The Real Park Slope Co-op

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.”

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.

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 … ”

Then last December, with construction costs rising, the group walked away from the Fort Greene building. It was a dramatic moment—not to mention pricey (they lost a six-figure sum to design costs and a walkaway fee). At this point, it was easy to imagine the group disbanding, yet another ambitious experiment that couldn’t make it in New York. But remarkably, the group essentially stayed together. It picked itself up, and in a few months had signed an option to purchase the old mattress factory on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street in Park Slope. It was time to start the design phase again.

The new building is not as large as the first—it will fit 30 units, rather than 45—but as the economy crashed and the housing market destabilized, the group found itself frozen out by mortgage providers. And so they continued to give monthly presentations and to open their weekly business meetings to the public, in hopes of attracting more members and growing the size of their kitty. (“We’re not Tishman Speyer,” said Marion at one point this summer. “But we’re playing with the same crowd.”) To conserve money, they met in church basements. It’s not because the group is affiliated with any religion. It is not. The group is not affiliated with anything, really, and members are at pains to stress this, though, again, they understand that just by being a group they are not going to be to the liking of some New Yorkers. “People who aren’t attracted to the whole sharing thing are not going to be attracted to this idea,” Rob admits.

The sharing game they are playing today at this midsummer business meeting in the basement of the Memorial Baptist Church on Eighth Avenue in Park Slope is one that you will absolutely not see at the next Tishman Speyer meeting, and it would likely scare a non-sharer far, far away. It’s played with yarn and facilitated by a group member who, while attending the meetings, often knits. One person takes the ball of yarn, imagines his or her life on a Friday night at “our home” when the building is at last built, then tosses the yarn across the circle, group weaving.

A father imagines young people performing in a rock band on a small stage. Several people imagine being in the roof garden of the green building. One woman imagines a small dinner in her apartment. “Maybe we’ll have a Zipcar and I’ll go somewhere with some people,” another woman says. (A group decision on car sharing has not yet been made.) Lissa imagines setting up a screen on the roof for a Fellini film festival.

“I’ll probably be on the roof avoiding the concert,” a man says. Group laughter.

“As you can see, this is a very complicated web that we have woven,” Nancy says as she wraps up the game, “and the thoughts that we have of our new home make me very energized and touched.”

The energy is indeed impressive: These meetings can be long and extremely detailed. Still, it’s clear that everyone is anxious to get this stage of the process over with—to start actually living with one another—and that the ongoing hunt for new members is beginning to fatigue some current ones. (On the other hand, you can also get the feeling that certain members enjoy living in the planning fermata.) This morning’s meeting has featured a lot about “provisional members,” a recently created status meant to make joining the group a bit easier. The provisionals put in a nominal fee to express interest in fully joining the group, and are expected to kick in their 5 percent of the apartment cost within three days of securing financing. The meeting has come to a discussion of what constitutes seniority—i.e., the order in which provisional members will be allowed to choose their apartments.

A poster board lists the handwritten ground rules for discussion: “Let others speak before you speak again … Stay on topic … No side conversation or cross talk … Silence = Assent.”

“We’re basically unclear about what creates seniority,” Rob says.

“My guess is you are going to have a flood of new members when decision day comes,” says ScottHanson, who has flown in from Seattle for the meeting.

“We need a new decision,” Kristi says.

A decision is made to make a decision. Blue cards go up. The Brooklyn co-housing group follows a “consensus process” for all discussions and decisions, and this involves each member holding a set of cards. During the decision period, green means “agreed.” Blue, neutral. Yellow, unsure/unclear. Orange, reservations. Red means, “I am opposed, and I block consensus.” If a red card goes up, the group will start discussion again. The group records all decisions in a log book (currently hovering near 100 pages) that describes everything from the decisions on kitchen tiles, which took several rounds, to the decision on the dog policy, which had to be broken down into small groups, because, as Rob explains, “most of us didn’t have a dog in that race and the key was to let people who did work it out.”

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.”

As the resident thinker-about-community, as the group’s writer and reporter and sometime publicist and organizer, Alex has worked very hard on the co-housing project—all told, almost eight years. Now, he seems to believe in it more, not less. “There is a sense,” he says, “that if we do this, there will be a rash of co-housing developments in New York City.”

Granted, the Brooklyn Cohousing group now needs a certain financial faith to push it across the line, and Alex scrunches his face hard when he considers the situation. For the second time, it feels as if the group is at a major crossroads. Unfortunately, it is a New York real-estate crossroads, which means there are all kinds of people waiting for the group to move in, or move on, or move out of the way, quick. Which makes you wonder, is it all worth it?

“You know,” he says, after a while, “we were trying to start this for very personal reasons, but we have found at the same time that we are in the development game. It becomes about putting your money where your values are.”

Are you tired? It’s been a long time.

“Am I tired? Yes, I’m tired,” he says. “I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired.” A long pause, and then a question from him. “Is it going to happen? Yes, it’s going to happen.”

The Real Park Slope Co-op