One night in early June, I was sharing an elevator with an older man wearing a finely pressed suit, black Oxfords, and a heavy watch, to the high reaches of the Yale Club in Midtown Manhattan. He was headed to an event on the rooftop, and asked what I was here for.
“A start-up is throwing a dinner party,” I said. “They’re building a new city in the Mediterranean.”
He gave me a once-over and thought for a moment. “Hmm,” he said. “Well, good luck with that.”
The elevator stopped and the door opened on the ballroom, my destination. Within was a growing gathering of twentysomethings. Women wore cocktail dresses, and men wore sport coats or crisp tuxedos. A chamber ensemble was tuning up. As I got off the elevator, I bid the man good-bye. “The start-up,” he said, looking past my shoulder. “What’s its name?”
It’s called Praxis, or the Praxis Society, or City of Praxis, depending on whom you’re talking to or what social-media platform you’re scrolling on. The meaning of the name is just as ambiguous as the organization itself. The number of official members is unknown, though its Web site claims thousands. The number of employees appears to be at least 20, at least according to LinkedIn. Most people have never heard of it, but Praxis’s ambitions have caused excitement in San Francisco’s and New York City’s tech universes.
The seated dinner at the Yale Club was one of various receptions, information sessions, and parties hosted by Praxis during the first week of June that sought to expand the start-up’s growing notoriety. The string of events followed a format Praxis had adhered to in the past: a “campaign” of parties over the course of weeks were thrown and advertised in hopes of attracting curiosity.
This was a more secretive and exclusive affair than, say, the loft parties, whose invites were found on social media. The Yale Club party had been unlisted on Praxis’s media profiles and required an e-invite from someone intimately connected to the venture. I had procured one by a matter of luck, and so, as the elevator door closed behind me, I entered the world of Praxis.
Praxis Makes Perfect
“The next Mark Zuckerberg could easily be in this room right now, or the next Elon Musk,” said one man whom I met soon after arriving. I think he meant this in a positive way.
The room had seven candlelit dining tables for the 100 or so attendees. A finely dressed staff moved about in tuxedos, refilling wineglasses and, later, presenting an extravagant three-course meal.
The event was filled with many successful young New Yorkers working in tech and finance. I spoke to a 30-year-old Princeton graduate who had spent eight years at D. E. Shaw, a multi-national hedge fund that manages $60 billion in assets. Across from me sat an Oxford and Stanford alum in his early 30s who had worked as head of commodities at Bridgewater Associates before leaving to develop an artificial-intelligence start-up. Fringy English film director Tony Kaye, best known for directing American History X, was capturing the event on-camera for his forthcoming documentary about the start-up’s rise.
Guests’ relationship with Praxis, while varying in intensity, seemed to follow one of two courses. They had either found Praxis through Twitter and sought out the start-up’s events, or they had met Dryden Brown, the company’s co-founder.
The start-up, based in New York City, is in one way easily understood and, in another, exceedingly strange. In the realm of clarity: Praxis’s central and stated ambition is the creation of that city in the Mediterranean. Where exactly on the Mediterranean coast and why they wish to build there have not been publicly addressed.
“The next Mark Zuckerberg could easily be in this room right now, or the next Elon Musk.”
At the helm of the operation sit Brown, Praxis’s C.E.O., and its president, Charlie Callinan, both of whom are in their 20s. Brown, a Santa Barbara native and former professional surfer, was home-schooled by a tutor in high school before attending New York University. He likes reading sci-fi and Ayn Rand. Callinan grew up in New Jersey and later played on Boston College’s football team. (Brown and Callinan did not respond to AIR MAIL’s requests for comment.)
The two met while working at Pleasant Lake Partners, an investment-advisory firm based in New York City. Around this time, both Brown and Callinan developed an interest in the financing of towns and cities, which led to their creation of Bluebook Cities, a “charter cities” start-up, in 2019. (Charter cities are created when governments lease land to independent parties, who are then allowed to establish their own laws and economies.) In 2020, under Bluebook Cities, they created Praxis, which is now their central focus.
The Praxis Web site outlines five steps toward achieving the company’s goal: the building of “Community,” the establishment of “Financing,” “Governance,” and “Development,” followed by a “Move-in.” The necessary steps to move to the city include a “$5,000 deposit towards your future residence,” which promises not only citizenship but also an opportunity to participate in “site selection and master planning.” At an undisclosed future date, 10,000 registered residents will pack their bags and ship off to paradise.
Their way of “Governance” is complicated. “With demand and the capital raised to purchase and entitle the land,” reads Praxis’s Master Plan, “we will partner with a host government to create a special jurisdiction and accelerate the economic growth of their country.” This demands some imaginative thinking. Praxis would partner with a host government to form an independently planned city, a municipality without precedent in the real world? This sounds fantastical, and yet special economic zones do exist, and there are propositions for charter cities, such as Próspera, a private city and special economic zone in Honduras, and the Dubai-backed Cartagena International Commerce Zone, a free-trade territory in Colombia.
So far, Praxis has raised more than $19 million in series-A funding from a roster of the tech world’s most notable and controversial characters, including the Winklevoss twins of Facebook fame; Alameda Research, the now bankrupt crypto-currency trading firm fronted by Sam Bankman-Fried; Apollo Projects, run by brothers Max Altman and Sam Altman (the C.E.O. of OpenAI, ChatGPT’s parent company); and Peter Thiel.
Thiel himself has long been interested in creating new societies. By 2011, he had invested almost $2 million in the Seasteading Institute, an organization focused on building “floating cities”—interlocking islands powered by solar and hydro power. The company has not yet built one.
Praxis has raised more than $19 million in series-A funding from the tech world’s most notable and controversial characters, including the Winklevoss twins and Sam Bankman-Fried’s Alameda Research.
In 2018, he provided Brown and Callinan with funding that helped to launch Bluebook Cities. Brown and Callinan traveled to Nigeria and Ghana, where they approached the countries’ respective governments about establishing partnerships that would allow Bluebook to use African lands as a home for a new Utopia. These early negotiations garnered significant criticism online, with many people pointing out the neocolonialist ambition of the project. The discussions ultimately fell through, but Thiel stuck with the founders when they launched Praxis.
About an hour into the dinner Brown stood up and made his way toward a microphone in the front of the room. “We raised money from investors,” he announced, “and we started spending time in the Mediterranean.… We realized there was this very real possibility to build something new and interesting.” The audience stared expectantly at Brown, who, unlike the physically imposing former athlete Callinan, looks more like a Bankman-Fried type.
“We’ve built a team. We’ve partnered with the Canadian government and other governments in the Gulf,” Brown said. “We’re super-excited to take the next step with this project, and begin selecting our first real residents of the city.” No further explanation was offered, and I was unable to verify these partnership claims. The guests responded with polite applause.
Callinan then replaced Brown at the mike. He immediately drew attention to, and thanked, the “first residents” of Praxis—the “crème de la crème,” as he called them, who had already committed to move to the city once built. He asked the pioneers in attendance to stand, and the A.I.-company founder sitting at my table got up, along with about 10 others who were dispersed throughout the room. Again, guests applauded. Dinner continued.
Praxis needs these members not because they will necessarily make good neighbors but because they might, through their proven industriousness as well as their billfolds, offer an economic bedrock for the city’s rise.
I asked a man at my table—the one who had already agreed to move—why he believed in Praxis’s vision. His answers were nearly identical to Brown’s pitch for the city: he repeated his appreciation for the “values” of Praxis. “It’s going to be a community of like-minded people,” he said. “That’s hard to do elsewhere.” I expected a more complete answer from a devotee.
Besides some phrases used in Brown’s speech, such as “a great group” and “interesting people,” I heard no description at the banquet of what specific values Praxis actually hoped to emphasize. Will it be a democratic community or an authoritarian state? A Margaritaville or a Burning Man?
“It’s going to be a community of like-minded people. That’s hard to do elsewhere.”
Brown hints at the politics of Praxis in his Master Plan. “We used to have faith in the frontier,” it begins. “Technology, in which we placed our hopes, has bewitched us with fractured mirrors of desire broadcast on a billion screens.... Despite economic prosperity, we are confronted with alienation, loss of institutional trust, and withdrawal from public life. There is a void at the heart of our culture, a nihilism that has robbed us of our dreams.” The discontent is clear.
Yet this theme of being at odds with society was not evident at the Yale Club event nor during my follow-up conversations with Praxis partisans. There was no talk of Nietzche or Ayn Rand or Oswald Spengler at our dinner table. Instead, we spoke mostly about crypto-currency, work, and food. The only philosophical query broached the entire night was asked from across the table and discussed for a good 20 minutes: “How many bear cubs do you think you could fend off before they overpowered you?”
Praxis’s still-coalescing intentions and its event’s attendees seem to share a simple and basic yearning for community. For the Praxis members I personally met, any want of brotherhood was addressed in the black-tied minute; everyone seemed perfectly content with a dinner at the Yale Club and chatting over cocktails.
When I arrived at the banquet hours earlier, I’d felt guarded and uneasy, thinking that I might be one of the few non-converted guests at the party. While milling about on the sidewalk afterward, waiting for my ride home, I realized that I had been, in fact, part of the largest in-group: a majority that had simply enjoyed a luxurious evening.
If this start-up does receive significant series-B funding, which it well might—it’s just hired David Weinreb, former C.E.O. of the Howard Hughes Corporation, a real-estate company, as vice-chairman—then perhaps they will start a city.
Maybe there are sufficient young people frustrated enough with the modern world to choose Praxis over summers on Nantucket, to fill a suitcase, kiss their worlds good-bye, and find a new home, and life, somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Or maybe people just like going to free three-course dinners.
Jack Sullivan is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL