Katherine Chew, 47, and Blake Holden, 49, grew up in typical middle-class families in Brooklyn and Westchester. It wasn’t until they met, married, and had children that their community-minded, vegetarian tendencies solidified into a counterculture family philosophy. Last Thanksgiving, instead of turkey, stuffing, and football, “all day the four of us danced in the house, then went ice-skating,” says Chew, a social worker and co-founder of the Brooklyn Free School, a “democratic” K-12 school with no formal classes or grades. When anyone feels like shopping, the first stop is the Salvation Army. If their daughters, Lila, 10, and Sophie, 6, want new toys, they first check if anything good has been left on the curb. “We like to salvage,” Chew explains. Almost everything the Chew-Holdens own has been repurposed, including their Prospect Heights brownstone, which had been abandoned and damaged by a fire when they bought it three years ago. Holden, a green builder, helmed the reconstruction using recycled materials that are VOC (volatile organic compound)-free. Support beams were salvaged from a Vermont barn; the insulation is made from ground-up leftover blue jeans.
Chew’s sister lives upstairs, as does her best friend and her boyfriend. All pitch in with caring for Lila and Sophie. Vegetables come from the food co-op, which they walk to, or the backyard. The bookshelves were made by Holden, and everything else—from the piano to the rugs—is secondhand. “We’re not into consumption,” says Katherine. “The lamps were salvaged from the house. We found them covered in ash.” The girls have a room, used mostly for playing (they don’t have homework), but everyone sleeps in the family bed, a king mattress plus a twin pushed together. “The girls love it,” Chew says, “and I’ve gotten used to sleeping with a foot in my face. If Blake and I need privacy, there are plenty of other places in the house.”