Lehman Babies

Hawking $22 matte nail polish in black, powder and calamine, designed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch makeup artist Mike Potter, was not part of Aaron McCann’s original career plan. Mr. McCann, 31, wanted to work in commercial real estate.

He had abysmal timing. The capital advisory firm at which Mr. McCann had been working laid him off in late 2008.

At a January party Mr. McCann organized for young professionals at Stone Rose Lounge in the Time Warner Center, longtime developer Francis Greenburger described the commercial real estate market thusly: “This is as bad a cycle as I can remember.”

Mr. Greenburger is 60.

The real estate industry may be in thrall to the stumbles and intrigues of the mighty, the foibles and foreclosures that trip up the Macklowes and Swigs and Solows of the world. But, for countless young up-and-comers, those who dream of bricks and mortar and making a tangible mark on the stone-cold city landscape, this downturn has hit home hard. They are being laid off. They are graduating into a market that has no room for the likes of young upstarts. They are trying to chart a course in an ever-more-confusing landscape.

On Friday, March 13, Jenna Mitchell, 25 and oval-faced, sat in the Sunburst Espresso Bar, the coffee shop near her Stuy Town apartment that has become her de facto office, an impersonal wooden two-top serving as the desk where she composes carefully worded cover letters and browses through online wanted ads.

Ms. Mitchell, in jeans, sneakers and a gray, flower-lined sweater, dropped into her seat and ordered a French vanilla coffee with soy milk. Her long brown hair was swept back into a disheveled knot, revealing dark brown, thickly lashed eyes. On her left hand, she wore two rings, one on her thumb, another on her ring finger. She was laid off on the first Tuesday of the New Year, one week after her boyfriend, a third-year medical student, proposed.

Given her qualifications, naked intellect and unabashed love of real estate, Ms. Mitchell is something of a wasted resource. She earned a degree in city planning from Cornell in 2006 and a master’s in real estate development from Columbia in 2007, and along with a number of internships, she worked 18 months as an associate project manager at a boutique real estate firm, from which she was ultimately let go. Now, she survives on the beneficence of her parents, both Boston real estate lawyers, and the moral support of her fiancé.

“It’s tough, because, you know, we’re adults, and our parents still support us,” Ms. Mitchell said. “We want to be off on our own.”

Sometimes she gets lunch with real estate friends who work nearby, and they take her on tours of their ongoing projects. Afternoons like that make her “sad.” “It makes me want to be out there so badly,” she said.

She burns off her anxieties at the gym, surrounded by the heaving bodies of the fellow unemployed. Her midday, midweek gym classes are packed. Snippets of conversation—“interview this,” “recruiter that”—float through the air. Sometimes she escapes to museums, or to movies, like the one she shamefacedly admitted to seeing last Thursday: He’s Just Not That Into You.


HERE’S THE THING about this economy: It’s horrible and awful and incredibly painful for so many people, but for those who are nimble and brave and don’t have responsibilities, i.e., for those who are young, it’s also a great leveler, knocking the legs out from under the big guys, and giving the little guys a chance to grow.

Or so argues Jack Heaney, founder of the year-and-a-half-old Fulcrum. Mr. Heaney, 29, is nothing if not a talented salesman.

To get to Fulcrum’s stylishly outfitted workspace, one must enter a derelict Bleecker Street office shanty and trust one’s fate to a grimy elevator with dented walls and “Left 4 Dead,” scrawled in black marker on a porthole-shaped window. 

Mr. Heaney, originally from Chicago’s South Side, has wide-set blue eyes and a strong chin. That Friday morning, he wore a black blazer, a collarless black shirt and jeans.

“The economy is a great leveler,” said Mr. Heaney, as he began to lay out the case for why young bucks like he and his partner, Brooks Crowley, could exploit the down market, first by using non–recourse construction debt from HUD, and second by working with people whom larger developers wouldn’t deign to deal with.

Fulcrum is a development and asset-management consultant company. At the moment, Mr. Heaney is working on ground-up projects in the Rockaways and in West Philadelphia, and is consulting with developers on the Upper West Side.

“Hopefully, at the end of the cycle, we’ll build up enough of a nest egg to compete with the bigger guys,” Mr. Heaney said.

“There’s a great transfer of wealth from the haves to the have-nots,” chimed in Mr. Crowley, 28, who was recently laid off from a private-equity firm that invested in real estate. Mr. Crowley sat across from Mr. Heaney at the conference table, all fair-haired good looks, in a yellow buttoned-down shirt and pinstriped suit.

“That’s how Related got started; they started off doing HUD deals,” said Mr. Heaney, who, at times, jiggled his leg with enthusiasm.

Lehman Babies