About the House: Living Together, Forming Intentional Communities

By Matt Cantor
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:53:00 AM
Kathy and Val in the kitchen of Brigid House on 10th Street.
Matt Cantor
Kathy and Val in the kitchen of Brigid House on 10th Street.

I am unashamed to call myself a hippie. Though the phrase is still used in the pejorative by many and filled with untoward connotations for some, I choose to remain firmly camped among those who eschew the commonplace, dismal and colorless. I am not opposed to tattoos, public nudity or whole wheat pastry flour. Further, I would argue that, day-by-day, we are winning the war against the opposition. True, things don’t always look good for our side, but I remain hopeful. Heck, we elected a black president, and if you don’t think hippies are responsible for that, you may have taken some of the bad acid. 

So, as a representative for the hippie tribe (self-appointed, as is always the hippie way), I come to you to talk about how our people live. That being communally, usually in large, old houses with kitchens full of bulk-bought beans (some from the late ’80s) stored in variously sized canning jars alongside stacked boxes of herbal teas of all Zinging and non-Zinging orientations. 

All levity aside, there are very good reasons to live communally from the micro to the mega in impact, not the least of which is that living as we do—increasingly in this first world of ours—is lonely. Aside from the mega-environmental impact of living in single-family houses of 2,000-4,000 square feet as individuals and small families do, to a large extent in this country, there is the simple matter of people becoming more and more disconnected from one another.  

Val McHugh is a lovely and potent example of someone who saw, early on, that conventional nuclear family arrangements were not for her. Val, a San Franciscan from a relatively conservative Irish- Catholic San Francisco family (firefighters all around) matriculated to San Francisco State in the summer of love (1967 for the age-impaired) and got her mind blown by all the happenings there, including a student revolt by the Third World Liberation Front. Steven Gaskin, founder of THE FARM in Tennessee, another important experiment in communal living, was another student there at the time as was S. I. Hayakawa (later, Senator Hayakawa), who, though a brilliant teacher in semantics, was no friend of the hippies. 

Val, actually Shelly at that time, joined a communal-living experiment called Keris-ta in San Francisco shortly after college. This was her first foray into group living and, although it would not model all of her preferences for group living, it gave her a happy taste of living with a group of people, sharing food and warm company, which would guide her choices for the next three decades. It also gave her a name, Val (short for Valiant, Altruistic Love). One of the things this particular intentional community did was to leave old names behind (with old behaviors and beliefs, one might posit).  

Just to be extra clear, Val is a highly educated, hard-working executive who directs a part of a large organization for the care of developmentally disabled adults. I think it’s a common misconception that those who choose to live communally are either under-employed or simply stoned all day. The only difference that I can perceive in this population is that they represent those who have identified certain specific objectives for their lives and lifestyles, which do not align well with nuclear family or solitary living, and have sought out and joined others in what some might call alternative households.  

For Val, this was not, at least initially, an easy road. Val and a group of friends started out renting communal houses and building their bylaws, practices and community from the mid-1970s, but every time they got things cozy and copacetic, the landlord would sell the house and boot them out. Val remembers this as a time in which landlords were making big bucks selling these houses as the market climbed rapidly, and a time when it became increasing apparent that owning their own home would make a lot more sense. After the fifth house was sold out from under this nearly intact original group, Val and her five cohorts found and bought Brigid House on 10th Street in Berkeley. This was 25 years ago this February, and they paid (just shoot yourself now) $139,000 for this huge house. 

While all but one have gone from the original six (one left but came back), the longevity of this household’s membership has been surprisingly stable. Val has done the full 25, another has done 20 and yet another was present for 13 years. Over the entire period there have been only 42 members in a seven-room house. Val estimates that the average stay has been close to two years, but clearly, there’s great range in longevity and this is one of the things she likes. Brigid House’s documented Values and Guiding Principles provide a blueprint of housemate selection and daily life. While this might seem overly structured to some, it serves to evince the case that these seeming rebels have very clear notions of how to make their life satisfying. When I asked Val, near the end of our interview how she viewed the success of Brigid House and whether she would do it all again, this huge smile peeled across her face. Yes, she said, she’d do it all again, and her life here was very good. 

This list of Values and Guiding Principles is so good that I’d like to list them for you. They are: caring and respectful cooperative living; consensus decision-making: shared responsibility; cleaning up after yourself (how many of you nuclear family members are having success with this one); open communication; non-violence; sound ecological practices; continuity; quality time commitment to the collective (again, how is your family doing with this?); freedom from substance abuse; consideration of others’ needs and wants (again, your family?); non-oppressive relationships with one another and the world (and after dinner, nuclear disarmament—sorry, couldn’t help myself). 

Yes, much of this seems very high minded and out of reach but, hey, what a great trajectory. Aim high and see how well you do. 

Much of Brigid House’s success is clearly the result of a long and well codified interview and induction process. Nobody moves in simply because it’s cheap (which it is). The interviewing process can take months and, once a new member has been accepted, a three-month probation follows in which the new member can be asked to leave. Val says that this has been extremely rare precisely because the interviewing process is so thorough.  

An ad, Val shared with me was half-a- page long and detailed their environs, habits and requirements in great detail. No smoking, no meat (as part of collective meals, though a pork chop on your own is just fine). Do your chores. Turn off the music at 10. Cook your meal when it’s time (everyone cooks twice a month). And, most of all, show for an hour-long meeting once a week. This last detail is probably the core of successful group living.  

See, the thing is these people don’t just share a house. They live together. I’ll repeat that phrase I tossed off earlier since it’s so apt: intentional community. When I first heard this term, it smacked of hippie-speak, and though I am an avowed hippie, even we can hear ourselves when we get jargonny. But, this really is what it’s all about (and the Hokey Pokey, of course). Marriage is intentional community when it works and so is Family. Intentional community is how we talk about those same values when we break them out of the conventional community.  

So, again, weekly house meetings are how they make this thing work. It’s where conflicts get aired out, where small matters get dealt with before they become sources of dissent or irritation. It’s where each member is reminded of why they joined the group and where everyone’s weekly needs (loneliness, anger over the boxes on the stairs, fear of the new person) can get addressed and the group renewed. 

While I’m not hear to say that communal living is right for everyone, I believe that it may be right for a much larger population than is currently even aware of how functional and viable this has become over the last 30 years. Val and her close friend of many year, Kathy (who formed and lives in a limited equity housing cooperative that I wrote about in recent years) could cite a dozen other household like Brigid in the immediate area. For older persons, for those who have been divorced, for those who would rather have more company and cheer in their daily lives, this might make a lot of sense. 

I’d like to close with some of Val’s words because they’re so pleasing and also because they speak from experience: 

“Having supportive relationships in my home life has been invaluable, and I cherish the friends I have made in this home. What I have learned is that communication and seeking connection is so vital in establishing and maintaining clear expectations … I know that longtime members extending time and a listening ear to the newer person helps create common ground. The sweet spot also comes from newer people accepting and trusting that the process unfolds gradually as you weave your life with others who have lived a long time in their home. Each member can question a norm and reform some part of the long- time customs or agreements. It takes quality time, and that’s why investing in communal living is such a profound and vital lifestyle that I am glad to share.”