The word "commune" conjures visions of flower children sharing everything, including each other. But modern versions of that idealistic alternative lifestyle of the 1960s exist on less radical planes, including some in Minnesota.
At a time when a record number of Americans live alone (nearly 27 percent, according to the latest census data), a small but determined minority is bucking the trend by forming "intentional communities," places where amenities and decision-making are shared in varying degrees -- common spaces, meals, chores, group consensus on household matters. As a result, they say, they eat better, live greener and feel more supported in good times and bad amid an "it takes a village" mind-set.
Most intentional communities are located on the West Coast and in New England, but interest is growing in some pockets of the Midwest, as well, mostly in college towns like Madison, Wis. In exurban and outstate Minnesota, the rural/CSA model of communal living is gaining ground, with some in the forming stages, but the Twin Cities area is also home to several such arrangements. Here's a snapshot of three versions -- the Students' Co-op at the University of Minnesota, the Monterey Cohousing development in St. Louis Park and the Red House Community in St. Paul.
Squeezed between fraternity houses on University Avenue, the co-op with its three imposing columns might be mistaken for another Greek-system dwelling, were it not for the tire swing, the radish crop and the brightly painted vintage bicycle making an eco-art statement outside a second-floor window. Inside, several residents hang out on comfy couches in the TV room, eating bowls of noodles and veggies prepped in the industrial-sized kitchen by whomever is on dinner duty that night.
The co-op has sometimes had trouble filling up its rooms, but not lately. It's filled to capacity at 29 residents, with a waiting list nearly as long, said president Charlie Lehnen, who applied to live there because "I was so sick of the normal living model of taking up too much space and paying too much for it."
With monthly expenses as low as $290, including a $45 all-you-can-eat organic meal plan, many prospective residents are attracted by the promise of savings, "but you have to want to be a part of a community" to be accepted, Lehnen said. All members have to do chores like yard work, kitchen duty and bathroom cleaning, or face fines that start at $10 and increase daily until it gets done.
Because residents are pursuing majors ranging from physics and geology to fashion and social services, they get exposed to a wider variety of conversations than students who stick with a peer group, said Andrew Morrison, a junior studying environmental sciences. "It's also great to have people around when you're going through a hard time," he said, recalling a recent romantic breakup. "I don't know what I would have done if I had to go home to an empty apartment."
The co-op, a former fraternity house, began in the 1940s as a residence for male-only agriculture students and went coed in the '60s. Last year, thanks to a private Facebook page, a first reunion party was held, and more than 30 alumni showed up, some even flying in.
While there have been tensions in the past with the frats lining the rest of the block, they currently get along well with the neighbors, Lehnen said. There does seems to be a flow of harmonious energy winding its way up and down and around the 100-year-old house. You might even call it groovy. But only three bathrooms for 29 young adults? Really? They swear it works out, with everybody being conscientious about taking short showers in the morning.
"I've only had to pee outside once," said horticulture senior Kate Christensen.
On top of a wooded hill just off Minnetonka Boulevard in St. Louis Park, not far from the Minneapolis border, lies a secret village. Not secret, exactly, but coming upon it gives one a sense of having stumbled onto a quiet little microculture co-existing in the city. Founded in the '90s, Monterey is hybrid co-housing -- a co-op housed in a converted Edwardian mansion featuring individual bedrooms with shared baths and kitchen, and several modern condos with garages, all connected by an underground tunnel and adjacent to a small woods. There is a playground with a sandbox, but it's empty. Monterey misses its kids, said 12-year resident Karmit Bulman, whose youngest child of three, 16-year-old Bessie, is the only remaining minor living on the property -- for now.
"It's the best possible way to raise your kids," Bulman said. "I always felt it was OK to leave them to run a quick errand because there was always an adult or two around, including surrogate grandparents." She hopes families with young children will move into the three currently available condos.
At Monterey, one meal a week is shared, Thursday night dinner, as are house and property upkeep. Professionals, artists and craftspeople, retirees and families in a wide range of incomes, $30,000 to $100,000 and up, have called it home over the years.
Joelyn Malone, who has been involved with Monterey from the beginning, said that one thing all members have in common is wanting more of a sense of community in their lives. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't think it made our lives simpler and more joyful," she said.
A larger community also creates more potential for dissent, and Monterey has seen its share. But they usually are able to work out a compromise, said longtime resident Denise Tennen, who cites the time that some residents wanted to expand the garden, while those with children wanted a bigger play area.
"It used to be straight consensus, but now there have to be two people to block" a motion, said Ken Fox, her partner. "It comes down to what's best for the community, not the individual."
The co-housing concept began in Denmark, has spread through Europe, and is picking up a little speed in the United States; a film crew from Austin, Texas, recently taped at Monterey for a documentary on co-housing efforts nationwide. Of all variations on the commune, it probably best fits New York Times writer Andrew Jacobs' description of modern communal living: "settlements that seek to marry the utopian-minded commune of the 1960s with the American predilection for privacy and capital appreciation."
"We're Americans who want our private space," Fox said.
Red House Community
The brick-colored two-story house in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood looks like many of the others on its block. Four of the five people who live there are sharing a dinner of vegan chili and cornbread. They try to share at least four dinners a week, with members taking turns cooking.
"Five is a good number," said Chris Dart, resident emeritus, the only founding member left since the community began in 1997. "Any more than that and cliques start to break off, but five works."
"It feels kind of like brothers and sisters," said seven-year resident Wendy Harris.
Red House's current members, some of whom were found via Craigslist ads, range in age from 22 to 42. The youngest, Paul McDivitt, is an out-of-state student doing an internship at a local nonprofit.
"One day I might get too old for this, but right now I can't imagine any other way I'd rather live," he said.
Red House espouses no "lofty ideals," said Dart: "We're all just trying to reduce the energy we use and live practically. And it's just nice to come home to a house that's occupied, not empty."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046