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Full Brownstone Nests

The kids are moving back home in Brooklyn—because they need to (and they want to!). But what about when they start families of their own? Or when the boyfriend wants to sleep over?

Originally published in The New York Observer, March 25, 2008

At 434 Henry Street, the four-story brownstone where the Eisenberg family has lived for 27 years, the street narrows until the opposing rows of 19th-century homes seem to lean out over the passing cars like full-grown elms. Allan and Rusti Eisenberg raised three daughters here—Jenny, 28, Annie, 25, and Lizzie, 22—and, since graduating from college, each has returned home to live for a few months or a few years at a time.

For the children of the Brownstone boomers, moving back in with the parents has become commonplace.

“I think you could walk door to door in this neighborhood and get the same story,” said Rusti Eisenberg, a history professor at Hofstra University. Her daughters call the Henry Street house in Carroll Gardens their Bermuda Triangle.

A few factors drive this phenomenon. The Brooklyn neighborhoods where these graduates grew up have become hip places to live, and rents there and throughout New York City have skyrocketed. “Another important thing, I think, is that the clash in values between parents and their grown children is not as extreme as it once was,” Rusti said.

The result is a generation of young graduates for whom returning home has become less a sign of defeat than a strategy on the path to adulthood.

Mom and Pop Eisenberg, both 63, finished college in 1967, the same year Dustin Hoffman moved home in The Graduate, but neither Rusti nor Allan considered living with their parents. “Are you kidding me?” said Allan, a psychotherapist, sweating lightly at his kitchen table after a Sunday morning jog. “I never would have dreamed of doing that.”

Annie, their middle daughter, lived at home for three years after college with her partner.

“I never felt there was anything I had to hide from my folks, and that was crucial,” Annie said. While Annie lived at home, Miguel would often spend the night. “We knew him pretty well by the time they came back from college,” Rusti said. “It was actually kind of fun to have them around.”

The transfer of values is a comfort in this situation, but there is an irony as well, one the Eisenbergs are well aware of. All three daughters have taken jobs in public interest law or at nonprofits that don’t pay much. “Many kids have imbibed their parents’ liberal, anticorporate values to the point where they can’t afford to do anything,” Rusty said. “It’s hilarious, but it’s also upsetting.”

The daughters have mixed feelings about living at home. Annie says she might consider renting from her parents in the future. Lizzie, who still lives at home, says she can’t afford to leave. Jenny, the oldest, demurs. “I love my parents, but I don’t know about moving back in with them again. They are so messy.”

Not all families are as comfortable sharing space as the Eisenbergs. When Caroline Parsons, 24, moved back home to her parents’ brownstone at 91 Sterling Place in Park Slope, she had just spent a year as an independent adult in Bushwick.

“I love living here and getting to know my parents on an adult level, but there were some specific things that I wanted,” Ms. Parsons said. “I cleaned my own room; I bought my own groceries. This seems trivial, but it was important to me, because once you start sharing those things, you lose the sense of independence.”

Her mother, Donna, 58, agrees: “Plus, middle-aged people like their things to be where they left them.”

“Otherwise they can’t find them,” said her husband Bill, 59.

The Parsons hold court in their kitchen, a lovingly crafted country-style room that reminds Donna and Bill of their roots in North Carolina. If the kitchen is communal turf, the two bathrooms mark a battle zone. After several squabbles with her mother, Caroline was forced to move her towel and toiletries downstairs to a separate bathroom. Things have improved since then. “Although I must say, there is a large towel missing,” Donna said.

“Oh, that’s because I spilled my hair mask on it, Mom,” Caroline said.

“Your what? What color is that?”

“It’s white. Well, pearlescent.”

“Well, how did it get spilled on the towel in the first place?” Donna asked. She paused a moment and laughed. “You see, it’s that sort of thing.”

When it comes to boyfriends, the Parsons take a very different tack from the Eisenbergs. Caroline is allowed to have boyfriends over, and she’s allowed to spend the night sleeping elsewhere, but boyfriends cannot spend the night at the Parsons’ house. Donna insists this is not an issue of morals but of comfort. “My thing is, I wouldn’t want to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and have to worry about running into some young man.”

“And my thing is, I don’t want guys sleeping with my daughter,” Bill said with a chuckle.

The Parsons both enjoy having their daughter home, but they don’t necessarily agree on what effect it has. “I worry that living here puts her on a different track from people out there hustling,” Bill said. “The stuff you get from interacting with the world adds to your skills in an inexplicable way.”

Donna disagrees. “What can they achieve if they spend all their time trying to pay their rent?”

Donna Parsons’ question is one that occurs to many indigenous New Yorkers returning home. All the graduates interviewed for this story agreed that living on your own in New York City was possible, especially if you had a well-paying corporate job. But for those who hope to someday own property in the areas where they grew up, or to make a career in a less lucrative field, living with your parents makes a certain kind of sense; you can’t afford not to.

Christine Kim, 31, grew up in Queens and went back to live with her parents after college. She worked first as a marketing consultant for a firm that went bust during the dot.com crash, then for Sony Pictures Classic.

“The amount I saved while living at home was enough for a down payment on an apartment,” Ms. Kim said. She bought a studio in a historic limestone townhouse along Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West for $130,000 in 2002, and sold the place three and a half years later for $260,000.

Jenny, the Eisenbergs’ eldest daughter, wishes she had made similar choices.

“It’s funny, because in retrospect, it would have made sense to live at home from the outset like my sisters,” she said. “At the time, though, none of my friends were doing that, so after a month or two at home, I moved out. And once I lived on my own, I felt that going home would be accepting defeat.”

After living on his own for two years, Andrew McKay moved in with his parents on Clinton Street in Cobble Hill when he wanted to make a career change.

“I definitely felt some embarrassment—but actually lots of people understood that it was a realistic thing to do financially,” he said. “I think for a lot of young people it is definitely a career strategy.” Since getting engaged and finding a job at Miramax, Mr. McKay has moved back out and now lives in Park Slope. “That made my parents happy … and my fiance.”

As these grads begin to break from their 20’s into their 30’s, a new question looms. “I think the last piece of the puzzle is yet to be played out,” Rusti Eisenberg said. “What happens when they want to have families of their own?”

As The Observer noted last December, even as the city’s population is growing, there is a simultaneous exodus of young families. “You have what’s been going on in other cities—the people staying are childless, and the people leaving have families,” Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History and a noted expert on the economic trends of cities, told The Observer then.

The Eisenbergs hope that they can use their brownstone to give their daughters the same opportunity they had. “I think it’s possible that Jenny and her boyfriend might move back here,” Rusti said.

“I think they should move back here,” Allan said.

“I think it is in Annie and Miguel’s mind, too,” Rusti said. “Lizzie, she lives here already.”

When the Eisenbergs moved to Henry Street in the 1980’s, it was a working-class Italian-American neighborhood. “All these houses were multigenerational, nobody ever went anywhere,” Rusti said. The Eisenbergs never imagined living that way. “But now,” Rusti said, “we see it very differently, and we wonder if, in the future, we might transform our house for the children.”

Allan nodded his head. “No one we grew up with wanted to move back in with their families after college. But maybe our generation was the anomaly.”

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