CNN did a curious piece partially about Twin Oaks recently. It was odd because it did a fairly good job of representing the commune in the text portion of the story, much better than ABC Nightline did, but it mixed in a video about the San Francisco Co-Living movement.
The article is called: Utopia: It’s Complicated – Inside Vintage and New Age Communities. We are clearly the vintage part.
Taking this apart a bit, let’s consider the clever title. Utopia is a slightly charged and especially foolish word to use when describing a real life living situation. We are not perfect, nor appropriate for everyone. We never claim to be, though academics and the media love to throw that label on us. What we do claim is that our living situation is far better than most and some (including myself) claim that on a good day, we can see utopia from here.
But this is a detail, really. What is more peculiar is lumping contemporary “co-living” spaces with income sharing communities like Twin Oaks. It is something like grouping tug boats with hover crafts.
In both circumstances there are people living together and sharing things and selecting each other (this is my definition for intentional community.) But if the affluent residents of co-living circumstances are disagreeing about maid service, it is about how often it is necessary. Maid service is inconceivable to most income sharing communes, not just because we don’t think we can afford it, but because we feel responsible for cleaning up our own messes.
As GPaul points out in “We are not selling a product,” the differences only start here. Co-living replicates the landlord/tenant dynamic, FEC communities largely own their own properties which are land trusts. Think corporate hover craft and co-op tug boat. Sharing income means you need to listen to those you live with about what their needs are and the survival of the community depends on trust building. Sharing an expensive group house means you stay until you have a serious fight with someone living there, are bored, or find a better offer and you are constantly on the look out for that offer.
None of the co-living situations I have seen or read about have children. Mostly what we see is twenty-somethings appearing to live the good life. Nothing wrong with that, but for me the good life is multi-generational.
So there is no utopia. And the differences between different approaches to the better life are significant. I am glad CNN got so much right about us. I am sad that they decided our neighbors in building a better world were mostly affluent people who are likely making gentrification worse.
We are constantly guessing when and what type of events we should be organizing in order to spark the new communities movement. This time we clearly guessed right.
We had about 70 people at this quickly organized event. We crowded the Keep with enthusiastic and chatty folks. Many were experienced community people but for most of the group this was relatively new stuff.
Lovely food and engaging conversation were had. After GPaul did a wild and woolly version of open space technology, we broke into working groups talking about:
- Community as an Agent for Healing
- Addressing Sexual Assault in Community
- Starting Community Businesses
- Starting EcoVillages
I was in the healing discussion group which was held in part in an empty Jacuzzi tub.
It was a lovely warm up for our content in NYC this coming weekend, the Community Matchmaking (see Facebook Invite) event. Here is the evolving program for that event, being held at the Brooklyn Free School.
All photos by Dragon
I feel a bit like a country mouse taking the crash course in gentrification from our city mouse cousins. So we can start with the Wikipedia and Google definition:
Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values.
That seems simple enough. And maybe not even bad. Crime rates go down, services increase. We want things to get better in the city, don’t we?
Film maker and NYC activist Spike Lee calls part of this problem the “motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome” In a recent talk at Pratt, Lee said “You can’t discover this! We been here.” He told a story of how new residents had called the police on long time residents – including Lee’s father – who were playing drums, as they had been for 50 years. The police sided with the new affluent residents and stopped the music.
But gentrification is far more than street jams getting shut down. In NYC it is the pointy edge of industrial capitalism. Real estate values in the city are so high that the economic incentives for landlords to harass, threaten and mistreat residents are hard to imagine. Especially residents who have rent controlled housing. Gentrification pits rich against poor and the poor almost always lose and get displaced.
New York City has changed a lot from the economic crisis it faced in the early 1970’s. At that time property owners unable to find tenants for their buildings and with taxes which were far outstripping rents simply walked away from buildings, especially in the lower east side of Manhattan. Abandoned urban buildings lead to squats.
Squatters came in an fixed up these buildings and made them livable. They pushed back the police at first and often after they had improved the buildings the original landlord wanted them back. Some squatters were able to hold onto their work and ultimately gain control of these buildings.
But the 1970s are long gone and real estate speculation in NYC is a very high stakes game now. Because of their potential value, owners now pay taxes on their unused and boarded up buildings. And the police and private security (aka thugs) are used to control these unused spaces and protect them from squatters.
This lead a number of people to tell us that squatting was dead in NYC.
Turns out it is not so. Traveler kids are still squatting in NYC. They are much more discreet about it than earlier generations of squatters who might graffiti the outside of buildings they control. One sign of this is that they are regularly getting busted by the police. Squatting is a high risk life style.
One friend who does risk reduction work amongst traveler kids said she would introduce me to some of these folks on our next visit. Stay tuned.
“Your organizing style exhausts me,” GPaul complained, and my occasionally defensive nature did not put up a struggle. Even for me this event felt a bit like a bridge too far.
NYC proved intoxicating with its density and rapid possibilities. In February, we had announced a discussion of the income sharing communities in Virginia and the new Point A project. We announced it less than a week before the event, which was on a Tuesday night, and we did not even have a venue until 3 days before the event. Still 65 people came (Facebook predicted 60). Some powerful alliances were made. At first GPaul and i thought these new connections had been more fortunate for our friends at Catalyst Community and other community/ecovillage projects which had participated in the event than they had been for us. But we were wrong.
Elena and Beatrice and Teagan and Arrow and Andrew and Jaimi from the venue we presented at, the BUZ, all were huge helps especially in networking. And in the face of this support i convinced GPaul that we should immediately turn around and do it again in March, only bigger.
This time we would announce it two weeks in advance, we would run a Friday night program of Transparency Tools by Marta and Roberto, and then 6 hours of content midday on Saturday. Internally, we referred to this as a “mini communities conference”. At the time we announced we had 6 workshops and a panel discussion on the schedule. We also only had one confirmed presenter. And since all the content was either urban or NYC specific, unlike the February event, neither GPaul nor i could facilitate the material which we had proposed.
Then NYC decided we were interesting. Three days after we announced the event nearly 100 RSVPs plus 40 maybes on Facebook were telling us they were coming. What if they all come? What if more people than this come, because there is more promotion coming and it is still 10 days away? i started seeking more content, for an event that did not have a stable group of confirmed presenters for the initial proposal. We added a Bridges to Burners workshop and one on the Lessons from Occupy as it relates to intentional community.
“Do you have a lot of money?” started one person who i was directed to as a presenter on gentrification. When i confessed that we did not, they told me that there was nothing which could be done on gentrification without it. i realized that this person was failing as an activist. When you finish your conversation with an activist you feel like there is something that you can do to make the situation better. Dis-empowering messages are the purview of policy analysts and wonks. At the least, activists have stuff they want to try. Gentrification was especially vexing because i did not have any useful experience with it and we had no direct contacts to people working the issue. I was already feeling the crash of the NYC opiate high.
Fortunately, former Twin Oaks and Acorn visitor Eman agreed to present on gentrification and multiculturalism. She simply laughed at the notion that without money we were helpless to change things. Eman is an amazing story in herself. A long time NYC community organizer and fundraiser, she has lost both her legs in the past year to a blood clotting disorder. She agreed to give the “solutions half” of the popular workshop. To get her to these workshops required me carrying her up the several flights of stairs of this non ADA compliant venue.
A week before the event Facebook was saying that we had 125 participants confirmed and almost 100 maybes. I went and did a walk through of the space and then relaxed a bit. There were additional rooms for workshops and BUZ organizer Jaimi would give up his personal room as a child care space or spare workshop space. Even if we had 175 people, we were going to have enough space for 5 concurrent good sized workshops.
It is easy for me to write up workshop descriptions and put them up on a website. It is another thing to fill the 15 odd slots on for panel discussions and workshop facilitators with knowledgeable people who present reasonably well. And then there is this little thing that i am terribly disorganized.
At the initial panel discussion, Andrew, who was working sound, asked “How many chairs and mics should we set up?” and i realized i did not know the answer to the question. One speaker had confirmed, two were maybes and several others had not responded to my inquiries. And then some people who i invited surprised me and showed up to present. In the end, five very different and quite engaging people presented.
The audience (and organizers) loved their stories. These included avoiding unrelated persons occupancy restrictions by appearing to be a family. The way the authorities determine this is if you have all your toothbrushes in the bathroom and no interior locks between bedrooms.
I have never done crack. Thirty years ago when i tried cocaine and it did not have much of an effect. My girlfriend at the time posited:
You are coke are redundant. You already have a huge ego. You already think you are unstoppable. You are already arrogant and pushy and in a huge rush.
This observation perhaps saved me from an expensive habit. But the analogy with NYC lingers. NYC comes on powerfully. It gives you the illusion you can do anything. It changes your internal clock and everything starts to go faster. And then it dumps you out the other side, often not gently.
Only 80 people came to the final event (not counting the 25 who came to Transparency Tools the night before, which was the perfect size). We lost a couple hundred dollars. But despite this attendance let down, we were all pretty satisfied with the content. And we have new respect for this complex and occasionally deceptive city.
* Wikipedia article on the Reagan Administrations confession to the CIA trafficking crack and cocaine revealed after the Iran Contra Scandal.