Thursday, March 1, 2012


When people think of communal living, they think of hippies in the wilderness, spirit walks through ancestral forests, vegans with tofu presses in their bathtubs, pantless children smeared with the juice of wild, hand-picked blackberries, and other faded images from the 1970s. In reality, most of us have live communally: a couple roommates sharing some sugar? Communal living. If you've interviewed more than one person to take the other bedroom in your apartment, you've lived with some degree of intention.

Movies like Wanderlust aren't supposed to be documentaries. Any movie starring Jennifer Aniston doesn't really have all that high a bar, honestly. But can we please move past the idea that intentional living is the sole domain of folks who wear tie-dye and don't think patchouli stinks?

I've lived in three different co-op houses over the past eight years, each with its own unique feel. My first was a real communal house: fifteen people shared one enormous kitchen, stocked each week with shared food, and housemates made an effort to get to know each other. My second co-op house, I lived in a third-floor bachelor with its own enormous deck, my own bathroom, and a kitchen that was just for me. I knew no one else at that address. In my final co-op house, I have my own bedroom, and my kitchen and bathroom is shared with two other girls; it feels like a traditional roommate situation.

What unites each of these experiences is the word "co-op." We have a board of directors, made up of volunteer members, and they set the course for the paid staff who administrate the organization. There are about 250 resident-members who get together for annual general meetings. AGMs govern the general direction of my co-op: the members approve the budget (including, importantly, rent increases), review by-laws, and ask questions of staff and board. It strives to be a transparent process. In reality, it can be unwieldy, bureaucratic, and slow. What happens when 250 people in a room each feel like they can, and should, speak up on an issue? Let's just say it's a good thing Robert's Rules exists.

My co-op comes with a few gold-star amenities, like free laundry, internet services, on-site maintenance workers, and a responsive admin staff. It also comes with a total lack of control over who lives in the room next to yours. I've shared houses with alcoholics, manic depressives who took signing their lease as license to go off their meds, people who smoked pot/cigarettes in the house, and one girl who let her pet rabbit shit all over the kitchen table. I've been woken up by loud fighting, loud puking, loud sobbing, and loud sex. I've lived with jerks. I've also met some of my very best friends in those houses.

Intentional communities try to side-step those issues by using a hybrid approach to living arrangements. One of the biggest benefits of co-op housing can be cheaper rent or amenities - unsurprisingly, those things are attractive to folks on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. But with cheaper rent comes greater responsibility, and intentional communities generally have a process of acceptance or admittance that goes beyond "Can you afford our monthly housing charges?" A particular skill set is valued: are you handy? Can you cook? Crafty (in the maker sense, not the sly-dog sense)? Friendly, but not overly so? Green thumb? Comfortable with worms? Comfortable discussing bodily functions? Direct, but not confrontational? These are all good things when keeping it cheap mean a DIY approach to life. Consensus building and house meetings? Chore wheels? Get stoked, because they're in your future.

Movies like Wanderlust depict those communities as collections of nudists, militant feminists, and a pregnant woman who gives birth under the light of the full moon and carries the placenta around in a hand-thrown bowl. They're caricatures, but comedies are full of caricatures - the dopey pot-smoker, and the wild-eye shaman leader. Compared to George and Linda, the movie's "normal" characters, the batik print is all the wilder.

What's kind of disappointing is that, in this day and age, communal living might fill a real niche for people. To play it off as an all-or-nothing proposition - you have to choose between your teensy Manhattan apartment or not having a door on your bathroom - plays down the importance of community. I hate to sound fuddy-duddy, but when we increasingly socialize online, when we communicate through email and text more than conversation, when we count friends as the number of people on a social networking site and not the number of people we see each week, our capacity to community-build IRL shrinks. The cost of living is going up. People are staying in school longer and emerging with more debt. Living in an urban centre often means giving up green spaces in favour of condo balconies. News media encourages us to avoid talking to our neighbours, taking public transit after hours, and visiting entire neighbourhoods out of a nebulous fear of "danger."

The Occupy movement spoke to people because knowing there were others who shared their concerns had an electric, galvanizing effect. I work in a building that prides itself on it community-building prowess, and they've become a sustainable, expanding business model. More and more of my friends are choosing to live with or near their friends and well-fitting strangers, and they all have locks on their doors and take showers alone. There might be batik in their future, along with close quarters and loud sex. But you have to choose that lifestyle - that's where the "intentional" part comes in - and accept that it will come with some pitfalls. I want the same for myself.

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