Finding a Connection in Urban Utopia

 

Like many public institutions, our communities are in decline. The world has shrunk and expanded to impossible size simultaneously, and the relationships that used to hold us together no longer exist...at least that’s what WeLive would like you to think.

What is WeLive?

An offshoot of office sharing company WeWork, WeLive is the logical extension of the curated, flexible, shared community that WeWork established. If you’re unfamiliar with WeWork, the concept is simple. The company caters to business owners and freelancers who need office space, but might not have the option of renting, furnishing, and maintaining their own. They provide office design services, private floors, private offices, designated desk space, and basic memberships. Each office is apparently designed to be optimized for creativity and productivity. Outfitted with entertainment, printers, and, most importantly, coffee, WeWork offices are everything a business could need.

The WeLive concept is as if WeWork made college dorms. They currently have locations in New York and Washington, DC and each is designed to be a unique space. Residents can choose living space sizes from ‘Studio’ to ‘4-Bedroom’. Whether you rent alone or with a group of friends (or strangers), the personal space at WeLive is minimal. Basic sleeping, cooking, and hygiene amenities are included, as well as a suite of furniture and decor. They’ll even provide you with a few accessories. All a visitor or resident need bring is a suitcase.

Community Designed for the Royal "We"

Though personal living spaces in WeLive are on the small side, they are offset by large, luxurious public spaces, which encourage residents to get out and mingle. Kegs of beer can be found in the laundry room and there are plenty of couches to sink into. Baristas pour complementary lattes in the lobby. A fitness center with yoga classes offers a daily schedule for residents. There’s also an app for residents that offers a public forum for gripes, compliments, and general conversations, as well as an event calendar so everyone is invited to everything.

All the glitz and glam of WeLive is intended to offer residents an exciting atmosphere somewhere between a college campus and startup. It’s fun, and they won’t let anyone who steps inside forget how fun it is. According to a GQ writer, the “chill-positive” attitude at WeLive is everywhere from messaging on the walls to branded t-shirts people who live there actually wear.

Credit Card Community

It seems like it could be a fantastic model for communities of the future, especially if the future of of work continues trending towards everyone being an independent contractor. But though the utopia-like co-living space might be a ‘community’ by definition on paper, it’s a business before anything else. 

And so herein lies its weakness: you pay the bills and someone else does all the dirty work. Residents don’t have to give back to the community in any way besides positive participation. The founders want to create the community vibe that is so hard to come by today—especially in urban centers—but don’t give residents any reason to really become invested in the community.

WeLive, from our perspective, looks like an experiment, expensive though it may be. If based on a hypothesis, at least as observed from the outside-in, we can only surmise that ‘community’ is defined by shared interests in life-stage, a communal desire for convenience, and maybe a tribal subscription to some sort of ‘cool factor.’ What’s missing, we would respectfully suggest, is sacrifice and purpose. Although sometimes annoying, the ties that bind are more often strengthened in giving things up, not purely through gain. If you can buy your way out of any personal or shared sacrifice, your purpose probably defaults to pure convenience.

If there’s no real purpose besides convenience, then there’s no real reason for community bonds to form. There’s no doubt in our minds that genuine friendships have blossomed out of WeWork or WeLive situations, but friendships are not communities. All WeLive is doing here is working to impose a convenient, superficial layer of meaning on those who struggle making connections in a city.

A Reason for "We-ing"

WeLive has touched on a very real problem—people are lonelier than ever. Young people, especially, move around a lot more than their parents did, loosening the strong communal roots laid down by older generations. People don’t go to large community events as often. A lot of people don’t even know the names of their neighbors. The problem is vast and companies like WeLive are even partially to blame. The work-hard, party-hard, break-things-you-don’t-have-to-fix, don’t-sleep, don’t-look-away-from-your-phone mentality of Silicon Valley, combined with the omnipresent shadow of the worst wealth inequality ever witnessed (possibly) since feudalism, has destroyed a lot of what held us together. We have become so fiercely independent and protective of what little we have for ourselves, that the idea of even having a functioning public community space feels exhausting, much less taking the time and energy to contribute to it.

Communities are built on mutual benefit, reliance, and trust. WeLive is built on rent payments, ping-pong tables, and panopticonic security features reminiscent of hidden camera reality TV programs. For some, WeLive might be a good fit though. It does seem like a good way to meet new people in a new city on your way to somewhere else. Ultimately, however, the simulation of community is all WeLive can offer to most of its residents, and that simulation further devalues any real sense of community that remains. For younger members of our own community of digital craftsmen (working only, not living together), WeLive touches a nerve. It’s selling a dream we believe is misguided.

Investing in a Better Community

The important takeaway for community-builders everywhere is that, while it is important to have nice things that attract people to your community, it’s the investment of time and labor from community members that form meaningful bonds. Great amenities only go so far. We’ve seen it in contemporary office redesigns which feature “millennial-attracting features” like beanbag chairs and snack closets brimming with goodies. None of those things create culture. None of them create community. It’s time we finally admit that, often times, amenities put up a smokescreen to dodge the harder questions: Where are we going and why? What are we willing to give up to get there? And who among us has the courage to take a stand and own that direction?