Just Don't Call Them Communes
Intentional communities are enjoying a modest rebirth, as escapes from consumer capitalism in modern utopias at a livable scale.
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Today we’ve got reality TV stars and struggling actors dressed in superhero costumes, but in the early 1970s, even stranger, more exotic creatures roamed the boulevards of Hollywood: the 100-plus members of The Source Family, led by a man named Father Yod, who made their home on a spiritual commune in a mansion in the Hills. Dressed in flowing robes, the commune’s Aquarian beauties floated down to the Strip to go work at The Source, the popular vegetarian restaurant—frequented by John Lennon and Julie Christie—that supported their lifestyle.\n
The Source was just one among tens of thousands of communes that sprouted across the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. Like The Source, some were organized around a charismatic leader; others worshiped the land. Some supported themselves making crafts or growing mushrooms; still others were united by their radical politics or unconventional ideas about relationships. Many, however, were less a part of a freaky fringe movement than a viable alternative lifestyle that your aunt or neighbor might have considered. But sometime around the middle of the Me Decade, the term “commune” stopped signifying youthful idealism, free love, and fresh vegetables, and began to evoke visions of squalor, rancor, and small children dosed with acid.
Many, however, were less a part of a freaky fringe movement than a viable alternative lifestyle that your aunt or neighbor might have considered.\n
Jodi Wille, director of a forthcoming documentary about The Source Family and co-publisher of The Modern Utopian, a collection of writings from counterculture chronicler Richard Fairfield’s eponymous commune magazine, believes this shift in perception was at least partially orchestrated. “Corporate media from the ’70s, likely threatened by the thriving countercultural movement, diminished communes as failed experiments by pie-in-the-sky hippies,” she says. “In fact, communes were powerful cultural incubators. The progressive, holistic ideals planted in the minds of thousands of young people gave birth to some of the most widespread sustainability movements of today, including organic and slow food, mind/body/spirit culture, eco-housing, and new technologies.”
Today, as Americans who feel discarded by the system recognize the power of pooling resources and living sustainably, communal living is on the rise. And while their numbers are significantly smaller now, this surely has more to do with stringent zoning restrictions (which didn’t exist in the 1960s) than the inability of humans to live harmoniously in community. Of the 265 California groups registered with the Intentional Communities Directory (more than all of the groups registered in Canada and Australia combined), about a third are categorized as “forming.” Unlike their predecessors, who often “dropped out” in remote rural areas, today’s intentional communities (most reject the term commune) are blossoming in urban centers. This trend makes particular sense in a city like Los Angeles, where so many feel alienated by its widespread geography, car- and mall-dependent culture, and the pervasive entertainment industry.
Visits to a handful of L.A.’s thriving intentional communities reveal refreshingly diverse groups of people united by one thing: the desire to create their version of a modern utopia now.
“For me, collaboration is a lifestyle choice,” says Dena Plotkin, the de facto den mother of Sugar Shack, a rambling blue house where Plotkin has lived with her two children and a revolving cast of around 9 housemates since 2001. Of the 12 people (and 10 cats) who moved to Victoria Park (near Mid-City) en masse from San Francisco, Plotkin and her kids are the only original residents who remain. The purchase of the 7,000-square-foot home and its adjacent warehouse was made possible by a loan from her parents. “I think they see it as their philanthropy,” smiles Plotkin, a psychotherapist and collaborative strategist whose work space is in the warehouse alongside 15 community members, about half of whom are residents, including two jewelers and a documentary filmmaker. Sugar Shack has a shared bank account for bills, but an even more crucial currency here is energy. “It’s important to have as many people as possible utilizing the space,” Plotkin says. “Then there’s energy being put into it that you get back.”
The spark that ignited Tribal Oasis was lit—as is the case for many who gravitate toward communal living—at Burning Man, where groups work together to express a singular vision while also contributing to the larger community. Thinking it would be “cool if we could live like that year-round,” founder Dlight was investigating urban spaces when he happened upon a Craigslist ad for what he accurately describes as a “little European fairy village” tucked into 13 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, with two streams and 15 varieties of native edible plants. In 2005 Dlight and three others bought the property, which includes a century-old stone house where most of the group’s cooking is done. No one is sure exactly how many people live here now, but best guess is around 15. Everybody has his or her own space, whether it’s a tepee or a bungalow, and, befitting any modern commune, the whole place is wired.
Residents are in the process of taking the site off the grid, with solar power and solar heating systems, looking toward the long-term goal of becoming a healing center like the Esalen Institute, a spiritual and creative hub in Big Sur, California. There are live food dinners on Friday nights courtesy of Casey, a resident who’s just returned from Peru with a trove of seeds and plant knowledge, and Dlight leads primal therapy sessions in a Mongolian yurt. Kelly, who moved to Tribal Oasis with her partner and daughter last November, says that the previous owner, an artist, “must have made a deal with the fairies, because it’s still magical here.”
“Who’s been telling us that this is not allowed—that this is some failed ’60s experiment?”\n
When 12 college friends (10 of whom attended Azusa Pacific University) had a “vision of living in community,” they were lucky enough to find a landlord who shared their dream. Now, in addition to the Synchronicity House, a nine-bedroom Craftsman in West Adams, their community includes a handful of other residences along the same block, housing a total of 30 people all under 30 years old. The group’s stated focus is “generating community through hospitality, intentionality, artistic action, and a dedication to the reduction of harm.” Among Synchronicity’s ranks are a student teacher, a nurse, an aide for adults with disabilities, a graphic designer whose clients include the South Central Farm, and a videographer for Tom’s Shoes. Chores are done on the honor system (slackers must tackle the inevitable pile of weekend dishes), $100 a month covers food and utilities, and the door is seldom closed. The public is invited to community dinners held every Monday through Thursday, as well as twice-monthly music salons. Gesturing to the friends lining up for sweet-potato tacos, Alex, the evening’s cook, asks rhetorically, “Who’s been telling us that this is not allowed—that this is some failed ’60s experiment?”
VENICE VIBE TRIBE\n
“More with less” is the credo of Bobby Israel, the founder and manager of the three Westside properties that fall under the Venice Vibe Tribe umbrella. There’s Penmar, a hostel-style community by the beach; the 12-person Yoga House, which boasts a large dome made of bamboo and reclaimed gymnasium floors; and the most recent addition, Permaculture House, situated on a triple lot that was once part of a race track in Mar Vista. Walking through the abundant citrus groves with his project manager, Willy, and some of the residents who are helping to revitalize the soil for farming, Israel talks of his plan to create a “blueprint” for other urban-farm communities. A minimum five-hour-per-week work commitment is expected here, as is participation in projects like composting and gray-water workshops, and planting community gardens. Permaculture House will soon become a drop-off spot for the local CSA, and it will be a supplier too, once crops start growing. Israel notes that this “tribe” is just one facet of the larger tribe of intentional communities, all of which can support each other. “The more there are and the stronger they are, the better we are,” he says.
Although a genuine renaissance is still inhibited by zoning restrictions and social hostility—as the author and commune scholar Timothy Miller notes, intentional communities are “completely contrary to capitalism”—there are small hopeful signs, like the rising popularity of (far less threatening) senior co-housing developments. And as the collapsing economy makes the sharing of resources more necessary than ever, Sugar Shack’s Dena Plotkin believes that city officials are beginning to see the benefits of having an urban collective in a foundering district. “They see it as a way to revitalize the neighborhood,” she says. Indeed, each of the L.A. communities mentioned above is committed to being a force for good in their neighborhood—whether that means organizing block parties and cooking for 200 guests, joining with the local farmers market, participating in community board meetings, or taking succulents from their front yard to beautify a traffic island.
Now, if they could just figure out a way to get those dishes done.
Photos by Jodi Wille\n