By PENELOPE GREEN
Published: September 30, 2009
JOHANNA BRONK wants to make communal vegetarian meals and keep
chickens. Mariel Berger hopes for social, artistic and political
collaborations. Harmony Hazard is into hula hooping, book groups and
Oh, to be a young city-dweller in search of a house share. Finding a
roommate has never been easy, but for some, the endeavor has lately
assumed all the urgency, emotion and extreme specificity of shopping
for a life partner.
Last month, just in time for leases to turn over, the housing portion
of Craigslist, the uber-community bulletin board and road map to the
20-something's psyche, featured dozens of impassioned tone poems,
vivid personal biographies and ideological wish lists.
Unfettered by space restrictions since Craigslist is free and space
on the Internet is boundless, the word count of housing posts can
stretch into the thousands, and some do and schooled in a culture
of idealism that's uniquely 21st century, those in search of shared
housing and compatible mates are crafting come-ons that are as far
removed from, say, "female nonsmoker wanted" as a business card is
from a doctoral thesis.
Consider the efforts of Ms. Berger, 28, and Ms. Hazard, 24, who
advertised eloquently for roommates before even settling on a house:
"Some of the things we like are: permaculture, living sustainably,
gardening, dancing, hula hooping, yoga, herbalism, making music,
active listening, non-violent communication ..." they wrote, in part.
The idea, they said last week, was that the relationships would be
more important than the real estate. What they hoped to put together
was a kind of family, but without sibling rivalry or parents, of
course; the thought was that everyone would do the dishes without grumbling.
"It's hard to feel supported in a place like New York City,
especially without a partner, or consistent person or group that you
are able to connect with daily," said Ms. Berger, a musician and
piano teacher who has been renting a room from another young woman in
an apartment in Park Slope. "And I'd rather have a lot of people to
share my day with."
The impetus for the group home or collective they hope to form is
less about finances though it is true that pooling resources yields
better real estate and more about community building. Indeed, Ms.
Berger and others seem to share the ideals of the old-fashioned
communes of yore, except that their groups are tiny, urban-centric
and linked to outside interests like fixing bikes or, here in New
York City, membership in the Park Slope food co-op. And like
communes, many collectives give themselves names: The House of Tiny
Egos (a name that's decidedly more evocative than, say, Findhorn,
that of the hoary Scottish commune) is a five-person collective in a
century-old brick bungalow in Bed-Stuy. Not only do they aim to
remain of the world, they hope for a convenient location, one that's
near all the major subway stops.
Are their numbers surging? Hard to tell, though people who study more
traditional "intentional communities" that is, any group of
individuals living together with shared values, as in a commune or
collective say that they are demonstrably on the rise. Laird
Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional
Community, said his nonprofit's database has swelled from 614
communities in 2005 to more than 1,300 this year.
Traffic to the site is up 25 percent in the last year, Mr. Schaub
continued, to an average of 2,000 visits a day. As to why that should
be so, Mr. Schaub pointed to what he called "an ever-increasing level
of dissatisfaction with traditional lifestyle choices, because
there's too much alienation and lack of connectedness. Humans are
inherently social animals, yet we don't particularly know how to get
along with one another."
The urge to create a group house or join an intentional community, he
said, "is an attempt to address that."
Ms. Berger met Ms. Hazard, who had been living in the East Village in
her mother's town house and looking for work in "social justice," she
said, at a permaculture conference in Vermont last summer.
Permaculture is big with the collective-living crowd; it's a model
for sustainable living that extrapolates principles from natural
ecologies like how different plants grow together for their mutual
benefit and applies them to other systems like, well, group
housing. Ms. Berger and Ms. Hazard had had collective living
experiences before, in upstate New York and Oregon, and they
connected over what they had learned there, as well as over the
creeping dread both were feeling about returning home to New York City.
"If we could envision it," Ms. Berger said, "we thought we could build it."
Energetic, cheerful and outgoing, they seemed very nicely matched, in
this reporter's opinion anyway, and a pretty terrific catch for just
about anyone. But early last week, they still had no firm prospects
and, more important, no house. The two were barely sleeping, they
said; the reporter fretted over them.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a similar scenario was being enacted.
There, three roommates already had their house, a funky Victorian in
the Cedar Park neighborhood, but needed five more.
Their advertisement on Craigslist ran to two pages when printed out
and contained all sorts of buzz words that had been chosen, said its
authors, reached by phone last week, to winnow out those looking for
a mere room or "dudes looking for cheap housing," as Emili
Feigelson, 19, put it. But many had to be explained to this reporter,
who was puzzled by certain phrases.
"You will probably not feel at home here unless anti-ableism,
anti-ageism, anti-classism, anti-racism, consent, trans-positivity
and queer-positivity, etc., are very important to you," the ad read.
Ms. Feigelson, who works as a political organizer and volunteer,
explained: "It means against the oppression of those who are
physically or mentally disabled, and extends to language. Like you
wouldn't use the word 'lame.' "
O.K., then. Ms. Feigelson was at home with some of her housemates,
including Robin Markle, 23, who works at a community college teaching
seniors computer skills, and Gauge, 30, who is transitioning from he
to she and works in an S&M store, and also declined to give a last
name. ("My family has no idea where I am or if I'm even alive and
I'd like to keep it that way," she said.) They were passing the phone
around the afternoon before the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, where a
few of them were planning a trip, intending to protest, Ms. Markle said.
Ms. Feigelson explained that they were being "super-selective,"
because an activist house, which is what she hopes theirs will be,
she said, "can create tension."
But were their hopes too high? Their criteria too stringent?
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and a
relationship expert (she is the scientific adviser to Chemistry.com,
a spinoff of the dating site Match.com), took a gander at a few of
the ads, including the ones written by Ms. Berger and Ms. Hazard and
the gang in Philadelphia.
The idealized, small-scale communities they described reminded her of
the hunting and gathering bands of pre-history. So she was a bit
concerned that their creators didn't seem to be searching for
individuals with different skill sets. Dr. Fisher, whose new book,
"Why Him? Why Her?" explores the neurochemistry of gender
differences, concluded that the ad writers were by and large
"estrogen-expressives, or what I call Negotiators," which she defined
as "compassionate, verbal and emotive," as well as "Explorers,
meaning those expressive of the dopamine system, or people who are
energetic, creative, politically liberal."
She also noted that they all seemed to crave roommates who shared
their values, which, she pointed out, "is how many relationships are
built it's probably the right the thing to do. You don't want to
come home and spend your evening fighting with someone over health
care. You want someone who agrees with you."
Yet she worried that other personality types, the sort who know how
to fix the toaster or program the VCR, weren't being invited into
A call to an established collective seemed in order. What is the
secret to success? Is it a big compost pile? A brightly colored chore
wheel? Is it possible to find domestic harmony, even domestic bliss,
with four, five or ten strangers?
Suzi Teo, a former fashion designer who started the House of Tiny
Egos two years ago, avers that hers is a happy home. While Ms. Teo,
44, touts the "diversity and individual skill sets" of her housemates
in a way that would make Dr. Fisher proud, it all seems to circle
around the dishes, just as it does in more conventional households.
"It took a whole year," she said. "But we figured it out. There's
always one non-dishwasher, you can count on it."
Ms. Teo's solution? "She" the non-washer "pays for all the
housecleaning supplies, and there is world peace," Ms. Teo said.
"Also, she has lots of connections and she gets us into clubs where
we get drinks for free."
A week and a half ago, Ms. Hazard and Ms. Berger were still searching
for roommates, and also for a house. They had put a deposit on one,
but it was quickly returned, as their incomes didn't qualify them for
the rent (a relief, since they hadn't been truly keen on the house).
Then they considered another, which was big and beautiful and came
with the all-important garden, but they eventually retreated from it
because it was in a dodgy neighborhood. (Monday of last week, Ms.
Berger woke up at 4 a.m. and began researching murder rates in the
area. "There were 16 in the last year," she said glumly.)
But a happy ending was in the offing. A few weeks earlier, she and
Ms. Hazard had met Johanna Bronk, 23, a recent Oberlin graduate and
classical singer, and Sara Teitelbaum, who is also 23 and studying to
be a lactation consultant. The two had written their own evocative ad
but, like Ms. Berger and Ms. Hazard, had not found the real estate.
At that first meeting, all had taken to each other, but Ms. Hazard
and Ms. Berger assumed that the four could never be a good match. Ms.
Bronk, you see, envisioned a substance-free, vegetarian home, while
Ms. Hazard likes a glass of wine when she hula hoops, and Ms. Berger
prefers a bit of meat in her diet.
But late last week, the four joined forces, along with Rupert Poole,
30, a horticulturalist Ms. Berger met last summer. As it turned out,
Ms. Berger said, "everyone was willing to compromise on their
original intention because we shared a vision for a house."
Yesterday, the five plus one more, an artist's assistant and friend
of a friend of Ms. Berger's, signed a lease on a spic-and-span house
with a stupendous backyard in the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens section
"The core of what we wanted was the same," Ms. Berger said happily.
"The fact that we wanted to live together kind of trumped all the
The house, however, comes with a basement apartment that still needs
to be rented. Any takers?