“Peter Pan Meets the Man Cave”: New York Times on Astoria Bro-Pad

“I think the secret to our success is that we don’t think too much about the future.”

If, like me, you’re graduating in less than a year and, like me, you’re not entirely thrilled about the subsequent “growing up” trajectory, feast your cursor upon a new kingdom: “Fortress Astoria.”

Last week, the New York Times’ Hilary Howard devoted a fascinating and (I hate this word) charming feature piece to four best friends who are also roommates: Danaher Dempsey, Luke Crane, Rick Brown and Shyaporn Theerakulstit. They met as students at NYU. Through a role-playing group. (Not the same group that always steals my table at Think Coffee, I hope.) In 1991. Which means they’re all pushing 40.

Which means they’ve been living together, as bachelorsor “roommates,” if you will—for over 18 years. And while their story doesn’t pertain to Wesleyan in any direct way, it is a fascinating portrait that certainly pertains to college life in general, the transition into the Great Beyond, and why sociologists now say post-college life no longer has to suck.  Read on if you care.

Since 1994, they’ve lived together all over the five boroughs, wherever they can find rent that is affordable for four dudes without spouses or conventional career trajectories: “an East Village walk-up, a Chelsea loft and, now, a converted office space in Queens. ” Their current bachelor pad of choice, dubbed “Fortress Astoria,” includes two floors of a concrete office building in Astoria, Queens. Howard describes its colorful interior as “a mix of man-child fantasy and discerning urban sophistication—Peter Pan meets the man cave.”

They are creative types—an actor-turned-audiobook-narrator, a game designer, an aspiring physical therapist, and a senior editor at VH1. None of them have children, spouses, disposable income, or, as Howard terms it, “linear career histories.” But they are not exactly anti-family, as James Dobson would have it. Simply, they have built their own family—and have been inadvertently cast in what the writer terms “an ongoing redefinition of family life in the 21st century, in which traditional structures are replaced by fluid networks and bonds not dependent on blood ties.”:

“We’ve somehow drifted into this place where we are really close, and care about each other deeply, and yet we give each other lots of space and stay out of each other’s daily business,” said Mr. Brown, a senior editor at VH1, the cable network. “We’ve got all the benefits of a family with very little of the craziness that normally comes along with them,” he added. [ . . . ] “I have so many warm memories of one us just standing in the other one’s doorway, and just talking,” Mr. Brown said. They regularly gathered for role-playing games, “Monday Night Football” or cooking Sri Lankan meals, Mr. Dempsey’s specialty.

What’s more, the communal living situation spurs their creativity both socially (“it’s an easy way to get support and it’s less of a threat to your artistic life,” quotes one sociologist) and financially:

Splitting the rent four ways gave the roommates the economic freedom they needed to pursue their dreams. For Mr. Brown that meant making films; for Mr. Dempsey and Mr. Theerakulstit it was acting. Mr. Crane channeled his interest in fantasy into creating The Burning Wheel, a role-playing game he first published in 2002.

It’s a truly endearing portrait of four regular (okay, we go to Wesleyan) dudes who have resisted The Boring Life™ with admirable fervor and somehow manage to Make It Work, and it’s also a strangely hopeful one, because, apparently, you can hold on to college if you want. You can still live with your bros in 18 years, maybe in a cramped Hell’s Kitchen two-bedroom instead of your Cross Street senior house, but whatever. You don’t have to grow up and grow old and have kids and coach soccer and drink diet coke. And it’s okay, because sociologists say that it’s okay, because there’s an “ongoing redefinition of family life,” which sounds almost as scientific as the “ongoing Thermohaline Circulation” occurring in the ocean.

But why does the author refer to them as “man-children”? And why do so many commenters implore them to “grow up”?

The Atlantic Wire’s on-point-as-usual Jen Doll presses this point in an excellent follow-up post, noting that the four aren’t exactly in a state of immaturity or “suspended adulthood”—they are fulfilled, they are financially self-sufficient, and they have made a number of adult decisions and arrangements in order to arrive at this place. Most importantly, they’ve figured out their own path to happiness, which is a far maturer trait than most people realize:

 there’s something to be said about being happy where you are as a measure of your own success—if you don’t care enough about the traditional trappings of “growing up” to do them, that may well be your answer. And perhaps this is also a sign that we’re growing more accepting of the myriad ways in which people can be adults, at least in places like New York City where, if anywhere, you should be able to choose how you want to live your life. In support of that argument, for every negative comment in the Times about the “failure to grow up” evidenced by this living situation, there are more than a few positive ones.

It’s not these dudes who need to grow up, then, but rather societal notions of what constitutes family, adulthood, and domestic life, right? It’s one of the four dudes, Theerakulstit, who apparently describes himself as a “man-child,” and it’s Jen Doll who chastises him for it: things are changing, so “don’t undermine the progress by calling yourself a ‘man-child.'”

I tend to agree, except I’m not so sure Fortress Astoria is trying to make a social statement at all. They’re not exactly activists. And they’re not the ones placing their domestic life into any sort of progressive or sociological trajectory. Crane says it himself, at the end of the piece: “We live together because we live together. That is all.”

[New York Times]
[The Atlantic Wire]