OUR CURRENT cultural landscape is littered with dystopian visions, for reasons too obvious to name. In fact, we now use “utopian” strictly to dismiss aspirations we deem foolish. But when Thomas More coined the term “Utopia” — or “no-place”— half a millennium ago in 1516, he used it to refer to his picture of a more functional, just, and rational governing apparatus than that of Tudor England. While his tract is part comical robinsonade, the beliefs it presented weren’t idle fantasy. More was willing to die for them, famously opting to be executed rather than endorse a merger of church and state.
In the Age of Reason that followed, Voltaire’s hero in Candide made the mistake of thinking he already lived in the best of all possible worlds. He was disabused of this belief — the hard way, with the help of the Inquisition, a tsunami, and so on — and ultimately resolved from his contented neighbors’ example that he and his motley band of friends “must cultivate our garden.” Under this louable dessein, the “little society” thrived, with each person contributing a different skill (Voltaire was himself a nature lover, activist, and bohemian). If we’re now heading toward a dystopian world and despair of establishing a utopian public sphere, might we not at least jointly cultivate a garden?
Today in Los Angeles, we have cooperative facilities for students and seniors, and smaller group houses of gamers and nudists. But the only open, age-diverse intentional community of 10 or more is the Eco-Village in Koreatown. This wasn’t always the case. A century ago, long before the 1980s Hollywood punk flophouse Disgraceland and the earlier Westside clean-living cult Synanon, the city had three thriving communes. They were the Theosophist community of Krotona in Beachwood Canyon, the socialist Llano del Rio in Palmdale, and the broadly anarchist Edendale farm in Silver Lake. Like many such settlements, they collapsed not due to infighting, but to outside forces — in these cases development, drought, and the LAPD.
In a perfectly Californian confluence, Edendale’s early movie studios shared turf with a posse of Mexican revolutionaries and sympathetic Wobblies. Outfits like Mack Sennett’s, which filmed slapstick shorts on the streets of Silver Lake and Echo Park, attracted famously unorthodox stars like Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Gloria Swanson. The last advocated macrobiotic vegetarianism long before its time. Not far from Sennett’s headquarters, celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson would soon set up her mega-church, Angelus Temple, which stands to this day. Meanwhile, radicals agitated at the Plaza de Los Angeles and convened at the nearby Italian Hall. Emma Goldman often visited on trips from New York’s East Village, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman had earlier moved to Pasadena, where she got involved in the Ebell Society and suffrage work while theorizing concepts for feminist housing.
In 1911, exiled Ricardo Flores Magón, of the Partido Liberal Mexicano, had led a seizure of Tijuana, after which the US federal government jailed him at McNeil Island for violating national neutrality. Newly sprung in 1914, Magón formed a contingent that rented a five-acre plot at the northwest tip of Ivanhoe Reservoir. For about a year, the communards lived in wooden shacks, raising chickens and growing produce they sold on Olvera Street downtown. They ran a paper called Regeneración, and Magón penned the polemic ensemble drama Tierra y Libertad. But he had an influential enemy in Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, whose sizeable assets in Baja had come under threat from the Magonistas’s earlier occupation. In 1916, the LAPD raided the farm and arrested Magón. He died at Leavenworth, serving a 20-year sentence for sedition.
Job Harriman, a lawyer, former clergyman, and one-time running mate to socialist Eugene V. Debs on the national ticket, narrowly lost the LA mayoral election in 1911. Setting out to demonstrate a socialist alternative, he leveraged local friends to buy 9,000 acres with water rights at the site of a former temperance colony about 45 miles north. He appointed a board and began selling stock for Llano del Rio. Applicants had to buy into the colony in equal shares, though they could do so on credit. They needed references attesting to their work ethic and commitment to the ideology. Shamefully, they also had to be white, because racial mixing was, according to their paper, “not deemed expedient.”
Six months after its opening in 1914, the colony had grown to 150 people, in addition to many farm animals, and had a post office, dairy, and laundry. Using local materials, the colonists built a meeting hall and hotel, as well as an aqueduct and water tank connected to nearby Big Rock Creek. At first, members lived in tents and dormitories, then in small adobe houses. Like Gilman and other feminist thinkers, site planner Alice Constance Austin envisioned kitchen-free homes with communal daycare, though Llano ultimately fell short of her designs. Largely populated by western farmers and businessmen and their families, the development grew to 1,100 and produced almost all of its own food, planting orchards, alfalfa, corn, and grain. The colonists also wove textiles and ran a print shop for their paper. The schools were Montessori-style, hands-on, and encouraged self-rule. The group held picnics, shows, and ball games; its twice-weekly dances were a legendary highlight.
As in many voluntary associations, there were ongoing disagreements over the degree of direct democracy versus central decision-making power. When the war began, some colonists became conscientious objectors, some went to fight, and others left to work on defense contracts. But the most significant challenge was access to water: the settlers needed to build a dam. After the state Commissioner of Corporations denied them a permit, their days there were numbered. In 1917, the colonists moved to Louisiana, where they restarted the project on a humbler scale and kept it up for 20 years. Harriman considered Llano a success, because however imperfect or impermanent, the colony had manifested its founders’ essential vision in concrete reality.
Finally, there was the commune Krotona, an outgrowth of the Theosophist movement founded in 1875 by Ukraine-born Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky chain-smoked, escaped two husbands, survived an equestrian wreck, learned to put pigeons to sleep telepathically, and set the New Age in motion with her book The Secret Doctrine: the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (1888). She handpicked her successor, Annie Besant — a British socialist, feminist, and anti-colonial organizer who had faced jail for promoting birth control. A prolific writer and speaker, Besant belonged to the same circle as William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. She ultimately settled in India, where she advocated home rule, and where the Theosophists established their headquarters. Under her watch in 1912 they also built Krotona, and the community’s lodge on Beachwood still bears her name.
The Hollywood foothills location was known as the Pineapple Tract, a legacy of its tenure under previous owner J. B. Rapp, the first to plant it with then-exotic crops the Theosophists maintained. The weather, landscape, and juxtaposition of urban and wild features drew the sect — as it has drawn many others before and since. And true to L.A. tradition, the enclave became a colorful jumble of Craftsman, indigenous, and Moorish-style buildings. Celebrated SoCal architects like Mead & Requa and Arthur Heineman contributed designs, as did Theosophist leader and former opera singer Marie Russak Hotchener. Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler were themselves among the community’s eminent affiliates, as were sugar heiress Annie Knudsen, Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, and actors Chaplin, John Barrymore, and Mary Astor.
Krotona drew its name from Pythagoras’s storied colony on the Calabrian coast, where members shared a simple, ethical, and health-focused life, turning their ears to the “harmony of the spheres.” Like the Pythagoreans, Krotona’s 300 or so residents practiced vegetarianism, meditation, and intellectual inquiry. They played croquet, studied parliamentary procedure, and published their own newspaper. Unlike Llano, Krotona was racially integrated. Its members produced few children, placing more value on cultural production and exchange. Among its artistic offerings, in the summer of 1918 the commune staged an adaptation of the Buddhist-themed epic poem The Light of Asia, featuring choreography by Ruth St. Denis. The performance was hugely popular and ran for weeks, prompting colonists Christine Stevenson and Marie Rankin Clarke to purchase more land for an amphitheater: the Hollywood Bowl.
Eventually, encroaching urban development proved too much for the reflective Theosophists, and the organization moved its operations to Ojai, where it continues on a reduced scale. The campus there hosts daily classes and visiting members, but the Besant Lodge on Beachwood still holds musical performances, costume parties, and holiday dinners, as well as “Electric Sound Baths” and Gnostic devotions to the Divine Feminine. Today, local Theosophists have a library in Los Feliz, Spanish lectures near USC, and a booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, plus churches in Pasadena and Long Beach. They study Sufism, Kabbalah, and ancient cultures, discuss thinkers like Plato and Nietzsche, and read William Blake and Philip K. Dick. Their “likes” on Facebook include the Dalai Lama, LACMA, and The Daily Show.
What kind of intentional community in or near Los Angeles might we create today? An artists’ colony seems like an obvious choice, given the city’s vast creative class, but the Brewery near downtown, with its pricey lofts, for-profit enterprises, and lack of shared resources, doesn’t live up to communal aspirations. Differently focused, the Los Angeles Eco-Village has used a revolving loan fund to acquire its co-op apartments and form a community land trust, a project that began after the civil unrest of 1992 and now encompasses two city blocks. The Eco-Village’s goal is to demonstrate permaculture — or social, economic, and environmental sustainability. To this end, members hold weekly dinners and meetings, organize neighborhood events, facilitate cooperative businesses and skill shares, maintain a “learning garden” for schools, use bicycles, solar power, and greywater, and practice composting and beekeeping. The settlement is in good company; it’s one of a growing number of eco-villages worldwide.
More of us are dissatisfied with the Hobson’s choice of either forming a family and taking on a mortgage or keeping on renting with roommates from Craigslist. Last decade in the Bay Area, I belonged to two residential co-ops or collectives, several years apart: one of about 40 students living in a one-time fraternity house, and one of 15 to 20 activists occupying a commercially zoned warehouse. Both were more diverse racially than generationally; both shared household labor, conducted weekly internal meetings, and held community events. And both are still going strong.
While a consensus-based decision-making process worked pretty well in my college co-op, in the collective it usually meant that one or two determined people denounced whoever dared disagree (according to leaders at LAEV, “sociocracy” is replacing consensus as the procedural method of choice). There were many differences between the two homes, living conditions and finance among them. At the former we bulk-ordered many things and always had staples on hand, while at the latter our shared goods were often dumpster-dived food and toilet paper we stole from our low-wage jobs. At the former we slept on porches and ate in our yard, while at the latter we lived on a dicey street and lacked for outdoor space. Furthermore, at the warehouse, enjoyment for its own sake was suspect: we didn’t dance without debating it first. While I considered some aspects of my college home somewhat frivolous (I steer clear of pagan fertility rituals, for instance — and nonsectarian ones too), the joie de vivre was contagious.
Thinkers in Voltaire’s day considered beauty to be as important a guiding principle as moral goodness and scientific truth. My urban collective could well have stood to make our life more beautiful, enriching it with the pineapple and pistachios from Candide’s garden. I admire Hollywood’s Krotona for its ecumenical embrace, its integrated approach to the life of mind and body, and its patronage of the arts. One hundred years ago, I may well have joined. Even Massachusetts’s transcendentalist Brook Farm, one of the nation’s most famously selfless communes, emphasized all manner of creative play alongside hard work and political action — and despite difficult harvests, a devastating fire, and eventual bankruptcy, most of its members remembered it fondly. Harmony may not be a default state, but it’s a worthy aspiration.
Despite our ill-conceived self-seriousness, I’m proud of my warehouse home’s history as a site of Food Not Bombs, a hell-bent holdout against rampant gentrification, and a convergence space for a radical diaspora. More generally, I’m inclined to agree with Harriman’s position: what arrangement is perfect or permanent? People are too hard on intentional “utopian” communities, too quick to point out signs of failure. Are the waste, expense, and isolation intrinsic to nuclear households not worse failures yet? They’re just better hidden and tacitly tolerated. While we fear for our future, it serves to remember that we create it ourselves, intentionally or otherwise.