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How a Former Mill Became an Intentional Community Mister Rogers Would Love

On and off for the past 12 years, I have been living in an intentional artist community in a converted former mill space in Providence, Rhode Island. As anyone who has ever been to visit us here will attest, it’s a special place, mostly because of the organic sense of community that has arisen here over time. We’re in the middle of the city, but located in a primarily industrial neighborhood—with a strip club or two thrown in for good measure. Some of our neighborly self-sufficiency is by necessity—there just aren’t a ton of other folks walking the streets (at the hours I’m awake anyways) to strike up a conversation with. Since the only corner store is a dinky 7-11, if you need something, it’s probably a lot easier to knock on the door next to yours then to hop in your car or on your bike to go get it (herein I put forth the laziness-breeds-community theory.)

A native New Yorker who thrived off of the energy of my city growing up, I worried in my early adult life that living anywhere else wouldn’t provide me with the same level of stimulation and satisfaction. Yet the things I’ve discovered in these past 12 years have been in some ways revolutionary: sparks of brilliance I’ve felt while working on insanely ambitious creative collaborations, the overall sense of belonging, the understanding that experiences don’t need to come prepackaged and ready-made in the shape of someone else’s desires in order to be fulfilling.

In our community, it’s about watching each others children, feeding each other’s pets, watering each other’s plants; it’s about borrowing eggs, milk, sugar, batteries, skills and tools; it’s about putting on crazy costumes and having roving dance parties or progressive dinners that move from space to space; it’s about throwing bonfire parties every time there’s a big snowstorm or pulling on our boots and splashing in the muck while we ready sandbags for the occasional flood; it’s about the summertime barbecues where we bring out the contents of our fridges to throw on the grill, our feet cooling in a kiddie pool; it’s about an annual Yankee Swaps with ridiculous homemade gifts; it’s about walking your dog or going to get your mail and running into six people you know and stopping to have six conversations. Do all these things take time? Sure they do. Once in a while would you rather be invisible or anonymous? Absolutely. But overall, the sense of well being, of being held by your community, borne up, supported, known, far outweighs any negatives. It’s one of the deepest human desires to have confirmation of this statement: “you are not alone”—something we know here to be inherently true.

In my professional life at the moment, I produce and co-edit Outpost Journal, an annual arts publication that seeks out communities of artists and activists engaged in similar kinds of work and play in other smaller size cities. It is our belief that many of those working in these creative “Outposts” are developing the foundations of a more connected, hands-on creative future, the shape of which we can just begin to glimpse. In the face of economic and environmental weirding, we feel it is imperative to record and validate these stories of the communities that form at the intersection of grassroots social and environmental activism, urban development and the arts.

From our travels to places like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Kansas City, we have confirmation that this movement is not only thriving but gaining speed—it’s alive in projects like the community-bridging Waffle Shop in Pittsburgh, in a national printmaking collective called Justseeds that focuses on social justice, in an incredible house of art and magic in Baltimore called Tarantula Hill, in Kansas City’s Whoop Dee Doo performance troupe. All are part of a growing movement that is as much about being neighborly as it is about finding beauty in the underappreciated, creating surprising pairings in hybrid spaces, developing new models for access to creative practice, reinventing old media forms using modern aesthetics and technologies, and redefining a previous generation’s idea of success.

To be sure, back home, things are changing. Even our community of progressive artists has not proven immune to the call of the suburban—better schools, more access to green space, more room for expanding families—it is happening here too, as friend after friend packs up their beautiful, colorful life and plops it down again in more “adult” pastures. Still, what we’ve forged here continues on, as new people take the place of the old, and for the old, we adapt to a new definition of proximity. While in Pittsburgh, we commissioned local artist Alicia Kachmar to create a red zippered cardigan for an 11-ft statue of the city’s hometown hero, that consummate neighbor, Mr. Rogers. As the great man himself once said: "The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that's what heaven is."

An official Neighborday is a great way to begin but it is nowhere to end. Being a neighbor is not something that can get turned off once it has truly been turned on, it is entering into a state of relation that will sustain, nourish, complicate, enrich, annoy, buoy, and can ultimately even transcend. So what are you waiting for?

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.

images courtesy of Stephanie Ewens


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