’60s and early ’70s, every book and film and TV show told them that they belonged in a house with a yard and a picket fence, and they believed it. That’s how narratives work: they masquerade as nature, as fact, as truth. Twenty years later, I was equally sure that I belonged in a brownstone in the city.
When I got bored with acting like a teenage idiot in the suburbs, I pretended to be a grown-up in the city. A friend was dogsitting in a five-story brownstone with three living rooms, six bedrooms, a gourmet kitchen, a roof deck, and a backyard rock garden occupied by two ancient turtles. The only catch was the Rottweiler, who was loveable 97% of the time, but spent the other 3% grabbing our ankles to hurl us down the seven spiral staircases. Still, this seemed to us a perfectly acceptable price to pay for such a space, where our friends dressed up to get drunk, rising to the occasion the elegant house provided. I met someone I still see often on Law and Order, and someone else who was sharing a boyfriend with Bjork. To me, back then, that brownstone stood for everything I wanted: solidity and urbanity, possibility and permanence. I could see it, stand inside it, even sleep there. But it wasn’t mine, and I had no idea who or where or what I was.
In The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Sulieman Osman explains how, in the 1960s and ’70s, “Brooklyn’s new middle class recast brownstones and industrial lofts as an organic and authentic ‘middle cityscape,’ lodged between over-modernized skyscrapers, suburban tract homes, and the ‘wild’ ghetto.” Maybe my parents had been naïve to seek their American Dream in the suburbs, but Osman dismantles the illusion that the white families who stayed in the city were any more aware of the implications of their choices. “Gentrification in its early years was a form of white-collar urban romanticism,” he writes, and the “brownstoners” saw themselves as part of “a cultural revolt against sameness, conformity and bureaucracy.” Brownstone life wasn’t any “realer” than the suburbs; it was just another of the myriad stories white people told themselves about who they were and where they lived, at the expense of communities with far less money, mobility, and freedom.
My parents could have been brownstoners. They could have stayed in Brooklyn, bought for a song, put us in private schools or hoped for Stuyvesant, where my grandfather was a football star in 1925 before getting recruited by Princeton, from which he promptly flunked out. He and my grandmother raised my mom in a prewar apartment in Morningside Heights, much like the apartment where my father grew up in Brooklyn. What was it that they thought they missed and wanted my brothers and I to have? They both died last year, so I cannot ask, What made you want to leave?So I ask myself instead, What made you want to come back?
Because I did. Eighty years after my grandfather, in 2005, I, too, was failing out of Princeton—not the university, but the town itself. I’d finished my Ph.D., and I was married to a man I met in grad school. We had two beautiful children, two cats, a dog, and a mangy 1920s gambrel we were renting with an option to buy. It’s a long story, but here’s the short version: I opted out. I simply didn’t share my parents’ suburban dream. I got horribly depressed, got slowly better, got amicably divorced, and then planned my escape. Once again, I set my sights on Brooklyn.
Brownstone life wasn’t any “realer” than the suburbs; it was just another of the myriad stories white people told themselves about who they were and where they lived.
Internet dating was perfect for me. I didn’t have to be in physical space to meet someone; I could be a story, which was how I saw myself, anyway. I did, however, have to lie about where I still lived. For custody reasons, I commuted from Princeton to my teaching job in Manhattan, dating on my teaching days and on weekends when my ex had the kids.
I was surprised at how little had changed about dating in over a decade. The men dressed better now, and we went to restaurants even when it wasn’t someone’s birthday. But once again, if things clicked, they brought me back to brownstones, where instead of futons and foosball they had real beds, bespoke bicycles, the elements of adult lives. And once again I was paralyzed with want. The sex was undeniably better than it had been ten years before, but my desire for the men melted into my desire for their wood floors, their marble mantels, their bay windows and leafy streets. I babbled about subway stops and school districts as if a move were mere moments away instead of an impossibility. In reality, I was over my head in student loans and often walked the thirty blocks from Penn Station to work because I couldn’t afford a Metrocard. Sometimes, on financial fumes at the end of the month, I played scratch-offs, hoping to win enough to treat my children to Starbucks after school.
Jason was the closest I came to actually getting a boy and his brownstone. He was an architect and I was finishing a dissertation about haunted New York apartments; we seemed to fit. He took me to see a play about le Corbusier and Jane Jacobs, and then he took me to his apartment in Prospect Heights, where we had sex for hours in his parlor bedroom (which also had pocket doors, although he had a roommate and was smart enough to put the bed against the other wall). Then one morning, he turned to me and with a straight face said that he could never get serious about someone who didn’t live in brownstone Brooklyn. This seemed to me like a perfectly valid opinion, because at the time I felt the same way.
And then I met Will. Will didn’t live in brownstone Brooklyn; he lived in an ugly apartment in Williamsburg above a beauty parlor, which may have been why he didn’t mind taking NJ Transit to see me on nights when I just couldn’t commute again. In fact, he visited me enough times that we had a favorite bar and a favorite bartender, who knew to cut us off after three pitchers or we’d start to fight. For so long I’d been knocking at the door of someone else’s life, just hoping they’d invite me in and maybe let me stay.It meant something, that Will would leave the city, come out to where even I didn’t want to be. Five months in, he met my kids. One year later, in 2010, we all moved together into a Brooklyn brownstone.
Rather, we moved into the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone. (Williamsburg was never an option. The neighborhood he lived in, that I had come to kind of love, hadgentrified so quickly that it seemed to evaporate overnight.) But I was finally inhabiting a piece of my dream. I could sit on the stoop, see my friends at the store, walk to my single subway train at a normal morning hour. I loved to wander around our neighborhood at night and see how much those brownstones could hold—paintings, fireplaces, huge, heavy furniture no one ever had to move by the first of the month. After all those years, I still wanted the same thing: a stable, beautiful space in which I would finally feel both safe and free.
Except I couldn’t. The brownstone never let us forget that we were stuck in a slice of someone else’s house. Besides, the dishwasher didn’t work and the bathroom vibrated whenever trucks hit bumps on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, half a block away; basically, it vibrated all the time. All the interlocking IKEA ingenuity in the world couldn’t keep the kids from feeling constantly, sometimes literally, on top of each other. We loved Carroll Gardens, but when we came inside, all we could see through our two small windows were the trash cans on our doorstep. Ultimately, like so many New York choices, the decision was made for us. Our landlord decided to raise the rent, and we chose to leave.
Our new apartment was a “real” three bedroom with lots of light. (In the lingua franca of New York real estate, bedrooms not described as “real” or “true” may not actually exist.) The neighborhood, owned and occupied primarily by middle-class Orthodox Jews, was unexciting; still, compared to the brownstone, the prewar wasn’t just huge, it was whole. Closets appeared where they were needed—coat in the hallway, linen near the bathroom, his and hers in the master bedroom. The kitchen cabinets could fit appliances—blender, Cuisinart—I’d owned for years but rarely used, because I had no place to put them. The huge windows stayed bright all day, and, come Christmas, twelve-foot ceilings allowed for a spectacular tree.My children, no longer clipped like human bonsai, accumulated all the vital detritus of teenagerdom—posters and books, instruments and outfits, signs on their doors telling us to stay out and each other to fuck off. It wasn’t a brownstone or a house, but it felt a lot like a home.
It was supposed to. My apartment building was one of hundreds built in Brooklyn after World War I. Back then, even New Yorkers saw apartment buildings as suspicious, insubstantial structures somewhere on the sketchy spectrum between tenements and hotels. Elizabeth C. Cromley explains in Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments that “in a city full of recent arrivals … no one’s social rank was clear and people feared to be brought down in rank by living in the wrong sort of apartment building.” A hundred years later, I get that. Hell, I even believed it. For so long I was so sure that the right boy and the right brownstone would give me the right life, just as my parents believed that success required leaving the city and living in houses, even if—even after— those houses cost everything they had.
My children are in their twenties now, and we’ve lived with Will in this prewar rental apartment longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere before. The architecture critic Mark Wigley once wrote that “a house is a way of looking;” sometimes, we’re unaware of what—or why—we see, or how the stories we inhabit both shape and obstruct our vision. Narratives are not nature, and houses aren’t truths. Half a century after my parents left the city, I’m in love and very much at home in the space they left behind.
Beth Boyle Machlan is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn. She's working on a book of essays about real estate, identity, and desire. Her essays have appeared on Avidly, River Teeth, Guernica, The Rumpus, The Awl, and the New York Times. She yells about writing, teaching, her pets, and hockey at @bethmachlan.