Lately, the social science data, human interest stories, and public policy initiatives all seem to point every step of the way to one panacea: connection. It explains why Her Majesty’s Government has recently appointed the minister for loneliness. It explains why truck commercials are snagging MLK speech snippets, and why Elon Musk wants a girlfriend so badly. Human loneliness is the problem that precedes many others, as we’ve said so many times here on Mockingbird, and for much of the world, togetherness is the answer: If we can just be neighbors to one another, and get past our differences and grievances, we can make things better. Ironically, the technology age, the digital age, the productivity age, whatever you want to call it, has made neighbors harder and harder to find.

Two weeks back we linked to a story across the pond about the Compassionate Frome Project, and the real, medical difference made by simple human relationships, especially for sick and aging people. The town council developed a network of community members and agencies that would connect with local patients in their home environment. The difference a neighbor made was downright biological: 

Inflammation also causes us to huddle closer to those we love. Which is fine – unless, like far too many people in this age of loneliness, you have no such person. One study suggests that the number of Americans who say they have no confidant has nearly tripled in two decades. In turn, the paper continues, people without strong social connections, or who suffer from social stress (such as rejection and broken relationships), are more prone to inflammation…In other words, isolation causes inflammation, and inflammation can cause further isolation and depression.

Nothing particularly new here, besides maybe the fact that even a quaint, civically-engaged township like Frome—even a place like that must implement entire systems of “trained voluntary community connectors” to battle chronic loneliness. There are a little over 25,000 people in Frome. We expect fragmentation and isolation when we read novels placed in big cities, but with provincial communities, it should be different. Ideal communities, Jayber Crow communities, where neighbors know one another and eat together and work together, and spend whole lives there, those places don’t have to “combat isolation,” right?

This is not the post for investigating all the causes of modern isolation (those have been written and re-written), but it is fascinating to see what communities and businesses resolve to do about it, especially ones that set about envisioning an ideal community of their own, one that retranslates “neighborhood” into a language we actually speak today. WeLive is one such community. As GQ’s Benjy Hansen-Bundy describes, it is an apartment complex chain developed by the people behind WeWork, the huge shared workspace company, the apartments are meant to be “physical social networks,” combatting the “crisis of urban anonymity.”  As founder Miguel McKelvey describes it,

“Religion is no longer a connection point for most people,” he told me. “Our communities were built on coming together in physical locations once a week or twice a week. These institutions have dissipated.”

WeLive hopes to fill that void with community on the community’s terms.

The typical resident, McKelvey says, is an “entrepreneur looking for a noncommittal way to try out whatever new project he or she is working on and not have to sign a lease.”

Despite the noncommittal contracts, WeLive (and its motivational offshoots) is not shy about its notions of grandeur. “We” wants to be your global neighborhood, ensuring you are “psyched to be alive.”

“When the idea of ‘We’ came in,” McKelvey told me, “it started as a ‘WeBlank: WeWork, WeLive, WeSleep, WeEat.’ That was the premise at the very start. Our aspiration is to be a holistic support system or lifestyle solution for people who are interested in being open and connected.”…A few months after McKelvey and I talked, WeWork opened a fitness and wellness space called Rise by We. Later it announced plans to open elementary schools for young entrepreneurs. It was all happening…Soon you’ll be able to “feel like you’re staying within your community, within the network, wherever you are,” McKelvey said. “It never feels like it’s holding you back. It’s just always there. It always works.”

The photos of the spaces themselves (all of which are carefully curated with books, hats, and mid-century lighting) demonstrate a lifestyle that is seamlessly of a kind. Nothing is yours when you live in a WeLive studio, but everything is cool. And I have to be honest, that kind of sounds nice (but only kind of). It certainly fits the millennial minimal ethos, of ICYMI-haunted adventures, Pin-worthy cocktails, and cool pegboard desks–all experiences without any of the luggage of home. I’d love doing laundry if my laundry room also had a bar and an air hockey table. I showed my wife this picture. I would love to leave home on a whim, too, knowing I’d come back (or not; it’s up to me) to another fun party.

WeLive currently has two locations (NYC and DC) and it will most definitely have locations around the world, just as it has had with WeWork offices. And this is definitely a low-hanging fruit here, but I am just having trouble imagining: if I am in a foreign city, who would play air hockey with me in this laundromat? And would I want to play air hockey with a stranger if they wanted to play air hockey with me? And would playing air hockey with them make me feel more alone, or less?

In all seriousness, I feel sad that these complexes are the proposed answer to The Vanishing Neighbor, not because of the craft cocktails, but because of the curation of relationships on one’s own terms. Living in various chic apartments for weeks at a time is fine, but you cannot expect to know anyone, or for anyone to know you, or to be able to call it neighborhood. Communities are formed and strengthened in the reckoning experiences of weakness and trouble, not in You Do You GIFs and in-house yoga. No, against all Super Bowl commercials to the contrary, the more aspirational a community is, the more tenuous are its ties to the people actually living in its orbit. Much as WeLive hopes to build spaces that “foster meaningful relationships,” the only way that happens in a curated environment is when the curated facade is punched through with something real. Which is why this zinger in the GQ article makes a whole lot of sense. The writer describes finding an overly earnest individual switching his own laundry over for him while he was away grabbing a beer; it was a stranger, and it struck the writer as unsettling rather than a spontaneous act of kindness. 

Ironically, the most organic social incident I witnessed while in residence at WeLive was something that happens at every building in the city—a fire alarm. One warm night in late April, everyone had to evacuate the building. We all milled around outside the lobby, suspended between the reassuring idea that it wasn’t a real fire and the sneaking possibility that it might be.  

This has gotten me thinking about the various ways Christians of various stripes talk about “kingdom building,” and how quickly church communities concoct lamer misconceptions of the same WeLive equation: build a new, aspirational facade that will bring people together for a richer community life. “Connection” in this equation is rendered through some vague allegiance around a new program or hot issue, but everyone rallied together holds the same credo, and in the end, the mission misses the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter is that lonely people do not need another aspirational community to “grow into” or “network with”—who isn’t already awash in those? We the lonely need real connection: and a good start would be a trusty neighbor, who is also a friend. One that may take our dirty laundry, and maybe even play air hockey over a couple beers, but one who you’re sure isn’t your competitor, and also isn’t planning on going anywhere. I don’t know about you, but it’s way less creepy when your air hockey buddy is someone who knows your name.