Dressed in shorts, sneakers and a large blue apron, David Dobkin is getting ready for a big meal. He is marinating a salmon, cooking greens and cutting bread. It’s Friday night, and as they do three times a week, Dobkin and his neighbors are about to have dinner together in the common area of their cohousing development on Sacramento Street.
Deborah Goldberg Gray, a single mother of two, is cooking with him while her 4-year-old son plays outside with a neighbor. As dinnertime approaches people stop by, asking if they can bring a guest, checking what’s on the menu, or simply greeting Dobkin, who is in charge of a common meal for the first time since his wife died of cancer a few months ago.
They are households who jointly own a property and are willing to live in a friendly and safe environment – that’s what cohousing is about.
“Cohousing is a social structure,” said Goldberg, a member of Berkeley’s cohousing since 1995. “It’s a support system that is a step away and anybody here can yell out their window and get somebody to help them… That’s maybe more the way neighborhoods used to be.”
Sometimes called “intentional neighborhood,” cohousing is a relatively new form of cooperative living. Born in Denmark in the 1960s, the concept was imported to the United States by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who published a book on the topic in 1988. Quite soon, the idea caught the public’s interest and led them to create the Berkeley-based Cohousing Company, a redevelopment company. All over the country the movement progressively grew into a wide network that now has about 60 completed cohousing communities and more than 100 projects in development. Members of the network meet for conferences every two years. This year, the conference will take place in Berkeley from July 20-23 and will celebrate the 10 years of cohousing communities in the United States.
Cohousing communities are entirely designed to encourage neighborliness. The houses are situated in clusters and face a common garden instead of the street. The cars are parked as far as possible from the residential area, and the development of the land is usually sustainable. Individuals own their homes, but share the common grounds and facilities, where they can gather socially. To participate in a cohousing project, members must pay an equity investment later credited toward the price of their house and be part of a development process that often requires numerous meetings.
Created in 1994, Berkeley’s cohousing perfectly illustrates the concept. In addition to a kitchen and dining room, the common house, a turn of the century farmhouse, hosts a guest room, a playroom for the children, a small office and a laundry room. This common house, residents say, is what makes the coexistence of the 30 individuals of all ages and backgrounds who live there, harmonious.
“There is a nice balance between being very sociable and having your own privacy. There are understandings about what’s common space and what’s private space,” said Juliet Lee, an anthropologist who recently moved in.
All the common activities, except for the meetings related to the management of the property, she added, are voluntary.
Still, for those who chose to live in cohousing, the social activities are precious moments.
“We celebrate all kinds of events in people’s life. It’s nice to share it all together,” said Nina Falk, the eldest resident. “We really pay attention to each other.”
Dobkin knows it better than anyone. The presence of his neighbors during his wife’s last months of life was critical to him.
“It helped us both. She didn’t have only me. There were a lot of people who came to take care of her,” he said.
The support of the cohousing residents, Dobkin said, allowed him to not quit his job and keep living a relatively regular life. People helped in many ways, some doing his laundry, other staying with his wife while he was out.
“Although it was very hard and stressful we did it all together,” he said. “I don’t know how people do it otherwise. I just can’t imagine.”
To register for the four-day cohousing conference, which will take place from Friday July 20, to Monday July 23, call (510) 486-2656. The conference features a tour of California’s cohousing communities, a workshop by architects McCamant and Durrett and a series of sessions looking at the first ten years of cohousing in the United States. The registration fee for all the conference events is $295, but there is a $150 special one day rate for people wanting to attend only Saturday’s event and a free open house on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information on the conference visit the web site: http://www.cohousing.org/conf/ca2001/