Across the United States, bold pioneers are building a new kind of housing for the 21st century.
Originally published, in a slightly different form, in AARP The Magazine.
BY THE TIME HE WAS IN HIS MID-40S, Bob Gilby had his retirement plans all worked out. An engineer with a copper-mining company, he had purchased some land at the edge of a lush green ridge that sloped sharply from the desert toward Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains. He and his wife, Donna Branch-Gilby, had met with an architect to design their dream home, where the couple would spend a quiet old age among the tall mesquite. At sunset, the shadows would cut into the canyons, and the lights of Tucson would appear as a distant glow.
They wouldn’t be part of a neighborhood, but that was OK. Seclusion came naturally to Gilby, who was born on a Michigan dairy farm “with a father who had opinions about everybody and was not one of those collaborative farmers.” As an adult, he held a series of solo jobs, including a stint as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service. After his first marriage dissolved, he had taken refuge in a town 60 miles from the nearest grocery store, “just simmering my brain on the back burner.”
Then, just after he remarried in 1994, Gilby got together with some friends he had met at a men’s retreat weekend the previous year. Talking with them, he came to recognize just how much he had isolated himself from others. “I realized that hiding myself on a piece of property tucked away in the trees would deprive me of a lot of the more fulfilling parts of being older,” says the lanky 56-year-old. “I’d miss the grandfathering. The uncling. Being the male elder in the tribal sense.” He could only have these things, he understood, if he was part of an extended family.
The Gilbys and their friends started contemplating a better way: an intergenerational neighborhood where meals would be shared, milestones celebrated by all, and hardships weathered together. The group began meeting weekly to flesh out a vision for such a place. With a core of four households fronting the money, they purchased 43 acres dotted with saguaro cactus and teddybear cholla in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. Then they went to work, recruiting new residents, planning the community and building the houses. They fought a contentious zoning battle, worked to soothe unhappy neighbors, and incurred a terrifying amount of debt.
The first family moved onto the land in April 2002; others soon followed. Eventually the population reached 60 people, ranging in age from infancy to 89 and spanning the ethnic spectrum, including six American Indians and immigrants from Japan, Turkey, China, Great Britain, and Venezuela. To those who had worked on the project for eight years, it seemed miraculous that their community had finally come together. Borrowing the Spanish word for “miracle,” they called their new home Milagro.
IT’S A SAD IRONY THAT THE GENERATION of Boomer Americans who popularized the commune in the 1960s and ’70s went on to live through the most uncommunal period in the nation’s history. As cornfields turned to exurbs and job security dwindled, more people found themselves drifting far from their childhood homes, never settling down long enough to establish deep roots. “U.S. society has been on a steady path of greater alienation and fragmentation,” says Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Missouri-based Fellowship for Intentional Community. “People are simultaneously more mobile and more isolated. If you ask the average adult today if they have as much interaction with their neighbors as they did when they were growing up, nine out of ten would say no.”
Which explains why a growing number of people are trying to create their own intimate communities. According to trendwatchers, the past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in collective living—albeit of a more sophisticated variety than the hippie communes of forty years ago. “Aging children of the ’60s are coming around for another look at intentional communities,” says Diane Leafe Christian, author of Creating a Life Together, “although this time, unlike in the ’60s, they want equity ownership, shared cooperative decision-making, and clear structure.”
These intentional communities vary as widely as the people who inhabit them, from rural land trusts to renovated hotel buildings. They’re often built around some commonality, such as a religious calling or a political perspective. At Ashland Vineyard, north of Richmond,Virginia, six families live on 40 rural acres with a common commitment to Quaker principles. In Silver Spring, Maryland, an 1880s farmhouse called Brindledorf serves as an intentional community for schoolteachers. There are communities of Christians, artists, lesbians, and gay men. In Columbia, Missouri, the two-house collective called Terra Nova goes one step further in the sharing department: Three of its five members pool their outside income into a common account. “For me, it really has to do with pulling together, feeling like a team,” says 52-year-old co-founder Hoyt DeVane. Whatever they share, almost all of these communities emphasize the benefits of living in close proximity to one’s friends. “I can’t imagine not living this way, surrounded by supportive people who care about me,” says Peggy O’Neill, 57, one of Ashland Vineyard’s founders.
At the more formal and structured end of the intentional-community spectrum is “cohousing,” a model imported from Denmark in the 1990s. In cohousing communities, each family has its own private home with a full kitchen. There’s a separate common building where neighbors can share evening meals, hold meetings, or just watch movies together if they want. And the residents make decisions, from marketing to landscaping, collectively. Though cohousing is generally expensive—each family helps pay for the common house and shared land—it’s also fast-growing, with more than 80 such communities already in existence across the U.S. and dozens more in the planning stages. It’s this model that the Gilbys and their friends used when they started planning Milagro.
Elevated above Tucson, cradled by five mountain ranges, Milagro has the feel of a desert hideaway, even though downtown is just eight miles away. The focus is strongly environmental. The communities’ homes are built on nine of the 43 acres, heated by passive solar energy, and connected by wheelchair-friendly sidewalks that meander in gentle S-curves. Cars are parked on the periphery. The clustering of buildings allows for most of the land to remain a nature preserve, where coyotes howl and javelinas—piglike animals native to the Southwest—root through the prickly pears. Along the pathways, brittlebush, with its silvery leaves, sprouts clusters of yellow blossoms. Hummingbirds flock to the pink and orange penstemons. “We chose these plants specifically to attract birds and butterflies,” says Patricia DeWitt, who heads Milagro’s landscape committee.
In a city that averages just twelve inches of rain per year, no drinkable water is used for growing flowers at Milagro. The houses are constructed of energy-efficient adobe brick, topped with sloping metal roofs that funnel rainwater into cisterns. “What really drew me to this group was the concern for the earth,” says 69-year-old DeWitt, a retired Realtor.
INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES DON’T HAPPEN OVERNIGHT. It took Milagro eight years to get from the dream stage to the finish. Early on, Milagro’s founding members, including the Gilbys, convened a series of retreats to discuss common issues like diversity and ecology. They held potlucks to become better acquainted with each other. They scouted out land together. “We were very conscious not to rush the choice of location, the selection of the architect, not to rush any of our decisions,” says Donna Branch-Gilby. “We knew that we were building a neighborhood, not houses. The way we related to each other during the development phase would either help us in the future—or leave us with garbage to overcome.”
When they did find a location, though, it was not zoned for clustered housing. The group petitioned for rezoning—and was shocked when a large crowd of neighbors showed up at City Hall to oppose them. “We were trying to preserve a desert,” says Sherry Quarles, one of Milagro’s opponents, who lives 300 feet from Milagro’s property line. “It’s uncharacteristic to have such a huge community with clustered structures.” It took many conversations with nearby landowners and changes to the site plan to limit the density before the City Council agreed to the rezoning in 1998.
Then came the arduous process of building the homes. Rather than hiring a professional, the community became its own developer, a move some experts warn against. “No matter how smart a group of people are, they could start swimming out to sea: taking years longer, exceeding budget estimates,” says Neshama Abraham, a cohousing consultant in Boulder, Colorado. What often gets shelved, she says, is the building of personal community—the necessary conversations about shared values and the challenges of living together. That’s precisely what happened at Milagro. “All the people stuff got put in the background,” says resident Michael Kuropatkin, a 62-year-old executive leadership coach. “We had an $8 million project that we were honchoing, so for two years the focus was a high-risk construction project, with people’s money fears running at a very high level.”
To calm those fears, Milagro’s founders shifted their attention to marketing the unsold units as quickly as possible. All the houses found buyers, but the newcomers arrived for a variety of reasons. “Not all those people went through the same slow evolutionary process,” Kuropatkin says. “People showed up here because they liked the safety—but they said, ‘I don’t want to do so much communal stuff.’” This has led to a less intimate community than he had initially envisioned—a necessary compromise, he now realizes. “My intention was that Milagro be a learning laboratory for people living together in healthier and more supportive ways,” he says. “We’re just starting from a place that wasn’t quite where I thought we were going to start.”
BUILDING A TRUE COMMUNITY ISN’T EASY. Locating affordable land, assessing environmental risks, obtaining city permits, attracting families: any one of these tasks can derail an effort. Architect Charles Durrett, a pioneer in the U.S. cohousing movement, estimates that about one-third of the groups that set out to build cohousing communities actually reach the construction phase. In Nevada City, California, where Durrett is building a 34-unit cohousing neighborhood, at least a half-dozen groups have attempted the same thing and failed.
For those who do succeed, living together takes hard work. “I’ve seen wives and husbands nearly get divorced over choosing carpets,” says architect Todd Lawson, whose book The House to Ourselves explores innovative housing for older couples. “Can you imagine the complexity of six or eight or more people coming together to make decisions?” Add to this the fact that many intentional communities require unanimous consent on key decisions, which means hashing through issues until everyone feels comfortable—and agrees. “It can be wearing,” admits Terra Nova’s Hoyt DeVane. But it also seems to make for enduring relationships: Of the dozens of cohousing communities that have survived to the construction phase, not a single one has later failed, in the United States or elsewhere in the world.
AN IMPORTANT GOAL OF MANY INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES is for residents to feel valued no matter what generation they come from. Younger members might do more heavy lifting while older ones provide child care, cooking, and mentoring. At Milagro, Jeanette Hanby and David Bygott, primatologists who spent two decades working in Tanzania, serve as the resident naturalists, catching rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas to show the children. “It’s rather a nice role to play as aunt and uncle,” Hanby says.
In many communities, too, neighbors pull together to help one another age in place. Nick Meima, a gerontologist and cohousing developer, tells a story about an octogenarian neighbor of his at Sunward, a community of 40 townhouses and a century-old barn outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before the woman arrived, Meima says, she had become increasingly isolated and physically inactive. But at Sunward, where neighborliness is part of the community’s core value system, she found herself greeted daily, particularly by the children. “All of a sudden, her life mattered,” says Meima. She began baking cookies again, and walking her dog rather than just letting it into the backyard. One day, while out for a stroll, the resident fell and broke her hip. “Instantly, people came out of their houses,” Meima says. “Within two minutes, she was covered with blankets.” Someone called 911, and when the ambulance arrived, a neighbor rode with her to the hospital. Those who stayed behind ensured that the woman’s dog and houseplants were cared for.
In such intimate settings, discussions about aging often come naturally. “Being surrounded by other people who are bright and vibrant and can laugh about the aging process is part of the fabric—one of the good points of living together,” says Maril Crabtree, 63, who resides at Hearthaven, an old stone house shared by three couples in Kansas City, Missouri. “You’re growing old with your friends, and you can see your process mirrored in them, and you can get support.”
In Boulder, plans are afoot to build an urban cohousing project aimed specifically at those who are older. “We want to be able to talk about growing older in this culture,” says Susan Booker, a future resident of Silver Sage Village. “How can we make the process richer and less isolating for us than it is in most of our culture? How can we be a part of turning it around?”
Charles Durrett remembers a 76-year-old woman who lived at Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville, California. For six months after her breast-cancer diagnosis, the community mobilized to keep her from having to enter an institutionalized setting. “This woman meant so much to us that it was an honor to go downstairs and read to her,” Durrett says. “It was an honor to go across the street to the café and get her breakfast.” It was an honor, too, he says, to kneel at her bedside just a half-hour before she took her last breath. “There were 30 of us there throughout the day,” he says. “It felt like a village. It felt timeless.”
Scenes like this are rare in American society. They used to be more common. “We’re trying to re-create traditional life,” says Neshama Abraham, the Boulder consultant, “where you’re present as a community for both births and deaths—and everything between.”
TWO AUTUMNS AGO, MILAGRO’S RESIDENTS gathered in the common house to mark two of their own milestones. The first was the upcoming birth of the first infant. At a special ceremony, the future parents listened as their neighbors offered poetry, advice, and stories about raising their own children. To show their interconnectedness, the community members unfurled a long skein of red yarn, which each person tied to his or her own wrist before passing the skein along. They then cut the yarn into individual bracelets, which some people wore until the material frayed and fell off naturally. “It became for me a symbol of the cycle of life,” Sara Kuropatkin, Michael’s wife, says of her bracelet. “I swam in it, I slept in it, I bathed in it, and I wore it all the time.” The baby, a healthy girl, was born Jan. 30.
Then, three days later—just before Sara Kuropatkin’s bracelet fell off for good—her brother Marcus Cortez died unexpectedly from complications of diabetes. Smart and stubborn, a lover of greyhound racing, he was only 58. His was the first death of a Milagro resident.
Once again, the neighbors flocked to the common house, this time with guitars and Kleenex in hand. “I think people expected we were going to cry or talk about death,” says Sara Kuropatkin. Instead, Cortez’s mother regaled them with lively stories about her son’s life. To honor him, the community decorated a small mesquite tree with colorful streamers and a clay mask, an angel sculpture, and candles honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. One day, Cortez’s brother-in-law, Michael Kuropatkin, was walking home from tending the memorial tree. Along the way he passed a neighbor, who was pushing a cart of freshly folded laundry for the new baby and her parents. At that moment they both realized that they were truly part of a community pulling together to honor death and new life, both at the same time.
For Milagro residents, these connections are the most vital part of communal living. Patricia DeWitt, the retired Realtor, explains it this way: “I have a pilot’s license. I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve parachuted. Living here has been the hardest thing to do—to learn to get along with people—and the most rewarding. If I was told I had to give up all but one of these experiences, I’d choose to keep Milagro.”
Beyond Cohousing (sidebar)
WHILE COHOUSING HAS BECOME A POPULAR model for communal living, it’s has its downsides. For one, it’s relatively expensive: Last winter, cohousing units for sale ranged from $175,000 in Portland, Oregon, to $550,000 in Sebastopol, California. Elsewhere, though, groups of long-time friends have found much cheaper, but equally rewarding, ways to live together, using models other than cohousing. Here are two examples.
BLUE HERON FARM SITS WITHIN a hardwood and pine forest outside Pittsboro, North Carolina, on the site of what used to be a tobacco, hay and horse farm. It is, at first glance, an architectural cacophony. Scattered on the land are an 1860s farmhouse with cedar siding and a tin roof; a century-old sharecropper’s shack brightened with 14 windows; and modest old homes in the vernacular of the working-class South.
Where outsiders might see disharmony, the residents of Blue Heron see the opportunity to live together, inexpensively, in homes that impact minimally on the Earth. “These houses were all in the waste stream,” says Stephen Hawthorne, a 60-year-old psychotherapist. The farmhouse had been abandoned after years of storing corn. Other buildings were moved from the path of highways. The sharecropper’s cabin was purchased by Barbara Lorie, a retired schoolteacher, and moved a mile to its present site. Fire-damaged, the shack was offered for $500. “I said, ‘That’s terrible. I’ll give you $600,’” recalls Lorie, 79, with a chuckle.
Like many intentional communities, Blue Heron is the product of years of conversation. Over time, a vision emerged of living together in an close-knit and ecological manner. “We wanted to live low on the totem pole,” Lorie says. Finally, in 1992, the founders purchased 64 acres brimming with deer, red-tailed hawks and wild turkey.
Now there are 10 houses on Blue Heron Farm, with adults in their 20s to 70s plus several children. Members attend monthly retreats where they sit in silence, Quaker-style, until someone is moved to pick up a talking stick and discuss personal aspect of his or her life. There are potlucks, talent shows and fire circles, along with daily informal connections. “If I get stuck on something I’m working on,” says Sally Erickson, also a therapist, “or I’m bored or tired or lonely, I just walk next door and say, ‘I brought my lunch. Can I eat it with you?’”
What’s more, as the price of surrounding land skyrockets, Blue Heron’s residents have structured their community to remain affordable. Members own the property in common, and their monthly land payment (plus operating costs) comes to $286 apiece. The resale value of the land is kept artificially low. “We said to people upfront, ‘Do not think of your house the way most Americans do, as their primary financial investment,’” says Hawthorne. “We want to cultivate community and commitment—not speculation and transience.”
IN THE 1960S, A GROUP OF YOUNG CALIFORNIANS whose children attended the same cooperative nursery developed an enduring friendship. “We used to talk about retiring together, taking care of each other in old age,” says Dick Browning, a former school administrator. While many such dreams evaporate, theirs persisted—and in 1988 they purchased 19 acres of Mendocino County river valley. Locals called the land Cheesecake, a translation of the former owner’s Italian name.
Rather than following the cohousing model, with its emphasis on private dwellings, the group wanted to live together. This meant sharing a kitchen, bathrooms, a vegetable garden, laundry machines—even a darkroom and a micro-winery. They hired Berkeley-based architect Laura Hartman, who was impressed by the relationships she saw. “They were a very sophisticated group with a lot of interpersonal skills,” says Hartman. “Being close friends made a big difference.”
Hartman sketched out three ideas. The group coalesced around an informal “camp” model, with four buildings connected by walkways and porches. To enable the group to age together, she designed the structures so they could be retrofitted with ramps and elevators. She also created halls and doorways wide enough for wheelchairs.
The first residents arrived in 1993. Now eight members, all in their 60s and 70s, live at Cheesecake full-time, and another four visit periodically. Monthly payments—which cover mortgage, maintenance, Internet access, satellite TV, newspapers and certain foodstuffs—total less than $1,000 per person. “That’s part of the economy of living like this,” Browning says. “That was not the main attraction, but it’s a good benefit.”
The bigger benefit, say members, is the time spent together: walks through the redwoods, elaborate meals, sports watching and political discussions. In the summer, the residents run Camp Cheesecake for their grandchildren (no parents allowed), with treasure hunts, swimming and soccer games. And, as they predicted 40 years ago, they do tend to one another. In May 2004, Louise Browning, Dick’s wife, suffered severe complications from cancer surgery. “It was scary for us,” says resident Gaile Wakeman. “It was our first brush with anything like that.” For more than a month, until her homecoming, Browning’s neighbors made daily 90-minute drives to the hospital, bringing meals and fresh flowers and often spending the night. “Nothing could have kept me away,” Wakeman adds. “It was what Cheesecake was meant to be, and it worked.”