leaving the city

In a Soho Loft, Tech Bros Plot an Autonomous City

Illustration: Richard A. Chance

There’s a long line at the entryway to the Praxis loft. The process to simply enter the space is holding things up: We are asked to provide our names, our emails, and a reference from a member of the Praxis Society; to take a selfie with an iPad; and to sign an NDA. When it’s my turn, I ask the woman shepherding people through if I can have a copy to review. The event organizer is called over and appears flustered by the situation, so I’m able to worm my way in without signing the agreement.

The palatial loft sits on the top floor of a cast-iron building in Soho with large latched windows that look out onto Lafayette Street. It is part office and part meeting space, with bedrooms on the floors above and below, where Praxis staff members live and work. The architecture of the loft is made more dramatic by the fact that it’s candlelit. An 18th-century aria plays. Guests pick at a surprisingly grocery-store-quality crudités platter mill about and make small talk before the salon begins. No one in the room looks over 30. I join my friends Auri, a collections assistant at an artist foundation, and Myles, a freelance writer, who are chatting with a finance guy who looks like all the other finance guys in attendance. When the group has filled out a bit more with Wall Street types and a couple of fashion boys, we’re ushered into the center of the room by Eric Wollberg, Praxis’s “head of community.” He turns it over to Dryden Brown, Praxis’s co-founder, who is in his mid-20s and wearing a black hoodie with the hood pulled over his head.

“We’re building a city,” he says. “We’re building a city from scratch. Somewhere in the Mediterranean.”

Praxis’s founders — Brown, an NYU graduate, and Charlie Callinan, who was a wide receiver on Boston College’s football team — met in 2016 while working as investment analysts at Pleasant Lake Partners. On Pod of Jake, Brown recounts the moment he and Callinan first discussed rethinking the way cities are traditionally structured while surfing in Puerto Rico. “We just started talking about this crazy city stuff when we were sitting out waiting for waves,” he said. This conversation was the beginning of Bluebook Cities, a company they co-founded in 2019 that aims to develop “affinity cities” based on a shared value system.

Bluebook Cities’ first project is Praxis, which defines itself as “a grassroots movement of modern pioneers building a new city.” More plainly put, the society aims to create a community of members who will live in an autonomous charter-state built on a decentralized crypto economy “somewhere in the Mediterranean,” as Brown often repeats. The foundation of Praxis’s city will be a shared set of spiritual principles: physical health, an appreciation of beauty, and, principally, “the intangible pull of the frontier.” No one will say exactly where in the Mediterranean this city will go. If we are to understand anything from past special economic zones built on crypto, one would assume Praxis’s choice of host country has a low GDP and therefore stands to benefit from leasing its land to a society of the world’s richest and most powerful people yet is stable enough to avoid the risk of regime change. My guess is somewhere in the Balkans, but of course this is pure speculation.

Praxis’s digital footprint is small and cryptic. In December 2020, Dryden published a short essay diagnosing the follies of contemporary urban life, claiming that cities are nothing more than labor markets devoid of any commonly shared values. Shortly after, he announced Praxis’s intention to actually build a new city, the planning of which would happen completely in the cloud. “Building a new city from scratch is an opportunity for radical first principles thinking,” he wrote. “Modern transportation. Modular construction. Innovative governance. Decentralized currency. Default healthy food, default exercise in nature, default human interaction, and default ownership. … We are building the city Silicon Valley deserves.” By early 2022, six permanent staff members were living in the Praxis loft on the company’s payroll with investors including Peter Thiel and the Winklevoss twins.

Praxis is technically based in New York, but the team spends time actively recruiting in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Miami, and beyond, encouraging people to become “members.” Not formally employed, Praxis members volunteer to assist in the development of the city alongside experts from “domains” such as statecraft, health, education, environment, security, and trade as well as culture and philosophy — the idea being that they are creating an infrastructure for the eventual city. “Web3 and the metaverse are nothing without a vital and dynamic real world,” one Praxis member wrote on the group’s Discord. “That’s why I’m going to move to Praxis.” Another: “We have more advanced technology than ever before, and yet our society is in decline. Reshaping society requires more than rational arguments: it starts with culture. Praxis gets this. Culture, then cities, then society. We’re defining a new identity for the coming generation, and bringing them together in the Galt’s Gulch of the Information Age. See you there.” To recruit these members, and to generally spread the word, Praxis employees are dispatched to make the rounds at Coachella and Cannes — and to hold events like tonight’s, which are meant to evoke the salon culture of the Parisian Enlightenment, Dryden tells us. The one topic we are instructed to avoid is politics (though one can’t help but consider the group’s clearly liberatarian leanings and the fact that Peter Thiel, the financier of the New Right, is funding much of this operation). According to him, politics “erode conversation.”

In the loft, Wollberg sorts us into three groups: “ones,” “twos,” and “threes.” I’m placed with the ones and seated at a long dining-room table with seven men and one woman: Myles and Auri, two nondescript finance guys, two cartoonishly handsome veterans named Rob and Daniel who served together in the Navy Special Warfare Command, Paul Bandera of Praxis’s Strategic Operations, and Wollberg himself. Once we’ve settled in, one of the finance guys opens the conversation by contemplating whether a project like Praxis emerges from necessity or excess. He asks the group whether we think the Praxis community is building this “eternal city” because it’s fleeing an antagonistic environment or simply because it has the means to. Wollberg responds by asking if we’re familiar with the concept of Janusian thinking. We’re not. He explains: Janus, the Roman god with two heads looking in opposite directions, symbolizes transition, the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. A goal of Praxis is to bring together the best of humankind through “shared principles,” Wollberg says. Myles cuts in. “I’m super-new to this,” he says. “So you’re trying to build a new city. What would you do about something like crime?” “You would have a monopoly on violence,” Wollberg answers matter-of-factly. He turns to Bandera, on his left, and asks, “Is ‘monopoly on violence’ Machiavelli?” Racking his brain, he answers, “It’s from Leviathan — it’s Hobbes!”

From there, the conversation meanders between Alexis de Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers, but things are consistently derailed by more practical questions from the group about the city’s establishment. Will Praxis have schools? Will it have a constitution? Wollberg is palpably frustrated by the interruptions. After he compares Praxis to the formation of Israel, I ask him if the land they intend to build on will have to be depopulated, to which he responds, “I used to work for the government of Israel, so I’m really not going to get into that conversation,” then assures us they’re looking only at Greenfield sites.

The conversation has more or less devolved into a press conference, and Wollberg has begun making excuses for why he can’t answer anything much of all. He’s “not at liberty to,” he’s “not the spokesperson” (though who that spokesperson is isn’t entirely clear), “this was never the intention of this salon.” Plus, Bandera chimes in, if we knew how much progress they’ve made thus far, we wouldn’t be skeptical.

Before the night ends, I ask everyone at my table what appealed to them about this seemingly imaginary free society. Answers range from a loathing of the two-party system (the Democrats and Republicans are secretly in cahoots is one take), “intellectually policed environments where dissent isn’t possible,” and recently nearly stepping in human shit walking down the street.

A week later, Auri mentions to Bandera that she’d like to bring more friends to the next salon only to find out the vetting system for attendees has been adjusted — it’s now strictly invitation only with the requirement that potential attendees supply their LinkedIns and political leanings (no one “too progressive”) for approval. Soon after, Bandera informs Myles he’s banned from the salons for asking too many questions. I’m banned, too, apparently because I “didn’t sign the fucking NDA.”

In a Soho Loft, Tech Bros Plot an Autonomous City