Williamsburg: Retirement Community

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  • Photo via Idom Designs

What, you didn’t think actual young people were buying—or were even in the position to be allowed to accumulate the debt involved in buying—all the condos, did you? No, this Wall Street Journal trend piece about baby boomers flocking to Williamsburg makes perfect sense.

And other than a few cringe-y, Brooklyn-specific details (“When the 52-year-old corporate communications executive sets off for work in a suit, carrying a briefcase, with her hair in a bun, she is usually surrounded by young people with tattoos and rainbow crocheted skull caps”), this is all apparently part of a nationwide trend, in which older people are selling off much larger properties in the suburbs (or even just in less-cool Manhattan neighborhoods) in favor of smaller but more centrally located condos in urban areas. Essentially, a very expensive pendulum swing back from so-called “white flight.”

It’d be easy enough to make a lot of jokes here—the article features boomers complaining about the “dead zone” of the Upper East and Upper West sides of Manhattan, and realtors concerned about offending older buyers with details like “grab rails” in their expensive new showers (“wine storage rooms” apparently being the more popular choice)—but then, there’s not a lot of point to it. No one should be culturally isolated who doesn’t want to be, and even in its current, preposterous state, Williamsburg is much more vibrant than the suburbs (as is even the worst, least interesting of cities). A desire to stay relatively engaged with the world shouldn’t ever be punished, and most of the people in the article seem perfectly nice, like they’d be your friend’s parents (albeit much wealthier versions of them).

The issue here is how much the whole thing seems to be oriented around newly built, incredibly expensive condos, so much so that realtors are calling the market a “gold rush,” and everyone interviewed paid a lot more money for a lot less space in exchange for “a more diverse environment.” Which, of course, is part of the natural trade-off that comes with living in an urban area: less space, higher rents, more people, cooler stuff. But $1 million two-bedroom apartments are also sort of a large factor in quashing out the youthful “energy and life” buyers are putting such a high premium on in the first place. Maybe it’s quixotic (or just the self-soothing delusion of a person who has never been wealthy enough to consider waterfront condo life as a legitimate housing option), but it seems like setting up shop in a crazy, shiny pod of wealth that’s utterly different from the neighborhood surrounding it maybe isn’t the best way to “engage” with a city.

But then, supply and demand seems to dictate pretty clearly that I’m wrong here, and either way, there’s no accounting for taste (or what other people decide to do with their money). What there is accounting for—at least hypothetically—is disappearing rent stabilization, and sweeping zoning changes that permanently alter neighborhoods in favor of the wealthy, like the one Williamsburg underwent in 2005, or more recently, proposed changes in Bushwick. Seems like the city could do something about those, if it wanted to.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.