OCTOBER 25, 2017
Still from Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952)
I HAVE SPENT YEARS studying intentional communities and always ask the same question: just how communal are they? In the communities I’ve previously written about, the answers have varied. In utopian Los Angeles circa 1917, the members of Theosophist community Krotona saw to their own private property, while socialist Llano del Rio made labor and land collective. Among “free love” communities established in the 1960s, the Keristans pooled all of their income and tracked every member’s expenses, whereas Short Mountain’s Radical Faeries handle their own homes and livelihoods. As for property, both L.A. groups relied on the largesse of wealthy benefactors, Kerista rented its space from uninvolved landlords, and Short Mountain maintains a community land trust.
In examining these communities, I’ve focused on two basic models: the radically egalitarian commune, or kibbutz, and semi-collective cohousing, or moshav. For American examples, I looked at the 50-year-old Twin Oaks commune in Virginia and cohousing communities in Oakland and Berkeley, California.
I. The Israeli Kibbutz
Fleeing discrimination in Russia, a group of young Jews bought land on the edge of Ottoman territory and founded their first commune in 1909: Kibbutz Degania in Lower Galilee. While ethnically Jewish, the kibbutznikim designed their new homestead to be explicitly secular and socialist. The land was beautiful, but barren and rocky, and the women and men labored hard to grow their food and build their homes. The settlers dispensed with the bourgeois family model. Regular tasks like cooking and laundry happened on a kibbutz-wide scale, and children lived not with their parents but with each other, overseen by appointed group minders. The pioneers’ enthusiasm for this new way of life is evident in early photographs.
Other migrants came to the area from Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, fleeing the rise of Nazism, but this influx led to greater tension with Arab neighbors in and around British Palestine. After World War II, the area saw another wave of Jewish immigration from Europe and the United States. In 1948, the kibbutzim served as bases in Israel’s war of secession. Israeli leadership asked idealistic transplants to set up kibbutzim in suddenly vacant Palestinian towns, strategic locations to populate the new nation-state.
The kibbutzim experienced a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s when they were home to five percent of Israelis. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Jews who were more conservative and religious than the Ashkenazim arrived in Israel from Muslim states. The government pressured kibbutzim to school and employ the immigrants, but members resisted, earning kibbutzim a reputation as elitist bubbles.
With Israel’s inflation crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, kibbutz debts spun out of control just as neoliberal orthodoxy swept the globe. Many kibbutzim closed; others privatized and adopted differential salaries to appeal to the younger generation. Many parents had brought their young kids home; now dining halls started to charge. Kibbutzim had provided much of the nation’s food, but sustaining the communes required branching out from agriculture. Today the farms often hire outside workers, while members sometimes commute to off-site jobs. Some kibbutzim now grant residents ownership of homes. These kibbutzim have come to resemble moshavim, communities that hold limited resources in common for collective use or benefit. Of the remaining 200 or so kibbutzim, about 50 are still strictly communal. Those that have fared best developed specialized enterprises like medical device manufacture.
Of the kibbutznik children who left to build lives elsewhere, a number have returned with children of their own. In the late 1980s, some young kibbutznikim moved to cities together to start smaller communes, integrated with urban society. Often secular and socialist like the original kibbutzim, these include Tamuz in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, which has 30 members, and Mishol in Upper Nazareth, with about 100 and growing. The latter live in a former migrant transition center organized by floor into eight multifamily kvutzot, or small living groups. They’ve retrofitted their building and hope to buy it from the current owner, a semigovernmental agency. Both Mishol and Tamuz operate educational nonprofits for their surrounding communities, but Tamuz’s members mostly have other jobs. These kibbutznikim pool their wages and apportion money to families by size. Households then budget for food, utilities, and discretionary expenses, while the kibbutz covers housing, health care, transportation, and joint activities: weekly dinner meetings, regular knowledge-share days, and quarterly retreats. At Mishol, departing members receive financial assistance. There’s no fee to join, but the process takes about a year.
Robust networks connect the various kibbutzim to each other. James Grant-Rosenhead of Mishol tells me,
In general, these communities are not busy defining Israel’s borders (as the original agricultural kibbutzim certainly were) but are busy with creating more socialist communities and social justice projects in the geographic and socioeconomic peripheries of Israel.
II. The 1960s-Born Commune
The United States equivalent of a traditional kibbutz is Twin Oaks in Virginia. In 1967, a group of graduate students, inspired by B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist novel Walden Two (1948), set up a commune in a rural area where land was affordable and zoning relaxed. Today, Twin Oaks has around 100 members, who stay in seven or eight “small living group” (SLG) houses. The SLGs vary in their personalities: one is family-oriented, a couple favor polyamory; one might be quieter, another more raucous. Each person has her own room and keeps her private possessions inside, but anyone with financial assets must freeze them during their time at Twin Oaks. When a prospective member applies to join, she submits to a trial period of interviews, oversight, and input from the community.
Everyone works on-site full-time, providing for themselves and others. Their 40 or so weekly labor hours include domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, childcare, maintenance, and gardening. Twin Oaks grows most of its food, favoring sustainable practices. The community’s income-generating businesses include tofu- and hammock-making, book indexing, and selling seeds, herbs, and flowers. Each week members turn in proposed schedules of their preferred tasks, and labor assigners reconcile them. Twin Oaks still uses Walden Two’s “planner-manager” system, with a council to handle leadership concerns. Three planners address items members posted on a board of “Opinions and Ideas,” and managers oversee different areas of labor. Oakers nominate planners, have 10 days to share input, and approve a candidate with an 80-percent majority.
“Oakers” eat lunch and dinner together, share bicycles and several cars, and have their own woodshop and darkroom. They put on concerts, readings, and plays, and screen movies. They also host an annual gathering of women from communities around the country. Members earn two weeks vacation each year and receive small monthly dividends of any surplus. Twin Oaks also covers health care, which is rare among such communities in the United States.
Children may homeschool or go to school in town. Until the mid-1980s, kids slept in a children’s house called Degania, named after the first kibbutz. Parents and other adults took turns on overnight caregiver shifts, and those who sign up continue to share daycare in one-on-one sessions called “primaries.” Twin Oaks–raised musician Devon Sproule remembers all the resources with which the community’s adults provided her, and how those relationships shaped her. While she’s close with her parents, she believes the collective care made her more independent than friends who were raised in nuclear homes. With a child of her own now, she reflects, “the communal childcare is a great way to teach flexibility, good communication, trust, et cetera, with kids.”
Her parents met at another community and came to Twin Oaks with her when she was still an infant. They broke up shortly after their arrival, joining two different SLGs, and she spent time in both before choosing a group for herself. The house where she lived as a teen had a music room, and she played with the twentysomethings who lived there. On leaving, she tells me:
I sort of eased out around age 15/16. I was going to community college and playing music in Charlottesville, staying more and more with my boyfriend, friends, and mom, who was leaving then, too. It seemed natural to want to explore the wider world. That said, there’s a recent crop of Twin Oaks kids who have stayed and become members, and I’m a little envious of that! I feel the pull sometimes, but I don’t think my husband would ever want to live in community. And I’m lucky in that I get to go visit whenever I want, because we live nearby and my dad is still a member.
III. The Rise of Cohousing
1967 also marked the birth of the bofællesskab (living community) movement in Denmark. A cluster of 35 families there built a complex where they could actively share resources with neighbors while maintaining private incomes and homes. The idea took off in northern Europe, where today there are hundreds of such projects. In the 1980s, a pair of California architects brought the idea home with them and called it “cohousing.” The first site they designed was in Davis, outside of Sacramento, California, where an existing group was doing something similar by retrofitting their homes. Today there are over 150 cohousing communities in 35 states, and almost as many groups in process. Many are on the West Coast, and in the Northeast and Colorado.
In all of these, residents share some common areas, supplies, and duties. Officially, many take the condominium form that banks are most willing to finance, but some are housing cooperatives with units to rent or own. But there is nearly endless variety. The eastern region of the San Francisco Bay Area alone is home to around 10 established cohousing projects, with a few more currently forming. A couple of them occupy sleek lofts; one is just for seniors. Three — including one all-rental project — are designated “affordable” and not for profit. Of these, two owner-occupied sites use a limited-equity condominium system, one of which is protected by a land trust. Most of the groups have waiting lists.
Hidden Creek is a property in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, with four detached units and hopes to incorporate adjoining lots. It’s one of several communities on its block, the others being a Catholic Worker–originated “art farm” and an anarchist group triplex. Today’s residents represent the tenuous balance of Bay Area life in 2017: the Hidden Creekers I met on a visit are a public school teacher, a part-time musician, and their playful three-year-old son; a “fearsome five” engineer who occupies a unit with his wife and their child; and a Mexican astrophysicist turned peacenik who’s living with his partner. (A fourth family wasn’t home.) The first two couples met while renting at a small eco-village in San Mateo, California. Another couple left early on, and the member who replaced them is renting cheaply to the pacifist couple while living at a poly group house nearby. The boy I met attends a Spanish-immersion cooperative daycare three days each week, rotating at eight families’ homes. He will soon enter the preschool version.
The tech family first bought the property, and others bought out their units at percentages based mostly on size. It took two and a half years to convert the lot to shared ownership because of city paperwork. Each household pays monthly dues covering water, tools, repairs, and some of their common meals; the rest goes to a reserve fund. They share bike storage and a laundry room. The home has a small garden, fruit trees the group planted, and an arbor with a hammock, all replacing an empty stretch of concrete. Lately kids from an overcrowded low-income building next door have been playing in the yard. When I met them, residents were placing their first bulk goods order in Hidden Creek’s 12 years.
Next I visited Berkeley Cohousing. Dating back 20 years, it comprises 34 adult members, with about a dozen children at home. The founders bought a lot with 12 detached or duplex rental units and added two more, arranging them around a small village green with a clubhouse and parking lot. When buyers take multiple rentals off the market in Berkeley, they normally pay a conversion fee. Instead, the Berkeley Cohousers agreed to make their project affordable limited equity. “Affordable” here means buyers have to earn less than 150 percent of area median income, and the limited equity keeps price appreciation to area median income growth plus capital improvements. At this point prices are 50 percent below market value, and the group has retained a solidly middle-class mix now very rare for the area. But the future is less than certain: the founders intended the city deal to be permanent, but it turns out the restrictions will lapse in 10 years. Some want to make the site a land trust that will maintain the same rules, others would like to sell on the market. Some of the would-be “gazillionaires,” according to my hosts, married into or inherited their units. Still, the group eats together three nights each week. Members take turns cooking and cleaning, sit on different committees, and hold monthly meetings they run by consensus.
The final person I met with, Roger Studley, is organizing the nascent Berkeley Moshav. While the group has visited some of Israel’s urban kibbutzim, including Tamuz and Mishol, they’re joining Jewish culture with the cohousing model. The moshav consists of six families now, with three more planning to join. The group hopes it will eventually reach 20 households, who can share Shabbat meals, holiday celebrations, “life cycle” events, and, for those who wish, prayer.
The moshavnikim had just completed a planning workshop with the original United States cohousing architects. While the process they outlined for the moshav seems staggering to me, the group’s enthusiasm runs high. Right now they’re looking for investors and developers to acquire and hold land through predevelopment, and to front capital for engineering and construction. Some of these investors might be future members. The land will become collateral for construction, and the group will form an LLC with the membership fees it’s collecting. Construction will likely cost $15 million to $18 million, after which members may seek mortgages to purchase their own units. Each household will have paid 10 percent of unit cost at planning approval and 20 percent prior to the moshav obtaining construction loans, all of which will count toward down payments.
The group is already diverse in age and family composition — seniors, singles, couples, with kids, queer and straight — and hopes to be somewhat diverse economically as well. Indeed, the city will require a few units to be “affordable.” Beyond that, the future moshavnikim are intentionally diverse in Jewish observance, spanning secular, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox identities. One needn’t be Jewish to live there, just enjoy Jewish culture. Roger himself was secular before marrying a particularly hip rabbi; she plays bass in a rock band. Members “accept that they will all have to go a little beyond their comfort zones” to accommodate each other’s lifestyles. While the kitchen will remain kosher and the dining hall vegetarian, communal spaces and shared rituals involve negotiation. If the group can’t agree on a practice, they will rotate different versions. The moshav is looking for property within walking distance of the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, since members in those congregations are most observant of Shabbat.
When I asked Roger whether his group might consider sharing income like a kibbutz, he shook his head at the idea. “It’s not the American way!” But until recent times, neither was modern cohousing. In the past decade a handful of urban kibbutzim have sprung up in North America, but they’ve remained very small and youth-oriented. It’s hard to know whether these groups will grow to become intergenerational kibbutzim, but some seem committed.
If kibbutzim in Israel’s cities, an egalitarian community like Twin Oaks, and cohousing in the Bay can thrive in spite of the challenges, a United States urban commune ought to be viable, too. The American way isn’t going so well. Most of us live and age in homes owned by lenders or landlords, and many don’t have that security. Collective ownership allows communities a quality of life, material and otherwise, that’s hard for members to achieve apart.