Marion Yuen was one of the first to respond to the ad. A clean-tech entrepreneur living in Brooklyn, she didn’t need much convincing: She’d grown up in a large building in Hong Kong where she didn’t know any of her neighbors. “The man who lived next door to us died, and we did not know,” Marion recalls. She had been the president of a small co-op in Brownstone Brooklyn, but became frustrated with co-op workings. Marion had wanted to join another Brooklyn co-housing group in the early nineties, but decided against it when she discovered they were planning their community upstate, in Saugerties.
The group began to grow quickly. They drew up a one-page declaration, with Alex acting as their Jefferson, taking down notes on a brainstorming session, circulating, revising. “Our vision is to create an oasis of community amid the swirling intensity of New York City, and an antidote to the isolation and impersonality of contemporary life,” it reads. Friends introduced friends. Some Park Slope Food Co-op members joined, naturally, as did a number of Brooklyn families who are Quakers. Sue Wolfe, a Corcoran Realtor who has lived in Brooklyn since the sixties, read about the group on a listserve based in Boerum Hill, where she was president of the community association. Her daughter, Lissa, joined early. Sue then brought it up with her husband. “He was reluctant, because we love our property and change is hard,” she says. “But you know, this group is a wonderful group of people and at some point my husband turned to me and said, ‘I think we should do this.’ ” They joined the following year.
In the fall of 2007, the group invited Chris ScottHanson, a Seattle-based co-housing consultant, to give a presentation at the Friends Meeting House in downtown Brooklyn, where he showed off pictures of other co-housing communities around the country. (Aesthetically, it should be said, the Brooklyn building would be a major improvement; co-housing communities can look a little like assisted living for people who don’t need assistance.) He explained some co-housing principles, like how communities are designed to encourage interaction and that the people living in it should be the ones who help design it. He pointed out that developments come in a range of sizes. ScottHanson, who met his wife in a co-housing development, recommended a medium-size one, with at least eighteen units. “When they are small,” he said, “you really have to like each other.”
ScottHanson’s talk was part pitch, part gate check—a chance to get off the co-housing plane if you don’t like the sound of where it’s heading. “You are going through a self-exploration that you don’t even begin to understand until after it’s happened,” he warned.
Soon, the press started covering the Brooklyn co-housers, and this attracted more members. Nancy and Rick Van Dyke heard Alex on WNYC. They now plan on moving from Sea Cliff, a little town on Long Island where they are both longtime social workers. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Rick is predisposed to sharing. “I feel we live in a very depersonalized society, and people just take, take, take,” he says. He’s sees co-housing as an ideal arrangement for retirement. “We’re really looking forward to sitting in the common room, the dining room, the tea room, the deck,” Rick says. “Our grandchildren are in California, and we’d like to have built-in grandchildren here.” Nancy is less outgoing than her husband: “I’m a bit of an introvert, but if I don’t want to whole whoop-de-do thing I don’t have to,” she says. Even in Sea Cliff, she detects a tinge of awe on her neighbors’ part. “People tell us, ‘You’re so brave!’ ”
As more members joined, more skill sets came to the group. Rob Holbrook, a 34-year-old city planner, knows zoning codes. “The warm and fuzzy stuff I don’t get,” he admits, but he’s had experience watching co-housing in action, having worked for an architect who lived in a community in Atlanta. “It’s more about building the network and connections between human beings,” Rob says. Kim Jessor teaches the Alexander Technique for the Tisch graduate acting program and is interested in group dynamics. She joined and became a member of the Facilitation Committee, which means, among other things, she runs the group meetings. “It’s taken us some time to get it to work well,” she says, “but now it just moves us right along.”
Since January 2008, full members have been expected to put a minimum of 5 percent of their unit cost into a communal fund. This allowed the group to hire ScottHanson to help them secure a location, and begin to work with architects, contractors, and lenders. They set their sights on an abandoned church and an adjacent townhouse for sale in Fort Greene and began the design process. By that fall, with ten households fully onboard, they signed an agreement to buy the property. They held monthly information meetings to attract more members, taking turns reading parts of the vision statement out loud. “We want an apartment building with a central courtyard where children play and neighbors gather, friends talk, and people sing, and where plants, trees, vegetables, and flowers grow … ”