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Can ‘friendship clubs’ cure the loneliness created by the remote work era?

Customers enjoy Neon, a new neighborhood hub, during a soft opening event on Thursday in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday, but the air is filled with the click of laptop keys in a sunken living room of sorts in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley. Fingers race, annotating graphs and charts, filling in spreadsheets and populating Word docs. The low-lit, brick-walled space, decorated with banners of Harry Potter’s magical houses and macrame wall art, feels like a cross between a college library and an underground cafe.

But this is not a coffeehouse nor a sleek coworking spot. This is the Commons, a community space where dues-paying members can get together daily for a writing marathon or to discuss the finer points of art, spirituality or technology salon-style in a meditative living area. And those in the know can post up in the members-only space on Sundays, when it’s open to the public.

The “Cerebral Valley” hub bills itself as a “home outside of home” that’s “dedicated to open-ended curiosity, co-created play [and] collective flourishing in the heart of San Francisco.”

As San Francisco has emerged from the pandemic, new spaces for building connections—what sociologists might call “third places” or “third spaces”—are sprouting up in response to remote work and the “epidemic of loneliness” it has fed.

Nearly half of Americans reported losing touch with at least a few friends during the first year of the pandemic, according to 2021 findings from the Survey Center on American Life. In addition to the isolating impacts of Covid, other factors—such as the delaying of marriage and children, the decline of organized religion and dropping membership in old-school social clubs—could also be contributing to a generalized feeling of loneliness in our nation.

Manning Edson, left, and Clair Robinson enjoy the backyard of Neon, a new neighborhood hub, on Thursday. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

But the loss of office life may be a particular factor in the Bay Area. While other parts of the country are getting back to the office, 46% of Bay Area workers are clocking in from home. Is it any wonder many of us are feeling a bit lonely?

While all of these new private San Francisco social clubs and spaces offer some element of coworking, some are focused on niche circles or serving one neighborhood at a time. Others specifically tout themselves as venues for making friends. All of them, however, are geared toward building community.

A friend and I visited the Commons on a recent Sunday. After an hour of concentrated writing, the crowd thinned out, but some stayed behind to talk about their epic weekend on the slopes, aspirations of abandoning their “Google money” for a more meaningful vocation or dreams of creating a utopic life of communal living.

On the ride-share to our next destination, I asked my friend what she thought of the Commons.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t go with there with the intention to write,” she said. “I would go to make friends.”

The Commons: College Campus Vibes 

Creating a clubhouse specifically to foster friendship was not the primary intention behind establishing the Commons, said co-founder Patricia Mou. But just as enduring bonds are often forged on a college campus, the Commons offers a chance for interactions that may have long-lasting effects.

The concept for the space, inspired by the European Enlightenment cafes of yore, was born out of a brainstorming session hosted by Mou about a year ago, where people with an interest in shared spaces discussed what they would want their ideal “third place” to look and feel like. Mou teamed up with Adi Melamed, launched a GoFundMe campaign and, by September 2022, opened the for-profit member space.

Mou was shy about sharing the Commons’ membership rates but said that dues are based on a sliding scale depending on applicants’ financial situations and that the organization offers scholarships for people who can’t afford the full fees. Mou said the Commons isn’t financed by venture capital and uses the funds primarily to pay rent and keep the lights on.

“We’re just kind of a small-medium business,” Mou said.

The aim, Mou said, is to re-create the intellectual openness and curiosity of the college experience through a physical space where members’ commonalities are shared values rather than shared occupation or industry. Mou is secretive about how members are selected, but applicants must fill out a questionnaire that asks about their creative hobbies or “What rabbit holes or curiosities have you been pursuing or would like to go deeper on?” She likens the Commons to a public-private living room.

Neon owner Teddy Kramer with his dog, Bea Bea, at the soft opening of his new neighborhood hub in San Francisco. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“We are trying to build San Francisco’s communal living room for people to be able to take a step back from the daily grind of life […] to explore their curiosities,” Mou said. “Why does that have to stop post-graduating?”

The living room vibe is member Joshua Vounatsos’ favorite part of the Commons. He moved to San Francisco from Berlin to pursue graduate studies in the South Bay and joined the Commons to have a foothold in the city where he could hang out and study outside his tiny studio apartment. He appreciates being able to stop in for a coffee break, wind down after work, take a class or strike up a casual conversation with a fellow member. He wasn’t yearning for friendship when he moved to the city, but, he said, “I would say friendship is a side effect.”

Neon: ‘The Neighborhood Is the New Downtown’ 

Teddy Kramer used to oversee the expansion of WeWork office spaces into new markets. But he insists his new venture on Cow Hollow’s Union Street, Neon, is nothing like a coworking place nor a coffeehouse—although the space, which is replacing a North Face store, will offer unlimited free drip java for patrons.

Kramer describes his space as a “neighborhood hub” where anyone can hang out. Unlike a traditional coworking space or social club, patrons don’t pay a membership fee for the right to use a desk. Neon merely asks visitors for $5 per hour to hook up to the internet or $25 to surf the web all day. Otherwise, it’s free to take up space as you wish during business hours.

Yes, you could pop open your laptop and work, or sneak into a phone booth to take a call, but you could also sit and read a book, sip on that free coffee or chat with your neighbors. You could say this is Kramer’s answer to the coffee shop co-opted by headphoned techies or elite coworking spaces, like the Ferry Building’s Shack15.

“This is not a Soho House where your stature in this world is what gets you in the door,” Kramer said. “What gets you in the door is just opening the door and saying ‘Hi’ and introducing yourself.”

Teddy Kramer aims to host art classes, trivia nights and more at Neon. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

When Neon officially opens in June, Kramer plans to host community-building events and activities, like art classes, open mics, charity info sessions and trivia nights. Staff will function like neighborhood concierges offering recommendations for lunch at nearby restaurants.

Kramer also plans to turn Neon into a commission-free gallery and boutique space where local artists and artisans can display their works and wares without having to give the space a cut of sales, and the business will offer event space to local nonprofits for free. The venture plans to make money by renting out its space to commercial businesses for a few thousand dollars per event and by being an ambassador for the neighborhood.

“If we bring more people to Union Street, not only do we flourish, but the businesses around us flourish,” Kramer said.

Like his self-funded Small Business Boogie—a monthly roving shopping crawl that spotlights four to five small businesses on a walking tour and concludes at a neighborhood watering hole with raffle giveaways and a round of free drinks—Kramer hopes to replicate Neon’s concept in other neighborhoods throughout the city.

“We are believers that the neighborhood is the new downtown,” Kramer said. “I am completely, completely bullish on Downtown. It will bounce back. It will reinvent itself. But as of today, the neighborhood is where people are.”

Groundfloor: Get Out of Your Pajamas

Jamie Snedden, the CEO and co-founder of the friendship-focused gathering space Groundfloor, is less bullish on the idea that venues like his will save beleaguered centers of commerce like Downtown, but he does think they have their part to play in the revitalization of San Francisco’s neighborhoods post-pandemic—namely by getting people out of their pajamas and into the world.

Snedden founded Groundfloor in March 2022 because he missed the social interactions of the office and wanted to fill the socialization void left by the rise of remote work. According to 2021 findings from the Survey Center on American Life, Americans are more likely to make friends at work than any other way.

“I think people have got their home [office] set up down,” Snedden said. “They need a compelling reason to leave the house. For us, it’s finding friendship.”

The membership-based community, which charges $200 per month and is currently capped out at about 1,000 members across its Mission and Oakland locations, hosts several events each week—many of them member-led—and even offers fitness classes, health and wellness workshops, movie nights, supper clubs, book discussion groups and game nights.

These social networks bridge into the digital world through Groundfloor’s app and Discord channels, which host an array of dashboards for members’ interest-based sub-clubs. Groundfloor even helps facilitate connections between members and tracks whether those setups panned out quantitively or qualitatively.

Groundfloor’s Mission location offers standard-issue coworking amenities, like phone booths, a few desks, WiFi and an espresso machine—even a library and small gym—all in beautifully designed spaces. Part of Groundfloor’s pitch for membership is that it costs less than a typical coworking space but also rolls in the amenities of a gym membership and other recreational perks like events and classes. But Snedden says the primary purpose of Groundfloor is to build intentional communities at the neighborhood level. And he thinks the concept could scale.

Customers socialized at Neon during a soft opening on Thursday. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“There is this universal need for friendship,” Snedden said. “And if employers aren’t helping, then it falls to others to fill the gaps, and I think that’s the opportunity we see.”

Groundfloor is currently backed by $2 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase, and has plans to expand to San Rafael in Marin County and Los Angeles later this year. Snedden says he thinks the model could help revive American cities by setting up community-focused centers in residential neighborhoods rife with retail vacancies and suburbs far removed from urban amenities, like a flagship central library in a city’s downtown core.

“Many U.S. cities are not geared up for community,” Snedden said. There’s lots of former retail spaces that don’t have an obvious future. […] Maybe we can make them into these new versions of what a library maybe should be.

He also thinks the Groundfloor model could do for friendship what apps like Bumble, Tinder and Hinge did for online dating.

“People are walking around the world looking for romantic relationships with a ton of ammunition in their back pocket,” Snedden said. “If you think about friendship and platonic relationships, it’s not the case.”

Michael Kahan, the co-director of Stanford’s Program on Urban Studies and a senior lecturer in sociology at the university, is not surprised that venues like Groundfloor have arisen in the last few years.

“There’s great difficulty in meeting people,” Kahan said. “And so I think it’s understandable that these ‘friendship clubs,’ or whatever you want to call them, […] are trying to fill that void.”

But could a network of private social clubs actually revive a commercial corridor as consequential as Downtown San Francisco? Kahan thinks that would be a bit of stretch.

“I do think downtowns are going to have to be creative, and they’re going to have to have probably many different kinds of new purposes, and maybe this will be one of them,” Kahan said.

Manny Yekutiel, who’s run his eponymous civic events space and cafe in the Mission for nearly five years, thinks that more community-oriented spaces are a great addition to San Francisco’s neighborhoods. But he is wary of membership-based coworking spaces calling themselves true third spaces, because they are centered on work and not open to the general public.

While Manny’s makes its revenue from food, beverage and event ticket sales, as well as the patronage of sponsors, Yekutiel values that Manny’s is open to anyone.

I do think that people are looking for more than just places to tap on their keyboards,” Yekutiel said. “They want wine clubs, and they want movie nights, and they want yoga, and they want conversations, and they want to be inspired, and they want to actually make friends.”

Manny Yekutiel hosts an event at his eponymous political salon, Manny's, in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Manny Yekutiel introduces US Presidential candidate Tom Steyer at Manny's in San Francisco, on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. | Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images | Source: Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

But, he said, “you need spaces that it does not matter if you are a member, you can still go inside.”

Groundfloor member Ning Recio, a longtime Mission resident and Bay Area native, was skeptical of the concept at first but decided to give the membership a go as a self-described early adopter. A voice actor, speaking coach and singer-songwriter, Recio was looking for a way to get out of the house, too—where she works primarily—when she joined the club as one of its first members.

She says that joining the club has substantially improved her social life since much of her friend circle shifted to phone and Zoom calls during the pandemic. She estimates that she’s made eight close friends and dozens of friendly acquaintances since joining.

She feels a closer connection to her community just by walking down the street and running into fellow Groundfloor members in the neighborhood.

“You know, when the show Friends was such a popular show,” Recio said, “we all wanted this feeling of like, ‘Oh, my friends are just across the hall, and our coffee shop is just downstairs.’ I think Groundfloor is picking locations where people really do live in the city. […] And so it has that Friends feel of like, ‘Oh, my friends are just over there, and we can grab a coffee.’”

As for Groundfloor’s price tag, the membership, she said, is worth its weight in gold.

“I can’t put a dollar value on it,” Recio said. “It’s been such an amazing sociology experiment for myself.”