I I first spoke to Prophet Walker about a year ago, when I was pregnant with our third child and had just lived with my parents for six months, rushed by Covid. Whether it’s a kindergarten child who gets sick, going through a crushing deadline with a preschooler on his feet, or juggling dinner time while I’m eight months pregnant and unable to reach the macaroni and cheese that had been spread out on the floor, I found myself desperate for my parents’ extra hand games and wondering how the hell we could have made it work without them.
It took me a pandemic to put my own living practices in the spotlight. Walker had been doing it all his life. He is now leading a movement to get people to recognize the countless benefits of letting go of this very American vision of two parents, two and a half children, and a white picket fence for living together that has defined families for millennia.
“I grew up poor, with all the hell that followed,” he told me on Zoom, on his deck last February, pink blossoms glistening almost psychedelically behind him. “What kept me sanity was the community around me, and what struck me was that even living in these housing projects, there was real and legitimate joy. The belly laughs, you know?
Born and raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, he was sentenced to six years in prison for assault and theft as a teenager. Both experiences underscored not only the immense power, but also the need for community. As a young boy he saw his closest friend get murdered and remembers how the whole block came out, hugged him, reminded him he would be fine. “Then at 16 I was incarcerated and again, in what one might suppose to be a very dark place, I found a ton of community and people who came together.”
His polar star? To make living together more widespread in a country where the nuclear family has long been wrongly idealized.
In 2017, after graduating from Loyola Marymount Engineering School, working as a construction engineer, candidate (unsuccessfully) for state office and attending the 2015 State of the Union Address in As a guest of Michelle Obama, Walker teamed up with Joe Green, a Santa Monica-raised Harvard graduate who collaborated with tech figures like Napster’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker. A strange couple if ever there was one, Walker and Green co-founded Treehouse, based in the Hollywood neighborhood of LA. It is the very first building in the city to be built from the ground up for the specific purpose of serving a community audience and Walker sees it as the first in a multinational treehouse network that will redefine our way of life. A grand vision, but important.
Treehouse residents value the weekly dinners, the common workspace, and the comfort that their fellow residents share in Treehouse’s five core values: being kind, present, curious, responsible and outspoken. I intuitively understood the appeal of co-housing for a young bachelor, the feeling of a college dormitory for adults. What I selfishly wanted to know was: can you be successful in building a community for young families, those members of society who I believe are in desperate need of a literal village, but who are so often far removed from? them in the modern world? And how, precisely, do you break down this gargantuan task into a series of actionable guidelines?
“When your kid is four, you might think he’s cute,” Walker told me, “but your neighbors might not be. To come up with a viable community solution that is family friendly, you need to take all of this into account. “
He has a 16 year old daughter, so he intimately recognizes the challenges of raising children in an isolated society. It also recognizes the challenges of raising a child in a cohabitation community, at least not designed specifically for families. He is therefore using the year and more that he spent living with his own teenage daughter in the first treehouse to directly address his shortcomings in a new family treehouse, currently under construction in Leimert Park, of which we chatted when I contacted him recently.
The first problem: They had designed the intra-unit common spaces, like the kitchen shared between five roommates, with the aim of minimizing friction – nice hardwood benches, for example, instead of comfy sofas where you would want to relax. you and discuss. These were in the common areas of the building. The result: There were few places for Walker and his daughter to relax alone, together.
Second, soundproofing. The rooms at the Treehouse are all soundproofed, which is essential for people who may have very different schedules. This is not the case for families.
“I couldn’t hear anything, which was a little scary,” he said. “I never left my door closed.” He preached to the choir. After our third child was born this summer, we moved to a larger apartment. Our preschooler was sleeping in our closet. That I couldn’t hear it anymore with every sniff and snort was so disorienting that my nightstand is now a sea of wires and monitors.
But the biggest challenge, says Walker, is how to make families feel safe enough for their children to run around while the collective community watches over them.
“First we had The Sandlot,” he told me, – referring to the film about a group of children in 1962 playing baseball together at a neighborhood playground. No adult supervision. No problem. “Then the pendulum swung, we had the war on drugs, children weren’t allowed out. Now we’re somewhere in between. To help the pendulum move closer to Sandlot territory, the new treehouse demarcates groups of floors as “neighborhoods” – accessible only to residents of floors with specific common areas.
“The hope is that the children can play more freely, that they can go out, that it is less artificial and that parents have a little more freedom to raise their children together,” he said.
The problem, according to Walker, is not willpower. This is the way.
“From what I’ve heard in the air, families are like, ‘we want to have a pod’, ‘we want to move into a building together,'” he said. “I think it has always bubbled to the surface, and the pandemic has been the tipping point. But the reality of America is that it is not designed to support this ideology. America is set up with this idea of robust individualism. “
In very pragmatic terms, this means that he has to fight not only against inertia and societal norms, but also against zoning laws that favor the nuclear family, banking rules on how loans work and much more.
Now that the world is opening up again, he is planning a trip to Germany, where government-backed shared housing models make it much easier to deploy treehouse-like communities. It will be a learning exercise, a research trip, but also an inspiration, an example of how America could serve families once the pendulum has moved to a better place. So much for hope.