An intriguing new movement is experimenting with the kind of co-living that defined families for millennia. I decided to find out more
I first spoke to Prophet Walker about a year ago, when I was pregnant with our third child and fresh off a Covid-precipitated six-month stint of living with my parents. Whether it was the kindergartner getting sick, or navigating a crushing deadline with a preschooler underfoot, or juggling dinnertime while eight months pregnant and unable to reach the mac ‘n’ cheese that had been smeared on the floor that I found myself desperate for my parents’ extra sets of hands and wondering how on earth we’d ever made it work without them.
It took a pandemic for me to put my own living practices under the spotlight. Walker had been doing so for his entire life. He is now spearheading a movement to get people to recognize the myriad benefits of ditching that very American vision of two parents, two and a half kids and a white picket fence for the communal living that defined families for millennia.
“I grew up poor, with all the hell that came along with that,” he told me over Zoom, out on his deck last February, pink flowers glowing almost psychedelically behind him. “The thing that kept my sanity was the community around me, and what struck me was that even living in those housing projects, there was real, legitimate joy. Belly laughs, you know?”
Born and raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, he started a six-year prison sentence for assault and robbery when he was a teenager. Both experiences underscored not just the immense power, but also the necessity of community. As a young boy, he watched his closest friend get murdered and remembers how the entire block came out, gave him hugs, reminded him that he was going to be okay. “Then, at 16, I was incarcerated and again, in what one would assume would be a very dark place, I found a ton of community and people banding together.”
His North Star? To make communal living more prevalent in a country where the nuclear family has long been mistakenly idealized.
In 2017, after graduating with a degree from Loyola Marymount’s engineering school, working as a construction engineer, running (unsuccessfully) for state office and attending the 2015 State of the Union address as a guest of Michelle Obama, Walker teamed up with Joe Green, a Santa Monica-raised Harvard graduate who’s collaborated with tech glitterati like Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker of Napster fame. An odd couple if there ever was one, Walker and Green co-founded Treehouse, based in the Hollywood neighborhood of LA. It’s the first ever building in the city constructed from the ground up with the specific purpose of serving a communal audience and Walker envisions it as the first of a multi-national network of Treehouses that will redefine how we live. A grand vision, but an important one.
Treehouse inhabitants enjoy weekly suppers, communal working space and the comfort that their co-residents share the five Treehouse core values: being kind, present, curious, responsible and candid. I intuitively understood the pull of co-housing for a young single person, the college-dorm-for-adults feel. What I selfishly wanted to know was: can you successfully construct community for young families, those members of society I believe are in desperate need of a literal village, but so often cut adrift from them in the modern world? And how, precisely, do you break that gargantuan task into a series of actionable directives?
“When your kid is four years old, you might think they’re cute”, Walker told me, “but your neighbors might not. To come up with a viable community solution that appeals to families, you have to factor all that in.”
He has a 16-year-old daughter, so he intimately recognizes the challenges of raising children in an isolated society. He also recognizes the challenges of raising a child in a co-housing community, at least not one designed specifically with families in mind. So he’s using the year-plus he spent living with his own teenage daughter in the first Treehouse to directly address its shortfalls in a new family-friendly Treehouse, currently being built in Leimert Park, which we discussed when I reached out to him recently.
The first issue: they had designed the intra-unit communal spaces, like the kitchen shared between five roommates, with an eye toward minimizing friction – beautiful, but hard, wooden benches, for example, instead of comfy couches where you’d want to curl up and chat. Those were in the building-wide common areas. The upshot: there were few places for Walker and his daughter to chill out alone, together.
Secondly, the soundproofing. The rooms at Treehouse are all soundproofed, something critical for individuals who may keep wildly different hours. Not so for families.
“I couldn’t hear anything, which was a bit nerve-wracking,” he said. “I never left my door closed.” He was preaching to the choir. After our third child was born this summer, we moved into a larger apartment. Our preschooler used to sleep in our closet. That I could no longer hear her every snort and snuffle was so disorienting that my bedside table is now a sea of wires and monitors.
But the biggest challenge, Walker says, is how to make families feel safe enough that their children can run around as the collective community watches out for them.
“First we had The Sandlot”, he told me, – referencing the movie about a bunch of kids who in 1962 play baseball together in a neighborhood sandlot. No adult supervision. No worries. “Then the pendulum swung, we had the war on drugs, kids weren’t allowed outside.” Now we’re somewhere in between. To help the pendulum swing closer to Sandlot territory, the new Treehouse delineates groups of floors as “neighborhoods” – accessible only to residents on those floors with specific communal spaces.
“The hope is that kids will get to play more freely, get to go outside, that it’ll be less contrived and parents will have a little more freedom in raising children together,” he said.
The issue, as Walker sees it, isn’t the will. It’s the way.
“From what I’ve heard in the zeitgeist, families are like, ‘we want to get a pod’, ‘we want to move into a building together’,” he said. “I think that always was bubbling on the surface, and the pandemic was the tipping point. But the reality of America is that it is not set up to support this ideology. America is set up with this idea of rugged individualism.”
In very pragmatic terms, that means he has to fight not just societal inertia and norms, but also zoning laws that favor the nuclear family, banking rules about how lending works and much more.
Now that the world is opening up again, he’s planning a trip to Germany, where government-backed shared housing models make it wildly easier to roll out Treehouse-like communities. It’ll be a learning exercise, a research-gathering trip, but also inspirational, an example of how America might serve families once the pendulum has swung its way toward a better spot. Here’s to hoping.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age