Stare into another person’s eyes long enough, and you start to feel like you might be in love.
It worked for Ryan Fix and Poppy Liu. On their first date, they tried a two-hour eye gaze—a concerted effort to relate by sitting at arm’s length and silently staring at one another. Now they are partners in romance, and in business. They also live together as part of that business, along with around 20 other people, in what some might call a commune.
“It’s not a commune,” Fix explains, but rather a culmination of his life’s journey. He worked on Wall Street but left as he felt his soul corroding, to find a life that would prioritize human connection. Fix keeps his head shaved, and he was barefoot in a tunic when we met. The serenity he exudes is intense, if somewhere below guru-level. And if what he was running were a commune, the love seat we were sitting on wouldn’t be in a six-person apartment in the middle of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—one of the most densely populated places in the country, and among the most expensive.
A commune, Fix emphasizes, is where people move “upstate or something” and purposely isolate their group. What Fix has built is, rather, a “communal-living” experience. Known as Pure House and situated in a former doll factory, the company is about bringing together a diverse group of similar-but-not-too-similar people to live in a tightly knit community—but one that is not cut off from the rest of the world. (This is also important in distinguishing the place from a “cult.”)
Pure House resident Idit Nissenbaum is an artist who moved to New York from Israel two years ago. Initially she lived in Greenpoint, at the north end of Brooklyn. She hated the city, the constant feeling of being alone in a crowd.
“When I moved to New York, I felt alone,” she said. “I found Pure House, and I was like, that is what I need.”
In the six months that Nissenbaum has lived in the defunct doll factory, her impression of life in the city totally changed. She told me she feels motivated and inspired every day. “I see people who are doing what they love, what they’re passionate about,” she said, gesturing to the dozen or so denizens bustling around the loft, “and it makes me feel more passionate about myself and my art.”
Pure House is on the small side of the communal living industry, which is seeing commercial success in the United States at the moment. There are plans to spread across Brooklyn, but for now it consists of three closely situated apartments with five or six people living in each. This puts Pure House behind industry leaders like WeLive, which operates entire buildings in lower Manhattan and “D.C.” (actually in a renovated office building in a sterile commercial park in Arlington, Virginia). Along with WeWork, the co-working space part of the company, WeLive is part of a $16 billion valuation.
Another communal-living company, Common, raised $7.35 million in mostly venture-capital funding last summer, and is taking over real estate in historically black Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Another, Stage 3 Properties, which promises a “holistic housing solution,” encourages tenants to socialize and bond in “play spaces” throughout New York, “an ever-expanding network of amenities spread throughout multiple Ollie properties.”
This microcommunity is not free, though. A room at Pure House costs between $1,500 and $1,800 per month. WeLive is even more expensive, with the smallest room costing more than the Dupont Circle studio I rented when I lived in D.C. On the basis of square footage of the private space, WeLive and Pure House cost more than most rental spaces in New York, too. Several tenants could split a comparably minimal loft for around $1,000 per person. So people are paying a lot to live in major cities like New York, and then, once there, paying even more to create a smaller community.
The willingness to do so is partly an acknowledgment that social connection requires more deliberate intention in adulthood. That has long been the case, hitting young people in the years they abandon dorm life. But Fix believes that the problem is acutely worse in this moment, as technology has made our lives so efficient that we have fewer opportunities for serendipitous interactions. We run into fewer acquaintances while running errands because more is delivered to our doors. We don’t meet unlikely strangers in bars because we meet algorithm-endorsed matches through apps. We don’t go find rides; rides come find us. Social isolation is not limited to people living on suburban cul-de-sacs, but erodes even the densest urban areas.
So even within Pure House, the space is laid out to optimize “points of collision” between people. And there are yoga sessions, group massages, and eclectic social events. Every few weeks they have a group dinner called “This Is Not a Dinner About Sex.”
It is, though, a dinner about sex. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder around an enormous table strewn with quinoa and various greens, one occupant enthused over how much she loves giving blowjobs without any expectation of reciprocity. Some others nodded in agreement or gave the house-designated “me too” hand signal, or a finger to the nose to say that the speaker is hitting it on the nose, adding that they tend to be afraid to say it because, is it anti-feminist? No?
Despite the increased cost of living, Pure House clearly plays to the starving-artist brand and those seeking the “creative-class” experience. At Stage 3, too, the company’s mission is “passionately disrupting the housing industry by reimagining its process, product, and price points, and curating an all-inclusive, cosmopolitan living experience designed for today’s creative class.”
To that end, communal living spaces tend to offer flexibility for the Millennial jet set and minimalist wanderers. At Pure House, occupants sign on month-to-month, and sometimes even for shorter periods. British business developer Sam Adams Nye was already on his third stay when I visited, and was about to take off again for a few months abroad.
Still others see the system as pseudo-liberation, a potentially serious threat to renters who are normally guaranteed at least a full year of housing at a constant price. In an attempt to subvert the typical renter-landlord paradigm, the month-to-month communal living system is reintroducing some of the risks that the old system was established to reduce.
“The real world isn’t where you crash somewhere for 30 days and you get to immerse yourself in a neighborhood and then you leave,” New York State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal told The New York Times in 2015. “It’s about a few people making a lot of money masquerading as a shared economy.”
I could see how things could get out of control. During my visit, there was one small window air conditioner for the entire six-bedroom loft, and it was 90 degrees outside. Fix apologized—and part of the problem was that I always wear a wool suit during video interviews. But if I lived there, I could see something like the AC situation putting me off the idea of having 15 people cooking an enormous dinner in my kitchen that night. I’d just have to put up with it.
For the people who live here, though, that sort of inconvenience is worth it for the sense of community, connection, and purpose they really seem to feel.
Before leaving Pure House, I tried an eye gaze with Poppy, at her insistence. It wasn’t coercive; she was great about making sure I felt like I could say no. But she was so enthusiastic that I’d love it. So we sat for a few minutes in silence, staring into one another’s eyes.
It’s an exercise that succeeds at divorcing you from reality. The connection is a mix of fundamentally human and necessarily artificial, not unlike the sex dinner, and Pure House on the whole. How much genuine connection can come of measures so deliberate? And how much diversity is it really possible to cultivate among people with the means, interest, and ability to live here?
In both cases, maybe more than a lot of us get most days.