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Dubbed the Tara of Prospect Park South, Williams' three-story manse, which she bought for $2.5 million, boasts 18 rooms, eight gas- and wood-burning fireplaces; a front porch with both Ionic and Doric columns; a spiral bridal staircase; and original details including ornate moldings and large, stained-glass windows.
When I read the news, I felt it as a physical blow to my gut. I sent the article to my husband with a dramatic missive accusing "Michelle Effing Williams," about whom my feelings are decidedly neutral, of razing our dreams of ever owning a house there. I was jealous of a movie star and more than a little resentful: She had encroached on our territory, and there was nothing I could do about it.
But I was also confused. Though I'm not immune to the draw of celebrity gossip rags, I don't seek them out either. I'll listlessly flip through old issues of Us Weekly at the doctor's office, lingering on a photo of Jennifer Lawrence's bone structure or imagining myself being made up by Adele's genius makeup artist, but quickly forget about those things when my name is called. But weeks later I was still moping about this bit of real estate news, and I realized what was so different about my Michelle Williams envy.
Owning a house has always been a priority for my husband and me, perhaps because we both had childhoods without one — at least, not in any stable way. My husband grew up in a rented apartment and, aside from the first three years of my life, I never had my own room until I went to college.
Aside from the first three years of my life, I never had my own room until I went to college.
We did have a house, for awhile. But when I was nine, my family came home one day to find an eviction notice nailed to the door. The four of us (my parents, my younger brother, and me) had a week to move out of our ranch-style house, with its handsome wraparound porch that faced the Mayan-inspired Derby House built by Frank Lloyd Wright's son in 1926 — and into my grandmother's two-bedroom condo. I was going back to my roots, in a way: It was the house that she had bought for my parents when they got married, where I was conceived, and where I lived for the first years of my life.
A year after the forced downsizing, my sister was born. So we were six people living in this two-bedroom apartment, me in one room with my brother and grandmother right up until my senior year of high school, when the tension between my grandmother and mom could no longer sustain itself and my grandmother moved into her own apartment across the street.
You'd think that because I've been working through house anxiety since childhood, I could stand not having one a little longer.
It's absurd that the personal decisions of movie stars torment us regular people so much, but we never cease raising a fuss. Remember the first time Michelle Williams caused a real-estate frenzy? It was 10 years ago, when she and Heath Ledger arrived in Boerum Hill, baby in tow, themselves still babies, to set up house. They bought a 25-foot-wide corner townhouse for $3.6 million. With relish, the write-ups noted its wasabi-green exterior. They quickly settled into the rhythms of the neighborhood: shopping, strolling, dining — just a regular little Brooklyn family.
But, of course, they weren't normal; they were celebrities. The picture-perfect, laid-back it-couple infused their new neighborhood with an offhand cool that entranced even the toughest Brooklynites. They offered up a version of hipsterized domestic bliss that appeared effortless and thus achievable. "Heath and Michelle, still shy of 30, were living the dream," Sarah Horne wrote in Radar Magazine in December 2007. "They represented that sturdy, cable-sweater-wearing, mortgage-paying romance was not only possible, but in the right hands, even glamorous."
Michelle and Heath offered up a version of hipsterized domestic bliss that appeared effortless and thus achievable.
Horne and her boyfriend, themselves recent homeowners in the same borough, were stylish, successful, and happy. But something nagged at her. Although "it was hard to ignore the wave of babies crashing on our doorstep," she couldn't bring herself to confess to her boyfriend that she'd been struck with baby fever. So she looked to Williams and Ledger to do the dirty work for her. "The simple fact that Heath and Michelle lived in our midst seemed to prove that perhaps there was a compromise: Indie rock and infant yoga could coexist. Unmarried bliss, plus baby, plus stylish abode, was a real possibility for urbanites like us."
Then, all too quickly, the bubble burst: The couple broke up and Ledger moved out, his stuff hauled away in a Celebrity Moving truck. Horne took it personally. "Heathchelle had betrayed us all," she wrote, by showing us that the idylls of a picture-perfect bohemia were tenuous at best.
My path to Brooklyn real-estate envy was, shall we say, crooked. In 2008, I was working for a tiny documentary film production company located on the second floor of an under-heated house in the Hollywood Hills. I was alone and miserable. Living at home and sharing a room with my sister, who was 10 years younger, didn't help. Neither did my lack of a driver's license, which meant that my dad had to drive me everywhere. My boyfriend was still across the country in New Haven finishing up school, and my friends were equally far-flung.
Fed up, I moved to New York, getting a room in a Williamsburg apartment and a job as a tax paralegal at a white-shoe corporate law firm. I knew almost immediately that lawyering wasn't for me but spent two and a half years trying to figure out what I would do next. A series of fortuitous events (and some outright stalking) eventually landed me a job working on a movie by a famous director as an accounting clerk, which was like being thrown into a real-life version of Francois Truffaut's Day for Night. It was a dream that ended too soon. I eventually become the director's personal assistant and managed his New York office and home for three years.
Since then, I've gotten married and turned 30. My husband and I rent an apartment in a charming, slightly sideways wooden house in the historic district of Wallabout, on the border of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
We were buoyed by the hope that one of these homes — real, detached, huge — could be ours one day.
We live with the owner, a born-and-bred New Yorker who insists that we call her neighbor and not landlord. A retired social worker, she bought the house in 1978 with her then-husband and has since filled it with beautiful antique furniture, costume jewelry, and her extraordinary collection of Art Deco dancing-lady flower frogs. No surface in the house is level, causing cakes to come out slanted and eggs to slide to the back of the pan, but the original wide-plank wooden floors and step-down kitchen make us never want to leave, especially given the way-below-market rent.
Even so, the siren call of homeownership beckons. Short of winning the lottery, there's no way that we'd be able to afford a house like the one we live in now, or even one of the many luxury condos rising like thorny bushes throughout the neighborhood. Moving to New Jersey, where my husband grew up, has always sounded like a retreat. Now, it seemed the only feasible way to be homeowners.
So, when he stumbled across the area south of Prospect Park a couple of years ago on what I initially thought was a long run but was actually just his Zillow app, he was delighted by the tree-lined cul-de-sacs and stately Victorian manses. He took me on an eager drive through it one Saturday between loads at the 24-hour laundromat. It felt like suburbia by proxy, where you could stay in the city without feeling like you were in the city.
We were buoyed by the hope that one of these homes — real, detached, huge — could be ours one day, for much less than the cost of one of the brownstones we ogled on our way to the Fort Greene farmer's market every weekend. It didn't matter that the houses in Ditmas Park were also beyond our financial reach. They felt somewhat more attainable — that is, until I heard that Williams would be moving in.
In her Radar article, Horne noted that she saw herself in Williams and Ledger because her life paralleled theirs, at least superficially. So what she imagined them doing — "growing tomato plants ... or baking their own bread," and most importantly, having children — she could see herself doing as well. When the star couple broke up, she became unmoored by what it might augur for the life she herself was creating.
We flatter ourselves by thinking we are like them because we are almost like them. But the normalcy celebrities such as Williams project is a trap.
Why did that article stay with me? I made a similarly fallacious connection in seeing myself as Williams' peer. After all, she's only five years older, lives in the same borough, has similar taste in clothes (and homes), and likes to read books. In my mind we were peers. But it was this misrecognition that was causing status anxiety. The notion that Williams and I could have the same things was laughable. Her personal and financial decisions should have zero bearing on my life, but I felt as though I'd been wronged.
Writer Masha Tupitsyn argued in an article for The Enemy that Horne, devoid of any desires of her own, had simply co-opted Williams and Ledger's "hand-me-down" desire. "She is immured in a desire that isn't hers," Tupitsyn wrote. "Individual desire goes out into the world of Hollywood bodies to look for a fantasy host to feed it."
In my opinion, it's actually a distorted self-regard that allows Horne and me to align ourselves with stars. We flatter ourselves by thinking we are like them because we are almost like them. The normalcy celebrities such as Williams project is a trap: It makes their world appear to be only slightly out of reach, achievable, when they aren't at all. The money that enables her laid-back life is invisible, until a big purchase, such as a home, makes headlines, dollar amount and all.
When we recognize that we can't have those things — an expertly decorated home, exotic vacations, the perfect body, an altogether charmed life — the next best thing is to cultivate a desire for them. I have Michelle Williams' exquisite taste, therefore I am.
I've come to terms with the fact that despite our shared tastes, Williams and I live in vastly different worlds. And, what of my home-owning desire? I imagine it will grow as I get older, especially as many of my friends continue to move on from New York for greener, more affordable pastures. For now, I'm comforted by the fact that more than 65 percent of New Yorkers are renters. Navigating adulthood, it turns out, is an ongoing exercise in not-wanting, in getting out from under your fantasies. Or maybe it's finally accepting that New Jersey is a pretty good place to live.
Lauren Ro is a Brooklyn-based writer.