Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lena-not-Dunham UPDATED

Caity Weaver of Gawker has written a hilarious but essentially mistaken take-down of a NYT real-estate-section profile of some parents buying a one-bedroom apartment "for" (and I'll get to why the quotes are necessary) their 26-year-old daughter who's a college graduate with a job and everything. The young woman's crime - compounded by the fact that she shares a first name with a certain Ms. Dunham - is being a brat. In Weaver's reading, that is.

I didn't see a link to the piece itself in the Gawker post, but highly advanced research skills brought me to it. A key detail jumped out at me: "Her parents take over the bedroom when they visit." This is not this Lena's home, but her parents'. Not just in some abstract sense, in which money is power, and if they've paid for it, it's theirs. In a very literal one, namely that if she wants to have an overnight visitor, heck, if she wants to sleep in her own bed, that may not be an option. This is something above and beyond parents visiting. And as jealous as we all might be of OMG-one-bedroom-apartment-in-the-West-Village (not that one-bedroom barrack-apartments in New Jersey don't have their charms - and anyway, my dream is a townhouse in the West Village, thank you very much), this is a price of sorts. So there's this and whichever anti-motivational impact this sort of thing may - doesn't always, but may - have on a person.

The time may have come to stop looking at the phenomenon of parents "helping" their ever-older offspring as a wonderful thing for them to do if they can afford it. It's like I keep saying re: unpaid internships - rather than looking at it as, how unfortunate that not everyone has the option of working for free, we should see it as unfortunate that even many college-educated adults with previous office experience are now expected to do so. Reactions to tales like these aren't so much "class warfare," as the Gawker commentariat puts it, as a sense of pride on the part of those who made their own way, whose parents maybe couldn't but also maybe could have afforded to do something like this.

My point, then, is not that the rich are paradoxically less advantaged - if anything, the era of eternal parental assistance, in which the alternatives are rare cases of self-made swimming and a whole lot of sinking, makes having rich-and-"helpful" parents more important than ever. It's that we need a new way of thinking about a culture in which dependence (generally discreet, generally not profiled in the Times) goes on for as long as it now does. This culture is bad for the "kids" not getting help and for the ones getting it. And lord knows it hasn't done wonders for NYC real estate.


So, via the Gawker comments, there's yet another angle here, one that's been in the back of my own mind about this topic for ages, but that I was reluctant to bring up, because it seemed maybe gratuitously provincial. But no, so here goes: anti-Semitic misogyny. There's one comment that's just kind of bafflingly anti-Jewish (although I think I can unpack it - Brooklyn is haute-hipster-Americana created by rich white kids not from the NYC area, whereas Manhattan necessitates local connections, local roots, or something?), and another that calls out Chelsea of all neighborhoods as having "sprouted into a Jewish American Princess haven," thereby missing the demographic that the area's boutiques are aiming for. And this with a Lena we have no reason to think is Jewish! A full analysis of the relationship between YPIS and JAP-o-phobia must wait, and may never come, but is stirring in my head, at least.


Flavia said...

Wow, it's not clear that Weaver read the original with any attention, since it doesn't really say what she claims it says.

The daughter doesn't mind a walk-up. She doesn't mind a narrow kitchen. It's her mom who wants the fancy stuff--and her parents have clearly been interested in having an apartment in NYC for a very long time (and expect to be able to entertain their friends there). The daughter is just the excuse.

The piece is still nauseating, but all "The Hunt" pieces are nauseating in much the same way (has anyone ever wound up paying even in the low end of their projected price range? in my experience, they always got over budget but it's always "worth it"). In any case, the problem isn't the daughter, who was apparently capable of paying a relatively steep rent for a tiny shared apartment for two years.

Phoebe said...

Yeah, I wasn't sure how to react to any of this. I read the Gawker post first, thought it was quite funny, then read the Hunt column and didn't think Weaver had gotten the point. Meanwhile, there *is* something horrible about all these Styles profiles, where the subjects *always* come across as obnoxious, as not realizing that the sums their talking about are insanely high to readers outside New York and all the more infuriating to readers in the city who are making do with much less. So maybe Weaver's post was mean-spirited (maybe, definitely), but assuming those profiled are adults, this is one of the more straightforward examples I can think of of getting what one has asked for.

As for whether the daughter could afford the high rent she was paying before... maybe? I wouldn't be so sure her parents weren't paying some/all of that as well. My recollection of renting in the city as a recent college grad was that anyone not in finance was either somewhere deep into an outer borough, in an upscale area with the parents paying, or in an in-between area with the parents signing on as guarantors (i.e. the kid might be paying the entire rent, but the landlord won't rent the place to someone earning under X% of the rent unless the parents promise to pay if the tenant does not) or lending however many months upfront so as to avoid being guarantors.

Which... is making me want to launch into an unrelated thing about how the rents are driven up by not just finance incomes, but also the ample supply of parents who either do or can pay their adult offspring's rent, thereby completely warping the relationship between incomes and rents... but that's another matter, and not my problem anymore, now that I don't live there.

fourtinefork said...

This is more a comment to Phoebe's comment than to Phoebe's post: I'm not even a recent college grad, and I still feel caught in the ridiculousness of trying to find a NYC studio to call my own.

I have a PhD. Using the general metrics for renting an apartment in NYC (40x rent), I basically don't qualify for most studio apartments based on my salary. I'm not all that picky. I live happily in Harlem now (in a share), I'm happy with a small space, but eventually it would be nice to have my own spot. My parents (out-of-state) don't make enough money to serve as guarantors, and I'd frankly be horrified to ask them. I'm in my 30s. I don't see getting a big raise anytime soon. I feel screwed.

Of course, Mom if you win the lottery, buy me a place? Please? You can totally have the bedroom on your twice yearly visits!

PS, Phoebe you asked in comments a while back, to which I never responded, if I was a grad student in NYC and if we knew each other. I once was a grad student living off $20K in NYC. I'm now a PhD living off maybe double that. Yay art history!

Phoebe said...


I hardly know anyone in art history, so I suppose that answers the question of whether I know you. But I'm impressed with the doubled salary. There are plenty of ways to make much less (and work full-time) with a humanities doctorate.

Re: NYC rents, it is indeed horrible, and basically no-win. If you're not in a very lucrative field, you not only don't have the option of places you can't afford (which, fair enough) but also don't have the option of the ones you can afford (esp. if you don't have many other expenses, i.e. kids), unless your parents live nearby/make enough (the requirement being, as I remember it, higher if the parents don't live in the city)/agree to sign on to this, which, as you note, would become all the more difficult to even ask the further you are from college.

What was most bizarre to me was that the rent of the subsidized first-year grad-student housing (which I personally never lived in - I was already in a much-cheaper place in Brooklyn) was well above that 40x (I'd forgotten the specifics, but yes...) rule for I'd imagine any grad student with give or take the standard fellowship. Obviously we *could* pay a certain amount, but landlords disagreed. And the university could serve as a guarantor, but landlords maybe didn't accept that, I don't remember the details, but it was none of it the best argument for being a grad student in the city. Once you have a place, it's great, but that process, ugh.

And I'm not sure what the answer is. The parents who pay/subsidize their kids' rent, you can't really blame them for wanting to keep their kids safe (which is probably how this is understood, esp. by parents not living in the city themselves), nor their kids for accepting this. (Is it whiny entitlement, or would it cause more of a scene to insist on not graciously accepting whichever $4k/month option?) Next, the whole guarantor thing is propped up by the fact that rents are so high to begin with, but if parents weren't willing to step up, or adult children weren't willing to accept this, then maybe rents would go down a bit, and at least there wouldn't be this bureaucratic (and humiliating) fuss to rent an apartment. Meanwhile, the most screwed are those who then can't live anywhere except for where the rule says is OK, and who don't even have the option of regressing and involving their parents in their adult housing decisions. The problem is that parents are so deeply involved, but the answer is not going to be for individual parents to opt out.

i said...

Parents taking over the master bedroom is not some kind of major power play, it's just decency. Older people need the better bed, and the better mattress is usually in the bedroom. At least in my family -- when the in-laws come to visit, if they don't get a hotel room they get our bed and we sleep on the couch/second mattress/fold out, whatever. We pay every last cent of our expenses. There's nothing to say Lena can't have someone sleep over at the same time, she just has to get a fold-out couch. Given that she's saving a lot on rent and has control of the decor, she should be able to manage that.

What pissed me off, for lo, these things make me rage just as much, is the whole, "In California, we have this strange, unique tribal practice of hospitality, in which we invite people we like over to our homes." Like, seriously? Am I the only one who entertained in a NYC apartment?

Phoebe said...


What's strange isn't that when the parents visit, this is where they'd sleep. What's strange is that this is their "pied-à-terre" in the city, and they can do so whenever they please.

But agreed in full that NYC apartments are rarely made for spontaneous entertaining.

Sigivald said...

See, this just reminds me why I never read either the Times or Gawker.

Think of all the trouble and aggravation it'd save?

Phoebe said...


I'm not sure anyone here is troubled or aggravated - maybe Weaver, but it's her job to seem so. One could perfectly well restrict one's self to weather updates and news about whether there is or is not a war happening on one's street, and live in blissful ignorance of the rest. I just find these stories interesting because of what they tell us about our times. But if they raise one's blood pressure gratuitously, sure, one should avoid them.

(Oh, and yes, yes, the requisite response: no one's forcing you to read either, or to read/comment on a blog post discussing both. I think bloggy law demands I recite that. But I've replied all the same.)

Britta said...

I know wealthy people are styles material, and many of them have bought apartments for their children in Manhattan, mostly as investment properties. Since these parents would be paying/heavily subsidizing their child's rent anyways, the rationale is the parent gets more out of buying a property they can sell/rent out later rather than throwing $2,000/month down the drain while their kid is in grad school for X number of years.

Phoebe said...


Part of this is the difference between being Styles material and actually consenting to/seeking out a Styles profile.

As for the rationale, sure, yes, this exists. And on an individual level - for this family, for other families - can work out just fine. But there's a broader structural problem of salaries and rents not really relating to each other, when it's assumed that entry-level workers, even 30-something workers, are being subsidized by their parents. It seems somehow different if young people buying a home get help from their parents (even if this no doubt raises home prices), but the ability to just rent a room roughly near where you work seems basic and yet impossible in much of the city. There's also the broader structural problem of adults with jobs feeling like and effectively being dependents, in which case it hardly matters if rent or mortgage payments are being subsidized/covered in full.

Britta said...

ha, I meant to write, "I know wealthy people WHO are styles material"

Yes, I've read things about how many cities are pricing themselves out of non-wealthy people living there. Part of it is this trend of the wealthy buying/subsidizing their children's middle class lifestyles, pushing out middle class people, and part of it is that in really popular places, the über-wealthy are buying their nth home, but then not really living there or contributing to the community. I've been told in Venice most of the houses are vacant most of the year. My boyfriend's (partner's?) home village is similar, the town center has gone from about 1500 people to 500 elderly people, and almost all the businesses not catering to wealthy tourists have moved elsewhere or gone out of business. There's no butcher, but you can get a 200 euro blouse. Obviously NY is a very long ways away from being like that, but it's the same general trend.