Commentary: An Alum of Le Chateau Reflects On the Passing of A Rowdy Berkeley Co-Op By PATRICIA JOHNSONPacific News Service
We got lice. We got staph. We were temporarily brainwashed by an amateur cult leader. We paid our own way, took semesters off to travel and took in homeless veterans. We learned that, sadly, sometimes things do need to get worse before they get better.
With the closing of Le Chateau Residence Club, a student co-op on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus, I can’t help but feel fewer and fewer institutions remain for idealist college students. It was at Le Chateau where my cohorts and I got early tra ining in tempering our idealism—an important step away from quashing it. We learned that consensus doesn’t really work. But neither does anything else if you don’t try.
The current neighbors, who successfully sued the co-op for damages resulting from noise, garbage and disruptive behavior and forced its closure, don’t want to know that the shaping of community leaders and good neighbors has been happening right under their noses.
In the early 1990s, when I lived in the three-house complex on Berkeley’s Hillegass Avenue, we weren’t shameless hippies and slackers—we were working it out. In a culture where middle-class, college-aged youth are expected to move far from home and achieve great things, self-sufficiency is top dollar. We were not ready to succumb to a decade of segregated apartment living, but neither could we get comfy in the ennui of towering dormitories.
We chose, instead, a living arrangement based on the principles of cooperation established by a group of weavers in Rochdale, England, in 1844. Those same principles have been adopted by thousands of residential, food and industry co-ops across the world.
We were drama geeks, bicycle activists, former Marine doctors, Vietnamese boat children and The Naked Guy. Today, we are midwives, t eachers, musicians, therapists and candidates in local elections. We work in affordable housing, pursue Ph.D.s in literature and film. We compost our garbage and drive biodiesel-fueled cars. We did work it out.
I remember a morning when The Naked Guy qu ietly walked into the dining room and delicately put a small towel down on his chair before joining me for breakfast and a section of the newspaper.
I remember how clean the house would be right before a big party—as everyone (well, almost everyone) chipped in to create the zone.
I also remember the summer one resident adopted a runt pig named Bella that roamed the main house second floor. In a moment of poor judgment, the resident fed her magic mushrooms. Bella stumbled, snorting and scared, past my room, tripping out on the graffiti-covered walls that will be painted over this summer.
Talking to current residents on a recent Saturday night, along with 25 or so alumni who joined together to watch the Last Chateau Sunset from the rooftop patio, I tr ied to find out what went wrong. “Was there really a meth lab in the basement?” I asked. Instead of confirming my worst fears—that the current generation was somehow louder, dirtier and less cooperative than us—these 20-somethings sounded a lot like me. T hey spoke passionately about the impact Le Chateau had on their worldview and their aspirations. They articulated clearly the Bay Area’s housing price crisis, conflicts between the co-op and its parent University Students Co-operative Association, and the ir own commitment to the house despite its problems.
The noise and detritus that emanate from Le Chateau’s grounds hide the important work going on among and between and inside its residents. As one fellow alum on the rooftop said, “It was at Chateau th at I learned to get along with people I can’t stand.” If only the neighbors had learned that lesson when they were in college.
Watching the light fade from the same roof where we had watched fires devastate the Oakland Hills in 1992, I was reminded of s ome important Chateau vocabulary. After a long, unsuccessful attempt to negotiate installation of a backyard hot tub, “Let’s hot tub it” became synonymous with postponing a difficult issue to a later meeting. I guess the house hot-tubbed one issue too man y with the neighbors.
Still, I wonder what these homeowners expected when they bought property next to a student housing complex, four blocks from a public university and political hotbed People’s Park. Quiet neighbors? Next-door role models and reliabl e babysitters for their growing children? Surely they knew they were buying homes already discounted for location. Do they now get to change the neighborhood to increase their financial return?
The answer seems to be yes—and Chateauvians suddenly know what gentrification feels like.
The USCA has 17 co-ops still standing in Berkeley. The University of Michigan has an extensive co-op system, and in New Haven, Conn., a small, independent co-op on Elm Street is named proudly after the Rochdale principles. I hope these institutions and their peers can escape the fate of sky-rocketing property values and encroaching yuppie neighbors eager to live in hip college commercial districts with cafes and used bookstores.
At Le Chateau we prided ourselves on feeling like we were on the cutting edge of something new. As the house’s doors are closed to undergraduates, scrubbed and re-opened for studious graduate students under a less majestic name, this time I hope we’re not.
Patricia Johnson lived in Le Chateau Residence Club from 1993 to 1995.i›