May 30, 2020 - 7:00am

How can we create lasting communities where everyone is free to do as they please? The answer, going by this weekend’s long read pick, is simple: you can’t.

In The New Yorker, Michael Schulman recounts the story of a Brooklyn flatshare falling apart under lockdown. To begin with, the ‘Sky Palace’ seems an urban idyll: a picture-perfect contemporary houseshare, coalescing through a mix of chance and friendship from the multi-ethnic, creative, hyper-individualistic New York precariat. A “queer-friendly community of strangers”, the Sky Palace is the perfect mix of you-do-you individualism and opt-in community:

“I love the Sky Palace,” Erik told me, earlier this spring. “Because everyone does help each other and support each other, but it is not expected that you be everybody’s emotional life coach.”
- Michael Schulman, The New Yorker

But then came the lockdown. The outbreak of coronavirus ramped up economic pressure, destroyed jobs, and prompted anxious house meetings about hygiene. The new situation called for a degree of interdependence radically at odds with the houseshare’s previously ultra-liberal norms:

Sheltering in place forces roommates together and raises the stakes on everyday squabbles: cleanliness is potentially a matter of life or death. You’re only as safe as your least-careful roommate. 
- Michael Schulman, The New Yorker

Not everyone felt obliged to comply. One housemate began selling sex, bringing clients back to the apartment, before branching out into selling drugs. Tensions rose. Anyone who’s ever shared a house, or is sharing a house now, will wince in recognition at the slow-motion car crash feeling of a community in the process of curdling, yet unable to salvage itself from within a radical commitment to the ‘you-do-you’ ethic:

McSherry, playing diplomat, wrote back, “You have the autonomy to behave however you like, but it’s extremely childish to slam doors and yell when you get upset. none of us gets to live exactly like we would if we lived alone; we all make compromises in consideration for one another.”

A moment later, Shannon replied:

Literally fuck u

Fuck you ALL

- Michael Schulman, The New Yorker

By the end of the article, all sense of community, togetherness or mutual support has evaporated. Half the house has left or is planning to leave. Javier, a former core housemate, expresses his longing to create something like a ‘family’:

“I just turned thirty this year, and I’ve known for a long time that family, for lack of a better word, is really important to me,” he said. “Not necessarily family in the child-rearing sense, but in the domestic-unit sense. It’s time for me to start seeking that in a really intentional way. I’m done writing it off as something that will just happen for me when it’s time. I want to be building a home with people I love, and I want it now.”
- Michael Schulman, The New Yorker

Shulman does not offer a post-liberal argument. But in the gentlest and most affectionate terms, it’s all there. The Everywhere precariat left behind by the receding tide of globalisation is revealed not as the future of anything, but skint, lonely hipsters.

These lost souls mix a yearning for mutualistic community with a mindset and lifestyle tailor-made to evade the kind of collectivism that would enable such a community to develop. The story has almost elegiac feel, as if mourning the evaporation of the last shreds of optimism still untouched by the Great Crash. You can’t help liking all the characters, and it reads like a tragedy in miniature. It’s an exquisite piece of writing.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.