Are some of us experiencing a renaissance in communal living?
More interest in the topic appears to be surging in the last few decades
When I walked through the Nevada City Co-housing center, I felt a wave of joy. The internal sidewalk meandered like the path to the Wizard of Oz. Beside the concrete path was multicolored homes with slanted roofs, all standing adjacent to each other. So many people were clustered so closely together, able to more easily share in one another’s lives. I imagined experiences of pain and ecstasy, mundanity and profundity manifesting themselves alongside a helping hand or warm embrace. A sequence of human exchanges lived here.
Maybe most striking about the co-housing units was that there was nothing terribly shocking about them at all. Decent-sized homes stood side by side, each with their own backyards. A variety of shared facilitates, including a dining room, pool, and play shed resided in the compound. There was no reason that this couldn’t be more possible, that the landscape couldn’t be the norm.
I soon found the orange home of my close friends, and made my way to their spacious backyard to enjoy a lovely evening of dinner and dessert. It was immediately obvious to me: I wanted this environment for myself and I wanted it for those I love.
As more Americans and dwellers of the developed world report feeling lonely and isolated, there’s been heightened coverage of ways to weave our lives more closely together. Scholars, journalists, and community members are now more rigorously attempting to solve problems related to distrust, alienation, isolation, and depression. By connecting a social tapestry that feels, to some, desperately torn, many believe everything from intense polarization to violence can be at the least ameliorated by living more intentionally to, and in closer proximity with, one another. Better communal connections have even recently been emphasized as a critical aspect of restorative justice and alternatives to heavy policing, as community groups have cropped upto leverage deeper social connections to stem harm.
The surge in interest may be partially due to the fact that our missing social bonds are literally making us sick. According to the United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, loneliness and weak social connections result in a reduced lifespan similar to that of someone who smokes 15 cigarettes a day. Those who report feeling lonely are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Loneliness can also limit creativity and cause one to make poorer decisions. Weak social relationships are associated with higher rates of suicide, and increase risk of stroke by 32%, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
This is a widespread problem. As of 2004, one in four Americans reported having no one they could confide in, which is significantly higher than what was reported in the 1980s. The downstream effects are rising costs that strain arenas of public health, incarceration, and the economy.
Insert alternative configurations of living like co-living and co-housing, where groups of individuals more intimately and intentionally live together. Such intrigue could be part of a revival of communal living, where interests, decision-making, power, and even money are sometimes shared. Although relatively small, the positive externalities are noteworthy: people who live closer to others are often more likely to be happier by virtue of socialization and their increased density can help reduce waste and overconsumption, thereby alleviating some of the burden we all expend on the environment.
But Americans have tried similar arrangements before and they haven’t always worked out. Therefore, it could be useful to get a better understanding of America’s communal past in order to understand its future.
Communes, Very Briefly Explored
Communes have been around in the U.S. at least since the late 1600s. (I’m using commune, broadly interpreted, to mean an intentional living community.) Many of them began through religious affiliation. One of the most successful included a settlement of about 200 Hutterite (a branch of Anabaptism) communes, which amassed a population of 50,000 and laid claim to places as far reaching as Minnesota to Washington. Operating farms, these communities typically included six dormitories with a common dining area and separate apartments for families.
By the 60s and 70s, the number of communes reached into the thousands. There were a range of communes that sprung up during this time — from religious sects to secular socialists and gay liberationists. As described in Timothy Miller’s book, The 60s Communes: The Hippies and Beyond, cooperative housing became popular among the beatniks, including the likes of Ken Kesey and the Mary Pranksters.
It’s uncertain as to why so many communes were created during this time, but it likely had to do with countercultural undercurrents surging in American society — including the Vietnam War, Feminist movement, Civil Rights movement, gay liberation movement, and a booming middle class that offered youth more free time to explore and imagine. To this last point, commune participants were overwhelmingly white and middle class.
The leaders of such communal movements were pushing for something outside of the expected routines of aging American life. Much of the advocacy stemmed from those closer to the margins of society, and from artists in particular as they attempted to more collaboratively indulge their creative pursuits.
While the majority of communes cropped up between San Francisco and the Canadian border in the late 60s, a good number also blossomed in New Mexico and its surrounding area.
Drop City, a commune developed out of Trinidad, Colorado, began with the mission of opening its doors to all. The commune, started by University of Kansas alumni, encouraged many different art projects among residents. And despite its promise, problems soon accumulated due to a lack of funds (the founders found gainful employment “soul sucking”). The place was deemed impoverished by various media outlets, despite few complaints from residents. Still, lack of money and upkeep appeared to be its demise after almost a decade of vitality.
Libre, a commune founded with inspiration from Drop City also founded in Colorado, allowed for a bit more individuality and also prevented anyone off the street from joining at random. Rather, each family or member had to have their home approved by the whole community. Membership has been remarkably stable, with some founders still around today and a total of about 30 participants.
Scholar Clifford Thies, who analyzed a range of 281 communes over centuries, found that many communes were successful, in that they survived 15 years or more. (If one were to compare this with a company or entrepreneurial venture, it would be considered successful.) The ones who survived longer typically made some individualistic concessions, like allowing for ownership of private property. During the more modern period of the 60s, many communes were established away from cities as an open rejection of mainstream norms. But that positioning sometimes left communes deprived of crucial resources that could more enable offer it stability.
Ultimately though, what often did communes in was the very thing that allowed them to flourish: personal relationships. A feud between people would erupt, spread, and cause people to leave in waves. Consequently, the commune would lack its literal and metaphorical lifeblood.
The complications of communes, then, reflect our own personal complexities. People are messy and sometimes easier to manage than other times. A spiraling fight, or one member who commits acts of harm or even violence, could be the entire community’s downfall.
A More Connected Future
Today, there are hundreds of intentional, co-housing, and commune style communities arising and taking place.
Although the 60s received much attention for communal beginnings, the subsequent period — between 1975 and 2000 — has seen even more communal living arrangements, according to Timothy Miller’s sequel Communes in America, 1975–2000. Notably, however, these living configurations have come in the form of greater independence on the side of individuals, taking the form of co-housing, or intentional community arrangements, which have offered more respect to individualistic tendancies.
This is not always viewed as a positive development. Private property and fewer collective projects are sometimes viewed as antithetical to communal living. In fact, someone inside the commune and intentional community scene once described co-housing to me as “community lite,” a partial pejorative but also semi-accurate characterization of the less intense communal setup. However, the emphasis on individual separation between people appears to have created more stability over time, exemplified by the co-housing communities developed in the last few decades.
This change has made the endurance and renewed appreciation of communal living difficult to deny. That may be because, as one former commune resident described in The 60s Communes, they offer a feeling like none other: “The quality of intimacy that we had with each other, the quality of knowing each other through thick and thin and round and round was so much more intimate than daily routines, even with friends. It was the most intimate life I’d ever led.”