A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Communal Petri Dish

Despite Business-Like Failure Rates, Shared Housing Experiments Work To Keep The Ideal of Community Alive

By Paul Smart

The common notion of a commune, or any sort of communal or shared living situation, still sits back in the late 1960s. It’s that image from Easy Rider, where Captain America and Bill visit this set of tents in the desert, where a group of stoned kids are trying to plant crops without water. The underlying idealism, and its innate sadness, is palpable.

    Here in the Hudson Valley, communal living reached a peak in the early 1970s, when the Woodstock and New Paltz areas were chock-a-block with True Light Beavers, Rainbow Farms, and VideoFreex taking over big old boarding houses and making lives growing their own gardens, making their own art (including some of the world’s first video fun), and pretty much all staying in their communities to eventually become their leading lights.

    Yet the idea behind communal and shared living goes much further back—and continues, today, in a variety of ultra-modern ways.

    Think back to early settlements. People shared housing until they could build their own. But even then, communities relied on communal aspects: meeting halls, schools, barn- and home-building parties, great shared meals.

    Eventually, as communities grew into hamlets, villages, towns and even small cities, people started aiming for singular lives, choosing to share time in fraternal organizations and temperance or suffrage parties. Eventually churches schismed off into more particularized entities. Restaurants and coffee shops and even saloons became the places where people gathered, albeit often among more like-minded sorts.

    And yet here in the greater Hudson Valley we had the flourishing of Shakers. Or not that far away, the Beechers and Alcott’s experiments, as well as the Oneida Colony in Central New York.

    Our nation’s experiences with great conflagrations, from our own Civil War to the Great and Second World wars in Europe and elsewhere, as well as the startling experiences of the Great Depression, pushed many back towards the comforts of shared experiences. Which is what made our region’s first great tourist booms via grand hotels, myriad boarding houses, and even planned bungalow and summer cottage colonies so successful, with lasting effects on the region’s sense of self-identity and legacy.

    The idea of the arts colony, a sort of commune for the creative, grew up in the Greene County Catskills, up on the Shawangunk Ridgeline in Cragsmoor, and in Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe and Maverick colonies. Ditto, in a more contemporary fashion, the post-Brooklyn hubs that Hudson, Uptown Kingston, Beacon and many more parts of the region are now becoming.

    But what of old-style communes, communal living situations and shared housing concepts here? Ah, that is a complicated thing….

    There’s an entity on the east side of the Hudson, Beacon Co-Housing, that started as the Tivoli C-Housing Co-op until that entity sold several years ago. Tivoli had been a classic shared-housing situation, with people renting single rooms of various sizes in a house, paying a little bit below market amounts inclusive of heat and electric, and sharing chores and meals—the latter usually vegetarian to accommodate a greater sense of consensus. It had been started in 2006 under the aegis of the Common Fire Foundation, which had been founded with the goal of helping to support the creation of numerous intentional communities nationwide that shared the ideal of intentional communities as places for shared personal and collective transformation. Along the way, the Tivoli building was named the highest scoring green building in the Eastern US. And a second group, the Beacon Co-Housing Collective, was formed to set up a similar communal living entity further down the valley.

    Little has been said on why the Tivoli housing was sold in 2014. The Beacon experiment bought a 5-unit building in 2010 and has been thriving ever since, although it’s closed down new membership in recent years as it figures out how to handle expansion.

    In Saugerties is another entity, where families and singles own homes that they then sell on the open market, as occurred recently when two original communitarians reached a point where they wanted to move on, one family seeking a shift to Vermont and the other empty-nested by the growth and moving away of children. There, all the houses have a shared look, and tend to face inward onto a common-space. There’s a clubhouse-like structure, where meals are regularly shared and kids play together. There’s water access and a general sense of closeness among everyone. The price tag to become part of it all? The cost of a home that’s a little more expensive than many in the area, alongside a commitment to live well alongside others.

    In the final round, both operated like urban cooperatives, with those in a building or community choosing who joins. The difficulty, like most such entities, is a certain lack of diversity in exchange for the comforting side of a shared, truly community-oriented life.

    Elsewhere, we’ve noticed more ad hoc experiments arising in communal living on old farms, where would-be farmers share the old farmhouse as they work to turn the surrounding land into something profitable, or at least sustainable on a communitarian level. There’s another farming experiment where everyone’s built small homes on wheels, like gypsy caravans that can move from field to field, and opportunity to opportunity.

    Communitarian experiments are getting examined more frequently in the academic world, from the few longtime successes such as Virginia’s Twin Oaks, based on B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden II, to the many failures that started as messianic ideals before people started losing confidence, other options beckoned, or the messiness of true community diversity intervened.

    The final prognosis? Communal living failures occur at a lesser rate than business start-ups, or even the fate of Fortune 500 companies, which last an average of 15 years. And they keep coming, fuelling something very human and idealistic along the way in what one could almost call the most sustainable of ways. They keep the hope of life in true communities alive, be it in experiments that welcome diversity, or thrive on respectful distancing.

    Right now, there are cities being built in jungles across Central and South America built on communal principals, and a wealth of intentional communities getting envisioned and built across the United States, especially for aging populations.

    Probably most telling is the huge surge of interest last year’s hit “Seven Years” brought to its young singer Lukas Graham’s upbringing in Freetown Christiania in Denmark, which in addition to having become a vibrant example of successful ad hoc communitarianism, has also become one of its nation’s, and Europe’s, leading tourism attractions in recent years.

    “The real challenge for successful communities comes, as it does inside companies, when core values must pass to the next generation,” writes Alexa Clay, author of The Misfit Economy and numerous essays on commune life. “In this way, intentional communities and utopias can serve as short-lived petri dishes for emergent culture.”

    Thus we all live on. And hopefully thrive.