On a cold Monday night, a fire was blazing in a cozy room as about 20 neighbors sat down to dinner. The meal was vegan fajita bowls, followed by gluten-free chocolate cake and a chorus of "Happy Birthday."
The conversation was casual and familiar — just as you'd expect among people who live in close proximity, share chores and come together for a communal meal twice a week.
"Every person here we know so well," said Miriam Zien Edgar, the evening's cook. "We know people's schedules and what they're allergic to."
The congenial diners are members of Monterey Cohousing Community — 15 households that form an "intentional community" in St. Louis Park. Members own their own homes — from 400-square-foot apartments to 1,600-square-foot townhouses — and share ownership of the "main house" and grounds, paying monthly dues of $400 to $600 to cover utilities and property taxes.
"I think that's the way to live — with other people," said Linda Weber, a member for seven years. "People are meant to live more communally, like a little tribe."
"Our wanting to be involved in a tribe is built into our DNA," said Brian PaStarr, Minneapolis, an affiliate member who plans to move in.
People have been living in tribes for centuries, but the concept of cohousing is relatively new.
Developed in Denmark in the 1960s, cohousing combines the benefits of community living with the independence of a private home. Members share common spaces, communal meals and participate in facilities management and consensus decisionmaking.
Monterey was formed in 1992. People come and go; a few have been there since the beginning, others have just recently moved in. Now they're planning to expand their community and build additional architect-designed, energy-efficient townhouses for new members who share their interest in living in a close-connected community.
"Our goal is 20 to 25 households," said Leila Tite. "More people to share the work and expenses of maintaining 6,000 square feet of common space."
Cohousing has taken off in some parts of the country, particularly on the East and West coasts, but it's been slower to make inroads in Minnesota. The Cohousing Association of the United States directory lists only two established communities in the state — Monterey and another very small one in Rushford, Minn. The directory does include three more communities that are "forming." There is local interest, however, as well as a Twin Cities Cohousing Network, to connect and share information.
"The challenge is finding land before a developer finds it," said PaStarr, who spent two years trying to establish an urban cohousing community before opting to join Monterey's expansion. "You need people to buy land, but you need land to attract people."
His earlier group found a site in the Seward neighborhood, but it turned out to have contaminated soil.
"It's pretty discouraging," said Becca Brackett, Minneapolis, who is continuing the quest to form an urban cohousing community (bassettcreek.us). "But I'm hopeful."
She's been interested in cohousing for years. "I really like my neighbors, but I don't see them that often," she said. "Cohousing encourages closeness. You get to know people. You have the privacy of your own unit, but being able to go to a common house and have a meal together — and not have to cook all those meals."
Katherine Johnson, who lives in an Eden Prairie condo but is drawn to cohousing, thinks the biggest challenge is that the concept just "isn't widely known in Minnesota. "It's a great idea, but people have no clue."
She views it as a solution to the "loneliness epidemic" that she sees as a psychologist.
"We're more isolated than we used to be, with more reliance on social media," said Johnson. "The pace of life is faster, there's more pressure. ... People feel more need to reach out — and no one's there."
Even today's home design contributes to isolation, she said.
"The garage is in front, you drive down the street, zip into the garage and close the door. There's no occasion to interact with neighbors."
That's what Tite experienced as an empty-nester in Andover. "After the kids moved out, everything was so big and empty," she said. "We hardly saw our neighbors."
Seeking community, she and her husband, Max, moved to Monterey in August 2017. "We're loving it," she said. "People look out for each other."
Daily casual contact is the best thing about cohousing, according to Ken Fox, president of Monterey and a member for 23 years. "There's opportunity for friendship, companionship all the time."
He starts every day with a walk to nearby Cedar Lake with two other members. If he feels like socializing in the evening, he knows where to go.
"There's a tunnel [between the main house and the townhouses] so you can come over in flip-flops with no coat. There are opportunities for hanging out." He even met his future wife at Monterey. "We started as friends. Her partner died, and we ended up merging our households."
The worst thing about cohousing? "Too many meetings," said Fox. As president, he's in charge of the expansion, which "weighs heavily on my shoulders."
PaStarr said the sense of community is already benefiting him, and he hasn't even moved in yet. "A month or two ago, I went to Monterey for a dinner. I was grumpy, but my whole mood shifted. It's like emotional vitamins."
Monterey hopes its expansion brings more families with children. At one point in the 1990s, there were a dozen kids in the community. Now there are just three.
"I would love to see more kids here, for the life of the community," said Rick Gravrok, a former preschool teacher who has been a member of Monterey since 1992.
A cohousing community is a great place to raise children, noted Fox, whose three children grew up at Monterey. "There are more people to keep an eye out."
Zien Edgar has turned to her neighbors for "emergency child care" when baby sitters have canceled at the last minute. She's hoping for more playmates for her 5-year-old daughter. "She was heartbroken when her friend moved away."
Jane Fischer came to Monterey as a single parent with her son after living in a cohousing community in Madison, Wis. "I was searching for that again," she said. "It's like an extended family."
Now, 12 years later, she can't imagine living any other way. "Everything about it feels positive. I can be alone when I want. Or it can be 9 or 10 at night, I'm a little lonely, and I know who will be up late and play games with me."
Her son, Fionn Mallon, now 26, has moved away but returns for community dinners "as often as I can," he said. "The more time I spend here, the more relaxed I leave."
Growing up in the community was a great experience, he said. As an only child with a single parent who sometimes worked long hours, he liked having other people around. Not so much during his teens — "nobody's best years," he said. "There were a lot of eyes to see you mess up." But today, "It is family. I ended up with a lot of people I just can't get rid of."