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.
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.”

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