Saturday, August 7, 2010

Five Ends and a Beginning

The reason I've been posting bad old poems dredged up from my college days is that I've been moving. Moving and growing up and changing and acquiring and evaluating and reevaluating and reflecting and planning and dreaming and then also just trying to feed myself at the end of the day.

This past year has been a long and intentional process of growing up for me. For the first time in my life, I have a clear idea of what I want to do and be in the world. I want to create spaces. I want to use my mind, my body and my creative energy to design and build buildings. I've always been attuned to physical spaces and the effect they have on people and on social situations. It took me a long time to see this. I grew up in the bland, homogeneous suburbs north of Detroit. I always felt something was wrong there, something lacking in the public space and the way people view and interact with each other, but it took me several years living in an intentional community setting at Oberlin, and writing, to understand that. Maybe you can't see what something is until you get outside it, and that getting outside can be a hard place to find. It's good to know there are alternatives, just to be able to name what something is.

I left Oberlin with a pretty strong set of values, sort of the stock package. A little Buddhism, some Ultimate Frisbee, a lot of local food, desire to work on a farm, resourcefulness and ability to live very cheap (dumpster dive), ultra-liberal, radical, gender-queer, socially progressive, annoyingly PC, et cetera et cetera, completely deconstructed, simultaneously thoughtful and overly simplistic politics, and the sense that living in intentional community with other human beings is the only healthy way to exist in the world. Where many of my friends adopted a more nomadic lifestyle and actually tried to make a go of working on farms, or of running a traveling circus, flying a hot air balloon around the country, being a ex-patriot starving artist and so many other exciting, flashy paths, I moved to Seattle with an Americorps position at the Red Cross and have been here ever since. Call it the Protestant Work Ethic, call it a sense of social responsibility or call it that insidious sense of middle class stability and passionless comfort I detested so vehemently in high school. As with everything, the good with the bad, until the lines blur and become meaningless and you just decide what works for you.

But I came out of Oberlin perhaps most strongly fueled by a desire to continue living in community. I searched to find my first house in Seattle. None of the more serious communities would accept someone they couldn't interview in person, so I found a place on Craigslist that described itself as a "co-op lite", the Beacon Hilton. The Hilton (located on Beacon Hill, hence the name) was roughly 12-14 utterly poor 20-somethings crammed into every nook and cranny and closet of an old, originally single-family home with an absentee landlord, a creepy property manager and a very vague sense of why any of us were there together except that it wasn't because we couldn't find any cheaper rent in the city, but rather something to do with this word community. And I always felt that that was a choice that distinguished something - a sort of magical phrase that gave intention to what could have been viewed as necessity and desperation. It was fun while it lasted, but for obvious reasons the house had about a 1 year life span for most people and 2 for the especially unmotivated.

From the Hilton, my girlfriend Anita and I, who had moved out to the city to take a year off school and be with me, moved on up the community food chain to Bob the House, a community actually listed on the directory and with a 30-some year history that no one really seemed to know. It's members were a little older (25-35) and it had more structure. There was a monthly meeting, a shared bank account for house purchases, a budget, a consensus-based(ish) decision making process, a nice big drafty old house with a mostly absentee landlord, a load of beer brewing equipment in the basement, a whole wall full of 1 gallon glass jars full of bulk food supplies, and 7-9 people, fluctuating as couples moved in or out. At the time, this seemed perfect. We went through 2 1-2 hour interviews with everyone who lived there, individually and as a couple. The interviews were mostly focused on flushing out our values and whether how we handled conflict was conducive to collective living. We were strong candidates, considering our co-op experience at Oberlin.

I put a lot of energy into Bob the House because I really believed in it. I spent 2 years there (Anita went back to finish school after 1 and I stayed on). We revamped the financial system and budget, we tinkered with the food buying systems, we tried to adopt a formal consensus process for running meetings and making decisions based on this book, we joined a bulk food buying collective, we joined a network of co-op houses around the city sharing information and planning events... As in the book, as in life, conflict came before consensus. Bob was an experience I don't regret having, but at some point you have to choose to continue struggling with something and engaging with it or you have to weigh the benefits to your life and the energy you put in to it and cut loose. After 2 years, I moved out frustrated and disappointed, having given it a fair shake, as they say, and having all our efforts dissolve into unnecessary drama, personality clashes, the morass of individual psychological issues, and just plain old lack of follow-through. As a result, I've come to a new appreciation of business men. No wonder they run the world, while those of us in the radical community have our heads so far up our asses arguing about gendered language, intention behind actions, perceived slights, irrelevant ideals, and all the while taking out our insecurities on each other, basically running round in circles and getting nowhere, worst of all utterly isolating ourselves from the world we aspire to change in the process.

I moved into a smaller house (4 people) with 1 person I knew loosely from the network of community houses I'd become a part of. The 2 people who were supposed to be on the lease with her had never moved in, a couple temporary people moved through, a girl who was intending to be permanent moved out to San Francisco to be with a boyfriend, and we found two more, vaguely community-minded folks who were really good people. It was a very nice little Craftsman house with a great yard. We had goats. The landlords had lived in the house and were renting it while they were in Burma for 2 years. There was a more or less handshake lease with the landlords and communication with them was unreliable. It went great for maybe a year. There was some source of dissatisfaction I never fully understood. The girl who had the lease started spending all her time at boyfriend's (which I've seen time and again women in particular will do in community settings as a way to avoid dealing with issues, for whatever reason). The landlord came back over the summer and kicked out the goats for eating her yard, she was mean about it, the house developed rat and mold problems, there was no one in a position to deal with them, the girl with the lease being gone and landlord not having appointed a property manager, Anita and I made a stink about it. And then followed this agonizing, 4 month long, drawn out disintegration, in which we vacillated between everyone moving out to getting 2 new roommates to just me staying and getting an individual lease until I could find more roommates to the girl moving out coming back once she realized she was on the hook for the lease to just arguing for hours in the kitchen. Many feelings were hurt and much bad blood created in a classic example of why it's so important to know and tell other people what you need, be clear, direct and then stick to it. It eventually ended with the girl who held the lease breaking it, losing her deposit, trying to keep the rest of our deposits to her (as sub letters), me threatening to take her to Small Claims Court. As you might imagine, we don't talk much anymore. Everybody lost out in some way, and it made it so much worse that it was up in the air for so long and so agonizingly prolonged.

That, in short, has been perhaps some of the more negative aspects of my experiences with communal living since college. I wouldn't trade them away and I don't regret any of the decisions I've made. Life is an experiment, and you only grow by challenging yourself. I remain hopeful that community living situations can work, and be healthy and satisfying and enrich the lives of the people engaged in them; I am just quite a bit more jaded now than I was 5 years ago, and I know a couple things to look out for, and a couple things I wouldn't do again.


That being said, Anita and I have just moved into a beautiful Cohousing community in West Seattle called Duwamish Cohouing. There are 23 units, each sharing more or less the same floor plan with a bedroom downstairs and a loft above opening out over a kitchen/living/dining area with high ceilings and abundant light. The units are all ground level duplexes that open out onto a covered porch facing an internal circulation path with spectacular landscaping and clearly very many active gardeners. There are cats roaming the path and lazily sprawled on people's door steps, young children running and playing and a couple shy middle school boys treating the whole place like a skate park. I estimate 60-70 people live in the community, which is tucked away in a valley in a residential area that feels very removed from the city, at the end of a dead end street that butts up against a blackberry encrusted hill and a little swampy patch of forest. There are bees and birds everywhere, darting in and out of the landscaping and the gardens. There is a giant Common House with a sweet commercial kitchen and large eating/meeting space, laundry and storage below with a play room for kids, as well as a small wood shop and adolescent hang out room in an adjacent building. Most of the people here are older, mostly families it seems. I'm not sure what the percentage of renters to owners is, but I think it's higher on renters now than it has been previously, because people have had trouble selling due to the economy and faulty foundation construction of the homes. The homes and the space between them are clearly organized with the intention of creating communal spaces. They are built out of cheap materials (MDF millwork and vinyl siding) but the design maximizes space and light in an amazing way. This is by far the nicest place I've ever lived, and I'm very excited about it.

I especially appreciate that the parking lot is relegated to the extremity of the community. You park and then enter the space on foot, where you can meet people on the your way back to your unit, see kids playing, pet the cats. My favorite feature of the whole thing in the walkway that connects all the units. It's brilliant planning. The only thing the community lacks is a large open playfield, but they did a good job squeezing the most out of a narrow, embanked lot. The community was built 10 years ago, and our unit is basically new construction because of the subsequent repair to the foundation. I can see this as model for city blocks and suburban neighborhoods, separating out parking and circulation between units, eliminating the need for alleys or excessive roads, allowing more public space for parks and gardens on the same footprint.

I think this will be a great combination of public and private space. We have our own kitchen and apartment. We don't have to worry about how our dirty dishes affect roommates or put up with theirs. Our annoying idiosyncrasies and quirks can stay in our space, and when we want to walk out and interact with someone, or just are on the way to the car, we have a built-in connection to the whole neighborhood. There are requirements for a certain number of hours of labor in a given time period, which can be fulfilled via work parties, participation on an organizing committee, and email lists for business and pleasure. We have access to a great big blank slate space in the common house that will be ideal for holding workshops, meetings and events. It's a great and safe place to have kids and I imagine resource sharing with meals, childcare, vehicles and so on is easy and accessible without having the clunky and litigious structure of an egalitarian community like Emma Goldman or Twin Oaks.

Once again, I'm hopeful that this living situation will, in some way, be the answer. I feel that I've navigated my way through many incarnations and am honing in on an ever narrowing set of expectations about what it is to be in community, with each step moving toward something more refined, mature and stable than the last. Certainly there will be problems with this place, as there are in anything involving other people, but that's something of the challenge and the pleasure in life, and I much prefer the struggle with all its brilliant successes (like the 150 person, 50 gallon homebrew beer festival we threw at Bob the House) and crushing failures to living alone in an anonymous apartment building, feeling lonely and crazy. My experiences and thought have led me here, so now we'll give cohousing a try. Either way, it'll be something. I'll let you know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Had a chance to briefly browse your entries and enjoyed your input on cooperative living situations. Have been struggling with articulating my own experiences living in co-ops and your views were quite helpful! Rhi

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