|Wash. Post Article||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|From: ann zabaldo (annzlibertyvillage.com)|
|Date: Sun, 7 Jun 1998 20:02:30 -0500|
Thought it might make it easier for you to comment on this article if you could actually read the article first. Here 'tis: Neo-Counterculture My Uncle's Life Away From the Mainstream By Alissa Quart Sunday, June 7, 1998; Page C01 SEATTLE?I used to visit my Uncle Martin and Aunt Margaret in their Manhattan loft 10 years ago and listen to their views on the sorry state of American culture. As we ate hijiki and listened to spooky postmodern dance music, I found myself agreeing with them until they started denouncing some cultural retrograde anachronism -- like reading the New York Times or studying history -- that was helping me to survive my adolescence. Then, I would shrink in my chair. Now, at age 60, Uncle Martin is living out his dreams of authenticity on Vashon Island outside of Seattle with Aunt Margaret and their three small children. They have been here for three years and I can finally test the reality of the once-baffling terms he threw at me: "intentional community" and "co-housing." These are the bywords for a growing quasi-utopian residential living movement that is visible from Liberty Village in Frederick County, Md., to East Wind in Tecumseh, Mo., to Vashon Island here in Washington state. These communities are the newest expression of the 300-year-old American impulse to build a non-hierarchical community with values uncorrupted by the society at large. The desire to form a new, ideal community brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts Bay in the early 17th century. It motivated the Shakers and the Mormons and a welter of millenarian, socialist and utopian communes in the 19th century. And in the 1960s and '70s, it brought another wave of communal living as hippies and others set out to organize countercultural communities. To someone born after most of these initial attempts at commune living, they always seemed to me both wonderfully antidotal and deeply maddening. Was my uncle consorting with industrious idealists or needy naturalists? While many of those communes have since faded, there has been a slow but steady rise in intentional community-building in the '90s, attracting thousands of people like Uncle Martin. These new communes are often more pragmatic in their idealism -- although the individuals who live together separately are close enough physically to really get on each other's nerves. Laird Schaub, the secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, based in Rutledge, Mo., says of the '60s generation, "We knew what we were against but we didn't know what we were for." There are now approximately 540 intentional communities in North America, according to Schaub. The fellowship gets word of about eight new communities a month, he says, and has sold 32,000 copies of its listing of communities. There have been social experiments around Seattle and the Puget Sound since the 19th century, when a semi-anarchistic collective called Home and a socialistic one called Equality Colony were thriving. Vashon Island is a natural place for people who want to start a new life. Home to about 10,000 people, it has a working-class hippie feel, with many a young woman clad in velvet curtain-like skirts and woven hats making espresso for a living. Vashon Co-Housing was founded in 1989 by Evan Simmons, a carpenter, and his friend Mark Musick. Originally, you could purchase the land for your house for $25,000; now the same site costs $64,000. Uncle Martin, having decided to flee New York for the Pacific Northwest, found Vashon Island on a list of intentional communities in 1989. He attended a couple of meetings and decided to move in. In all intentional communities, the guiding philosophy is to foster closer ties among neighbors. In the co-housing model, residents live in separate dwellings but dedicate themselves to a more communal lifestyle. At Vashon Co-Housing, there are 18 home sites and a communal building under construction. The houses are connected by dirt roads and there are 13 acres of communal land. All cars must be parked in an area away from the houses. Daily life is governed by written covenants. Every house must have a front porch for socializing; every roof must have cedar shingles. All residents attend bimonthly meetings at which everything from new members to garbage disposal is discussed. Once a month there is a work party in which everybody pitches in with landscaping and outdoor chores. "This is the way people should be living in the future," Uncle Martin said. His house, which he built, looks like the picture of a home in a children's storybook -- unpainted with a shingled roof. It smells like fresh wood inside, where there's a wood stove and bright fish painted on the floor of the kids' room. When we sat down to dinner during my recent week-long visit, he talked about the community and how all the houses are built in accordance with the dicta of Christopher Alexander's 1977 book, "A Pattern Language." Ceiling heights vary in the homes of Vashon Co-Housing because Alexander said that a "building in which the ceiling heights are all the same is virtually incapable of making people comfortable." And each house in Vashon Co-Housing has windows on at least two sides because "in rooms lit on one side, the glare which surrounds people's faces prevents people from understanding each other." Some intentional communities have been organized by Christian fundamentalists who, like my uncle, advocate home schooling. Some are organized around a craft. Twin Oaks, an intentional community in Louisa, Va., assigns each member a full workweek of labor at one of the community businesses, which include a hammock factory and a tofu plant. Some stress communal living more than others: At Twin Oaks, for example, the 100 residents have a single bank account and no private cars or private homes. What unites the intentional community movement is its members' proud rejection of mainstream values. Vashon Co-Housing and other collectives in the Seattle area are only tiny islands in a sea of software engineers now buying up pricey, cream-colored condos with profits from their stock options. Uncle Martin, by contrast, doesn't know how to use a computer. He and his family live on little money, forbid anything with the Disney label on it and distrust individualized ambition. Instead of playing Myst on the computer, the family spends evenings pulling the nails out of 19th-century schoolhouse floorboards to create an authentic new floor for their house. All of which is a great relief to Uncle Martin. "I was under siege in New York. I fought landlords and I fought the city. Those are some shark-infested waters," he said. "In Vashon Co-Housing, you can't say 'screw you' like you can in New York. You have to see these people tomorrow." "In Vashon, people care about their neighbors," Aunt Margaret said. "Nobody gave back to the community in New York." I felt awfully inspired by their life until the next morning when Uncle Martin talked, over brown rice puffs and soy milk, about how home schooling will spare his children from the culture's values. In a flash, I remembered how I have resented his purism as often as I admire it. No matter how stripped-down their new life is, there will always be some evil my uncle would call "processed," some imperfection to crop up and threaten his detoxified peace. Like other Americans living off the grid of conventional life, my uncle and aunt are angry at the "gentrifiers," wherever they might be. But Uncle Martin and Aunt Margaret shop at Ikea, just like the gentrifiers. While my uncle has made his peace with mass-produced Shaker-style furnishings, he must contend with mass culture that he finds far more troubling. One day, as we watched one of my cousins play with a plastic gun, Uncle Martin asked me, "Where does the hostility come from?" Hadn't these boys had their television curtailed, attained the right mix of acids and bases in their diets? Hadn't they been nurtured by a bunch of parental figures who taught them bird names and conflict resolution? I watched, mildly distressed to see my assumptions confirmed: Kids still play war games and lord and serf games, even under the influence of an entire community's idealism. At sundown, the boys tease the girls, shouting out insults as they always have. Another of my cousins, an 8-year-old girl, has a better understanding than most kids her age, though. She asks my aunt whether she had provoked the boys to "act out." "We should get along. We're all in co-housing together," the cousin said. Then she turned to me, grinning. "Still, girls are better than boys." "Humans are best," said my 4-year-old cousin, as she adjusts her oversized tutu. Her parents laughed approvingly. Later, my 8-year-old cousin referees a fight between her younger siblings. She will tell them they can't have more than their tiny allotment of sweets because sugar is bad. By my last day on Vashon Island, I had a better appreciation of my uncle's crusade for an uncooked life with a bit of Emersonian richness left in it. Through the island-only bartering program, old clothes are exchanged for haircuts. My uncle did a photographic portrait of a neighbor; the neighbor fixed Martin's water pipes. And everyone celebrates the holidays together. For Saint Lucia Day, the Swedish celebration of the solstice, my 8-year-old cousin wore a crown of lit candles. When I returned to New York, the drive home took me past billboards and mammoth housing projects. The life of the city seemed faster and less humane than when I left. I was thinking of my cousins, home-schooled in glaciers and rain. Perhaps they won't know who Benjamin Franklin is or memorize their multiplication tables on time. They also probably won't care how much Bill Gates is worth. They are running around on unpaved roads, growing up in a place where all the adults know their names, where the future is becoming the past. Perhaps the pastoral wing of my family is on to a good thing. Alissa Quart has written for the Village Voice, New York magazine and the Independent of London. © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company -- _______________________ Best -- Ann Zabaldo Liberty Village Cohousing (:~ annz [at] libertyvillage.com
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