By: Ally Schweitzer, December 5, 2014
In the waning days of Jimmy Carter’s administration, through the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the early years of D.C.’s crack cocaine epidemic, a new embassy bloomed in D.C.
This embassy wasn’t on Embassy Row. Tourists never gawked from its front steps. The embassy didn’t give tours, and technically, no diplomats lived there. Just hippies. Roughly 35 of them, transplanted from what you could call a foreign country: the Farm, a back-to-the-land Tennessee commune of “technicolor beatniks” in the thumping heart of the Bible Belt.
The hippies from the countryside called their embassy the D.C. Center. The people who would become my parents lived there, raising kids and working hard in service of their cause: world peace. And in a way, they brought the planet closer to it.
From 1978 to 1984, the D.C. Center occupied a three-story house on the Columbia Heights side of 16th Street NW. It operated according to the philosophy of the Farm, which my uncle and father — Peter and Philip Schweitzer — helped settle in Summertown, Tennessee, in 1971.
“When we came to the Farm, the idea was to establish a community based on the principles of nonviolence,” Peter says. “We were trying to get off this whole materialism deal that we had been raised with … We really felt like we were part of a very spiritual revolution whose end result was world peace.”
Farm residents Kay Marie Jacobson, Gerald Wheeler, Priscilla Wheeler
and Peter Schweitzer (far right) with children, 1971(Courtesy Phil Schweitzer)
“Farmies” followed the plainspoken teachings of a Korean War vet and San Francisco icon named Stephen Gaskin, who died this year at age 79. With Gaskin at the helm, the Farm’s young idealists grew their own food, built their own homes and started a soy dairy on the land they bought. Some — like my uncle — practiced polyamory, uniting themselves in two-couple bonds called “four marriages.” They pooled their money and lived collectively.
Then they started thinking even bigger. In 1974, the Farm established an organization that aimed to help needy people beyond the commune’s front gate. “Even though we were living on $1 a day a person, comparatively, to a majority of people in the world, we were fat and sassy,” Peter says. Considering themselves rich, they called the organization Plenty.
Plenty started doing food giveaways in cities struggling with poverty. The group took on its first international project in 1976, helping Guatemalan Mayans recover from a devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake. But Plenty thought it could do much more. So it set its sights on another far-off place: Washington, D.C.
On a humble block of 16th Street, Farmies planted their seed in urban soil. It germinated and grew tall in their enduring Summer of Love. But even long summers have a way of ending.
“A Hippie Embassy In the Middle of D.C.”
“I was working in the office of Plenty as an administrator,” my uncle Peter says. “And we thought, you know what? Maybe Washington, D.C., would be a good place for an office for Plenty.”
D.C., with all of its nonprofits, government agencies, leaders and foundations, seemed like the kind of action-packed place that could help Plenty expand. So my uncle and his four-married family left the Farm in 1978 and settled into a house at 3309 16th St. NW, with the goal of helping Plenty soak up some of city’s grant money and global connections.
The nation’s capital seemed like the “perfect place to be to set up an embassy,” says Kay Marie Jacobson, a then-member of my uncle’s tribe. “A hippie embassy in the middle of Washington, D.C.”
The Farm’s D.C. satellite already existed in other locations before my uncle’s four-married group came to town, but because they had the closest tie to Plenty, they made the D.C. Center an official Plenty office. With four adults and five kids, they also made it bigger. The household swelled to 35 people, Peter guesses, about half of them young children.
That was no big deal to Farmies. Especially when they had flush toilets and plenty of food, unlike in Tennessee.
“With 1,200 to 1,500 people, it was not what I would call a viable way to manage ourselves economically, to have a shared income situation,” my dad says of the Farm. By the time he arrived in D.C. in 1980 — on a Christmas visit that became long-term — the commune’s quality of life had taken a nosedive.
“The Farm was going through a lot of hard times by then,” says Elaine Langley, who had moved to the Farm at age 19. She’d been living with her husband and three young kids in a chaotic, 40-person group house on the Farm, and they’d had enough. The Langleys set foot in D.C. in 1978.
Then my mother, Cynthia — who had lived on the Farm since 1976, but didn’t know my father yet — came along with her two boys in 1981. She had put up with waterborne illness, cold nights and Farm dogma for too long, and she wanted a meaningful job in the Plenty office.
“I felt like I was ready for another step in my life,” Mom says, “and maybe this was it for me.”
“Here Come the Smith Brothers”
Sometimes at the D.C. Center, a step toward a new life felt like a leap.
“Having been on the Farm for 10 years, living in a really remote place and feeling kind of cut off from the culture — I have often said that I think I missed the ’70s, culturally,” my dad says.
He wasn’t alone. Plopping down in the city after a decade of hardcore hippiedom, D.C. Farmies may as well have walked off a Klingon starship.
“We would go out as a group, and the men still had long beards and long hair,” says my mom. “We’d walk into a restaurant and we’d hear people saying, ‘Oh, here come the Smith brothers” —the hirsute men from the cough-drop labels. “It was difficult, when meeting new people, to really feel like you could relate, or they could relate to you.”
Farmies also hadn’t updated their slang in a while. “You can only say ‘far out’ so many times when people start looking at you weird,” Mom says.
My mother reached a point where she didn’t want to talk to outsiders about her years on the Farm. “People who didn’t know my background that I was meeting, I didn’t even want to try to tell them about it,” she says. She sensed that some people assumed the worst. “I think [they thought], ‘Oh, cult.’”
The Farm was not a cult, but that assumption persisted anyway. (It comes up so often that the Farm’s official websiteaddresses it in its FAQ section.)
It wasn’t just their beards and lingo that made D.C. Center people stand out: Farmies also liked to say “hi” to everybody. On the commune, that was part of the etiquette. Giving your brothers and sisters the cold shoulder could lead to an intervention later on. Accordingly, when she came to D.C., my mother said “hi” to strangers. Eventually, she found that men were taking it the wrong way.
“There was the realization coming into D.C., just like in most big cities: ‘Well, you’d better keep a little bit more to yourself,’” Dad says.
Kids in the 16th Street house went through a similar transition. They had their own tribe — the “kid herd,” as some adults called it — that resembled a ragtag band of stowaways. They didn’t exactly fit in, either — especially not the boys, whose hair flowed long, per strict Farm custom.
Elaine’s son Russell Langley says his most vivid memories from the D.C. Center revolve around feeling embarrassed by the way he looked. He describes one unpleasant encounter at a public pool in Bethesda:
“I remember kids making fun of me in the bathroom because I had long hair, [saying] ‘Oh, the women’s bathroom is over there, ha ha ha’ — and snickering and walking away,” Langley says. “And I think that was pretty relevant to a lot of kids that grew up in the D.C. Center — wanting to cut your hair and fit in a little bit at a certain age, and it not being socially accepted within the [D.C. Center] community,” he says.
Then there was the issue of keeping kids safe in the city. One of my brothers attended nursery school at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church up 16th Street. Mom says that one day, he related a scary story.
“He said they had gone down to the playground… and there were people chasing other people with guns,” my mother says. “It wasn’t like you could just stroll down to the playground.”
The dirt roads and deer ticks of the commune, as it turns out, didn’t prepare children for urban life. “In Tennessee, they could run freely through the woods, which they did. And we didn’t worry about them,” Dad says. “In D.C., there was more of a concern about that. Suddenly they were not just running around in the woods. They were running around in the back alley behind the house.”
“A ‘Lord of the Flies’ Situation”
The alley behind the house on 16th Street became a theater of mischief for the children at the D.C. Center.
“They got into a lot of good adventures — and bad ones,” Kay Marie Jacobson says.
Jacobson’s husband Gerald Wheeler says once, he saw D.C. Center kids wrap Russell Langley in a mattress and launch him into the air from a seesaw catapult. My dad says one kid threw a hammer out of a D.C. Center window and smashed the windshield of a car. Then there was the time a youngster came upstairs asking Elaine Langley for matches.
“She came up and she says, ‘I need some matches.’ And I went, ‘For what?’ So I went running downstairs,” Langley says. “The boys had thrown gasoline everywhere. And I remember [my son] Justin being covered in gasoline.” (Elaine later says that it could have been kerosene.)
But at the same time, D.C. Center kids made friends in the neighborhood. Some local children began coming to the one-room school Jacobson had set up at the house. Critically, the hippie kids met children from cultural backgrounds other than their own, and over time, they acclimated — maybe even faster than their parents.
They also knew things the adults didn’t know. Elaine Langley, for one, was surprised to find that her roommates had been growing marijuana in the D.C. Center basement. Russell Langley says that was old news to the kids.
“We all knew it was down there,” Russell says. “It was kind of in this little cubby hole, back in the corner, and it was covered with plastic.”
Stories about the D.C. Center kids’ lives are still emerging, and some may never be revealed. “They did crazy stuff that we probably still haven’t heard about,” Mom says. And they kept their affairs inside the kid herd.
“They would deal with their own little problems in their own little social world — they would take care of it,” Mom says. “We didn’t hear a whole lot of, ‘He said this!’ and ‘Wah wah wah.’ But I don’t know. Maybe it was a Lord of the Flies situation.”
“These Were Serious People”
While D.C. was expanding the horizons of Farm kids, it was doing the same for my uncle’s organization, Plenty.
In D.C., Plenty volunteers interfaced with the media at the National Press Building, starting a news organization called the Farm News Service. They worked closely with Native Americans on issues like the conflict between the Navajo and Hopi. When hundreds of American Indian activists marched cross-country to Washington during the Longest Walk in 1978, many stayed at the D.C. Center.
José Barreiro was a houseguest on 16th Street around that time. The scholar and author — who now serves as an assistant director of research at the National Museum of the American Indian — was working as a press secretary for the American Indian Movement during the Longest Walk. Barreiro’s family crashed at the D.C. Center for a few weeks, hanging out and dining with the Farmies.
“I used to love to rag on the hippies, you know. Have fun with ’em,” Barreiro says. “There’s always a little ragging between the Indians and the hippies.”
Yet Barreiro calls Plenty hippies the real McCoy.
“The hippie thing, and the potsmoking thing — there’s so much stereotype about it,” Barreiro says. “These were serious people.”
Plenty’s interests in D.C. certainly were serious. “Nuclear power was a big issue in our mind at that time,” Peter says, “and we were part of the movement to shut it down.” With a sister group called the Natural Rights Center, it sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It advocated on behalf of “atomic veterans,” ex-servicemembers who had developed cancer after being stationed in contaminated regions or flying airplanes through mushroom clouds.
In April 1980, Plenty organized a large anti-nuke rally on the National Mall. The skies poured rain, but thousands still turned out to hear Pete Seeger and Bonnie Raitt perform.
Plenty’s most critical D.C. project began to take shape in 1982. Jacobson says Spanish-speaking residents from Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights had started coming to the house, looking for medical help from residents with clinic experience, which several had. The care-seekers were part of a wave of refugees fleeing violence in Central America.
Plenty, alongside the Central American Refugee Center, saw an opportunity to help.
“We started scheming together about getting a free clinic going for these refugees,” Peter says. They called it La Clínica Del Pueblo.
At first, La Clínica operated only one night a week, with the help of local Central American groups, volunteer doctors, medical students and D.C. Center residents. Then-Mayor Marion Barry kicked in a check for $10,000.
Refugees came to the clinic with flu symptoms, minor injuries and every kind of intestinal parasite — and more serious conditions. Some “were suffering from terrible trauma,” Jacobson says. “Many of them were survivors of torture.”
All of the adults at the D.C. Center supported La Clínica in some way. Some volunteered at the clinic, helping patients and staffing the pharmacy. But just as important was the work done outside of the clinic, running the house and bringing in outside income. It all served to keep the center running and to make sure Plenty could stay in D.C.
“Everybody Was Crew”
If there were layabouts at the D.C. Center, John Coate didn’t know of any. “Everybody was crew. There were no passengers,” he says.
But to do his part as a crewmember, Coate had to pick up a couple of new skills. In the center’s early days, construction and remodeling had emerged as its main source of income, driven by Elaine’s carpenter husband, Calvin Langley, and construction crew leader Gerald Wheeler later on. Coate had been a truck driver for the Farm; he didn’t have much remodeling experience. So he learned how to paint and finish wood.
Income earned at the D.C. Center paid for everybody: their food, their house supplies and clothes for their children. The only exception was Saturdays, when residents could work to earn their own money. (The scratch they earned on those days was called Saturday money, and it was the sweetest kind.)
But not everyone inside the house had time to work an outside job, especially not women. Work wasn’t divided strictly by gender on the Farm, but it did have some norms: Men tended to do labor, and women usually took care of the house and kids.
Elaine Langley served as a house-runner at the D.C. Center. She made gallon after gallon of soymilk, the Farm’s preferred vegan beverage. “I was always in the background,” she says — and she didn’t question it. “I just figured whatever my job was, that’s what it was.”
My mother, who had come to D.C. with plans to work for Plenty, felt differently. Instead of working for the organization, “I quickly was co-opted … for cooking and cleaning and taking care of kids,” she says. “And for me, that was a real letdown.” Plus, she was single, and single people occupied an even lower rung on the Farm’s social ladder.
“I think there was a hierarchy on the Farm,” my dad says. “It was a strange pecking order, so to speak, that on the Farm, single people were generally at the bottom of the heap.”
Mom became disillusioned. “I felt like a lot of the reason I had come [to D.C.] was to learn some new skills… and I started to see how there was the hierarchy that I didn’t like about living on the Farm. It was just a microcosm of the Farm, basically. And I was the single lady.”
Working on construction sites while people like my uncle did the important (and less physically demanding) work, John Coate felt the occasional flash of resentment, too. But he says when he griped to his friend and crew leader Wheeler, he got little sympathy in return.
“I remember Gerald one time said, ‘Hey, listen, this is how it works here,’” Coate says. “It was one of those, ‘Look, I understand how you feel, but you know, you’re really gonna have to get with the program here.”
Coate says he wasn’t bothered by that in the long run, partly because living at the D.C. Center still topped living on the Farm. And for a while, it seemed like it could last a long time. “I felt by say, 1980, we were hitting on all cylinders,” Coate says. “We could have kept going there for years.”
That all changed in 1983.
“It Started Feeling Wobbly”
In May 1983, my mom took a walk to the apartment of an ex-Farm resident who lived in Mount Pleasant. She had left something there the night before, and she set out to go pick it up.
Elaine Langley remembers where she was when my mom left the house. “I was in the kitchen,” she says. “She had gone out — she had taken a shower, and had her flowing dress.” Shortly afterward, kids tore into the house, shouting. Elaine ran outside to see what was going on.
“She was on the sidewalk, bleeding.”
My mother had been stabbed on the street.
“I just remember trying to get away,” Mom says. “I had my flip-flops on, which I was tripping over, so I couldn’t get away fast enough.”
It had been too late for her to react to the man, who had darted out of a nearby apartment building, run up to her and plunged a knife into her stomach.
A woman on the street screamed at the man, “You can’t do that!”
Then he ran away.
Later, police informed my mother that the man they quickly arrested suffered from mental illness. He said his television had told him to kill the devil outside his apartment on Park Road. Court records show he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Saint Elizabeths. At Washington Hospital Center, my mother gradually recovered.
“I kept thinking about my kids. ‘What’s gonna happen to them?’” she says.
In the months that followed, Mom’s doubts about life at the D.C. Center broke the surface. “It started feeling kind of wobbly, the whole thing,” she says. “I had felt sort of secure, and then all of a sudden I wasn’t.” When she regained the ability to get around by foot, she walked sideways, paranoid about what could be coming up behind her. And she wasn’t sure the community on 16th Street could give her the security she needed.
“So that’s when your dad and I started talking about getting together and moving out,” Mom says. She came to D.C. hardly knowing Phil Schweitzer, but they had begun to gravitate toward each other, particularly in the aftermath of her stabbing. “I fell in love with her through that process,” Dad says.
But their growing bond couldn’t prevent fissures from developing at the D.C. Center. Conflicts over kids, relationships and power — magnified by a diminishing supply of construction work — strained relationships at the house. “Issues were coming up, like, ‘Who’s in charge? Who makes decisions?’”, Mom says. Meanwhile, the Farm was going through a similar process on a much larger scale.
“The workforce and the donations and everything seemed never able to keep the whole thing in a basic state of even rudimentary well-being,” says John Coate.
The Farm was splitting apart. Amid shortages of food and resources, parents struggled to keep their children fed and clothed. Hundreds had lost faith in guru Stephen Gaskin. In 1983, 12 years into its grand socioeconomic experiment, the Farm made the difficult but necessary decision to abandon its collective economy, one of its most fundamental principles.
The experiment in Washington subsequently unraveled. “Without the mothership, we no longer had the core of who we were,” Dad says. “Each of us, in our own way, needed to figure out what we were going to do next.”
Gradually, D.C. Center residents packed up their kids and scattered all over the country. John Coate’s family tried to hack it back on the Farm, but found life there unbearable. Coate, like many other 16th Street residents, moved to California. The Langleys relocated to Montgomery County in Maryland. Phil and Cynthia moved there, too. They got married, and in 1985, I was born at home in Silver Spring.
The D.C. Center’s Legacy
The house on 16th Street sold in 1986. It’s now the location of The Family Place, a nonprofit organization that supports low-income parents and their young children.
Today, the Farm still exists, albeit in a less socialist form: It’s now a cooperative with a fairly capitalist economy. Both my father (whose marriage to my mom ended in 1993) and uncle Peter live there, separated only by a 10-minute walk on a gravelly road. Plenty is still active, too, under my uncle’s leadership.
La Clínica Del Pueblo lives on, too.
When my uncle and Plenty left D.C. in 1984, “We told the community, the clinic is yours. See what you can do with it.” Today, La Clínica provides services to more than 20,000 residents a year, with an annual budget that exceeds $7 million.
The clinic’s success almost excuses the fact that the Farm still hasn’t achieved what it set out to do in the first place.
“We try to not feel guilty about not doing a better job of bringing world peace by now,” says my uncle, chuckling. “Somehow, it just kind of slipped through our fingers. But we’re still working on it.”