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Communal Living Sketches in Berkeley

Historical Essay

by Paula Jaramillo, 2015

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Lothlorien Co-op.

Artist: Alfred Twu

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This piece offers brief sketches of the rich history of communal living in Berkeley and the Bay Area highlighting current day examples to capture the wide range of forms and meanings that communal living holds. In many cases communal living was a way of resistance and survival- whether it was a way to break free from the rule of the landlord, politicize the domestic sphere, fight the economic downturns of the Great Depression, find alternatives to the marginalizing and exclusive housing market, battle against gentrification, envision a utopian ideal, or avoid alienation by creating a supportive community. Although people have been living communally for centuries, communal living gets marked as distinct and has received resistance in many forms. This process operates on certain stereotypes and amnesias, which is why I think it is so important to remember and retell our stories.

Picture a scene. Four sun-kissed, long-haired college students are hurriedly preparing a vegan, organic meal for their sixty housemates. Three of them are naked and the fourth is wearing a tie-dye shirt. Their conversations are swaying somewhere between calling out heteropatriarchy, the exorbitant length of their last house council meeting, the insurmountable amounts of pots that need to be washed, and their mushroom trip the night before.

There is a popular conception of communal living in Berkeley that paints a scene like this. And while spaces such as this do actually (still) exist in Berkeley, this conception misses so much of the rich history and the wide variety of forms and meanings that communal living holds. By offering a brief history of communal living and highlighting a few distinct contemporary examples in Berkeley, this essay seeks to illuminate these nuances and portray how markedly different, long-term communal living spaces exist today and the variety of challenges they face. Such an exploration helps reveal how ever-present communal living projects are around us, even though prevailing, individualist epistemologies often obscure our capacity to see them as such.

First, some foundational questions: what qualifies as communal living? Who lives communally? Where? Is communal living sharing equity and mortgage? Or must you share common space? What about sharing food? Income? What is the difference between a co-op, a commune, a co-house, and a co-living space?

Communal Living: Some Historical Context for the Principles and Practices

To begin with, there is no one single definition of communal living, and there is no one type of people that lives communally.

“Communal living” might feel like a recent trend to rising generations of communards, but the practice has existed in some way or another for hundreds of years everywhere on this planet. Ohlone people that lived on this land, known now as the city of Berkeley, held strong communal values and social organization. The fact that communal living gets marked as distinct in the contemporary United States, while it often is a tradition, necessity and goal, is an indication of the entrenched, individualist ethos and norms that are prevalent.

In a formal sense, the beginning of the cooperative movement is often attributed to the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England dating back to 1844. The principles of “cooperativism”, sometimes referred to as the Rochdale principles, included voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, and cooperation among co-operatives. Cooperativism was used as a way to endure the hardships and resist the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. These initiatives drew their inspiration from utopian socialists, like Robert Owen. Sprouting from England, they quickly travelled to the United States and eventually to the West Coast and Berkeley with the push of Manifest Destiny. The Rochdale principles continue to be used in many present-day cooperatives.

Communal living played an important part in the labor movement throughout the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Many saw the exploitation from landlords and the exploitation from bosses as part of the same struggle. Uniting and cooperating both in labor and housing was a way to retake control and assert self-determination. Furthermore, many unionized workers lived together which transformed the domestic sphere into an important political sphere useful for organizing. Some examples in the Bay Area include the Knights of Labor during the 1880s providing housing for striking workers in San Francisco and Oakland. Later on in 1960 the St. Francis Square Co-op was founded, a cooperative where leaders of the International Longshoremen Workers Union lived communally.

During the Great Depression, cooperatives sprung up as a way of self-help and survival by reducing costs and finding non-market alternatives. In general, policies from the New Deal were supportive of cooperative housing. It was during this time that student co-ops began to arise as students strained for resources were trying to cut costs on rent and food. The Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC) was started in 1933 with 14 students from UC Berkeley. The BSC now has over 1300 members and 20 properties. Although there are several reasons why people choose to live in the BSC, including its vibrant culture and social life, affordability remains at the core of the BSC’s mission, especially with rent and tuition rising at alarming rates.

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Cloyne Court (Facing away from the camera: Frank Kelley and Bob Reyes. Facing camera: Rick Spector and Terry Tarantino)

Cooperatives were also a form of resistance against discrimination in the housing market. For instance, during the late 19th century, women first began to enter college in significant numbers and starting living together communally because most housing was exclusively for males. By building cooperatives women made a space for independence in a patriarchal world. In Berkeley, the BSC had several all women cooperatives. The first one was Stebbins Hall in 1936. Another example is the Panther Houses, communal houses that provided for all the survival needs of activists in the Black Panther Party.

Things changed during the Cold War. Communal living suffered from red baiting. For example, the Unemployed Exchange Association (UXA) in Oakland was a self-help cooperative organized around reciprocity rather than money. At its peak, the UXA provided food, medical and dental benefits, auto repair and some housing to around 1,500 people.(1) In the fall 1932 the police “Red Squad”, who had received information that the UXA was led by “Communists,” raided their meeting and shut them down under the pretext that they were violating ordinances which prohibited the sale of food and clothing from the same store.

The rise of the anti-war and counterculture movement during the long Sixties pushed back against this conservatism, birthing a re-emergence of communal living experiments. There were more than 5,000 communes nationally during the late 1960-70s.(2) Young people all over the U.S. were searching for a better way to relate to the world and each other. They were highly influenced by radical philosophies stemming from the civil rights movement, student protests, and feminism.

The One World Family Commune

Several Berkeley communes experimented with creating utopian societies. In the context of a rise in communism and in Marxist discourse, several communes felt that they were practicing a true form of communism where there was a real life practice of total equality. Among these was the One World Family (OWF) commune that held a belief in extraterrestrial beings. Allen Michael, the “spiritual master,” founded the commune as a pilot model demonstration of how to live in a new world communal consciousness of sharing on all levels. Joseph Antaree, a member of the One World Family, described his experience in the commune as “revolutionary, transformative, enlightening, lightning, and fun.”(3) He viewed his participation as a way of “coming out of the status quo” because the status quo was proven “useless” only offering “war, crime, disease and poverty.”

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One World Family.

The OWF started in San Francisco in 1967 and arrived in Berkeley in 1969. The core group had about 35 adults and about 11 children, but it got as large as 110 people. They ran a vegetarian restaurant, a bakery, a pizzeria, a clothing store and a nightclub, in a building located in Telegraph that later became Amoeba Records, that served around 200-300 people a day. All of their money and resources were held in common and managed by everyone through family council meetings that were run by consensus. This process of decision-making, the work shift schedule (referred to as love services), the common bank account, and service were the core pillars of the commune. Everyone shared all the responsibilities according to ability and distributed the gains based on need.

OWF received considerable criticism, according to Antaree, for “being a cult.” To Antaree, this was a way for mainstream loyalists “to marginalize them.” Antaree stresses that it was “not easy to get people who were programmed into capitalism and secularism to make the shift to free giving and receiving”. The FBI regularly visited the commune. In one instance, Allen Michael was busted for marijuana, leading to a six-month sentence in jail.

The OFW never had enough capital to buy a property, leaving them at the mercy of the landlords. The houses they resided in Berkeley were, eventually, bought by the University Student’s Cooperative Association (which later became the BSC) in 1975. OFW was supposedly unable to pay its rent. After Michael’s death in 2010, the commune lost momentum. Nevertheless, Antaree believes their goal was never to grow into a large movement and felt that their mission on Earth was fulfilled.

Ratzlesnatch: An Example of A Limited Equity Housing Cooperative

For many, ownership of the property is a key aspect of cooperatives in order to avoid being at the mercy of the landlord. Limited equity housing cooperatives (LEHC) are one way of controlling land speculation and allowing working class and disadvantaged people to become homeowners. LEHCs operate with the same general cooperative principles, but is different in that if has restrictions on the income of the members and on the price the shares can be sold at. This is particularly meaningful in the Bay Area, where gentrification has been an enormous force of displacement. People who have worked all their lives, raised their families, and participated in the community have been kicked out from where they live due to skyrocketing land prices. LEHCs have been one way to resist that force and regain control from real estate. It is also a way to redistribute land to the public. A handful of people hold on to derelict empty lots or accumulate huge spaces and hoard lots of things they don’t need or use, while most people are struggling to survive. A study on LEHCs states that they benefit people with physical disabilities, elderly people, women, young adults, central city residents, Native America and/or Aboriginal peoples the most, since they face the most barriers to adequate affordable housing and are least likely to become homeowners.(4)

Jai Jai Noire, a member for Ratzlesnatch Limited Equity Housing Cooperative in Berkeley, claims that living there is “the best thing that ever happened to [her].”(5) As a politically active artist it would have been impossible for her to say in the Bay Area if it weren’t for her “really low rent.” “Creative people” she says “go to the worst part of town” and “clean it up” attracting people to the area. All of a sudden, “the land owners or landlords say ‘this is pretty good—you took that piece of crap that I had that no one wanted and you made it nice so here is a reward—I can make a lot of money from selling this building from under you or rent it to somebody who can pay more money.’” Historically, people could only vote if they owned land, thus land is intricately connected with political power. Democratic control of land, for Noire, is “the most important issue.” Another critical issue for LEHCs is money. It is very difficult for housing cooperatives to get loans and Noire believes this calls for a much more radical restructuring of the system.

Ratzlesnatch is a small LEHC of about 6 members. It was founded in 1977 and its name came from the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip and represented a place of refuge from the oppressive adult world. They share expenses, have workdays, make decisions through consensus and as Noire put it they “help each other out”. Noire found that living in a cooperative was a meaningful experience that produce a “sense of being valued” and “feeling security where you are” which produced a “huge change in your personality and your life”.

Regardless of all the economic, environmental, and social advantages of cooperatives, Noire feels like “if they end up making a big run, there is going to be a lot of propaganda against them just like there was against the Knights of Labor” because “the thing capitalism doesn’t want is for people to understand that they can make decisions for themselves, that they are capable of running their lives”.

During the Richard Nixon administration, cooperatives and communes were actively undermined and dismantled. This trend continued, via neoliberal political agendas, with Ronald Reagan, the Bush presidencies and Clinton. The notion of public housing is anathema and privatization rules the day. Naomi Klein, among many scholars, describes this era as an era of commitment to the “policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberal for corporations, and skeletal social spending.”(6) What distinguishes our era from the Cold War attacks on cooperative living is the prevalence of co-optation and absorption into the mainstream.

Co-Housing: Berkeley Co-Housing and Mariposa Grove

The popularity of “co-housing” as a middle class housing choice provides a good example. Co-housing refers to intentional communities composed of private homes and shared facilities. The residents own and manage the space and share activities like cooking, childcare, gardening among other things. It is much more appealing to the mainstream because it does not involve sharing income or living under the same roof. Co-Housing was born in Denmark in the 1970s, but was brought to the United States by two architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Duffet, in 1988.

The Co-Housing became big in Berkeley. Mary Carleton, a resident and founder of Berkeley Co Housing (officially called Strawberry Commons), feels that living in a co-house has been an integral part of her life.(7) Berkeley Co-Housing has 15 units and about 30 residents ranging from 6 months to 78 years old. They share dinners and have general and committee meetings to discuss how to manage their home. Hank Obermayer lives in a much smaller co-house with 4 buildings called Mariposa Grove and also feels like it has been central to his vision for a good life.(8) Mariposa Grove is located on the border between Oakland and Berkeley and has a mission specifically related to sustainability, arts, and social justice.

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Mariposa Grove.

For Obermayer, living communally allows the creation of a supportive family and instills values of empathy, compassion, compromise and patience; values that the competitive, individualist capitalist world undermines. Obermayer recalls feeling “alienated” growing up and feels that living in Mariposa Grove is about “having a place that can help us be connected to each other and to the land and earth”. Mary Carleton had a similar experience. She tells a story about a friend and community member passing away of cancer. They took care of each other, and a collection of people did the “core support and others did bits and pieces, like [her] household did the laundry”. She also thinks it is beautiful to celebrate together or just hang out. Every Monday night Berkeley Co-Housing has a physics group that watches astrophysics lectures together and eats dessert. The connections are intergenerational. Mary Zeller, one of the elder members, said she “did not want to live in senior housing, [she] wanted to live with children”. For Erica, Mary Carleton’s middle school daughter, having genuine relationships with adults is special and has allowed her to “not feel weird” when hanging out with adults. She also has several young neighbors to play with, which is very important to her, especially as an only child.

A challenge is that co-housing can also reproduce the status quo by making communal living more marketable and expensive. Although resource sharing saves money, co-housing often requires considerable expenses for customized construction with particular property rights. Berkeley Co-Housing and Mariposa Grove try to mitigate against these consequences on the broader system by being part of the Community Land Trust. The Community Land Trust creates restrictions on resale and income to eliminate land speculations and seeks to retain land affordability in a similar way to limited equity housing cooperatives do, but with a different housing model.

With the current rise of the tech industry, the “shared economy” has become the new trend. It refers to a collaborative model used in marketplaces that have led to the emergence of social lending, peer-to-peer accommodation, couch surfing, crowd funding, and also co-living housing, which an article in NPR refers to as the “modern commune.”(9) Both Noire and Obermayer expressed that to some degree it could be a positive thing because people are helping each other out and it probably deals with the alienation that many people feel. However, both also expressed fear and concern for what could lie ahead. Co-living can be marketed as a modern, trendy, hip, new thing which obscures its history and its counter-cultural ethos. Capital seeks profit from this model with corporations, buying buildings, and leasing them to people. Obermayer calls them “slum lords” in many ways. Noire also questions whether they even are cooperative households. For her, cooperatives mean that everyone owns a share of it and many of these new cooperatives function on a monthly lease. In cooperatives you also should have a board, but in many new cooperatives there is a management company. This not only creates additional expenses but also “dilutes the whole participatory democracy dimension,” according to Noire.

These sketches of communal living demonstrate how it has been a form of resistance and survival, whether it was a way to break free from the rule of the landlord, politicize the domestic sphere, fight the economic downturns of the Great Depression, find alternatives to the marginalizing and exclusive housing market, battle against gentrification, envision a utopian ideal, or avoid alienation by creating a supportive community. Communal living, as we’ve seen, is not perfect as is not a panacea. Nonetheless, we live in a world where the commons are vilified and seen as a tragedy and we have less and less opportunities to practice participatory democracy. Communal living challenges the single-family household as “the norm” and “the American dream.” In many ways the commodification of communal living operates on certain stereotypes and amnesias, which is why it is so important to remember and retell the many stories of communal living.

Notes

1. John Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, 1st edition (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2009).
2. Matthew Roth, “Communalism in San Francisco,” FoundSF, (n.d.).
3. Joseph Antaree, interview by Paula Jaramillo, May 4, 2015.
4. Susan Saegert and Lymari Benitez, “Limited Equity Housing: A Review of the Literature,” (pdf) City University of New York Graduate Center, June 2003.
5. Jai Jai Noire, interview by Paula Jaramillo, May 1, 2015.
6. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 1st edition (New York: Picador, 2008).
7. Mary Carleton, Mary Zeller, and Erica, interview by Paula Jaramillo, March 17, 2015.
8. Hank Obermayer, interview by Paula Jaramillo, April 30, 2015.
9. Elise Hu Facebook Twitter Tumblr Pinterest Instagram, “Bay Area’s Steep Housing Costs Spark Return To Communal Living,” NPR.org, accessed March 6, 2015.