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Three households stave off winter isolation by choosing cooperative living

Communal Antidote 

Three households stave off winter isolation by choosing cooperative living

Life in the Triangle today pretty much parrots the national creed to "keep moving." Not only does the annual sloughing off of college students define the local sensibility, but the casual erection of, say, entire developments in a single bound sets a certain rhythm as well. Housing, then, seems pockmarked by the disposable motif: Rent cheap, stay briefly, tolerate your roommates--at best.

If isolation is increasingly a fall-out from this pace, it's even more pronounced when the season grows cold, sapping the will to reach out and stay connected. But scattered throughout the Triangle are examples of households attempting to counter that slide. As intentional, cooperative living arrangements, these groups are made up of individuals who choose to sacrifice some measure of autonomy for other perks, such as reduced costs of living, a social support structure and the ability to live in an environmentally conscious way.

By tackling issues such as food, chores, bills, noise, repairs and activities, each household generates its idiosyncratic vision and structure. And though words like 'rules' and 'structure' can inspire a clammy listlessness in many, they seem to generate in most seasoned group-house members a veritable glow.

The large, two-story Durham house on Glendale Avenue once was famous for its year-round display of an enormous black bat on its roof. Now the home of four single adults, it retains its reputation for general wackiness, though longtime renter Ben Turney dismisses the party-house image as "vestigial." As a loosely structured cooperative, the members split bills, buy some goods communally and hold house meetings. They also attend to household duties by way of a handy prop called "The Chore Wheel," and follow a food system that borders on undeciphered calculus. And as an environmentally aware community, there's a well-defined system for all recycling and composting duties.

If pressed to explain why they work through these many variables as a team, the top-layer quip would be: You can't beat the rent. And of course, they're right. How else would single folks manage to snag a beautiful, roomy house with hardwood floors--and a huge yard for a garden? But there's a larger sense that a group house offers a unique safety net of support.

Jenn Brown, a member of the house who disliked the extremes of complete solitude or a too-close roommate, found a middle ground in the group situation. "This was the best of both worlds, because this was a mature group of responsible--and creative--adults who agreed to communicate." And while the relationships inside the house were her "instant community," there was no pressure to be each housemate's best friend.

Turney, who grew up as an only child, sees the house as a way to learn about interaction, conflict and changing attitudes. "I still tend to see myself as an introvert, but I feel very supported by my housemates. We can open up to each other--it can be very rewarding."

One of the most brightly colored houses east of Carrboro, another co-op for five people has been thriving for just over four years. Owned by two of the residents, it has three spots for renters, who are slightly less rooted to the house--but just slightly. There's a curious stabilizing influence about the place, or maybe about its workings as a whole.

Like the folks in Durham, the Carrboro five admit that a group set-up provides something they may have missed along the way. One housemate, Boo, notes that she bounced around a lot until landing at this house, where she's now lived for four years. Samara, one of the more recent members, hits on what she missed growing up in a single-parent home: "My mom worked a lot, and it was often 'everyone out for themselves.' Dinner was 'eat what you can find,' so I missed out on that close living."

In contrast with a more random approach to living together, this particular group house brings a heightened level of structure to daily life, especially in regards to food. Not only do they shop as a house, utilizing discounts at a local co-op market, but each person must cook dinner for the group one night a week. Maria, a co-owner, admits that newcomers sort of balk at the structure. "But it actually turns out to be a lot easier in terms of time and energy and commitment. And I think the fact that we have a lot of structure is what has made our house work successfully."

While they share the notebook, the "wipey board," the house meetings and so on, they've also spent time outlining household goals for themselves. With the aid of a welcome peer pressure that comes in that setting, they were able to follow through on a January resolution to do 250 hours of community service as a group. They've also held community dinners, inviting neighbors and friends for a meal in their home, asking for a small donation that then went to a local homeless shelter or Hurricane Floyd flood relief.

Maria describes this work as a seamless extension of house-centered responsibilities. "Symbolically, I love that volunteering locally is part of our weekly chore chart. It's a way of recognizing that there's all these details we have to take care of in the house like sweeping, or cleaning the dishes. But that it's also important that we attend to the community--so that we're not getting so caught up in our own lives that we don't have time for anything else."

The quiet motherlode of cooperative living, Blue Heron Farm is situated in Chatham County. With 64 acres, 15 sites for homes, a year-round organic farmer on the property, as well as its own nonprofit educational association, it makes an extremely well-organized rebuttal to the usual, more nuclear structures for home life. Its members include almost every generation and status, with singles, married couples and children in the mix, and child care diffused responsibility among members.

Environmentally conscious living is one of this group's most obvious commitments--they employ passive solar energy models, utilize houses recycled from condemned lots, and take great pains to avoid doing damage to the forest around them. Doug Jones, the group's organic farmer, works with interns, thereby teaching sustainable agricultural methods to a wider community.

But Barbara Lorie, a recognized activist with feminist, anti-racist, and environmental concerns, and one of the Blue Heron Farm's founding members, points to communication models as an equally important facet of why the residents choose to be there. "This is an alternative to families. Most of us in society come from a dysfunctional kind of family, the kind based on a modern, capitallistic, nuclear model of being. One of the amazing things about being here is that we share very deeply, and we get to know each other in profound ways."

  • Three households stave off winter isolation by choosing cooperative living

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