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Mainstreamer’s Search for Community

Knowledgebase > Mainstreamer's Search for Community

Vivian is a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, who went on a community odyssey in 1992. She shares and compares her first-hand observations about seven middle-to-large-sized secular communities.

When I announced to friends and coworkers that I was taking a leave of absence from my job to tour the country, they all thought it was a great idea. But when I said I was going to investigate something called “intentional communities,” the reaction was a mixture of curiosity (“What on earth are they?”), polite disinterest (“Oh? That’s nice.”), and incredulity. (“You mean you want to join one of those religious cults? You can’t be serious!”)

I wasn’t surprised at the responses. After all, I was a typical mainstreamer: divorced, independent, a loner, at the peak of a career in journalism and, by the usual standards, successful and happy. I was also about to turn 60.

I’d been thinking for several years that in my quest for identity as an individual, I’d lost something valuable. Something I associated with the small towns of my childhood and the old circle of friends who over the years had become just a line of Christmas cards on the mantel in December.

I wanted to “belong” again — to more than my monthly book club and professional associations. I found what I’d been looking for in the 1990 Directory of Intentional Communities. But, was it too late for me to join a community? Could I just walk away from the security of a good job with good benefits? Could I move far away from my kids and grandkids? Could I fit in? There was just one way to find out — see for myself! I chose six rural, secular communities, active in environmental and social issues, open to visitors, diverse and not exclusive, and at least 15 years old with 25 members or more. I also wanted to write about intentional communities to get the message out to other people, especially in the mainstream, who might be interested. The groups I chose were located primarily on the east and west coasts. I set out on my eight-week odyssey in April 1992. Alpha Farm

My first destination was a 20-year-old community in the Coastal Range of western Oregon, about 50 miles east of Eugene, the most communal of the groups on my list. I drove up the California and Oregon coast on a sunny spring day. I stopped in Mapleton, as I had been instructed, at Alpha-Bit, the store owned and operated by Alpha members. One of the group’s several enterprises, the store was started by the original members as a conscious effort to reach out to people in the towns near the farm. Alpha Bit sells a wide range of books and crafts and has a food bar. I got directions to Deadwood, where the farm is located and drove 20 miles through one of the most breathtakingly beautiful little valleys I’d ever seen. When I arrived at Alpha Farm, I felt like I’d been transported to another world.

At first glance, I saw a typical farm — a charming old farmhouse, a big barn, and several other buildings, including a newer house built by the members. But, after two nights and a day participating in the life of the community, I saw much more. About 24 adults and six children lived at Alpha when I visited. Eleven adults were full members, seven were “residents” and the others were visitors.

At 6:30, the breakfast cook rings a gong in the yard, the collective alarm clock, and between 7:00 and 8:00 the kitchen and dining room of the main house are filled with chatter and laughter as everyone talks about the day ahead and enjoys a sumptuous breakfast. They all gather again at dinnertime for the evening meal.

They were a busy bunch. A chart on the wall indicated who was assigned to what task for the week. Many jobs rotate, others are assigned according to special talents and interests. For example, child care rotates among the parents, and building-design work is done by the resident architect. A more eclectic group would be hard to find. Ages ranged from two months to 70 years, including singles, couples with and without children, elderly parents, and grandparents. Backgrounds and spiritual beliefs were just as diverse.

Alpha Farm is a cooperative corporation, and each member is a director in return for shares. After they join, members’ personal assets are held cooperatively, and if they leave, their assets can be withdrawn; all income is shared. The adult members head seven committees, rotating yearly. Alpha Coop manages overall business, finance, and planning; Alpha Growers supervises fields, orchards, and forests; Alpha-Bit manages the store; Alpha Enterprises looks after miscellaneous income-producing activities; Alpha Institute organizes consensus and facilitation workshops; Alpha Mail oversees a 300-household postal route; Alpha Household oversees the grounds, housekeeping and maintenance, and the cooking. Then there are several subcommittees, like the auto maintenance team and the shopping team. A very efficient operation. There are monthly business meetings, and spontaneous conferences are going on constantly.

But living at Alpha Farm involves a lot more than meetings. There is much camaraderie among the members as they work together, sharing good times, listening to each other’s problems, and solving disputes. Beyond the farm, the group helps organize local ecology projects and continental intentional communities gatherings; Alpha members serve on the board of the Foundation for Intentional Community — which publishes this Directory and provides many other network services.

The children seemed happy, carefree, and secure, and why not? They have each other and parents close by, and lots of “aunts and uncles and grandparents,” in a safe environment with plenty of space to run. There are horses, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, and cats — a complete farm.

Caroline and Jim Estes remain from the eight Philadelphians who founded the community in 1972. Caroline leads workshops on consensus decision making, a group process used by many intentional communities. Jim, a retired newspaper editor, has started a local newspaper, which he publishes himself.

Visitors are welcome by prearrangement, and then put in a day’s work like everyone else. Trial membership of a year is required before making a full commitment as a member.

In my brief stay at Alpha Farm, I was impressed with their industry and their care for each other and for the world beyond. As I helped in the kitchen and greenhouse, shared meals, toured the farm, and listened to their stories, I also realized that building a community takes real commitment and selflessness. While needs were satisfied and comforts were provided, material goods were not the highest priority at Alpha. I began to wonder about my own priorities. Could I give up my autonomy and my dependence on “things”?


Cerro Gordo Community

My next stop was just a couple of hours away. Cerro Gordo is located on about 1,150 acres of densely forested land that borders Lake Dorena, six miles south of Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Cerro Gordo’s description in the Directory sounded ideal for a quasi-new age mainstreamer like me: “an ecologically sound, human-scaled village for 2,500 people with homes, small businesses, and common facilities clustered in and around a pedestrian village. Bicycles or horses instead of cars. Homes privately owned, a community diverse and mutually supportive.”

I had made arrangements to stay the night at a Cerro Gordo bed and breakfast owned by a member of the community. It was a delightful place. A sign instructed me to leave my car on the main road. I parked and walked back through the moist woods on a well-worn path to the house. Owner Suzanne Huedner, who works in Cottage Grove, had arranged for me to let myself in that morning and meet Chris Canfield there for an interview. I was surprised to learn that Cerro Gordo had started 16 years ago. I saw only a few homes as I drove up the gravel road into the forested hills.

Chris explained briefly that soon after the land was purchased by the Cerro Gordo group, they encountered difficulties with Oregon’s land use laws. In short, everything pretty much stalled for about ten years. Inevitably, there has been controversy during the long wait. I would discover, as I went along, that none of the communities grew and prospered without seams and flaws in the fabric they’ve woven. Each had faced at least one major crisis of survival. But those individuals who carried on against the odds had forged the strong bonds of friendship that I was looking for. It appeared that Cerro Gordo was weathering the storm. Chris said that permits have finally come through, and plans can now move ahead. I spent the day driving and walking along the road, enjoying the pristine beauty of the landscape, and visiting with the newest resident, a woman from San Diego who just retired at 62. Her excitement and pride in her home, built in partnership with a couple who will share it with her later, was contagious. And hearing more of the Cerro Gordo story from Suzanne at the B&B later that evening brought it all to life.

Homes are built in small groups with names like Homestead Hamlet, Wellspring and Equestrian Cluster. Cerro Gordo had over 30 residents when I was there, but about 600 people are in various stages of involvement, Chris said. Gatherings in the summer and at Thanksgiving give seekers a chance to visit and meet each other and learn more about the community. The Cerro Gordo Town Forum publishes a newsletter, “a journal of symbiotic community,” in which members and supporters share ideas and news. It is a community being designed and built by its members even before they live there. A sizeable financial investment is required to make Cerro Gordo your home, but shared units are encouraged. Homes are privately owned, but the land and all common facilities are co-owned in a complex financial arrangement, which is currently being reorganized.


The Farm

I had put many miles on my new van by the time I pulled up to the Gatehouse at The Farm near Summertown in southern Tennessee. The Gatehouse appeared to be a visitor’s center, but it was locked and deserted. (I learned later that it would be opening soon for the summer season.) I had a letter with a name and phone number to call when I arrived. I drove on down the dusty road, passing houses and barns, and finally came to what appeared to be the center of the community. I peered in the open door of a low, wooden building where I heard voices and caught a whiff of the most delicious aroma known to humankind — fresh-baked bread. It was The Farm’s bakery. Near the bakery was the store, where community teenagers hang out after school. I called Marti from the phone at the store and she took me to Dale’s home, where I was to stay. Dale lived in a large mobile home with a greenhouse attached to the south side. She raised bedding plants for commercial nurseries. But her primary job was type and cover designer at the Book Publishing Company, one of The Farm’s many enterprises. Of all the communities I visited, The Farm was the only one I remembered hearing about back in the ’70s. My daughter had known one of the young hippies who joined Stephen Gaskin’s Caravan. Before founding The Farm, Gaskin, a former English professor at San Francisco State University, and 250 followers had toured the country looking for land.

They made the trip in 60 converted school buses, ending up in Tennessee on wooded farmland they bought collectively (now 1,750 acres). They lived in the buses and in tents while they cleared land and built houses, planted gardens and orchards and vineyards, and had babies. Nearly all in their twenties, some with children already, they were ready to save the world, Dale said. Harsh reality soon set in. As Ina Mae Gaskin, Stephen’s wife, related to me while we pulled weeds in her garden, all notions of “free love” quickly gave way to strict rules about marriage and responsibility.

I walked alone through the community the next day. Near most of the rustic, not particularly well-built houses, were the old, long-abandoned buses — partially hidden by trees and underbrush, ghostly reminders of those early days.

I found the clinic, a neat, modest frame building, and talked with the midwives while they ministered to pregnant women, most from outside the community. I heard about those heady years when the group of 250 swelled to nearly 1,500, 700 of them children. With the help of a local doctor, the midwife program expanded and gained respect nationwide.

Later, Dale told me about the idealistic passion that had inspired a food distribution program for poor countries called Plenty USA (now based in Davis, California), an ambulance service in the South Bronx, a team sent to provide earthquake relief and education in Guatemala, and satellite farms in other states. These young, city-bred pioneers learned how to grow their own food and preserve and can fruits and vegetables. Their innovative ways with soy products (and the recipe books they’ve published) have entered the mainstream and made tofu as American as apple pie. They built a solar school and became leaders in the alternative school movement.

But hard times came. Too many mouths to feed and too many hands in the till with too little control, The Farm women said, brought them to near starvation and bankruptcy. In 1983, the group reluctantly abandoned the communal structure and formed a cooperative corporation with a board of directors, requiring members to support themselves and pay monthly dues to continue common ownership of the land and houses. Many left heartbroken or bitter. But The Farm survived and grew strong again, with some of the members who left returning over the years. Today there are about 250 members — about the same size as in 1971 when The Farm was established, but with many grown children scattered around the country, some in their own communal groups.

Just before I left, Ina Mae showed me the site of Stephen’s newest project, a future community where those with special medical needs can live together and minister to each other. I left The Farm feeling richer for having shared briefly the lives of these remarkable communitarians.


Celo Land Trust

Celo, located near Burnsville, North Carolina, on about 1,100 acres, looked much like the other rural mountain communities in the southern Blue Ridge, which is to say, breathtakingly beautiful. There was a different feeling, though, probably related to Celo’s age as an intentional community. It began in 1937.

I met Ernest Morgan, son of the community founder, Arthur Morgan. At 89, Ernest is still active in the business and life of the community and the boarding school. And he is full of stories.

Celo is one of the oldest land trust communities in the country, he said. About 30 families live on the land, not in clusters, but far apart with an emphasis on privacy for each home. The members call their housing investments “holdings” (leaseholds). At monthly meetings, an elected board makes decisions about the land and its upkeep. Some members are employed at the school, the Celo Health Center, and the summer camp for children. All members are economically self-sufficient and diverse in every way.

However, this individualistic bent is offset by a number of cooperative activities: food co-op, crafts co-op, Celo Press, Quaker Meeting, and Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP — grassroots organizing for social justice). While these organizations were all created by Celo members, many participants are from outside the community.

It’s difficult to join Celo as a member nowadays. The holdings have been filled for many years. There are 17 families on a waiting list, according to Ernest. But Celo members offer their knowledge and encouragement to the communities movement in other ways. Like Alpha Farm, Celo supports the networking activities of the Foundation for Intentional Community.

My visit to Celo was planned to coincide with one of the semiannual board meetings of the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC), a gathering that Celo was hosting. The FIC meeting was the high point of the trip. I met about 20 people from communities of all kinds from around the country. Hearing about groups I wouldn’t be able to visit personally expanded my experience greatly. Among them were Twin Oaks, a communal group in Virginia that has been a leader in the movement for many years; Green Pastures Estate, an Emissary community in New Hampshire; Sandhill Farm, an organic farm in Missouri; new communities in North Carolina and the Virginia mountains; Harbin Hot Springs, a retreat center in California; and Dunmire Hollow, an activist community in Tennessee.

The FIC meeting gave me a chance to observe consensus decision making, which I’d been hearing so much about, in actual practice. During the three days of business meetings and late-night planning sessions, I became aware of key projects the FIC has taken on in addition to compiling and publishing the Communities Directory. The Fellowship organized a nationwide gathering of communitarians and seekers in August 1993 in Olympia, Washington. The group also publishes a membership newsletter and a quarterly magazine called Communities — Journal of Cooperative Living, operates a Speakers Bureau, makes referrals for consensus training and facilitation, and answers thousands of questions a year — from those seeking a home in intentional community, or information for a newspaper story, or technical data for academic research.


Shannon Farm

I left Celo feeling high on community and drove north for six or seven hours, up through the Shenandoah Valley. Crossing over the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a heavy rain, I arrived at Shannon Farm on the eastern slope of the mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia.

I settled in at the community group house, called Monacan, looking out to the river at the front of the property. Monacan is a central spot with a mail room and bulletin boards where Shannon folks do a lot of communicating. Reading the messages and comments gave me a vivid picture of the people who made Shannon their home. It was clear that their fierce eclecticism, expressed with vigor, also included respect and affection for each other.

The next day dawned clear and sunny. I strolled up the road past the new calf in the barn, and watched a horseback rider in the meadow near the little lake — beautiful against the mountain backdrop. Following a footpath through tall hardwoods and across a mountain pasture, I came upon a group of modern houses where my luncheon host lived. Corinne, 75, made a tasty meal for us, and showed me her solar home and the other homes in Mt. Ararat, her housing cluster. Then we toured each of the other housing clusters, with names like Another World, Honeycomb, Catbriar, and Wild-wood. As she told stories of the people at Shannon, including her own, I was reminded that it is people, not houses, that make up the community — though the houses are certainly tangible symbols of commitment to place.

Corinne chose Shannon as her home when she retired from her job in Washington, D.C., at 62. I found that her life had followed a pattern similar to my own. And there were others, like Julie, her husband Bob, and Maxine, all from California, who sought and found community in mid-life.

Shannon’s spectacular 520 acres in the Rockfish River Valley are over 70 percent wooded with spring-fed streams crisscrossing the property. The community was started by a group of social activists drawn together from the Northeastern region in 1974, but new members were recruited from across the continent. Now there are about 60 adults ranging in age from 18 to 75 and about 20 children (who, like the kids at Alpha, enjoy the benefits of country life and playmates) who occupy about 22 homes and several cabins. There are also three group houses, and farm and woodshop buildings. Most of the houses were built by Shannon labor.

Land, houses, and other buildings are owned by Shannon Farm Association, which is operated by a board of directors made up of full members. Business meetings are held monthly (the best time for visitors to come). Decisions are made by consensus. House-holders finance their houses, on which they hold long-term leases, which may be sold (without speculative gain) to other members or, at a discount, to Shannon Farm Association.

Shannon, unlike Celo, still has some limited room to grow. Provisional membership lasts at least six months to a year or more. Provisional members pay monthly dues of five percent of income after taxes ($30 minimum). Full members pay seven percent ($45 minimum). Most people have jobs off the land, but some work on the farm, at home, at various construction sites, or at Heartwood Design, a custom woodworking and cabinet shop with solar wood-drying kilns.

After a lively monthly meeting Saturday afternoon, many of the members gathered in one of the lovely backyards for a potluck supper. When I left Shannon early Sunday morning, I felt I was leaving friends, after only two-and-a-half days.


Arden Village

My last stop on the East Coast was the oldest community on my list. Arden — actually three adjoining settlements including Arden Town and Ardencroft — was established in 1900 when Frank Stephens, sculptor, and Will Price, architect, both of Philadelphia, bought 162 acres near Wilmington, Delaware, with the help of Joseph Fels, a wealthy soap manufacturer. All were disciples of Henry George, an economist whose “single tax” theory was popular at the time. The community demonstrates how a town can be operated successfully with George’s system of land taxation (structural improvements are not taxed). The people of Arden have always been devoted to art and the theater — especially Shakespeare — and to English architecture. As the community grew and prospered, it attracted many artists, writers, and political radicals, but curiously, not that many Georgists.

Today, Arden is still a charming collection of mostly English Tudor-style cottages (Price’s designs) ringing the “greens.” Carefully preserved woods and a sparkling stream insulate the community from the encroaching urban sprawl. Today, as throughout Arden’s history, about 60 artists and craftspeople live and work in the community. The theatrical tradition continues with productions at two rustic theaters. Arden has also kept alive its tradition of freethinking, outspoken people. Now, as then, Arden lease holders are not questioned about beliefs, origins, or religion.

Cy and Pat Liberman were my gracious guides in the three days I spent at Arden. They moved to Arden when they married in 1936. Cy retired as a newspaper reporter in 1975. Since then they have coauthored books on cooking crabs and sailing, and published a new edition of The Arden Book for new residents, which is delightful reading for anyone interested in utopian communities.

As I met and talked with the villagers, I found that nearly a century had not dimmed the community spirit in this enchanting place. Their newsletter and bulletin boards were loaded with announcements of activities of all sorts, such as the Ardensingers, the Library “Gild,” the Dinner Gild, the Gardeners Gild, the Music Gild — even the Table Tennis Gild. And on tap the following Saturday, Annual Woods Cleanup.

At the edge of Arden, the old stile still marks the entrance. Carved at the top in Old English are the words, “You Are Welcome Thither.” I had felt most welcome in Arden, and took my leave very reluctantly.


Muir Commons Cohousing

Back home in Fresno, California, I wanted to see Muir Commons in Davis, the first U.S. cohousing project to be completed. I was aware of the concept — a sort of condo-turned-community approach to multihousing, designed and built by the people who will live in it. My criteria had specified rural communities, but I kept hearing about cohousing everywhere I visited.

A friend, an urban planner, drove up with me to Davis. I had arranged to meet one of the Muir Commons residents, Paul Seif, at the common house. We found the street address, and felt a bit let down when we saw a double row of new housing units that looked no different than any other planned unit development in Fresno or Sacramento. But, when Paul began to show us through the common house and tell us about the other residents, we quickly realized that Muir Commons was indeed an intentional community, albei t in an urban setting.

Paul took us into the large dining room where Brian Dempsey was cooking dinner. The community shares 20 meals a month with the cooking rotated among the members — 44 adults and 23 children. They also share laundry equipment, tools, and a large garden in the common area between the two rows of housing units. In the common house are an exercise room, a teen room, a playroom and yard for young children, a leisure room with a fireplace, and a guest bedroom. A walkway connects the 26 units and central areas. All of this is designed to encourage gathering and socializing, quite the opposite of most contemporary multihousing, which protects privacy.

Paul described the two years of often-frustrating meetings as the cohousing group learned how to work together, planning and building their community. Like many other intentional communities, Muir Commons uses consensus in their monthly meetings. Paul said that group experiences with consensus have built trust and fostered an other-oriented emphasis, making community meetings more productive over time.

Later I talked to Kathryn McCamant. She and her husband Charles Durrett, both Berkeley architects, introduced the cohousing concept with their 1988 book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. The book was based on studies of such “living communities” in Denmark. A 1994 second edition has seven new chapters on North American cohousing.

Currently, Kathryn said, there are well over 100 cohousing groups in various stages of development in the United States, though most are still at the talking level. It seems to be an answer for baby boomers who yearn for community and some financial relief, but who need to be near urban centers to pursue their careers.

The cohousing contagion is evident even in the rural communities I visited. People at Cerro Gordo and Shannon were talking about a “cohousing cluster” within their communities.

This trend could be a new path for intentional community in the ’90s. Rural land is much more expensive and harder to find now, especially on the two coasts. Cohousing provides a compact way to build the spirit of community in our blighted cities, and a way to design housing to enable closer communication and sharing whether in the city or the country.

As for me, I’ve just begun to explore the meaning and reality of community. I found reassuring answers to the questions that prompted my journey. And while I continue to look for “my community,” I’ll be working harder to be a communitarian right where I am today.

About the Author

Vivian Taylor is features copy editor/writer with the Fresno Bee. In 1992 she set out to look for an intentional community compatible with her own lifestyle visions. In her travels, Vivian attended a gathering of the Foundation for Intentional Community which was meeting at Celo Land Trust in 1992. In that meeting, she spoke of her plans to report on intentional communities for the daily newspaper in her region. This story is from her news reports. Vivian has a son and a daughter, and enjoys painting, scultpure, and theater.


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