I Lived in a 38-Person Co-Op in San Francisco, and so Can You
The joy and practice of learning to share
I Lived in a 38-Person Co-Op in San Francisco, and so Can You
By Tommy Alexander / thebolditalic.com
Nov 4, 2016

Community living is blossoming in 21st-century San Francisco. This trend exists at the confluence of diverse historical narratives: the free-love and experimental ethos of the hippie movement, the casual opulence of the city’s Victorian-era homes and the earnest audacity of start-up culture. These are co-ops where programmers and cooks rub shoulders with artists and teachers, where the phrase “love and gratitude” is used as a casual valediction, and where globally minded innovators are working to develop replicable models for urban shared living.

I live in a 13-person co-op in a big old house near the apex of Ashbury Street. Up here in the fog between the hills and the sky, we are sharing a fundamental human experience: a sense of belonging and collaborative meaning-making that can be difficult to find in modern urban society.

These choices may seem unconventional, but they have enabled us to forge a meaningful, creative and affordable existence amid the hectic, electric bustle of our context.

My housemates and I share food, resources and vision. We cook together; we clean together; and we meet regularly to discuss our mutual stake in this community. Some of us work nine-to-five office jobs; some of us work on nights and weekends; and others work primarily from home — so we use Slack, the messaging app, to stay on the same page. We keep records of logistical information on a Google Drive, and we manage our common-pool funds in a shared bank account. We make group decisions using a combination of consensus and do-ocracy. There are jams and sharing circles as well as neighborhood-focused events, potlucks, talks and the occasional party — and we must communicate thoughtfully with each other to make sure that everyone’s needs are met. These choices may seem unconventional, but they have enabled us to forge a meaningful, creative and affordable existence amid the hectic, electric bustle of our context.

I’m aware that the concept of communal living carries cultural baggage. When I speak to friends and family who haven’t experienced anything quite like this, they invariably draw comparisons to communes and college dorms. Those are communities, too, but the vast spectrum of human collectivism is far more multifaceted than these few common examples might imply. It is natural to process new phenomena in terms of what we know, but it is also important to understand that each community is a unique collection of individuals. I’ve met a great many bright, passionate and reasonable people who have elected to pool resources with each other, and it looks a little bit different each time. There is no singular “type” of person that benefits most from shared living.

Each day, I awoke with a visceral sense of belonging.

As for me, I arrived in San Francisco in June of 2015. I had just landed my first full-time writing job out of college. I grew up in hot, flat San Jose in the sprawling, suburban shadow of “the city,” and some yearning part of me had always identified more with the foggy peninsula than the sunny valley. I was coming here alone, and I knew that I wanted to move in with a group of people. I answered a Craigslist ad, filled out an online application and underwent a series of casual phone interviews — and there I was on the doorstep of a 24-person co-op that spanned the lower two floors of a four-story walk-up on the north side of Alamo Square.

For the first few weeks, I felt that my social capacity was being worn down to a nub: there were so many new faces; there was so much happening all the time; and I was always a step behind. The people were warm and welcoming, however, and their home became my home. Within the month, the lease was up, and the community disbanded due to a difference in vision between the two cofounders. The members were variously scattered across the city and the East Bay.

I joined a wave of 38 people who were moving into a 10-bedroom, four-story Victorian mansion around the block. The founders called it Chateau Ubuntu, for the Bantu word that roughly translates to “I am human because you are human.” On July 1, I found myself sleeping in a bunk bed in a large third-floor master bedroom with five other people, four chandeliers and a fireplace topped by a marble relief of three nude nymphs.

I lived in that room for nine months — a gestation — and my experience became a fascinating journey through the building blocks of humanity. I discovered that community is a synecdoche for society, and that any human system is just a web of agreements. I learned what it takes to keep a co-living unit afloat amid the various logistical necessities of city living: the rent, the utilities, the food, the facilities and how to facilitate the needs and wants of 38 unique individuals. I radically challenged my preconceptions about sharing space, time and resources. I fell deeply in love, and I found confidence in my art. Each day, I awoke with a visceral sense of belonging.

To the uninitiated, a 38-person community living so densely in a single home often comes across as mad. In the act, however, it felt as though nothing could be more natural. There were deep and frustrating downsides, of course: high membership turnover, too little privacy and some unresolved interpersonal tensions. We were rarely able to wrangle a meaningful consensus, with so many people constantly in and out. Yet the physical closeness, coupled with a culture of radical acceptance, fostered perhaps the most warm and loving community of humans that I have ever experienced. For every serious meeting or disagreement, there was a “cuddle puddle,” a “gratitude circle,” an impromptu jam session or a big shared meal.

Eventually, I burned out on the sheer density of Chateau Ubuntu. I needed a smaller and less socially absorptive environment in which to create more intention around my work, my art, my life and my love. I needed space to think.

Along with a few friends, my partner and I left Chateau Ubuntu to cofound a new, smaller community: our current home, Chaortica. We remain connected to a colorful coalition of other communities in the greater Haight-Ashbury area and beyond, including Ubuntu and the flagship house of the Embassy Network. We’ve tapped into the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a global directory of shared-living communities that includes communes, eco-villages, co-ops and collectives of all stripes. We don’t have it all figured out, but we are working together and collaborating on our dreams. Indeed, we cannot ever expect this to be perfect. As with any team, relationship or government, an intentional community is a constant practice, not a steady state.

Certainly, some of the communities that take root in San Francisco are more ephemeral than others. There are ventures that fold within a year, and there are cooperatives that raise children in their midst. I’ve not encountered a house here that did not experience at least some small occasional turnover, but this does not mean that we are building sand castles. There is such a vast, wild richness to the spectrum of human experience, and each person whom I’ve met has taught me something about myself. When we come together across disparate backgrounds, we inform and expand each other’s humanity.

I posit that community living can be just as empowering as living alone but that it is always an exercise in adaptation. It works only with empathy, humility and a mutually assured foundation of healthy, open communication. One might argue that these practices are essential to the future of our species on a crowdingwarming planet of 7.4 billion people. Cities are denser and pricier than ever, and we must learn to share — on a personal and civilizational scale — in ways that we have scarcely imagined. I do not mean that we all need to live in co-ops and communes, but I do contend that it is worthwhile for each of us to reconsider how much we can trust one another.

I hope that we can all take the principle of collectivism as a nugget in and of itself rather than a subordinate component of gentrification, for collaboration is not a limitation. The solution to density is trust, not fear. Sharing is easier when we parse our wants from our needs. Life is more meaningful together.

Tommy Alexander - Writing and loving and building community in San Francisco. Musician, climber, poet. Guides at AFAR.

The Bold Italic - The Bold Italic is an online magazine that celebrates the character and free-wheeling spirit of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

0.0 ·
Trending Today
7 Signs of Tyranny
2 min · 13,937 views today · Consider yourself warned.
Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More
Josh Jones · 12,351 views today · Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have...
How Independent is Hollywood?
4 min · 5,013 views today · A huge number of big-budget Hollywood films, especially those featuring war, conflict or terrorism, are influenced by Hollywood's close relationship with the United States...
4.1 Miles
21 min · 4,670 views today · Kyriakos Papadopoulos is a 41-year old local captain of the Greek Coast Guard. He has two wonderful young daughters Vivi and Melissa, and before the refugee crisis exploded in...
The Trump Report - The Real Fake News About The Dakota Access Pipeline
2 min · 3,067 views today · President Trump is sick of the lying fake news media, so he's doing the news himself. Today on The Trump Report: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline (great...
Why Would Any of Us Want to Live like a Savage?
Juan Pablo Quinonez · 2,522 views today · Let’s not be romantic. Industrial civilization is no utopia. For every creature comfort we have, something or someone pays the price. The wilderness is no fairy tale either...
What It Takes to Change Hearts and Minds
Colin Beavan · 2,079 views today · To get someone’s support, you need more than just facts.
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 1,572 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
How Comedy Can Disarm Bullies
3 min · 1,455 views today · As long as you're funny, it can get you out of almost anything - even getting mugged, as co-founder of Between Two Ferns Scott Aukerman recounts. Unfortunately, not everyone...
The Choice Between Fear And Love
5 min · 1,301 views today · Each of us has a choice to make each and every moment: a choice between love and fear. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, Jim Carrey, and the...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 1,181 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
Globalization Makes No Sense
Chris Agnos · 1,062 views today · When I lived in San Francisco, I often would marvel at the movement of goods through the ports across the bay in Oakland. Full container ships would enter the bay one after...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 902 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 739 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 644 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Immigrants For Sale (2015)
33 min · 607 views today · The detention of migrants has become a multi-billion dollar industry in which immigrants are sold to the highest bidder and traded like mere products. The Corrections...
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body
4 min · 583 views today · Vestigial structures are evolution's leftovers — body parts that, through inheritance, have outlived the context in which they arose. Some of the most delightful reminders of...
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 547 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Where the Term "Redneck" Came From
15 min · 454 views today · If you don't know this story, you'll never look at the word the same again.  This is just a window into the sometimes shocking, subversive and untold history of the United...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 433 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
I Lived in a 38-Person Co-Op in San Francisco, and so Can You