Friday, 7:05 AM – Tom finishes his breakfast and hurries to put on his tie and jacket. He has to be to work early this morning, so he’s rushing to catch the 7:17. He didn’t have a chance to make coffee, but that’s ok – he has just enough time to stop at before heading to the station.
He and his wife, Kristen, have been married for about six months, and they couldn’t be happier. After graduating college (he went to Rutgers, she went to Stony Brook), they each had to move back home with their parents, and they spent months looking for a place to live. It was important to both of them to move back to Long Island; they wanted to be close to their families and couldn’t imagine starting their own family anywhere else. Even though they have good jobs, they weren’t ready to buy a home - $20,000 for a down payment, and then more money for closing costs? What recent college graduate has that kind of money?
That’s why when Tom and Kristen heard about the homes at New Village, they jumped at the opportunity. They love living downtown – it reminds them of being in Williamsburg, where many of their friends live. The rent is perfect for what they make, and they because they only have one car, they can afford to put a little extra away each month. They’re not ready to have kids – not yet, anyway – but they’ve both had their eye on some of the old homes on Jayne Avenue. One day, in a few years, they’ll be ready to buy, right here in Patchogue.
But that’s still a long way away. For now, Tom is just looking forward to the weekend. His friends are taking the train to Patchogue from Bay Shore tonight to go out for dinner and drinks.
Friday, 6:45 AM – Tom rolls out of bed and climbs the stairs to the kitchen, where his mom is making breakfast. At first, living with his parents wasn’t so bad. But after three years, it’s beginning to wear on him, and on his parents too. The house is too big for them, especially since his brothers and sisters moved out. His dad can’t keep up with the yard anymore, or the house for that matter. Tom helps out when he can, but he works long hours, and his job keeps him busy on the weekends too.
Tom’s parents bought their house 36 years ago – it was a small “starter home” then, but over the years they added on, renovated, and turned it into a nice nest egg. Tom and his girlfriend Kristen looked into buying, but it seems like there are no more starter homes anymore on Long Island. Besides, Kristen’s older brother and his wife bought a home in 2005. Then he lost his job when the economy crashed, and they’ve been in default on their since 2010. Tom wasn’t about to let that happen to him and Kristen.
He’d like to spend a nice night out with friends tonight, but unfortunately they’ve all moved away – the Carolinas, Arizona, Florida, even Brooklyn and Queens. Some weekends Kristen meets him in the city after work. Tom’s been thinking more and more about his friend in Charlotte. He says the IT firm he works for is hiring, and housing is cheap – really cheap. Tom’s parents would like to sell their house and follow him down there. The only problem is, who’s going to buy it?
In the 1920s, a group of American artists, disillusioned by the slaughter the world had witnessed during World War I, moved to Paris, pulling together the various strands of emergent modernism into a subgenre of art and literature that was canonized when Gertrude Stein famously observed, “You are all a Lost Generation.” The movement was characterized by its celebration of the cosmopolitanism and urbanism of the Continent, its rejection of the rigid turn-of-the-century social formalisms on which they were reared, and an underlying cynicism regarding humanity’s ability to achieve meaningful ‘progress’ without eventual decay into destruction. The descent into war, for these young people, represented the ultimate failure of what had supposed been a civil society; thus they constructed their own norms, their own lifestyles, and their own version of progress.
I had the opportunity to attend the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in Boston last spring, where the thought struck me that America’s youth are on the brink of becoming lost once again. I discussed with a graduate student her research on ‘Young Adults, Cities & the American Dream.’ The American Dream, she noted, has long been equated with homeownership – a house, a yard, a garage, neighbors, cul-de-sac barbecues. Yet with the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent financial crisis founded on mortgage defaults and foreclosures, she postulated that we are in the midst of nothing less than a paradigm shift. This researcher interviewed youths in 11 different parts of the country, documenting their changing perceptions of the American Dream. The great majority expressed an overwhelming preference for renting in an urban environment, close to amenities, entertainment, employment, and other people, to owning in the suburbs. And these are not exclusively 22-year-old recent college graduates, still craving a highly active social lifestyle and generally lacking familial responsibilities. These are late-20s, early-30s professionals, with spouses, working 50-hour weeks, innovating, progressing, interacting. These are young families who have seen their older friends, their siblings, and their coworkers go underwater on their homes or lose them altogether to foreclosure.
This is not just a national trend. According to this year's Long Island Index report, 67% of 18-34 year olds say it is likely they will move out of Long Island to an area with lower housing costs and property taxes in the next 5 years. 65% of 18-34 year olds said it was important to them to live within walking distance of a train station or bus stop. And 70% of 18-34 year olds support increasing height limits in downtown areas to allow apartments above shops. In the world of public opinion, these figures constitute a landslide; the message from young people today is loud and clear.
The American Dream is a social construct, subject to eternal change and reinterpretation. Its current iteration has its genesis in federal housing policies following World War II that drove homeownership and automobile ownership as twin symbols of success and happiness. Prior to that, the American Dream had been defined by better opportunities, the promise of food and employment, the ability to better oneself and one’s family through hard work. It had nothing to do with owning a home. Perhaps the future’s Dream will be defined by a lifestyle that thrives off the energy of close interaction with people of similar, and different, ideas, that cherishes the opportunity to live within walking distance of physical and social needs, and that retains the sense of tight-knit community associated with the suburbs.
This Dream is not liberal or conservative. It has been championed by figures on the left, who praise the environmentally-friendly aspects of urban living. And it has been championed by figures on the right, who see this urban dynamism as critical to economic competitiveness and innovation.
The new Dream, in truth, has been a long time coming. It may seem hard now to understand that something that has been taken for granted for so long – that everyone wants to (and should) buy a home – is being fundamentally undermined. But the old Dream was built a “drive ‘til you qualify” approach to real estate, a land-use system that is too spread out and too expensive to service, and too reliant on gas prices that will never again exist. These are some of the very reasons the housing market collapsed, bringing down the entire economy along with it, and why projects like New Village are so important. This collapse was our World War I. And we’ve taken away our lessons.
Homeownership is not the surety and path to happiness and prosperity that it formerly symbolized. The Grammy for Best Album of 2010 was awarded to the Arcade Fire for their album The Suburbs. “Sometimes I wonder if the world is so small,” one of the album’s central refrains bemoans, “that we can never get away from the sprawl.” The words are worthy of Stein.