In a Divided Country, Communal Living Redefines Togetherness

Kate Green was in bed one night when she heard somebody trying to break into her home. This was 2017. Her apartment, in the Hollywood Hills, was a well-appointed studio. Green heard footsteps, and saw a stranger peering through the full-length glass by her front door. For a moment, she was paralyzed; then she dove for cover in her closet. By the time the police arrived, the unknown intruder had disappeared.

Green, who is in her mid-thirties, was the right hand to a celebrity chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and had a reputation for being unflappable at work. Yet, in the months that followed the intrusion, she lost her equilibrium in life. Again and again, she found herself staying out until dawn. Eventually she realized that she was avoiding going home.

In February, 2020, Green left her apartment and went to live at Treehouse Hollywood, a space for community living, where people of many ages and from many walks of life eat together, spend time together, and conduct their lives largely in common view. She moved into her unit—one of sixty at Treehouse—and fell asleep in a building filled with strangers. It was the first time she had gone to bed with the lights off in more than two years.

Joe Green—no relation—left his house in San Francisco on the Saturday morning after the 2020 election, taking me along so that he didn’t have to drive down to Los Angeles alone. It was clear out, with taffy wisps of cloud. Green, who is in his late thirties, crammed a few last bags into the trunk of his Volvo convertible and dropped the top.

“O.K., I think we’re ready,” he said.

Green co-founded Treehouse Hollywood, which opened in the weeks just preceding the pandemic. I first encountered him several years earlier, when I interviewed him about an immigration lobby that he’d started with Mark Zuckerberg. Back then, Green had arranged to meet me in an airport food court while he waited for a flight to D.C., the better to streamline the logistics of his life. He’d sported a mop of curly brown hair and a dark blazer, and had looked tired. Much had changed since then. The Trump Administration nullified the work of liberalizing immigration. Green started psychedelic therapy, and a nonprofit to promote it. The mop of hair had turned into a coif, and the clothes had become loud. In the car, Green wore pink floral trousers and a toast-colored Cowichan sweater. He said that vulnerability was now his lodestar, and talked about the content of his therapy and a nascent romance with a woman in New York.

“It really crystallized recently for me that humans evolved with interdependence, but technology has made us independent,” he shouted while the Volvo mewlingly gained speed.

I had come along because I’d noticed communities like Treehouse springing up across the country. Community living had a famous American moment in the late sixties and early seventies, but many communes of that period came to be associated with squalor, cults, dispiriting group sex, and lentils, and the fashion faded. Now it’s back.

As we crested through the mountain passes near Castaic, which were unfrozen and lovely, Green told me, “So many people I know of different circumstances say what they really want is houses next to each other with ten of their friends.” In 2016, when Treehouse raised five million dollars from individual investors and venture-capital funding, twelve per cent of co-living communities were housed in buildings made for that purpose, according to a study conducted by a group of architects in Paris; within two years, the number had more than doubled. Though some communities dissolved during the pandemic, many reported an uptick in applicants.

Chirangi Modi said that, before moving to Treehouse, she “was always following the trend. You know: you’re single, you’re in a relationship, you settle down, you move into a single-family home.”

I wanted to learn what people found so absent from traditional home life that, during a pandemic, they were rushing into life in groups. Green exited onto the 101, and we slowed into residential Hollywood: dingbat houses, stucco buildings, the Netflix towers, and, across the freeway overpasses, tents.

Prophet Walker woke that morning in his room at Treehouse Hollywood around four, as usual, and prepared his normal breakfast in the pre-dawn dark: orange juice, chicken sausage, sliced tomato, boiled eggs, and an avocado rained on by ground pepper. Walker grew up in Watts, in South L.A., with a mother who was addicted to heroin. At sixteen, he broke a guy’s jaw and stole his CD player, and was sentenced to six years in prison. Inside, Walker lived next to the Skid Row Slasher and earned his G.E.D.; when he got out, he studied engineering at Loyola Marymount. At twenty-six, he ran unsuccessfully for the State Assembly. The next year, he was a special guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address.

All along, he’d had an idea for a community centered in one building. “My belief was that the world should be connected, but that urban design, like many other things, failed to bring us together,” he said. He and Joe Green were put in touch by a mutual friend on the theory that they thought similarly. They did: Walker is Treehouse’s other founder. Green doesn’t live there—he has a pied-à-terre in Beverly Hills—but Walker does, with his fifteen-year-old daughter. That Saturday afternoon, he headed to the café in the entryway of Treehouse, to find out the latest from everybody else.

Alex Rafaelov had been in the café for much of the afternoon, working on an iPad, steaming lattes, and watching the foot traffic as it passed. Rafaelov was nineteen, with a jut of blond hair and a bright demeanor. They identify as queer, and are undergoing a gender transition, which had caused tension at home. They’d enrolled at a community college, getting meals from a food bank at one point, and loved the range of people they met at school. Seeking more of the same, they arrived at Treehouse last February, moving into one of its six below-market-rent rooms, for two hundred dollars a month. Other units average twenty-two hundred dollars, which roughly matches other new apartments on the block. Most people live in five-person suites, with separate bedrooms and bathrooms, built off a shared kitchen; studios are available for more than three thousand a month.

Rafaelov, who works as an illustrator, was wiping down the steam rod when Green and I appeared in the café. We’d arrived at the building, a five-story forest-green tower trimmed with blond-wood balconies, in the late afternoon, parking in an underground garage and coming to the café through a bamboo-lined courtyard.

“Alex,” Rafaelov said, introducing themself with a wide smile.

Walker crashed in. He is tall, with a mid-length beard and the posture of a well-hugged stuffed animal. He took his favorite spot, at a small table with a chessboard. Another resident, Michele Esquivel, appeared with her fourteen-year-old daughter. They had been on their own since 2014, when ICE picked up Esquivel’s husband as he walked their daughter to school, and deported him to Mexico. Then Myra Hasson, a resident who serves as Treehouse’s community manager, showed up with a Polaroid camera. She took a picture of Green and put it under the glass of the coffee bar, where other portraits were already fixed.

That evening, Joe Biden was delivering his acceptance speech in Wilmington, Delaware. A wide-screen TV was wheeled in, and Kate Green squeezed onto the couch. A zero-gravity-robotics engineer named Seth Berger, whom residents call the Mayor of Treehouse, approached. (During most of the pandemic, Treehouse operated masklessly, as an enormous pod; visitors like me were let in with a negative test result.)

Joe Green perched near the group and surveyed the room. He grew up in L.A., and went on to Harvard, where he connected with Zuckerberg, then declined an offer to drop out and help build Facebook. Walker was accepted to Harvard, too, but couldn’t go because of his parole, and Green likes to see them as two restive L.A. boys, dispatched by different circumstances, who collided in entrepreneurial adulthood. For a few weeks that summer, he had forgone his usual Beverly Hills pad and joined Walker as a resident at Treehouse. “I went from three-quarters of an acre, a forty-five-hundred-square-foot house, to two hundred and fifty square feet, and I was so much happier,” he said. (Then he went back.)

On the TV, Kamala Harris appeared to announce “a new day for America.”

“Work that suit, Kamala!” Kate Green exclaimed, applauding.

COVID started days before Kamala Harris was going to come here,” Walker said. Previously, the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, had praised the community; in an odd way, Treehouse has emerged as one of the places in America where power is settling in a new form. One resident described it as the most diverse environment that he’d ever seen, “in every way you can measure diversity”—a notable feat, given that rooms are filled almost entirely by word of mouth, with a simple questionnaire by way of application.

Biden had come onscreen to say, “That is what America, I believe, is about. It’s about people.” Jazmine Williams, another resident, slipped into the room with her daughter, Maliyah, who wore a princess dress and boots.

“It’s her birthday,” Williams explained. “Well, two days ago. She’s five.”

“Oh, my God, happy birthday, Maliyah!” someone cried. Maliyah smiled the tight, mortified smile of too much adult attention, and stepped behind her mother’s leg.

Biden was saying, “If we can decide not to coöperate, then we can decide to coöperate—”

Yes! ” Kate Green chimed in from the couch.

Then there were fireworks, and “Dancing in the Street” came on, and Maliyah started dancing with the space engineer, and everyone—the hospitality manager, the deported immigrant’s family, the tech founder, the formerly incarcerated entrepreneur, the queer teen-ager—watched while onscreen the old stronghold of power fell toward a new one.

In the recent book “Brave New Home,” Diana Lind describes the single-family home as ill-suited to modern life. If many nineteenth-century houses seem large by today’s standards, it’s because they were meant for intergenerational living, boarders, and staff—communities unto themselves. At the turn of the century, families shrank, staffs winnowed, and streetcars (later, cars) allowed for greater distances between home and work. Also, more immigrants arrived. This was when single-family living went into heavy promotion, via the Department of Commerce’s “Own Your Own Home” campaign. Lind argues that this drove the better-off into single-family homes, and helped pull a more diverse, mixed public physically apart.

“Can you stop thinking about work for, like, two seconds?”
Cartoon by Lars Kenseth

Lind herself found “a clear connection between the loneliness I experienced and the amount of time I spent at home.” By contrast, she notes, people in intentional communities could “live their lives to the fullest.” Lind is fortyish, and her idea of life fully lived will strike some as millennial in its aspirations: creative-type careers, nomadic roving, and what she calls “outsourced housework.” There are economic factors, too. Entry-level home prices are climbing; generational wealth is not. For many, a single-family home is not a realistic part of the dream.

Yet financial constraints alone can’t explain the communal-living rush, because, at least in coastal cities, communities tend to be full of prospering people. “Part of it might just be appetite for risk, and willingness to do something together,” Gillian Morris, who co-edits the community-living newsletter Supernuclear, told me. Phil Levin, Supernuclear’s other editor, who co-founded an Oakland community called Radish, said, “Our built environment is getting more isolating over time. More houses in the suburbs, more luxury apartments in buildings where you don’t know your neighbors.” Punctilious types often distinguish among “co-housing,” which involves distinct units on a compound; “co-living,” which involves sharing more space; and “co-ops,” which have still more deeply enmeshed intentions. But many communities, like Treehouse, are hybrids, and part of the point is coloring outside the lines. Commitment to nontraditional living arrangements also sometimes involves polyamory or co-parenting. Marriage rates in the United States are the lowest they’ve been since the period following the Civil War, when data were first collected. As life spans increase, so will the proportion of time one spends outside the nuclear family, which means that, at some point, for most Americans, the alternative to different ways of being together will be being alone.

Digital life was supposed to bring greater connection. Gideon Dominick, a software engineer, told me that he’d done “the digital-nomad thing” for seven years, but now was seeking community as a stay against what he called “atomization” in public life—a loss of shared reference points and experience. Technology, he thought, was changing people’s social expectations. “There’s a lot of editing now in how we’re trained to perceive other people,” he said. “We have fewer exchanges of uncertainty where we’re waiting to see how they resolve.”

A cluster of people at Treehouse showed me to my room. It had a platform bed, a big window, a private bathroom, its own climate control, and soundproofed walls. There was a pillow-laden window seat, I supposed for wistful gazing. Also, it being Los Angeles, there was a healing crystal and a diffuser stocked with lavender oil. This I ran constantly, at full blast, like a power generator at the corner of my bed.

Outside my room was a shared kitchen, with an oblong table that could fit seven or eight people at a squeeze. My suitemates were two men in their thirties: Jon Carpenter, an entrepreneur, and Devan Dmarcus, a personal trainer.

“During the week, I’m very heads-down,” Carpenter alerted me.

“And I’m usually down in the gym. So we catch each other at the kitchen table,” Dmarcus said.

Carpenter wore a Bay Area young professional’s uniform—ankle-hugging trousers, pristine sneakers—and said that he couldn’t remember how many businesses he’d started over the years. He’d been living by himself in San Francisco, but had worried about becoming lonely during the lockdown, so he’d sublet his place and come to Treehouse. “I work with a business coach slash therapist, and she’s, like, ‘You have to do this,’ ” he told me. Dmarcus, with billowing athletic clothes and a mane of dreadlocks, had recently come to Los Angeles from Atlanta, where he co-founded an organization called Black Men Smile, which sought to redefine Black masculinity through outreach and art.

Some rooms in the building were designed for particular purposes—a laundry room that doubles as an art studio, a screening lounge with a bar—but residents often end up exerting their own vision and control over a space, and Dmarcus had taken over an area at the edge of the parking garage, where he added gym equipment and started booking appointments. Kate Green, who knew wine, had taken it upon herself to keep the bar stocked; another resident, who knew food safety, kept the communal refrigerator’s contents fresh. The building originally used a cleaning service, but, when residents realized that the best cleaner was underpaid, Treehouse hired her away and doubled her wage. The maintenance man lived in the house next door.


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