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Are Baby Boomers Excluding Millennials From Neighborhood Assocations?

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Many Americans claim they want a strong local community, but few really want to work for it. Everyone at one point or another has a desire for human contact, friendship, sharing experiences, or just being in the thick of things. The realization that real community was largely lacking in the United States—and the revelation that bad urban design played a role in its decline—is one of the central starting points for the New Urbanism movement.

But it’s also worth looking at this issue as it manifests in the “back-to-the-city” movement, the recent demographic trend that has turned once declining urban places into hot real-estate markets. Is the phenomenon of city revitalization fulfilling its promise of better and stronger community ties, as people are lured to places like Brooklyn and Astoria (or Cambridge and Alameda)?

To older residents of these places, many of whom were “first-wave” gentrifiers back in the 1980s or earlier, newcomers to these neighborhoods are secretive, uncommunicative, and never shop at locally-owned stores. The apartment buildings of newer residents are just people warehouses whose occupants will be dispersed within a year or two.

There is some truth to this kind of criticism, even if it is not a new kind of argument. As far back as the 1960s, no less than Jane Jacobs expressed similar concerns about residents of new Greenwich Village apartment buildings in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—even though both she and her husband were newcomers there.

I have lived in my current apartment for three years and still barely know my neighbors. When I first moved to Boston in 2012, I moved six times in three years and some of my friends have experienced a similar lack of stability. While we do enjoy local restaurants when we can, it is true that my friends and I tend to shop at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or pharmacies and convenience stores like CVS—brands we recognize—rather than independent, local places. One of my current roommates even got his groceries through Amazon Fresh for a while.

One of the concepts from sociology that has come to influence how urbanists think about community is the “third place [1].” These are spaces and places that are neither homes nor workplaces, where people can gather: churches, libraries, bars, parks, cafes—even sidewalks and street corners. Knowing or at least recognizing people you see at the store or on the bus can build trust and social ties. Even such weak ties can be good for spreading important information or just doing simple favors like watching children, holding spare keys, and so on. A lot of young people aren’t making these ties and becoming an integral part of their communities and neighborhoods. Older residents assume this is because we’re internet-obsessed troglodytes who prefer using our dollars to further line Jeff Bezos’ pockets—and apparently we are just too lazy to show up to community meetings and shop at local stores.

This sort of argument, which I have heard from many quarters in six years of living in Boston, is just laughable. Many older people bought their houses at rock bottom prices in the 1970s and ‘80s, and reaped massive increases in equity—and their student loans were much smaller or nonexistent. They have the money and leisure time to shop at expensive local stores and go to community meetings. The problem is not young people who are supposedly disinterested in community, but our elders who are intent on keeping us out—and using their success and relative wealth to justify their stance.

Many neighborhood institutions simply don’t accommodate the needs of newcomers. Often, local stores offer a bewildering and changing array of hours, always arranging to be open when most people are at work or commuting to and from there. It’s not just local retailers, either. Branch libraries around here tend to be open from 8 a.m to 4 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Unsurprisingly, librarians and small retailers are quick to complain about their lack of patronage. It’s perplexing that business owners in a place like Boston still think it’s the 1950s.


Longstanding neighborhood organizations don’t seem to recognize these issues. They are ostensibly supposed to represent local interests, especially ones that have an official or semi-official character within the city government, like making recommendations to municipal zoning and licensing boards.

In reality, neighborhood associations often seem devoted to sealing the area off from outside influence, especially new residents. There is an association in my Cambridge neighborhood. They have a website that has not been updated in over a year and similarly dormant social media accounts. Thus one cannot attend a meeting unless one already attends meetings. This is closer to the behavior of an unelected, unaccountable cabal rather than a group interested in being truly representative.

How can these associations claim to care about community when they refuse to allow all residents to participate in it?

Community requires social trust. People who refuse to see new neighbors as anything but a threat are preventing such trust from ever developing. Viewing all change as bad is also counterproductive, especially with how quickly yesterday’s disastrous project by a greedy developer from out-of-town can turn into a beloved town center. (In West Los Angeles, for example, a mall called the Westside Pavillion was fought for years and now people are worried about its closure changing the character of the neighborhood, according to the Los Angeles Times [2].)

Some people seem to want to preserve their neighborhoods in aspic, or maybe amber, given the property prices these days. But thy forget that not only are communities are constantly changing—they exist for far longer than a single human lifespan.

Communities require love and care and must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next. The attitude of hostility to newcomers, of excluding them from neighborhood life, will ensure that a sense of place dies with the current occupants. Young people will never develop an attachment to the place if they are not included in civic life or are driven out by rising rents; they will certainly never be able to raise families in places where housing is prohibitively expensive.

In the life of a community, even lifelong residents are ultimately temporary inhabitants. Their stories and traditions are more important than the buildings. If the sense of place they have created over the years is to survive and adapt to new realities, it must find a way to integrate and involve the next generation.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

Follow @MattRobare [3] Follow @NewUrbs [4]

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Are Baby Boomers Excluding Millennials From Neighborhood Assocations?"

#1 Comment By John On May 24, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

Propping up housing prices through the use of restrictive zoning laws is by far the cruelest aspect of this mild intergenerational warfare.

I have friends who make very good money but because they live in high cost cities they can’t afford to save up for a down payment on a house.

These same people will laugh at my generation for living at home, all while they collectively hire lawyers as soon as they hear of any sort of development which may slightly reduce the growth in their nest egg.

Restrictive zoning has done more to destroy community than anything else. Kids have to move for away from their parents because they can’t afford their parents towns; those same parents have to move for away when they downsize because they can’t afford other houses when they leave.

This says nothing of the poor who can’t dream of living without roommates let alone owning a house.

#2 Comment By Jen On May 24, 2018 @ 11:59 pm

Old person rant: I am GenX and serve on my HOA board. Meetings are open and always advertised in advance. Guess who shows up? Nobody but the 5 board members, all of whom are 40 or older. I know all of my older neighbors. When I say “hi” to the millennials who move in, they pretend I’m not there and scurry away. Their lack of social skills is really, truly weird.

So, advice: Being part of a community doesn’t magically happen. You might have to find a phone number for that community association and ask when the meeting is. You might have to make slightly more of an effort to patronize local businesses instead of getting everything on Amazon. You may have to endure minor inconveniences (like spending five minutes talking to your old, boring neighbors) in order to feel connected to your community. Just pretend you’re in a 1980s TV show and maybe it’ll be fun!!

(And before you talk about how easy boomers had it, go look up inflation rates and mortgage interest rates for the 1970s and early 80s. Yikes.)

#3 Comment By Liam On May 25, 2018 @ 8:19 am

About those student loans and mortgages in the 1970s and 1980s (particularly the early 1980s): while the principal amounts may have been much smaller on an inflation-adjusted basis, the interests rates were much higher (I had 12% interest on my student loans; mortgage rates shot up to over 20% – this was the time when states repealed usury caps…), making the actual debt load higher than might be perceived from a 35-year remove.

#4 Comment By Frank On May 25, 2018 @ 9:10 am

Not in Fishtown. It’s the inverse. Baby Boomers have little if any sway. I would guess this is because most of the Baby Boomers who are left are not the neighborhood association type to begin with. At a typical Fishtown Neighbors Assoc. meeting the ratio is about 20 to 1 in favor of millennials.

#5 Comment By Thymoleontas On May 25, 2018 @ 9:16 am

“Communities require love and care and must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next.”

Yes, and wealth must be deliberately handed from one generation to the next in the form of inheritance and dowry. But, is it a coincidence that baby boomers don’t do that either?

#6 Comment By Johann On May 25, 2018 @ 9:19 am

The baby boom generation is the most selfish generation. And I’m saying this as a baby boomer myself. Many were too selfish to have children but still want their social security and medicare. Even so-called conservative baby boomers falsely claim that they paid for SS and medicare and that they “deserve” it. They were actually paying for the people already on SS and medicare. And now many lefty baby boomers think third world immigration will save their SS and medicare. It won’t. It will drag the nation ever deeper into third worldliness.

#7 Comment By Dan Green On May 25, 2018 @ 10:29 am

I am not sure what was expected but the so called Boomer generation didn’t leave as they say a very good taste in peoples minds.They simply had convictions and the numbers to change America and they did.

#8 Comment By Lert345 On May 25, 2018 @ 11:35 am

I live an hour away from NYC. Most young people living there have a bunch of roommates or their parents are helping them with the rent. Once they’re ready to start a family, it’s off to the suburbs. City living is just too costly to put down long-term roots.

Jen, forget about face to face interaction with your millennial neighbors. They’ll probably be less intimidated if you text them.

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On May 25, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

Speaking as a Boomer, living in an affluent town full of wealthy boomers (I’m “grandfathered” in, so to speak) I see this happening. There is a dire need for housing, rental or otherwise, and anytime someone proposed a cluster of low income housing or workforce housing, a lot of people just about soil their pants. Because property values…

The Greatest Generation we are not.

#10 Comment By Ken T On May 25, 2018 @ 8:45 pm

Decisions are made by those who show up. If you’re sitting there waiting for someone to come knocking on your door begging you to join you will be waiting a long time. Try attending a meeting, without waiting to be asked. Their website not up to date? Call and ask when the next meeting will be. During the public question period, raise you hand and mention that the website is out of date. I guarantee that within 10 minutes YOU will be named as the head of the “Website Update Committee” – and voila – you are now one of the insiders making the decisions. That’s how life works – alway has, and always will.

#11 Comment By DrivingBy On May 26, 2018 @ 12:07 am

Boomers and Millenials richly deserve each other.

Export the Boomers to China, along with their St Billary. Export the Millenials and their Emperor Hussain to a diverse destination, Mexico or Pakistan are suitable. Both trips to be one-way.

#12 Comment By FL Transplant On May 26, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

So you moved six times in three years–meaning every six months–and now you’ve lived in your current apartment for three years and hardly know anyone? And it’s the fault of you older neighbors that you’re not connected to the neighborhood?

As one of the baby boomers in my neighborhood I don’t feel much of a need to get to know people who move in at Easter and are gone by Thanksgiving–I did dorm/barracks life, thanks, with the rotating cast of people next door, but have moved past that now. If you’ve lived next door to someone have you ever knocked on their door and introduced yourself, or done anything to fit into the neighborhood and meet people? I can say that it works both ways, and while it is great if people who already live there put themselves out to welcome newcomers it’s at least partially incumbent on the newcomer to make an effort as well. And you indicate you don’t know any of your neighbors–that includes your generational peers as well, I’d suspect, so it’s not solely a generational thing, is it?

I get the inconvenience of meeting times, but when our HOA started meetings at times convenient for people who worked–7PM–guess what? No one showed, other than those who were already attending at 5PM. After half a year–with the meetings and times well-publicized on the HOA web site and the neighborhood listserv–the HOA BoD saw no reason to inconvenience themselves and went back to the previous time. There was no reason to run the meeting from 7-10, when the only people attending were the same ones there when they were from 5-8.

My local branch libraries are open until 9PM Mon-Fri, as well as during the day on Sat-Sun. Try contacting the library and find out why they have the hours they do–my experience is that they desperately want the patronage, and have selected the hours that maximizes that. (Your comment reminds me of back when I was 2LT and a group of us complained to the Officer Club manager that he didn’t have any events for us–the entertainment, dining, and bar choices and options were all orientated towards senior officers and retirees. He readily and completely agreed. His point was that us junior officers were a very small proportion of his business, and when he had made changes to attract us JOs–a casual, BDU/flight suit secondary bar, bringing in local rock bands on weekends, setting up for a standing JO night around the pool every week during the summer with burgers/beer/margaritas with no dress restrictions (swimsuits, cut-offs, tank tops–come as you wanted)–we never showed up and he drove those that were his customer base away. So, check with your local branch library on why their hours are what they are before you keep complaining.)

As far as the 70s and 80s and housing prices, do some research on where the term “Yuppie” came from–Young Urban Professional, a demographic that at that time was priced out of the housing market and consequently was spending their money on things other than housing–restaurant meals, vacations, gym memberships, and such–instead of plowing their cash into a mortgage. Mortgages at 17% will do that to you.

I deliberately moved into a TND/New Urbanism neighborhood, instead of an age-restricted community**, because I wanted to live in a place with varied demographics–people of various ages, stages in life, different needs and wants in housing and amenities (I don’t have any need for playgrounds for toddlers, but my neighbors with them do and I think it’s great that our neighborhood provides them.) But if you’re not willing to engage with your neighbors don’t blame them for your not being incorporated into the community.

My daughter lives in Greenpoint, and has moved every couple of years as her rent goes up and she can’t afford to stay in her place any longer at the new rate. When we visit her she can’t walk down the street without running into friends, of all ages and backgrounds. She knows the local merchants, restaurants, and taverns/cafes/coffee shops and is known there. What’s she doing that you’re not?

**The people building those communities have done their research–the homes they build and amenities they provide are absolutely on point for what I wanted. I suboptimized on the house and amenities to live in the neighborhood I wanted.

#13 Comment By vladdy On May 26, 2018 @ 6:49 pm

I can’t believe this is a “thing.” Maybe extroverts, who need constant company and reassurance from others, but…seems that getting together with people– not sharing interests, but because you live near each other — is about as real as talking about co-workers being like a “family.”

As for the line, “cannot afford a place alone, let alone a house” — we’ve all been there. That’s part of starting out in adult life. You either get a cheap studio apt in a dodgy neighborhood or you share.

#14 Comment By TR On May 26, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

Liam’s right about interest rates on loans and mortgages. I had colleagues paying eighteen percent interest on 30 year mortgages. To this day, when I see projected monthly payments on an advertised house, I can’t believe my eyes. No wonder people can afford more house than I ever could back then.

#15 Comment By Mark Thomason On May 27, 2018 @ 7:26 am

Neighborhood associations and condo boards and coop boards have always been problems. Lawyers don’t like working for them, because they won’t listen and they breed constant disputes that are total losers. They seem to attract people who don’t have anything better to do than use their slight powers to trouble people who have better things to do.

It is not meant to be that way. It does not have to be that way, by any design. It is however a constant of reality, and it has been that way long before the Boomers’ dispute with the next generations.

#16 Comment By MJR On May 28, 2018 @ 3:20 am

To the author of the article, I think you’ve nailed it. I’m one of those people on the older side of the age equation who seems to be shaking their heads a lot these days.
Good article Matthew. Thanks.