Utopia: It’s not happening

CNN did a curious piece partially about Twin Oaks recently. It was odd because it did a fairly good job of representing the commune in the text portion of the story, much better than ABC Nightline did, but it mixed in a video about the San Francisco Co-Living movement.

The article is called: Utopia: It’s Complicated – Inside Vintage and New Age Communities. We are clearly the vintage part.

Vintage looks dapper

Vintage looks dapper

Taking this apart a bit, let’s consider the clever title. Utopia is a slightly charged and especially foolish word to use when describing a real life living situation. We are not perfect, nor appropriate for everyone. We never claim to be, though academics and the media love to throw that label on us. What we do claim is that our living situation is far better than most and some (including myself) claim that on a good day, we can see utopia from here.

Don't be fooled by signs

Don’t be fooled by signs

But this is a detail, really. What is more peculiar is lumping contemporary “co-living” spaces with income sharing communities like Twin Oaks. It is something like grouping tug boats with hover crafts.

tugboats and hover crafts

Both on water, then the similarity stops

In both circumstances there are people living together and sharing things and selecting each other (this is my definition for intentional community.) But if the affluent residents of co-living circumstances are disagreeing about maid service, it is about how often it is necessary. Maid service is inconceivable to most income sharing communes, not just because we don’t think we can afford it, but because we feel responsible for cleaning up our own messes.

As GPaul points out in “We are not selling a product,” the differences only start here. Co-living replicates the landlord/tenant dynamic, FEC communities largely own their own properties which are land trusts. Think corporate hover craft and co-op tug boat. Sharing income means you need to listen to those you live with about what their needs are and the survival of the community depends on trust building. Sharing an expensive group house means you stay until you have a serious fight with someone living there, are bored, or find a better offer and you are constantly on the look out for that offer.

Not the good life without kids and elders

Not the good life without kids and elders

None of the co-living situations I have seen or read about have children. Mostly what we see is twenty-somethings appearing to live the good life. Nothing wrong with that, but for me the good life is multi-generational.

So there is no utopia.  And the differences between different approaches to the better life are significant.  I am glad CNN got so much right about us.  I am sad that they decided our neighbors in building a better world were mostly affluent people who are likely making gentrification worse.

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

14 responses to “Utopia: It’s not happening”

  1. Rachelle says :

    I thrived in a co-housing community for several years after leaving Twin Oaks after less than 2 years. At no point during my co-housing time did I make over $12K per year, I had no health insurance, my car was used and I paid for every repair, I could barely afford to visit my family in MS more than once a year (and it was TOUGH), and I was completely independent financially. When I lived at Twin Oaks I didn’t have to worry about new brakes and oil changes, I got my ACL reconstructed for free with 8 weeks of physical therapy followups, I also flew to Mississippi 3 times in one year to visit my family. Some people in our co-housing community could afford maid services, but that was never my business, and that’s what I loved about co-housing. My world was mine once I walked onto my lawn, even more so once I closed my front door. Financial independence in cooperative living really did allow me to enjoy my community, instead of worrying so much about what the next person had or had not done to support “us” (ick). Affluence isn’t just about money and Twin Oaks would do well to realize how privileged and middle class of a lifestyle it actually affords a person.

    • paxus says :

      As we discussed, this is co-housing, not to be confused with co-living. Possibly there are low end co-living operations, i just have not seen them yet.

      • Rachelle says :

        Yeah the Facebook comments clarified that for me. Feel free to delete my original comment since it’s irrelevant.

      • Lindsey Hoffman says :

        Do you see any differences between this “co-living” thing and housing co-ops, though? Because housing co-ops really do operate at all income levels.

  2. richard w. lisko says :

    did she say middle class? when i want to put someone down i might refer to them as nice middle class. twin oaks is not middle class.

    • Rachelle says :

      Keep in mind that while folks at Twin Oaks might be wearing second hand clothes and sleeping on homemade bed frames, they are doing so in solar powered homes after eating a dinner of local organic food, on land that is completely paid for and mortgage free. Twin Oaks just posted to facebook that they purchased a new solar array for the courtyard – so if a solar array for the average home costs a few thousand dollars to install, how much do you think that cost for the 4 buildings in the courtyard? Do you think a poor person can afford that? An actual poor person living in real austerity doesn’t have a fleet of vehicles to drive at anytime they please w/o having to worry about gas and upkeep, they don’t have a walk-in fridge and pantry full of organic grains and gluten-free options, and they don’t have indigent health care while working for businesses with combined profits in the 6 figure range. I think that most of the people who move to Twin Oaks come from very privileged backgrounds so yeah it looks crummy compared to mommy and daddy’s house, but it is ABSOLUTELY a middle class existence. I think that the people who live at TO and in similar style communities don’t want to be considered middle class (you use that as an insult but I think you could do better), and that makes me sad because denial leads to some crazy shit and prevents those that actually need assistance from receiving it. I think that what makes TO feel as though it’s not a middle class existence is just the grimy-ness of living in a rural place, but when I got a sinus infection and was able to get locally made herbal tinctures to cure myself with instead of an antibiotic, then I went for a long soak in the double tub before having a dinner of farm chicken soup, I knew I was living a lifestyle that was charmed, special, and inaccessible to most average people. That’s called privilege. Middle class privilege. And being middle class and privileged but not wanting to admit that you are middle class and privileged is actually hella middle class.

  3. danceeternal says :

    Is coliving different from cooperative houses? Because that’s what it sounds like to me. I know bunches of kids growing up in such environments, I also grew up in such an environment. Can you elaborate on your comment above about not having seen low end co-living operations? Isn’t that what most punk houses/squats are?

  4. Tree Bressen says :

    Yadda, yadda . . . When cohousing started a bunch of people in FIC said it wasn’t real community, and i worked to build bridges and convince them otherwise. Is a student co-op an IC, given that tenure is time-limited? Is a land trust an IC, when its members might only gather once a month for a potluck and otherwise barely see each other? I’m of the big-tent philosophy. Let’s welcome whoever we have any common cause with, heck let’s invite their affluent resources and business skills into the movement!

    When the community i helped found converted to co-op ownership in 2000, we could not get a bank loan, and lack of available insurance almost broke the deal as well. Now it’s 2015 and not much has changed. FEC communes don’t, on the whole, tend to attract entrepreneurs (the few lovely exceptions noted), and these co-living spaces do–can we convince them to create “business products” to serve our “market niche”? 😉

    In learning more about coliving after reading this blog entry, i enjoyed reading this article:
    http://www.fastcompany.com/3047475/six-months-inside-a-co-living-house-silicon-valleys-answer-to-urban-housing-problems

  5. Jessica Ravitz says :

    Hello… Someone forwarded to me a link to this piece. I’m the CNN reporter who visited and wrote about Twin Oaks, and I so much appreciated being there and meeting so many of you. When I pitched the story, I specifically said that I would be writing a piece to go with a video someone else had created. A video guy had gone out to do a piece on these “modern communes.” I was then asked to come up with a written story. I had no interest in visiting the places he saw, so I proposed the idea of writing about a place on the other end of the spectrum — and that’s what brought me to Twin Oaks. Our intention was to give glimpses into different worlds, and while I can see what your gripe is with lumping them together, I hope this helps explain why we did what we did. Wishing you all good things…

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Jessica:

      Thanks for your comment. Dont get me wrong. Getting most of the facts right is much more important than clustering us with different kinds of communities.

      i am glad you came o visit us. Thanks for your story

  6. Lindsey Hoffman says :

    I totally agree that the way the video was mashed in with the article was sloppy. But from a mainstream perspective, so many people are at the “Wait, there are ways to move across water??” phase of community-discovery that the differences between a hovercraft and a tugboat do seem like minor details. Obviously, this piece was by and for those with such a perspective — and those are the people who most need to hear about life in community. Both the article and video shared a common message: Life’s better together. And I believe this is true regardless of one’s economic and social ideals.

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Lindsey:

      i mostly agree with you. The tugboat and the hovercraft are both ways to get across water and that is why they are mixed in this article and appropriate for the audience.

      And while the extreme is less dramatic, i would also be agitated is Twin Oaks got lumped in with violent survivalist communities.

      It is too easy to dismiss this movement by siting the extremes and ignoring the rest

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