Living Together, Forming Intentional Communities
By Matt Cantor
Thursday December 17, 2009
I am unashamed to call myself a hippie. Though the phrase is still
used in the pejorative by many and filled with untoward connotations
for some, I choose to remain firmly camped among those who eschew the
commonplace, dismal and colorless. I am not opposed to tattoos,
public nudity or whole wheat pastry flour. Further, I would argue
that, day-by-day, we are winning the war against the opposition.
True, things don't always look good for our side, but I remain
hopeful. Heck, we elected a black president, and if you don't think
hippies are responsible for that, you may have taken some of the bad acid.
So, as a representative for the hippie tribe (self-appointed, as is
always the hippie way), I come to you to talk about how our people
live. That being communally, usually in large, old houses with
kitchens full of bulk-bought beans (some from the late '80s) stored
in variously sized canning jars alongside stacked boxes of herbal
teas of all Zinging and non-Zinging orientations.
All levity aside, there are very good reasons to live communally from
the micro to the mega in impact, not the least of which is that
living as we doincreasingly in this first world of oursis lonely.
Aside from the mega-environmental impact of living in single-family
houses of 2,000-4,000 square feet as individuals and small families
do, to a large extent in this country, there is the simple matter of
people becoming more and more disconnected from one another.
Val McHugh is a lovely and potent example of someone who saw, early
on, that conventional nuclear family arrangements were not for her.
Val, a San Franciscan from a relatively conservative Irish- Catholic
San Francisco family (firefighters all around) matriculated to San
Francisco State in the summer of love (1967 for the age-impaired) and
got her mind blown by all the happenings there, including a student
revolt by the Third World Liberation Front. Steven Gaskin, founder of
THE FARM in Tennessee, another important experiment in communal
living, was another student there at the time as was S. I. Hayakawa
(later, Senator Hayakawa), who, though a brilliant teacher in
semantics, was no friend of the hippies.
Val, actually Shelly at that time, joined a communal-living
experiment called Keris-ta in San Francisco shortly after college.
This was her first foray into group living and, although it would not
model all of her preferences for group living, it gave her a happy
taste of living with a group of people, sharing food and warm
company, which would guide her choices for the next three decades. It
also gave her a name, Val (short for Valiant, Altruistic Love). One
of the things this particular intentional community did was to leave
old names behind (with old behaviors and beliefs, one might posit).
Just to be extra clear, Val is a highly educated, hard-working
executive who directs a part of a large organization for the care of
developmentally disabled adults. I think it's a common misconception
that those who choose to live communally are either under-employed or
simply stoned all day. The only difference that I can perceive in
this population is that they represent those who have identified
certain specific objectives for their lives and lifestyles, which do
not align well with nuclear family or solitary living, and have
sought out and joined others in what some might call alternative households.
For Val, this was not, at least initially, an easy road. Val and a
group of friends started out renting communal houses and building
their bylaws, practices and community from the mid-1970s, but every
time they got things cozy and copacetic, the landlord would sell the
house and boot them out. Val remembers this as a time in which
landlords were making big bucks selling these houses as the market
climbed rapidly, and a time when it became increasing apparent that
owning their own home would make a lot more sense. After the fifth
house was sold out from under this nearly intact original group, Val
and her five cohorts found and bought Brigid House on 10th Street in
Berkeley. This was 25 years ago this February, and they paid (just
shoot yourself now) $139,000 for this huge house.
While all but one have gone from the original six (one left but came
back), the longevity of this household's membership has been
surprisingly stable. Val has done the full 25, another has done 20
and yet another was present for 13 years. Over the entire period
there have been only 42 members in a seven-room house. Val estimates
that the average stay has been close to two years, but clearly,
there's great range in longevity and this is one of the things she
likes. Brigid House's documented Values and Guiding Principles
provide a blueprint of housemate selection and daily life. While this
might seem overly structured to some, it serves to evince the case
that these seeming rebels have very clear notions of how to make
their life satisfying. When I asked Val, near the end of our
interview how she viewed the success of Brigid House and whether she
would do it all again, this huge smile peeled across her face. Yes,
she said, she'd do it all again, and her life here was very good.
This list of Values and Guiding Principles is so good that I'd like
to list them for you. They are: caring and respectful cooperative
living; consensus decision-making: shared responsibility; cleaning up
after yourself (how many of you nuclear family members are having
success with this one); open communication; non-violence; sound
ecological practices; continuity; quality time commitment to the
collective (again, how is your family doing with this?); freedom from
substance abuse; consideration of others' needs and wants (again,
your family?); non-oppressive relationships with one another and the
world (and after dinner, nuclear disarmamentsorry, couldn't help myself).
Yes, much of this seems very high minded and out of reach but, hey,
what a great trajectory. Aim high and see how well you do.
Much of Brigid House's success is clearly the result of a long and
well codified interview and induction process. Nobody moves in simply
because it's cheap (which it is). The interviewing process can take
months and, once a new member has been accepted, a three-month
probation follows in which the new member can be asked to leave. Val
says that this has been extremely rare precisely because the
interviewing process is so thorough.
An ad, Val shared with me was half-a- page long and detailed their
environs, habits and requirements in great detail. No smoking, no
meat (as part of collective meals, though a pork chop on your own is
just fine). Do your chores. Turn off the music at 10. Cook your meal
when it's time (everyone cooks twice a month). And, most of all, show
for an hour-long meeting once a week. This last detail is probably
the core of successful group living.
See, the thing is these people don't just share a house. They live
together. I'll repeat that phrase I tossed off earlier since it's so
apt: intentional community. When I first heard this term, it smacked
of hippie-speak, and though I am an avowed hippie, even we can hear
ourselves when we get jargonny. But, this really is what it's all
about (and the Hokey Pokey, of course). Marriage is intentional
community when it works and so is Family. Intentional community is
how we talk about those same values when we break them out of the
So, again, weekly house meetings are how they make this thing work.
It's where conflicts get aired out, where small matters get dealt
with before they become sources of dissent or irritation. It's where
each member is reminded of why they joined the group and where
everyone's weekly needs (loneliness, anger over the boxes on the
stairs, fear of the new person) can get addressed and the group renewed.
While I'm not hear to say that communal living is right for everyone,
I believe that it may be right for a much larger population than is
currently even aware of how functional and viable this has become
over the last 30 years. Val and her close friend of many year, Kathy
(who formed and lives in a limited equity housing cooperative that I
wrote about in recent years) could cite a dozen other household like
Brigid in the immediate area. For older persons, for those who have
been divorced, for those who would rather have more company and cheer
in their daily lives, this might make a lot of sense.
I'd like to close with some of Val's words because they're so
pleasing and also because they speak from experience:
"Having supportive relationships in my home life has been invaluable,
and I cherish the friends I have made in this home. What I have
learned is that communication and seeking connection is so vital in
establishing and maintaining clear expectations … I know that
longtime members extending time and a listening ear to the newer
person helps create common ground. The sweet spot also comes from
newer people accepting and trusting that the process unfolds
gradually as you weave your life with others who have lived a long
time in their home. Each member can question a norm and reform some
part of the long- time customs or agreements. It takes quality time,
and that's why investing in communal living is such a profound and
vital lifestyle that I am glad to share."