After a few rounds of inconclusive decision-making, the seniority decision is tabled. Alex arrives just before lunch break, taking his place in the circle of chairs. (Members stress to newcomers that you don’t have to show up at all of the meetings, or even be on the committees. “Everyone is okay with that,” Alex says.) Sometimes when he watches the group operate, it is as if someone is watching a theory come true. And if only in its staying power, the group is certainly proof of something. It’s won over his wife, at least. After all of her work over the past few years, she has shifted from reluctant supporter to enthusiastic partner, and has become prickly to criticism. “It’s when people think, Oh, it’s so idealistic! It’s so utopian! ” She is a reserved person when you first meet her, so it’s a little bit of a surprise when she gets going. “Well, utopian people irk me,” she continues. “If people who were utopian were doing this, it would bother me. It’s not utopian—it’s practical! And to deal with building in New York, you’ve got to be very practical.” She thinks that the point the group is making is actually pretty small. “Let’s make something that makes our 50 lives work really well,” she says. “It’s not about changing the world.”
On a beautiful fall morning, the group meets yet again, in the basement of the Belarusian church on Atlantic Avenue, watched over by a bust of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish general who fought in the Revolutionary War. The group is momentarily locked out of the basement, but the key comes within a few minutes, and they sit in a circle again, relaxed by the familiarity of the scene.
Kim and the other facilitators move the group into gear. They agree on a format and a schedule. There are decisions related to babysitting and committee structures. At one point, Dan, a new provisional member, and Alex are talking absentmindedly while someone else is presenting. “No cross talk!” Kim says.
The childcare-subcommittee person makes a proposal. “We suggest a strong role be played by parents with children,” she says. The structure of the membership committee is discussed, and a decision is made to spin off a conflict-prevention-and-resolution committee and a so-called fun committee. “I think the fun committee is always going to be dysfunctional—it’s in its nature—it’s a teenager!” Rob says. More group laughter. A committee restructuring is green-carded. Fred, a new member, is added to the facilitating committee, Tara to the minute-recording committee. Two women, prospective members, are focused on their child. Kim gets down on the floor and plays with the child. The child coos.
Afterward, on the phone, Kristi laments. The group hopes to begin construction in January, but they still haven’t found a mortgage provider offering a feasible rate. “We don’t have someone to sign the bottom line yet.” In fact, the building was sold in September, after the option had run out and the mattress company couldn’t wait for the group any longer. Fortunately, the buyer might be open to resale, and the group is now hoping to broker a deal with him. “This might be okay for us,” Alex says.
What happens if the deal falls through? Group rules dictate that if a member walks away, his deposit is converted into a loan to be repaid with interest after the project is constructed. Emotionally speaking, most members say they would be willing to go on searching for a new site if need be. And it seems reasonable to imagine that as long as the group can remain banded together, some new real-estate opportunity will present itself. “I’ve had groups that have lost another site and gone on to develop a third one,” ScottHanson says. “The process actually gets better each time. The group gets less picky.”
Last month, the group put ScottHanson’s work on hold, confident that it could move forward on its own. It was heartened to receive a letter from the state attorney general’s office, which they hope will help secure nervous lenders. They’re in discussions with the new owner of the mattress factory, and Alex insists that “the talks are going really well.” The group is now at sixteen full-member households and seven provisionals. They could badly use about ten more and would love some from Manhattan.
The other night over beers at Barbès in Park Slope, Alex was talking about the risk involved. “I think this is a big deal,” he says. “It’s a $16 million project, and it’s being run by amateurs. I mean, this may show why this model doesn’t work. On the other hand, you want a computer expert, we’ve got a computer expert. You want a financial expert, we’ve got a financial expert. You want a real-estate professional, we’ve got a real-estate professional. You want a city planner, we’ve got a city planner. And they are all applying their skills to this.”