Intentional Communities
February 12, 2007 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Intentional Communities Once thought to be a relic of the sixties, the communal living movement is enjoying renewed interest. There are now hundreds of "intentional communities" spread throughout North America, ranging from small to large. Some have received media attention.
posted by triolus (25 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I spent a few weeks on an intentional community in Hawaii back in 1998. The experience was so negative that I was inspired to renounce my hippie ideals, go back to school, and rejoin "Babylon."

I guess it was a good thing that I wound up there, otherwise I'd probably still be some sort of clueless wandering hippie.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:08 AM on February 12, 2007

What was it like, Afroblanco? I've thought about helping to create one for many years, but I find the bad stories more helpful than the good.
posted by Snyder at 7:58 AM on February 12, 2007

I grew up in a Greenwich Village apartment, jumbled up with people who were very different from me - our landlord was an immigrant from Venice, and other neighbors included a gay lawyer, a lady that did publicity for the New York Mets, a crazy rich old lady whose apartment looked like the set from Sunset Boulevard, a crippled electrician who taught me about radios, a genuine bonafide Chinese laundryman, and a longshoreman who had a studio apartment piled up with stuff looted from the ships he worked on.

I doubt we'd ever have chosen each other for an intentional community, but they taught me a lot just by being themselves.
posted by QuietDesperation at 8:16 AM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Twin Oaks story (final link) is really good (and definitely not rah-rah).
posted by dhartung at 8:22 AM on February 12, 2007

If telecommuting ever really caught on, seems like plenty of people would be creating intentional communities. Of a sort.
posted by yerfatma at 8:28 AM on February 12, 2007

I've had enough trouble dealing with my stupid condo association, I don't think that I could cope with living in a community that wanted to tell me how many kids I could have. But cool post, that article from the Washington Post was good reading.
posted by octothorpe at 9:07 AM on February 12, 2007

I also recommend the WaPo story on Twin Oaks (and it's response from the community). I've always admired but distrusted idealism. So I'm happy to learn that, though different than their founders' dreams, Twin Oaks has become a reasonably happy, successful community.

I grew up near a few communes founded by Vietnam draft dodgers. I never got a chance to speak with any "communards", but I did find friday evenings at the only bar in town amusing. Imagine booths and stools full of the most right-wing rural-folk you can imagine, and the dance floor and stage full of the longest-haired, free-spiritedest hippies this side of 1965. I theorize that the reason I never witnessed a clash between the two groups was that their politics were actually a lot closer than advertised. They both valued community over government.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:19 AM on February 12, 2007

Twin Oaks' methods of creating money are amazing: Help support us: spread the word about our hammocks, soyfoods & book indexing businesses; also, please visit our donations page.
posted by wemayfreeze at 9:34 AM on February 12, 2007

I have a close friend who lives in a co-housing community here in the SF bay area. It's called Pleasant Hill Co-Housing.

I've also visited 6 other co-housing communities in the bay area and I've been to some other intentional communities in Northern California and in Arizona.

You know, some of them are creepy and some of them are very normal and wonderful.

The Co-housing movement seems like it could gather some's very well organized, more like a townhouse association but you share meals 3 times a week and generally have a more eco-friendly and community focused charter, etc.

I've spent a number of dinners and game nights at the one in Pleasant Hill and been to their general meetings as well and I came away thinking: wow, these people are really trying to do something different and beautiful; it doesn't always work, it's hard to figure some things out, but god bless 'em for trying.

And in the end they know their neighbors a whole lot better, the kids seem VERY happy because they have a safe place to play and alot more folks to look to for advice and support (58 adults at the one in Pleasant Hill - teachers and scientists and computer programmers and linguists and social workers and so on - lots of people to learn from) and that sounds pretty good to me.

It ain't utopia but it beats alot of other ways of living in this culture.
posted by django_z at 9:39 AM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've had several interactions with intentional communities, and visited two, although never in a million years would I live in one. I don't even like living with roommates.

I went to college in TN and new a couple of people who were born and raised on The Farm. Both of them said that it was a great experience (although one of them did grow up to be a corporate attorney). I also had a friend who was doing her midwife training there, in addition to getting a nursing degree, and she was in love with the place.

I did get the chance to visit Short Mountain Sanctuary, a couple of times. It's a community of Radical Faeries in very rural middle TN. I camped there once in the summer, and went to May Day festivals there twice. It's truly one of the most magical and peaceful places I've ever been. While they allow people to visit, they are very very selective about who lives there, which is probably why they can maintain such a peaceful vibe.

I briefly dated someone who lived at Ganas on Staten Island (which was interesting in it's contrast as an urban IC to the rural places I had known before). I stayed there for a weekend (which was not intentional, I badly sprained my ankle getting off the ferry, and couldn't walk for 2 days).

Ganas is a fairly large community, and less cohesive in personality than the other communities I've know about. There was a central core of people who were interested in the goals and mission of the community, and then there was a larger pool who lived there for varying reasons. Some were just barely managing to live on there own in the first place, and the structure of Ganas helped them keep it together. Other people were just floating through, looking for experience and experimenting with lifestyle.

That said, it was very well run. Clean, organized, and the food was really wonderful. The social norms were a bit different that I am used to, but to each his own. This was before the shooting.
posted by kimdog at 9:50 AM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, first I should say that my experience may not be representitive of the intentional communities as a whole. I have a feeling that all intentional communities have different intentions, as well as different communities. Furthermore, I lived at an IC when I was young and very very silly. A more mature person would probably have a different experience.

All of that aside...

(names changed to protect the guilty)

The IC where I stayed was very poorly run. The owners of the farm lived thousands of miles away in Norway, and left this dude Joe in charge. I don't think he was qualified to run a farm - he wasn't great at organizing people, and didn't really know anything about permaculture farming.

The farm was small - about 7 or 8 people. We didn't know each other before we came to live there, and we didn't have a whole lot in common. One of the guys, Steve, was really aggressive and weird, and I think that he was there on some sort of rehab trip. One of the girls, Helen, was completely and totally loco, and spent all her time naked and silent and living in a tree. Every once in a while she would wander into Pahoa and get arrested for being naked in public, and someone would have to go and pick her up.

Anyway, I didn't really get along with Joe. He thought that we should do everything together and at the same time - eat together, work together, excercise together, spend all our leisure time together, etc. He even thought that some of us should sleep together. I wanted more independence, and this was a constant point of friction between us. He was always spouting forth a bunch of flowery language, talking about the land as if it were a person, talking about how "the land wants this" and "the land is bothered by that," which is nice as a philosophy, but it really gets old after a while - especially when he should have said, "I want this" and "I'm bothered by that."

The land did not in any way produce enough food to support 7-8 people. As I didn't have any money at the time to donate, I applied for food stamps, which nearly everyone I knew on the Big Island receieved. Joe and Steve and a couple others made a big stink about this because the government was "dirty" and blah blah blah blah blah. In the end, however, neither he nor anybody else had any objection to eating the food that I bought and donated with the help of my "dirty government foodstamps." Hrrmmph.

In the end, I had a serious conflict with Steve and I had to leave the IC. We were getting into philosophical arguments that he took way, way too seriously. One day, I stated that I didn't think that we had any objective knowledge of deep reality, and thus couldn't make statements like "X is Y" or "Y is Z," since we can't really say what anything is. I mentioned that I thought of our reality as a model, and not something concrete and universal. This idea really bothered him for some reason, and I swear that I thought we were going to get into a fight. I can't, for the life of me, understand how someone could get so mad about a matter of philosophy - to me, it's like getting mad at someone for how they brush their teeth, or what brand of soda they like to drink. But whatever, some people are just crazy.

So yeah, my experience at an IC was total crap. I wound up with the impression that "doing work-trade at an intentional community" was a lot like what people used to call "slavery" - you work and sacrifice, and what do you get in return? They let you live there. Yaaay.

However, as I said, I was young and silly, and probably didn't approach the situation in the right way. I didn't have any money to contribute, and didn't even have much in the way of camping gear. After a summer of traveling, I wound up at the farm completely by chance - someone in town had referred me. If I had done some research ahead of time and chosen a community that suited me personally, I probably would have had a much better time. As it was, I was just a wandering hippie who was looking for a his own version of paradise - a place where he could live in the jungle carefree, picking food off trees and playing his drum - a place free of aggression and petty mind games - a place where everybody would work together for the common good, to maximize the liberty of all involved.

As I now know, such a place doesn't exist anywhere but in the minds of the young, idealistic, and inexperienced.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:59 AM on February 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

Interesting links. I live in an artists cooperative. We purchased our warehouse building 20 years ago in order to preemptively secure ourselves the inevitable gentrification of the area. The gentrification has of course occurred with "lofts" going for $1 million plus. My space/share was purchased for around $11,000.

Cooperative living is a great way to go. While similar in intent to the aforementioned co-living, in a co-op, you are financially involved with your neighbors in addition to choosing to live in a community with them. Cooperative living is not for everyone, but can be an affordable way to own property with a group of like minded individuals.

Also, we have no hippies, so that's a plus.
posted by misterpatrick at 10:44 AM on February 12, 2007

QuietDesperation, it sounds like you grew up in an HBO series.
posted by brundlefly at 10:48 AM on February 12, 2007

I dunno, do ICC houses count? I lived in a few in Michigan maybe five years back, and in the best of 'em I found a lot of the perks of the "communal" lifestyle — shared work, mutual support, well-meaning lefty ideals, damn good parties — without any of the enforced poverty or groupthink that I hear folks complain about in straight-up communes.

Of course, real communards would probably have found the whole thing pretty half-assed — and hopelessly entangled in the mundane world. Student loans and day jobs all around, very little by way of self-sufficiency, and the less-successful houses were barely more than low-rent frats.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:59 AM on February 12, 2007

There's a recent book by Tobias Jones about intentional communities, called Utopian Dreams - here's a Guardian review with the wonderful title "I want to live like commune people" and an interview in the Church Times.
posted by paduasoy at 11:29 AM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Interesting links. I live in an artists cooperative. We purchased our warehouse building 20 years ago in order to preemptively secure ourselves the inevitable gentrification of the area.

Sounds like my cooperative-- it wasn't formally intended as an artists' coop, but the membership is now, 27 years on, heavily weighted in that direction. The building was bought in 1980 by a group of tenants who formed an association; they'd started a rent strike, and were offered the chance to buy and renovate the place (there are 36 suites; the building is a 1911 four-storey with brick facing-- which passes for very old in this part of the world). I've been living there for 17 years this fall; my son grew up with a whole crew of kids his age who played in the halls and moved from suite to suite... wherever they landed at lunchtime they were fed, and there was almost always someone around to keep an eye out if you needed to run to the store. Not to paint it as totally utopian, but our community has a collective strength that I'm proud of. We help each other out: housing charges are set at a percentage of gross income, and members who can't afford that minimum are subsidized. We manage it ourselves, with help from a management company that specializes in cooperatives. Of course there have been issues and clashes and complaints from time to time, as you would have with any other group of people.

The worldwide cooperative housing movement shouldn't really be lumped in, actually, with communities founded specifically to exercise a particular utopian ideology... they always fail, but in interesting ways. BC has a history of such experiments, ranging from good to ill.
posted by jokeefe at 12:52 PM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I grew up in an intentional community in the UK - I lived there from the age of 7 till shortly after my 18th birthday. The community started in the mid 70's (my family joined in the early 80's) and it's still going now, albeit at a somewhat reduced size these days. We owned some land, and kept livestock and grew our own crops, subsidizing our living by running a wholefood shop in the nearby town (which my mum still runs today, although now as part of a worker's cooperative with the community as her landlords), and later on with members having jobs outside the community.

Over the years a lot of different people joined and left. There were members from many different countries, although predominantly Western Europe, and different ages - we had members as young as 17 (I'm not including children such as myself who joined with their family) and our oldest member was in his late 60s when he joined. The community was broadly non-religious (although several people did have religious beliefs and one member was a practicing Church of England vicar). Politically a mixed bag but generally left-wing and/or liberal. Meetings were held to make practical decisions, to decide who joined and sometimes just to give people a chance to get things off their chest.

It was an absolutely brilliant place to grow up in most regards - a lot of freedom, physically and mentally. I went to school in the local village (and later on a larger school in a nearny town) as did most of the other children who,lived there, and I think this gave us quite a strong link to the local community. I think they regarded us as a bit of an oddity but not in a negative way - we certainly didn't isolate ourselves. We had links with other communities across the UK and people quite often lived in more than one, although our community had one of the more stable populations I think.
I learnt to live with a constantly changing array of adults, which probably taught me a lot of skills about how to get along with people but in hindsight was probably a bit unstable - as I got older I became more reluctant to become attached to adults as I was never sure how long they'd be in my life - on the other hand, some of them still are in my life 15 years after I left. I learnt practical skills I'd probably not have had the opportunity to pick up had I not been constantly surrounded by people from such a variety of backgrounds.

I think it's certainly an interesting way to choose to live your life, but I'm not sure I'd want to do it as an adult. There are many different ways of living comunally, and some of them seem to work well for some people. I think it's probably hard work, although as I was barely an adult when I left I can't say I did much of that! But although a particular group of people may have a certain dynamic that works, it only takes one preson leaving or joining to change that dynamic completely, and I think that can be quite difficult.
posted by kumonoi at 1:14 PM on February 12, 2007

So, do we have any anarcho-syndicalists?
posted by jfuller at 2:06 PM on February 12, 2007

In college, I did a report on Intentional Communities, and part of it involved going to Twin Oaks, and then having a guy from Twin Oaks come speak to my class (upon reading the WaPo article, I think it was Paxus). The TO people were all terrifically nice, and I thought they had a lot of really good ideas. I wasn't inclined to join the community (even for one of their extended, 3-week stays), but I can see how some would find it appealing.

One odd aspect to it was that, upon your full joining of the community (there's a non-binding trial period before full membership status happens {I thought it was for a year, but the article seems to say it's a three-week deal?}), you give all money you have over to the community.

Their work setup was really appealing. Every member of the community worked for 40 hours — possibly on the soy-making, or the book indexing, or the hammock-making — or possibly on some aspect of the community. For example, if you were a mechanic / fix-it-guy (or girl), you 'd spend your 40 hours a week doing that. If you were a cook, you'd spend your 40 hours a week doing that. The point: cooking, cleaning, etc. were all considered "jobs." So while you were working your 40 hours being a mechanic, somebody else was cooking the food you'd eat. And somebody else was cleaning your home. Jobs rotated monthly, although some people stayed in some jobs longer (you can imagine why you'd want a good mechanic to stay on fixing cars).
posted by Alt F4 at 2:09 PM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

One odd aspect to it was that, upon your full joining of the community ... you give all money you have over to the community.

Is it just me, or does this just scream CULT?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:16 PM on February 12, 2007

I have a feeling the community I lived in was based on Twin Okas. Or was it Walden II? We had a similar-ish rule about money on joining, though it didn't have to be given over, just frozen till you left (I suppose to make it fairer to those without money? though you could ask for access to it). Everybody took turns at most of the jobs, but some people took more responsibility for certain things - there was a guy with loads of farming experience who wasn't particularly into kids so he did loads of work on the land but didn't often take me to school for instance). Basic needs such as clothing were provided by the community then everyone got an allowance each week that they could spend how they wished, and on leaving a member was given a lump sum of cash (IIRC it was the value of a ton of porridge oats, for some reason) to help them out.
posted by kumonoi at 3:25 PM on February 12, 2007

Great post and thread.

Intentional community sounds like a great idea. Lots of stuff to work out though, like money, ownership, work roles.

Groups of people together is a very interesting topic, even in online communities, such as discussed in Jason Scott's weblog post today.
posted by nickyskye at 5:02 PM on February 12, 2007

Thanks for bringing attention to the movement here today!

One aspect not yet mentioned in any of the comments so far is the growing area of senior cohousing (aka elder cohousing), serving the growing number of Boomers (and beyond) who are ending up with a partner/spouse divorced or passed away, in oversize empty-nest houses and often facing unappealing alternatives of institutionalization or isolation. There's a growing focus on building systems to support not just "aging in place" but aging in community. For some, this means age-segregated communities that don't have kid noise or focus; for others, it means building systems of support in intergenerational communities so that people can gain independence through interdependence. Several people will be joining me in speaking on this subject at the American Society on Aging/National Conference on Aging joint conference next month in Chicago.

Raines, cohousing resident who has lived in two communities and visited more than fifty of the 93 built so far (107 are under development, as of the last count),
Fellowship for Intentional Community volunteer boardmember (not speaking on behalf of the FIC, but always happy to help make connections), Northern California regional cohousing organizer in the East (San Francisco) Bay Area (mentioning that there's a few seats left on the bus tour in a couple of weeks, that includes the above-mentioned Pleasant Hill Cohousing) and aspiring Cohousing Coach transitioning from online-communities consulting and computer user groups (communities of practice) to helping people design their own ecovillages, intergenerational and for retirement, helping foster connections with their neighbors, wherever they live. I'm a Certified Senior Cohousing Facilitator and Certified Green Building Professional.

posted by rainesC at 7:59 PM on February 12, 2007

I think it's a great idea and the time is ripe to try it again.

Who knows? Maybe no one has found the perfect formula yet, but when they do....

I don't think a commune necessarily has to be a hippie, "we're all the same" kind of thing - but if people can live in decent apartments, do some work to keep things going, get fed and have the basics+ a little extra....

It could work.

The thing is, the capitalists would infiltrate the group and try to tear it apart because they need people to be three things:

1. Unorganized
2. In fear of losing their jobs
3. Eager to buy a bunch of crap they don't need.
posted by rougy at 9:47 PM on February 12, 2007

I lived in an Intentional Community dorm floor at college (1975-1979, Drew University). We;d do all the cleaning and maintenance, and the college would pay the floor the wage of a maid/cleaner. Don't know what we got out of it other than great keg parties every month or so...
posted by paddbear at 3:30 AM on February 13, 2007

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