By PENELOPE GREEN
August 23, 2017
Tuesday was family dinner at WeLive Wall Street: vegetarian meatballs and grilled chicken, black truffle gravy and green peas. Thursday was a “craft jam” — terra cotta pot painting amplified by rosé and salty snacks — at Node in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. A few weeks earlier, I had made a terrarium at Jersey City Urby — bromeliads, plastic critters and rum punch, with the Marshall Tucker Band on the Sonos — and joined a bar crawl through the Lower East Side with a group from Quarters, open since mid-June on Grand Street. I slept in an adorable plywood cubby on Wall Street and on the 68th floor of the tallest residential building in Jersey City, in a flashy model apartment from which you could see all the way up the Hudson River to the George Washington Bridge, a view so vertiginous I dropped to my knees and crawled into bed on my elbows, special-ops-style. (Happily, at such a height, there were no neighbors to see me do so.)
These were some of my adventures in co-living, a housing model that draws inspiration from the single-gender residence hotels of the early 20th century and postwar intentional communities, along with modern co-working spaces and hacker hostels.
Conventional developers are starting to play with the idea, bringing a swankier gloss to what had been homespun group housing. Newer iterations seem more akin to the millennial-focused, hipster-amenitized luxury rental developments that are sprouting countrywide (with design tropes that include raw wood shelving, vintage board games, Dutch bikes and picture books like “The Selby Is In Your Place” strewn about the common areas).
Using architecture, design and so-called community programming (craft jams and bar crawls, say) co-living aims to push people together. It’s housing buoyed by and addressing a collision of attendant themes: the sharing economy and a yearning for connection, social and professional, among overworked millennials and a work force that’s increasingly freelance.
More prosaically, co-living can simply mean roommates and common rooms, like a dorm. For some developers, it’s a form of adaptive reuse: many co-living sites, like WeLive at 110 Wall Street, are leased, in this case from the landlord of what once was an office building, drained of its tenants by Hurricane Sandy.
There are still co-living evangelists, like Brad Hargreaves of Common, who has promised that “the genuine and organic relationships our members build with each other,” as he wrote in a post for Medium, would not be tainted by allowing journalists to sleep over at Common properties (though they were welcome to tour). With over $23 million in financing, Common now operates in five cities, including out of eight houses in New York City.
Some co-living ventures have collapsed under the weight of their ideals, like the utopian Pure House, started by Ryan Fix, now 42, in his Williamsburg loft in 2012. “It was an experiment that grew out of control,” he said the other day, speaking by WhatsApp audio from his computer in London. “I was curating incredibly talented creatives and entrepreneurs committed to social impact as roommates,” a mission that does seem a tad overwhelming.
Eventually, Mr. Fix added 25 Brooklyn apartments to his Pure House portfolio. He recalled organizing dinner parties and morning raves, weekend jaunts to upstate New York and Burning Man, and the overall emotional cost of being a mentor to 65 people, some of whom fell in love, went traveling and started new businesses, he added — juicy alliances he is proud to have overseen.
Worn out by so much connectivity, Mr. Fix turned over the Pure House leases to his tenants. Now, he is a co-living consultant. With a colleague in Paris, he started Pure House Lab, a nonprofit “do-tank,” as he put it, offering workshops, research and other services to the co-living movement, about which he remains bullish. “Loneliness and anxiety are still on the rise,” he said. “The opportunity is to build environments with more points of collision. Creating nurturing spaces where people can share and connect is transformative for the planet.”
Somewhere, no doubt in the middle of some celestial agora, Holly Whyte is rolling his eyes.
Late June: Terrariums and Cocktails, Jersey City Urby
With a design by Concrete, a Dutch firm, the 69-story Jersey City Urby, the second in a portfolio of new urbanist rentals by Ironstate Development, is a step up, architecturally, for its bland waterfront neighborhood. Its stacked glass volumes rise like elegant Legos over the Hudson. Inside, an armada of common areas stretch out with the sort of design flourishes and perks you’d see in Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, Calif.: a coffee bar; an AstroTurf lawn; a fire pit; an enormous outdoor swimming pool; and a living room with vintage board games, comfy sofas and, laid out, gallery-style, on slim wood shelves, tongue-in-cheek book titles that include the Dr. Seuss parody “Oh the Meetings You’ll Go To!” along with small batch magazines like Oh Comely and Hole & Corner.
In the sky-lighted mailroom, bright blue metal mailboxes look like mini high school lockers; above, ferns and vines erupt from canvas bags. Though Jersey City Urby, like its sister property on Staten Island, is not quite co-living — it is, essentially, a conventional apartment building with 762 units that rent with conventional leases — its community features are right out of the co-living playbook. (Rents start at $2,500 for a studio.)
The building has both an artist and a scientist in residence. The Staten Island Urby has its own farmer. In June alone, there were all sorts of socially sticky events: wine tastings and ice cream socials; a farmers’ market tour; movies on the pool patio; and terrarium night, held in the Urby Lab, a one-bedroom model apartment on the 68th floor, all of which were overseen by Jo Rausch, 32, director of culture and events for the Urby properties (the newest just opened in nearby Harrison) — and all overbooked.
We were a full table that evening, passing acid-hued moss and tiny plastic creatures to tuck into our globe-shaped terrariums. There was Akshata Puri, a 31-year-old senior data analyst; Bea Walter, 22, a photographer who had just graduated from New York University; and Meghan Kershaw, 31, a nutrition science and policy researcher who works out of the one-bedroom she shares with her husband, Josh, a technology associate at JPMorgan Chase. Ms. Kershaw said that by evening, she is more than ready to leave their apartment. “I’m always looking for community,” she said.
You won’t find much of that outside the building, which is why this Urby is essentially a vertical — and interior — neighborhood. Though the place is 85 percent rented, I was terrified alone in my posh, helicopter-high apartment, missing the street, empty though it was, far, far below. And I marveled at the stamina of my fellow terrarium-creators, who after a long day at their nonprofits and their finance and tech companies could still muster conversation and fine handiwork.
Four attendees appeared at poolside yoga early the next morning, seemingly fast friends, chatting and cheerful in their downward dogs. (In my own faraway youth, after 18 hours or more at work on the equivalent, then, of a start-up — a poorly funded local print product — I could do no more than fill a plastic tray with sesame chicken at the Vietnamese salad bar on Bleecker Street and shuffle home, alone, with a beer.)
Mid-July: Bar Crawl, Quarters on Grand Street
Kahshanna Evans is the community manager at Quarters, run by the Medici Living Group, a co-living company in Berlin. A former Girl Scout and model, it is in part her intuition (and a background check) that organizes roommates into salubrious arrangements in this brand-new, seven-story brick building on the Lower East Side. From the ceiling of the living room and open kitchen, bulbs hung from dangly cords. There were leather beanbag chairs, a wide-plank table and a bulletin board featuring miniature Polaroid portraits of the tenants.
On a recent Wednesday, Ms. Evans was setting out vases of wildflowers and bowls of cherries, grapes, strawberries and chips. There was rosé and beer. She noted that her Girl Scout experience had equipped her for this mission, with core principles like “Leave the place cleaner than when you arrived.” In a tour of the apartments upstairs, which are stylishly furnished with Casper mattresses and sturdy furniture from the Detroit company Floyd, Ms. Evans smoothed bedspreads and pillows.
Rents start at $1,749 for rooms in three- to five-bedroom units. Sally Lyndley, a fashion stylist, is paying $3,499 for a 65-square-foot room, which comes with a terrace and four roommates, none of whom she met before moving in, so the background check was a perk. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a frat house,” said Ms. Lyndley, 38, “because Mama’s grown out of that. Or you meet a nice roommate, but she’s a heroin addict. I’ve been down that road.”
Up on the roof (squashy canvas beanbags), we could see a gaggle of yoga practitioners who swayed and dipped a few buildings away. “Is this ‘The Matrix’?” Ms. Evans wondered, before clapping her hands and gathering up the group. “Should we say hello to our future selves?”
At Mr. Purple, a bar on top of the Hotel Indigo on Ludlow Street, we drank beer out of cans and I babbled on about the place’s namesake, Adam Purple, the community garden activist and tie-dyed, purple-clad eccentric I recalled riding his bike through the city of my past self. It seemed more than gauche that his memory should be evoked by a slick boutique hotel. But never mind.
I met a co-living couple, Derek Pankaew, 29 and a start-up entrepreneur, and Wenxi Zhao, 23, a jewelry designer. They had fallen in love at Founder House Broadway, a co-living establishment devoted to those in tech, but when the place lost its lease, they came to Quarters. They live separately there, so as to create more space in the relationship, Mr. Pankaew said later, adding that the couple took a 10-day break recently.
“That just meant that we weren’t making out, though we were seeing each other every day,” he said. Regular apartment life is boring, he continued, but there are challenges to co-living. “People getting drunk and hooking up, there’s more potential for drama to happen. And in a normal apartment you don’t have 30 people who know what’s going on in your relationship. If we have a fight,” he said of Ms. Zhao, “everybody wants to know what it’s about.”
“Scooby, scooby, guys,” said Ms. Evans, “come along!” It was time for the next port, the bistro Dirty French across the street, followed by one more: Max Fish, the beloved, art-inflected 1990s-era hangout on Ludlow Street that closed there in 2013 and reopened a year later on Orchard. I decided to skip that stop. I’d been there before, after all.
Early August: Family Dinner at WeLive Wall Street
WeLive is run by the seven-year-old WeWork co-working behemoth, now with a valuation of $20 billion and with offices in 49 cities in 15 countries. There are 200 fully furnished apartments on Wall Street, from studios (about $3,000 a month) to three-bedrooms outfitted with housewares and towels. You can stay as long as a year, or for one night only ($296), which is what I did a week or so ago, checking into a “studio plus”: a cunning rectangle with a full-size bed built into a plywood cupboard, like a Swedish bed in a Carl Larsson painting imagined by a Brooklyn furniture maker.
There’s a galley kitchen, and a sleek white laminate cabinet hiding a Murphy bed from Resource Furniture, for those who want a roommate or a houseguest. Plywood pegboard shelves were accessorized with quirky objets (chrome cactuses, an origami bird) and curated books (Heidi Julavits, Tom Perrotta, Mick Fleetwood’s memoir).
I liked my cubby bed, but apartments tucked into office buildings can be grim, despite the ferry terminal outside this one, the literary embellishments and the free coffee.
Floors are organized into “neighborhoods,” with open staircases and unifying decorative schemes. There’s a B.Y.O. whiskey bar, a library, and common kitchens are stocked with coffee and fruit water. The laundry room has a pool table. You can buy snacks there with the WeLive app, which also alerts you to group events, like family dinners, “Game of Thrones” nights or kickboxing classes. It’s all a bit bro-themed: On a blackboard panel were chalked the words “Do You Have Ur Keys.”
But there were women at family dinner that night, like Kimberly Cockrell, 37, newly arrived from Miami for a job in the shipping industry, and delighted, she said, to be rid of her three-bedroom house. The free wine and food was nice, too. “I don’t even have a broom here,” she said. “It feels pretty great not to have to cut the grass.”
Rob Stamm, 22, and Cody McClintock, 25, had been in the building barely five hours (it was move-in day). They had met after Mr. McClintock, a software designer and developer who loves photography, had found Mr. Stamm’s work on Instagram. The two friends were sharing a studio plus, with Mr. McClintock on the Murphy bed. “I took one for the team,” he said, pointing out that they had made a pact to spend as little time as possible in the apartment, and in the building. “To be honest, I don’t want to be that guy that’s networking with all the people here,” he said.
Blaine Ford, WeLive’s community manager, said he encourages tenants to not join the WeWork offices in the building, but pick a location that’s at least a few blocks away. “It’s good for people to have a bit of a commute,” he said, “and just go outside.”
Early August: Craft Jam at Node Brooklyn in Bushwick
On a scruffy block on Eldert Street in Bushwick, a renovated brick townhouse built around 1900 gleamed like a showplace in Brooklyn Heights. Inside, a parlor room was swathed in Brooklyn toile; there were vintage photographs of the neighborhood, and on the shelves, the requisite board games and other accouterments of the internet-weary.
The apartments, fully furnished in a gender-neutral, post-West Elm manner, have plump blue Smeg refrigerators in their open-shelved galley kitchens. The backyard is propped with Brimfield finds — seats made from rusty milk cans, vintage signs — and above, a web of industrial light bulbs.
On this night, nearly all of the building’s 13 tenants had gathered to paint pots for tiny succulents, an activity led by Paivi Kankaro, 34, whose company, CraftJam, runs D.I.Y. events around New York City. “Craft is yoga for your brain,” Ms. Kankaro said. “And people want to do other things than go to a bar.” (There was ample wine, however.)
I observed the impressive efforts of Peter and Gena Cuba, both 33 and graphic designers originally from the Midwest. They had moved to Node from Brooklyn Heights, as it happened, because they felt that the comforts of that neighborhood had become a trap. Ms. Cuba also had a hankering for a bathtub. Rents start at $2,800 for a one-bedroom. You can bring your own roommates, or Jeanette Dobrowski, Node’s 28-year-old community curator, will fix you up.
“We target global citizens who want to live with people from all walks of life,” said Dorothea Avery, Node Brooklyn’s 36-year-old co-founder, and a former Wall Street trader. Node tenants include a Blue Man Group member from London, a French wine consultant and a public affairs specialist from North Carolina who is just 22. Ms. Avery noted the boons to a developer for charging a premium for well-appointed spaces — four more Node Brooklyn buildings are nearly complete — and also the health advantages of group living.