On Co-ops and Community

I’ve been meaning to put together some thoughts on co-op life for a while now. While I generally adore my house, my housemates, and the abstract concept of cooperative living, Oscar Wilde is still not quite the hippie nerd commune of my dreams.

  • Aesthetics: in the hippie nerd commune of my dreams, there are thick walls, and no one ever listens to shitty-ass pop music. Moreover, dream communemates share my belief that living rooms are living rooms and dance clubs are dance clubs, not the other way ’round, and etc. etc. on the matter of a lifestyle suitable for cozy cups of tea.
  • Size: There’s a tradeoff between being so large that people don’t really bond, and being so small that one interpersonal conflict can destroy everything. Forty people feels large to me; there are some people who slip through the cracks and don’t feel as much a part of the community as others. Plus, even though we’re technically run by majority rule, we maintain a culture of consensus-seeking for most house decisions. Consensus doesn’t scale very well; more people means more touchy-feely bloviating during Council.
  • Time scales: the hippie nerd commune of my dreams is a chosen family, one where membership is permanent irrespective of physical residency. Wilde House is full of transients, by design – you get kicked out when you graduate, and most house affairs are run on a semester-by-semester basis. On the other hand, Greek communities (and Greek-esque systems like Caltech’s) suffer similar structural handicaps and do a markedly better job of propagandizing permanent communityhood. More on this later.

This week, we initiated termination proceedings against two members who’ve fallen far behind on their workshift obligations. Since one of those members is a long-time resident who’s having a busy semester, there’s a fair amount of tension emerging between images of the house as a long-term community vs. a short-to-medium-term residence. As a house affiliated with the USCA, we have a formal termination procedure which allows for a great deal of flexibility to account for community judgments (“feelings”) about individual circumstance, but grants no official weight whatsoever to the past*. Older members are left to make emotional appeals to new residents** and convince the house as a whole that history matters, without any assurance that their pleas will be heard. Hijinks and unhappinesses ensue!

I’m not sure how the platonic ideal of a permanent community would accomodate things like this. Communal living comes with obligations to one’s housemates; if you don’t wish to prioritize your life in a way that makes it possible to meet those obligations, the honorable thing to do is to bow out of the household arrangements.*** Which can be tricky to do on a temporary basis in a way that feels fair to all. Should I start throwing around the word “sabbatical”? The academic analogy is somewhat unnerving, but that’s what I get for having such a love/hate relationship with communitarianism, I guess.

Meh. I like to muse about community structure, and squeeze out portable lessons from my life in the co-op, because one of these days I swear I’ll get enough like-minded friends to settle down in the same city to create the hippie nerd commune of my dreams. But at times it feels like worrying about the color of the carpeting in a castle in the sky. Enough for the day, I’ve got a term project to work on.

*I think. But the official policy is a bit complicated and I haven’t studied it in detail, so I could be wrong.
**Member vs. resident is a deliberate word choice here; the division is neither particularly sharp nor particularly well correlated with actual time spent living in the house, but I think it’s still a real one that plays an interesting role in house dynamics.
***Housemates reading this should please, please, please not interpret it as a judgment on either of the people at issue, because it isn’t. I wasn’t at Council on Sunday and I really have no idea what’s going on. This is theoretical wankery. That’s why I’m blogging it and not bringing it up at dinner.


  1. Ximena wrote:

    I’ll join your hippie commune, if we can ever manage to be in the same hemisphere at the same time.

  2. yami wrote:

    You’d think it wouldn’t be this difficult to be in the same place once in a while – you’re not even an academic! Sigh.

  3. yanes wrote:

    art on walls! on your thick walls.
    shared art in communal house make community.
    n’awesome grafitti and terrorized museum art:

  4. yami wrote:

    There’s some pretty great art up around here – and some crap art, but life’s a mixed bag. Art is necessary but not sufficient.

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