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Living community

Julie Rasmussen remembers a time when she felt lonely in the middle of the city. “It was a neighbourhood in Saint Paul, Saint Anthony Park, which is known for its community spirit”, she says. But after living there for three years, Julie and her now-husband John Trygstad weren’t making that many connections with people they did not already know. “We were in the midst of this very community-minded community, and kind of alone.”

Today, Julie and John live in a ninety-year-old mansion with 11 other people in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis. The mansion sits on nearly two and a half acres of partly-wooded land, facing seven townhouses that are also part of the community. This is Monterey Cohousing Community (or Mococo, as they call it). Currently, there are 26 adults and two children who call it their home.

The concept of cohousing originated in Denmark. The first ever community was established in 1972, after its founders were inspired by an article called “Children should have a hundred parents.” In the late 1980s, architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett helped import the concept to the United States, with their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. In the following years, several prospective cohousing groups came together in the Twin Cities. When the founders of Mococo bought the mansion and surrounding grounds in 1992, they became the first cohousing community in the midwestern United States. Julie and John joined the community that year, just as it was getting off the ground.

Julie told me their story over breakfast one Thursday in July. After three years in Saint Anthony Park, she and John heard about the group and were intrigued. At first, they were most impressed by the people. “More than the space, because we hadn’t really seen the space, it seemed like such a good group of people. It was their zeal and enthusiasm that really made us feel like, ‘yeah let’s go for this!’” says Julie.

After more than 20 years in the community, Julie and John have rich and diverse relationships with their neighbours. They were married in the common living room surrounded by their neighbours. “It kind of felt like the community married us”, she recalls. “Everybody helped us set up. We didn’t hire anything. Everybody just came forward and said, ‘oh we could do this for you, we could do that for you.’” Today, she is 58 and he is 60 and they still live in the second-floor unit they bought in their 30s.

Cohousing addresses many complaints of modern society. Faced with the implications of climate change, people of all countries are looking for ways to decrease their carbon footprint. By the nature of sharing resources, and spending time with those close by, cohousing encourages a simpler life, with a smaller environmental footprint.

Cohousing also addresses social needs. Increasingly, people in the developed world live outside of nuclear families. For those living alone, raising children with two working parents, or raising children alone, the single family home may not offer the best environment in which to thrive. Living in a community also teaches important social lessons in an increasingly polarised America. Since they own and manage the property collectively, residents of these homes have learned how to negotiate disagreements in an increasingly unique way: by listening and trying to understand the perspectives of others.

The Monterey Cohousing Community is like a small village within the city. Members manage the property internally by consensus and do most of the maintenance themselves. There is no hierarchy or outside property manager. They share meals twice weekly. They have common space and grounds, and share facilities such as a laundry room and exercise room.

Many over the years have mistakenly called Mococo a commune, but the residents are quick to point out their individualism. The units are fully independent, including private kitchens and bathrooms. They eat most meals independently. Residents have regular jobs; they are teachers, city workers, administrative assistants, doctors, artists, therapists and more. They do not pool their income, nor is the group united by a common spiritual practice, diet, or political affiliation. Mococo is basically a seriously neighbourly neighbourhood.

“I have friends who say they were raised by the television, and I just want to give them a hug.”

In July, the community hosted a public information meeting, inviting people to learn about the community and tour the units currently for sale. I joined them for the meeting, arriving the day before to learn about life at Monterey. The community I found was vibrant, creative and well designed for the challenges of modern life.

Vibrant community

One floor down from Julie and John, across from the guest room where I stayed, lives Jane Fischer. She also has good reason to appreciate the community. Jane, who is 49, moved in with her 13-year-old son Fionn eight years ago.

“I’m a single mum, and I wanted a place that would be safe for my son. When we first moved in we were pretty broke and for Fionn to do his homework, I remember almost every night he would go over to the [neighbours] and use their computer.” They got help from the neighbours with little things like computer and printer use, but more importantly, Fionn was surrounded by something like an extended family. Ken Fox, a longtime resident, filled a father role by helping Fionn with woodwork, or just talking through problems. Without the community, Jane says, “I don’t know what we would have done. It would have been a lot harder.”

Beyond the help and support of neighbours, Jane also thinks cohousing is “a lot more fun”. Twice a week, residents can join their neighbours for community meals, which Jane appreciates. Walking away from a shared meal, she finds herself thinking, “wow, I’m so lucky; that was so normalising”. As an introvert, she enjoys proximity to people she already knows well.

Jane especially appreciates the community in the winter, a time when many can feel increased isolation and sadness. “I’ve realised that during times in my life when I have lived alone, and not in a community, and in the middle of winter when I’m not able to have friends over, I can just be in this crazy place of being alone. And it never feels like that here.” Even when the Minnesota weather is at its worst, residents can use a tunnel connecting the townhouses to the main house, ensuring that they are never disconnected from their neighbours.

Fionn, now 22, came to visit on Thursday for the community meal. I found him picking cherries with Rick Gravrok, who lives down the hall from his mother’s unit. He says he couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else. “I think it should be standard. I have friends who say they were raised by the television, and I just want to give them a hug.”

Fionn fondly remembers playing with neighbouring children and working in the woodshop with Ken. He also praises the group’s ability to help one another during hard times. Last year, Ken was hit by a drunk driver and spent time in a wheelchair while he recovered. Fionn explains that “the community got together, headed by John, and they quickly erected a ramp for his wheelchair so he could get in and out and still participate in community events when possible.” Although the ramp inconvenienced the neighbouring townhouses, the community happily approved it.

Mococo also shares resources in a way that allows residents to both reduce excess and have access to more amenities. Among the 20 common rooms in the main house, there is a dance floor, playroom, exercise room, free laundry and an impressive woodshop. Rather than 15 separate lawnmowers, they have two. Outside is a community garden with both private plots and a large community plot. Compost bins sit behind the main house, fed by food scraps from individuals’ kitchens. There are also two guest bedrooms in the main house, eliminating the need for guest space in every single unit.

When I spoke with Julie on Thursday morning, we sat outside the main house as she ate from her breakfast tray and drank the coffee she brought in a French press. The sun shone down on us as we chatted and watched the wild turkeys wander around the grounds. But life at Mococo isn’t always this idyllic.

“Whatever buttons you have, they will be pushed.”

“This is not an everyday experience that I take my little tray down here and sit like the lady of the manor and enjoy the place”, she laughs. Julie, like the other residents, lives a pretty normal, busy, often stressful life. A public school teacher who has spent much of the summer planning meditation retreats, Julie explains how often outsiders misunderstand the community to be some kind of paradise.

“I gave a talk once at a community fair and even though I had given them the title ‘Monterey Cohousing: Experiment in Living’, they billed it as ‘Urban Utopia’ and I was so angry at that name change. What could be further from the experience?”

Although the community provides a lot for its residents, it is also requires constant effort. “Whatever buttons you have, they will be pushed”, she tells me later, “even if you didn’t know you had those buttons.”

Growth experiences

“Cohousing is not for the faint of heart. You have to be somebody who has some interest in personal growth and development”, explains Ken Fox after dinner. Ken and his wife Denise Tennen had me over for dinner in their townhouse on Wednesday night.

Ken, 55, and Denise, 57, have each lived in Mococo for many years. They met in the community and became partners after Denise’s life-partner passed away in 1998. Over homemade soup, squash and salad, we discuss community, communication and carpet colours.

“We’re really good at dealing with crises”, Denise reflects, describing a time when lightning struck the main house, and the community quickly made the repairs. “But like, deciding on a carpet colour? God save me.” The group has also struggled with pet policies, lawn care, when to do community dishes and the extent to which adults can intervene with others’ children.

The process takes a long time because of consensus decision-making. Shared governance by consensus is very different from democracy. In consensus rule, groups don’t make decisions based on which static idea garners the most votes. This kind of majority rule leaves out “a whole bunch of disgruntled people”, explains Denise.

At Mococo, if they don’t agree, they keep working. They keep talking. Most importantly, they keep listening. In the end they make compromises. Denise emphasises that you don’t have to love it, but ask “can you live with it?”

“I think of this as a sort of a practice in world peace.”

If someone really cannot tolerate a proposal, they can block the decision. But Ken says this veto power is supposed to be used sparingly. “The philosophy behind the block is not ‘I want my way’, like ‘I don’t like this colour of paint’. The purpose of blocking is that you believe that the community is going down the wrong path.”

In order to build consensus, members cannot block everything they believe is imperfect. Instead, they practise empathetic listening and are open to compromise. “To be in cohousing, you can’t be egocentric. You have to really be willing to accept and understand the point of view of the other,” Ken says. You have to communicate to understand, not to win.

The skills of listening and consensus-building are impressive and rare in a country that increasingly struggles to agree on anything. Hearing about this community’s patience in negotiating agreements, I couldn’t help but think of Washington, where the 113th Congress is on track to be the least productive Congress in American history. This debilitating polarisation is also seeping increasingly into our personal lives. As we seek out bubbles of agreement that insulate us from ideas different from our own, our ability to compromise atrophies. In contrast, residents of Mococo make a habit of listening and compromising. And although the process is arduous, the community accomplishes much more this way.

For them, the ability to work out agreements with their neighbours is one of the high points of living in community. “I think of this as a sort of a practice in world peace”, Denise says. She makes this observation with no degree of grandeur or irony. Instead, she seems to recognise that the skills they develop by building consensus matter because they are the foundations of a successful and peaceful society.

Today, the group’s listening and collaborating skills are unmatched. A single two-hour meeting every month is enough for them to agree on most major community decisions. But it hasn’t always been like this.

In the beginning, the founding members met for hours every week, even before they had the property. Julie recalls these day-long meetings continuing every weekend for years.

As they spent more time in community, the meetings became faster. After five years of what John called “too many people involved and a lot of micromanaging”, they started breaking off into specialist teams that could handle issues without the attention of the full group. For example, John, Ken, Rick and Julie are all on the architectural management and maintenance team, which handles maintenance and repairs.

They also changed the rules to require two members to block a decision, rather than one. They adopted communication tools like the “fist to five”, in which members each raise one to five fingers in a quick visual display of collective support for an idea. This lets facilitators quickly take the temperature of the group, and invite those who raised one or two fingers to express their concerns.

But restructuring meetings and using communication shortcuts is only a small part of the whole picture. In the end, their meetings work smoothly today because of a tremendous amount of personal growth. Julie puts it like this: “It’s an education in consensus. That itself is a growth experience. It’s not like the Republicans and Democrats, and whoever has one more rules until the other has just one more and then they’ll tear down and do everything different.

“But everybody has to get to that point within themselves”, she stresses. “And that’s something that we have to offer that isn’t in American culture. American culture is so much about majority rules. And so nobody develops that maturity of listening to everybody. That’s a central theme in this social experiment: developing maturity.”

After years of developing this maturity, Julie can see the difference it makes in their meetings. “Not everybody has to listen to their own voice say the thing that two other people just said. And I see that very few places besides here.”

Welcoming conflict

Most mornings, Rick Gravrok walks his neighbour Susan’s dogs. Rick has been here since the beginning. I joined him on Thursday morning as he walked the dogs and then ate breakfast outside in the courtyard. Rick grew up on a block with 46 other kids, and has always been in love with community life. At 58, he is a retired teacher and a constant educator.

Rick lives in 400 square feet of space on the first floor of the main house, but spends much of his time volunteering and engaging with his neighbours. He is full of recommendations and thrilled to offer new books to read. I even came home with a sheet of G-rated jokes he likes to hand out.

I mention that life at Mococo seems to develop the emotional intelligence of its residents. “That’s exactly right”, Rick says. “Have you read the book called Emotional Intelligence? Oh my goodness…” He begins excitedly sharing about more books and suggestions.

Some of the lessons he highlights most are about conflict. He shares a saying he likes to return to: “When conflict is welcomed in the front door, violence is less likely to sneak in the back door.”

Minnesotans are well known for being extremely conflict-averse, but Rick sees that as the wrong approach. “In my opinion, when you actually deal with conflict as a good thing - if you actually do the conflict and resolve it in a healthy way - you not only resolve the conflict but you build a better relationship with the other person”, he says. “And if you don’t deal with conflict, you have violence coming through the back door in the form of gossiping, holding grudges, etc…”

Cultivating the patience and emotional maturity to work through disagreements has taken years of personal development for everyone. But eventually they learned to trust one another more, to pick their battles and sometimes to let others win.

Building a home

Learning to cooperate was not the only challenge for the founders of Mococo. They also had to create the space.

The main building was built as a Christian Science Nursing Home in 1924. The core group purchased it with 23 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms. Then they began to remodel.

“It’s one of the things that was really really fun at the beginning,” Julie remembers. “We were all redoing our units pretty much ourselves, because nobody had money to hire anybody. And so we were in and out of each others’ rooms a lot. ‘What do you think about this?’ ‘What do you think if I tore this out?’”

The results speak to the creativity of those first members. Julie and John’s apartment is filled with beautiful woodwork and clever uses of space. She remembers someone comparing their unit to a boat, because every small area in the kitchen that can serve as storage has been turned into a drawer or had shelves added to it. Above the sink is a drying rack John created and installed, which frees up counter space. When the fire marshal required the community to replace many of the old wooden doors with modern fire-safe doors, Julie and John repurposed the beautiful wood, making closet doors and even closet walls.

Their creativity is not limited to remodelling. Rick describes other challenges they had to address. “We had a lot of territory to break through, because nobody had heard of cohousing before. Bankers didn’t know about it. Legal people didn’t know about it.” As the first cohousing community in the Midwest, drawing up financial and legal documents was a separate challenge entirely.

Joelyn Malone dived into that challenge. She and her husband Mike, now both 64, are founding members.

“I’ve been on the finance team forever, and I helped put together business plans to take to the bank”, she says. “I wasn’t at all afraid to look up the statute, find out what the law said and talk to the lawyers, and write drafts of what would become legal documents.” Like the other founders, she was also motivated by a passionate enthusiasm for this experiment to work. “I really really really wanted this to happen”, she laughs.

Joelyn also made relationships with other cohousing communities through a listserv at Cohousing.org. Although Mococo developed its own documents and internal rules, they read about how other groups were doing things. “We did a lot of communicating with other cohousing groups as they were getting started”, she explains. Working as an independent consultant, Joelyn was also able to export lessons from Mococo to other cohousing communities as they grew.

Whether it’s building repair or paperwork, there are always issues to figure out. But they work hard because the community is worth it to them. “Some of us are just tied to the place”, Joelyn says. “Literally, I wake up in the morning and am grateful.”

Individuals and community

Mococo navigates the space between standard independent living and an older, more communitarian life rarely remembered today. In some ways, it’s an experiment in time. Historically, individual desires and perspectives took a back seat to the community for various reasons, but often it was because there was no alternative. People ate the food that was available locally and therefore shared a cuisine. Smaller communities may have had only one place of worship, without access to other religious traditions or belief systems. Without modern communications, individuals did not have access to the diverse and unique forms of entertainment that highlight our individual personalities today.

Like the extended families that Mococo resembles, eating together has been the traditional glue of the community. But the modern context makes it hard to break bread together when more and more people are only eating specific kinds of bread - or finding out that they can’t eat it at all. As individuals benefit from unique diets tailored to their allergies, morality or health concerns, communities may struggle to unite around the dinner table as they once did.

“We tend to be a Mecca for people with dietary difficulties”, Julie says. “There is a kind of spreadsheet in the kitchen to keep the cook clear on who’s allergic to gluten, who doesn’t do corn or soy or seafood or nuts, because we have people in all categories. We have the low carbohydrate, the this and the that going on.”

The more individualised the diets, the harder it is for food to unite everyone. “It’s become really challenging to cook for the group. It’s always been like this, but I don’t remember a time when it’s been quite so pronounced. That has historically been kind of the glue of the community - that we eat together - and the fact that we have not been as much is not healthy for the community.”

I ask Julie if the community comes into conflict with the individualism of its members in other ways. On the contrary, she explains, they don’t have to give up their individualism at all. If anything, their meetings have taught members to share their own perspectives more fully. Everyone speaks their mind and knows that when they do, others will respect them. And in a way, their individualism is more realised in community.

A relevant alternative

During the open meeting on Thursday, visitors sat around the community living room, hearing about life in cohousing. After the residents described the incredible amount of physical and mental work they put into their community, one older man finally asked, “Do you have any special accommodations for lazy people?”

“Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people.”

He and his wife seem to be looking for more of a retirement community than a cohousing community. Mococo is by no means a retirement community. They have seen young children grow up and leave for school, and life there comes with all of the physical demands that any home makes on a homeowner. Yet the overlap between these models is significant. There are many retirement communities designed to cultivate connection through physical space and shared activities, much like cohousing. They are both alternative living situations for people unsatisfied with traditional housing arrangements.

In the 1980s, McCamant and Durrett introduced their book on cohousing with an observation about the need for alternatives: “Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people. Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effects of these trends in our own lives. Things that people once took for granted - family, community, a sense of belonging - must now be actively sought out. Many people are mis-housed, ill-housed or unhoused because of the lack of appropriate options.”

The pace at which society is changing has not slowed down since Cohousing was first published. Across the world, social, political and technological upheavals continue to change the context in which we all live our lives. And on that Thursday in July, people filled the community dining room of Mococo to learn more about what an alternative housing arrangement might mean for their lives.

While some visitors were just curious, others had specific interests. “We consume and use a lot more than we need”, someone said. Another said he was intrigued because “it’s a low impact way of living”.

A few women were most interested in the social support of the community. They were at a crossroads in life. With children gone, their homes felt too large and too empty. “As you age, you worry about isolation”, one said.

A handful of younger adults sat at one end of the circle during the meeting. They were also drawn to the strength of relationships in cohousing. “We’re searching for connection in an era of internet ‘friending’”, one woman said.

The interest at the meeting is echoed across the United States. According to the cohousing directory at Cohousing.org, there are 111 fully completed cohousing communities across the country; 110 more are in various stages of development, some groups just forming and others in construction. Cohousing has taken off outside of Denmark and the United States as well. The UK Cohousing Network reports 18 completed communities in the United Kingdom, with groups planning more than 60 additional communities (this map shows the communities already established). The Canadian Cohousing Network lists 11 established communities, with 18 more in development or just forming. Other countries with cohousing communities include the Czech Republic, France, Japan, New Zealand and Spain.

Admittedly, the appeal is not universal. After the meeting, a corporate executive who did not wish to be named approached me. She seemed very interested in cohousing from an academic perspective. It seems to be a great use of social resources and a good way to take the load off of some overworked mothers who both work and cook, she observed. But when I asked her about her personal interest, she said: “All these committees and stuff? No. I wouldn’t be good at that.” She was especially concerned about joining a community that already existed, rather than starting from the beginning. “I don’t know these people - what if they vote me off the island?”

For those who are willing to experiment, cohousing offers a relevant alternative to standard living arrangements. As a changing society presents us with new challenges, we often seek innovations and solutions from scientists, researchers and politicians. Today, we are faced with upheavals in family life, the ever-increasing consequences of climate change and growing polarisation in our political and social lives. Cohousing is by no means a solution to these problems. But it does offer us a way to reimagine our communities as well as our technologies and our policies. And if we are ever going to learn to work together a little bit better, it might be a good place to start.

Photo: Rick and Fionn picking cherries on Thursday evening.

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