York magazine in 1969. Of course, they did—Park Slope was the poster child for Brooklyn gentrification until Williamsburg assumed the mantle in the 1990s. But those brownstone renovators did more than displace minorities and raise rents: they maintained the character of a community. “South Slope never suffered the fate of Brownsville and East New York in the 60s and 70s, where entire blocks were leveled by arson and abandonment,” Hamill wrote when he revisited the neighborhood in 2008. “All is changed, to echo Mr. Yeats, but not changed utterly.”

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