Cover story – Still havens for security, spirituality
By Craig Wilson, USA Today
Summertown Tennessee – Cynthia Holzapfel often rides her one-eyed quarter horse, Domingo, to work. It’s a five minute ride to the woods and down a country road to her job at a small publishing company.
The good life. And more people want to slice of it.
Holzapfel lives at The Farm, one of the most famous communes to come out of the 1970s. But if this 1750 acre community here in southern Tennessee isn’t your idea of Nirvana, there are more than 3,000 other communes nationwide to choose from. And people are doing just that.
Intentional communities – the 90s phrase for the old-fashioned commune – touting everything from the spiritual life to the sense of security, once again are being looked upon as viable alternatives not only to a 9 to 5 life, but also to an empty Sunbelt retirement.
About 300,000 people already live in such communities, and the number is quietly rising again after a drop off in the Reagan a tease. In the early 70’s there were more than 20,000 communes nationwide, but experts don’t see the communal population surging to that point this decade.
Weak economy may fuel communes new popularity
If the idea of a commune scares you back inside your suburban ranch house, relax. You can keep your Jeep Cherokee. Some of today’s communes are in ranch houses in suburbia. The 18 year old Stelle community and Northern Illinois, made up of 44 privately owned homes, is but one.
And communal practices – the sharing of everything from lodging to clothing – once followed so religiously, are fading. Mini communes have turned their back on the communal pot all together and now embrace a few aspects of good old fashioned capitalism.
Even The Farm, which turns 20 years old this month, has matured from a freewheeling commune a 1400 hippies living in buses and tents to a cooperative of 200 people who run small businesses on community owned land. Their homes today look almost suburban.
And in some locations, older people with professional skills are replacing the stereotypical young, peace-loving hippies as the new commune residence.
“We’re finding more professional, mainstream people, and older people are coming in. A retired engineer just joined our community, for instance,” says Corinne McLaughlin of the 35 member Sirius Community in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, co-author of Builders of the Dawn: Community lifestyles in a changing world, Book Publishing Company.
“There are a lot of people who have made it in the mainstream and still aren’t satisfied. They are finding the sense of connectedness is missing,” says McLaughlin. “What the older members – and all the members for that matter – are looking for today is a sense of community and support. Mutual support and community shared values. It’s also a lot less expensive to live in a community situation.”
For instance, residence at The Farm only pay a monthly $100 co-op fee. In many such communities, people find the can live on as little as $3,000 a year or less.
Donald Pitzer, head of the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, understands the lure.
“People want companionship and economic security. Then there’s an ideology that’s the part of every community which brings people together,” says Kaiser. “The cohousing movement (people moving in together to share expenses) is strong, too, and getting stronger every year.”
Bob Holzapfel, who with his wife Cynthia manages the Book Publishing Company at The Farm – The Now and Zen Epicure is its most recent offering – understands why the communal experience is beginning to flourish again.
“They’ve already gone through the banks. The insurance companies are collapsing, and next its going to hit people’s pensions,” he says. “A number of folks savings are going to evaporate, and they’re going to have to find creative ways to live comfortably.”
Is a weak economy fueling the trend?
“It’s difficult to know whether economic distress ruins such communities or encourages them to found them,” say Pitzer. “Some historians feel the founding of communities comes with the downside, but there’s just as much evidence on the other side.”
Today’s lingering recession has given birth to the newest commune in the land: Futures, Inc. In September, 8 people in Berea, Kentucky, agreed to establish a working / retirement community center on 50 acres, and do it along communal lines. James Wyker, a 90 year old Minister of four years worked abroad with the World Council of Churches, is heading up the project, expected to take ten years to get into full swing. Ground baking for the community center should take place within the year.
“It’s a leadership training center first and a Christian commune second,” he says. I’m afraid of both of those words, Christian and commune. Let’s call it a social rehabilitation center. Or recycling ourselves.”
Wyker hopes the community will be “small enough to be self-managed and large enough to be efficient. About 250 people is as big as you dare get if you’re going to have a ball to eyeball relationships.”
“Retirement is just part of it. What about all these people who are unemployed?” ask Wyker. “We will give them jobs. They don’t have to have a nickel. They’ll get food, shelter and jobs from the day they arrive. We take street people, anyone of good character, but they’ve got to want to work. We’re not a reformatory. Where an association of understanding, dedicated people.”
Charles Betterton, editor of Communities magazine and president of the Foundation for Personal and Community Development, isn’t surprised by the new strains in the communal movement. He spent years attempting to build bridges between the experiences of people and intentional communities and mainstream society.
“Intentional communities are finally being discovered as a saner, more productive and more meaningful ways to live,” says Betterton, a 12 year member of the Stelle Community in Stelle Illinois.
Community Magazines new definitive guide to cooperative living, A Directory of Intentional Communities: a guide to cooperative living, Fellowship for Intentional Community Publications Cooperative, has sold 7000 copies and is already in its second printing. “The fact that it’s sold and sold so quickly, is further evidence of the growing interest and respect for the significance and relevance of 200 years of intentional communities in this country,” says Betterton. “People are hungry for an environment where they can continue to grow.”