The group, first of all, refers to itself as the group. As does, for instance, a new member named Dawn. “I’m overjoyed to find this group,” she says. They have referred to themselves this way for about two years now, since they began their project, which is to build a co-housing community in Brooklyn. There are currently more than 100 co-housing communities around the country, but there has, to date, never been one in New York City. There is at least one commune in New York City, on Staten Island, but one thing the group would like you to know right off is that the group is not that kind of a group. Its members are understandably touchy about this, for many reasons, including the fact that the commune on Staten Island was last in the news for a free-love-gone-bad shooting, and, anyway, that’s not what this group is into. “We’re not some kind of quirky bunch of people in a commune,” one member said to me recently.
A co-housing community is not a commune, where the group owns everything and it’s share and share alike. Nor is it your grandparents’ kibbutz: The only communal farming involved is gardening (and it’s optional). It’s also not for hippies, or at least not poor ones—this particular co-housing group will be on the hook for some substantial dough, to the tune of $16 million, if it succeeds in purchasing and subsequently renovating an old mattress factory on the southern fringe of Park Slope. In fact, from a legal point of view, what the group is creating is simply a co-op in which everyone has their own piece of the housing.
But this is no co-op. It is a fundamentally different way of living from other domestic arrangements now available to New Yorkers—one that speaks to people who want to own an apartment but not feel shut off by it, lost in an impersonal city. In exchange for paying above-standard real-estate rates for one of 30 smaller-than-usual apartments (a 660-square-foot two-bedroom might cost about $500,000), the group’s members will share 11,000 square feet of common areas—including a “great room” and community kitchen, a children’s playroom and an “adults-only lounge,” four guest rooms for visitors, a courtyard, and a wine cellar. The supersize amenities are all meant to encourage a socially porous lifestyle, with people dropping in and out of one another’s apartments; splitting maintenance and gardening tasks; attending weekly meals in the great room; and reading and chatting in chairs positioned outside their doors, which are envisioned to stay mostly open.
The group—which began as a collection of strangers—is hoping to create, in essence, an extended family. (There is one person whose parents will live in the building, too.) To build excitement, they have invited people from other communal-living developments to speak about their experiences, and have heard stories of fellow members supporting one another through death and divorce, and children being raised together as if life were a giant, never-ending playdate. One speaker tantalized some of the Brooklyn group when he told of how all the high-school seniors at his place had their college-application essay reviewed by the resident English teacher. This is a level of group interaction that the co-housers haven’t been able to find anywhere else in the city, and that they are betting other New Yorkers would enjoy, too. “There’s this thing called community,” says one member, “and whatever it is, it turns out people are willing to sacrifice a lot for it.”
Before the group was a group, it was a man named Alex Marshall. Alex moved to New York City in 2000 from Boston, where he had been working under a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. His first marriage had broken up, and rather than return to his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, he decided he wanted to give New York a try. He had liked it here when he was a student in the late eighties.
But the New York he remembered as a twentysomething—a place with a café on every corner, something of an extended college campus—didn’t seem the same now that he was in his early forties, and he was a little surprised to find himself feeling what might be described as socially isolated. Though he looks like a basketball player—he is six foot seven—Alex is a writer who specializes in urban planning and infrastructure; he’s the transportation columnist for Governing magazine and a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. Alex had recently finished a book called How Cities Work, which means he’d been spending a lot of time thinking about the ways in which they don’t. He devoted a section of the book to his home in Norfolk, where he and his first wife had run a monthly gathering they called “the coffeehouse”—a kind of open-mike night, where as many as 50 people would show up to sing, perform, or read something newly composed. The coffeehouse, he wrote, was “the highlight of the month, both for me and many of the people who attend.” He remembered people connecting, making friends, and saw the coffeehouse as “a replacement for what does not exist in the outer world.”