What does not exist for Alex are the old mechanisms of community: the pubs, the meeting houses, the associations for associating. This is especially obvious in the suburbs, but looking around New York City today—with parents driving their kids three blocks to school, chain-store shopping at Trader Joe’s, and iPodding themselves up as if they were in minivans on the highway—Alex doesn’t see much difference. “I speak without any sentimentality or nostalgia for the past,” Alex wrote. “I believe, however, that the generally fragmented lives so many of us lead break up marriages, disturb childhoods, isolate people when they most need help, and make life not as much fun. We live, to speak frankly, in one of the loneliest societies on Earth.”
Alex and his second wife, Kristi Barlow, had a baby in 2004 and rented a place in a redeveloped warehouse in Prospect Heights. It’s a big building with long, quiet, slightly institutional halls, a place where you might feel more like an echo than a visitor. Alex tells the story of how he, Kristi, and a couple they were friendly with sent out invitations to a building-wide holiday party. They made the dips and snacks and waited around, but no one came.
Having studied urban design at Harvard, Alex already knew something about co-housing groups. The idea comes from Denmark, where, in the sixties, architects and families who had become dissatisfied with single-family housing began experimenting with something more collaborative. A generation later, two American architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, visited the Danish housing cooperatives and returned to the U.S. to author Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Their book came out in 1988, two years before the term McMansion was coined. While most of the country was busy sprawling into cookie-cutter developments and faraway cul-de-sacs, McCamant and Durrett’s book became a bible for a small number of people looking for an alternative. Co-housing communities sprouted up across the country, in small cities like Berkeley and Boulder, as well as the suburban outskirts of cities like Atlanta and Seattle.
Co-housing has yet to be tested anywhere as dense as New York City, but as Alex thought about it, he came to believe that, in fact, the city was perfect co-housing ground. Throw a bunch of organic leeks in Brooklyn right now and you will hit some kind of a communal-living situation—a vegan house in Bed-Stuy, a bunch of young renters in Clinton Hill who Craiglisted up to pursue like-minded goals. Surely he wasn’t the only middle-aged New Yorker who wished he had real relationships with his neighbors.
Alex was encouraged by Jim Stockard, a Harvard lecturer who oversees the Loeb Fellowship and has lived since 1973 in a co-operative housing development in Cambridge. Common Place, as it is known, was started by a bunch of young parents, then in their twenties, who figured they would be out of there in a few years. Instead, after 36 years of marriages, divorces, deaths, and kids who have gone out to find group housing themselves, the original collective remains more or less intact. “One of the things that makes a community is living the little, everyday parts of life together,” Stockard says. “We are not all best friends. But all of us would do anything for anybody.”
As it happens, Kristi herself lived in a group house at Harvard, a situation that, as she remembered, involved too many meetings discussing too many things that didn’t matter. So when her husband started talking up co-housing she was, to say the least, a little reluctant. “I had no idea I’d be doing something like this,” she says. But shortly after moving to Brooklyn, the couple started a babysitting co-op in the neighborhood. Alex took a page from the co-housing principle of “self-selection”—it’s the idea that nobody gets to choose who’s allowed into the group; that people who show up and are perhaps not right for it generally figure that out for themselves. “It was something I was really worried about,” Kristi says, “because we moved here cold from Chelsea. I was thinking, What if I don’t like the people who show up? How will I handle it? But it was great. There were one or two who were sort of like … I don’t know … but then they didn’t show up later.”
In April 2007, buoyed by the success of the babysitting co-op, Alex and Kristi decided to put an ad in the Park Slope Food Co-op’s newsletter announcing a gathering of prospective co-housing participants at the meeting room of the Brooklyn Public Library. Fifteen people came. They had another meeting at Alex and Kristi’s house, then a picnic. The Brooklyn co-housing group was born.