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

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.

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I Lived in a 38-Person Co-Op in San Francisco, and so Can You