When I was in high school, one of my religion teachers shared some books with me by a guy named Shane Claiborne who thought Christians should be less materialistic. One of his books, The Irresistible Revolution, talked about an Intentional Christian Community he and his friends started right out of college, and I became fascinated with the idea.
The general concept of an Intentional Christian Community was simple: instead of Christians working toward busy, high-paying careers to eventually pay for single family homes with lawns and cars and dogs and stuff, what if they pooled their resources, and shared everything—or at least some things—in common, like some of the earliest Christians did? This would allow them more time and money to help in whatever community they were a part of.
Simple but radical, and surprising to me. While I didn’t think Adventism was materialistic by any means, it did seem that living as an Adventist still allowed plenty of room for people to live in nice houses as nuclear families and build personal wealth. Sure, people who worked for the church in some capacity might not make very much money, but it never seemed like people were poor because of a moral stance. And I’d never once heard anyone suggest the merits of shared wealth.
But Shane was very much into shared wealth. One of the things he talked about that stuck with me the most is that Christians read a lot of the things Jesus said to individual people and take it as a thing every Christian should follow. But that one time a super rich guy asked Jesus what he should do to be saved, and Jesus responded that that super rich guy should sell everything he have and give to the poor, that story is seen by Christians to have just been about THAT super rich guy. Shane thought that was silly.
His particular Intentional Christian Community was called The Simple Way, and it involved people living together, sharing meals, praying and studying the Bible, growing some of their own food, making their own (stylistically ragged) clothes, biking everywhere, and helping people in their Philadelphia neighborhood with whatever they could.
I loved how extreme this was. The main model of living out faith I had seen was so timid by comparison. Once, maybe twice a week, you’d to go church. Then during the week you’d have your private relationship with God, through reading and prayer. And then you’d just try to be a good and maybe winsome person in whatever you chose to do with your days.
I of course understand that that is a deeply meaningful way for many people to engage with their faith, but I was in high school and at the peak of my idealism.
In college I made some friends with a similar idealism, and we’d talk about this and many other ideas late into the night. Though I grew and changed and had many different dreams in college, I was convinced that living in an Intentional Christian Community with these specific friends was one of my futures. Instead of just splitting off on our different directions after college to live in whatever place made sense for each of our careers, and remaining on our separate paths, we’d find a way, within 10 years max, to end up in the same city, co-owning a property, and living communally. We’d stick with each other—with people—as the main organizing principle in our lives.
When we’d describe this idea to other people, I’d often start by joking that we were going to start a cult one day, after which the actual thing would sound less like a cult than the other way around. And we gave it an identity. In reference to both economic organization and togetherness, we’d call it The Company.
After Livvy and I moved to Boston we began to look around for an Intentional Christian Community we could be a part of, to get some experience and learn what could work for our own some-day community. It turned out that while there were networks of Intentional Communities, and a handful in the greater Boston area, finding one that was Christian in that part of the country was going to be unlikely.
We learned of one that was in a years-long process of starting, but it was too far in the future to plan on. Another, a Quaker organized community, seemed really interesting but its membership model was too expensive for us. We’d look around every now and then but continued in our Fenway apartment while we kept wondering where we’d be in the future.
Briefly, with one of these college friends, we got very excited about one very old, very big, very inexpensive house in Benton Harbor, near where we went to college in Michigan. We thought very seriously about moving back there, fixing it up, and starting something. But we were persuaded against it.
Livvy had had a year-and-a-half-long contract job which is what had motivated our move to Boston, and when the time was running out on that we started thinking about this again. Would we stay in the area? And if so, for what? Livvy was considering applying to grad school, and at the same time exploring the idea of going to a coding bootcamp. Both seemed like good enough reasons to stay in the Boston area, but without the sizable housing subsidy her job had provided, we’d need to find another place to stay. She wouldn’t be earning anything, and I was already a year deep into not making much while trying to get Types & Symbols off the ground.
And it was then that we ended up learning about Margaret Moseley, a recently-started housing co-op that was still accepting applicants.
It wasn’t Christian, but we still figured we could learn a lot. Significantly, living there would cost us a total of around $700 a month, compared to the $2,700 a month our rent had been for our last six months in Fenway.
After we applied, we were invited to come in for a tour and an interview, to see if we’d be a good fit. The interview was (I think) 19 questions, and included things like “tell us about your commitment to anti-oppression and anti-racism” and “how open are you to changing your mind.” It took 3 hours, but we later learned we were longer-winded in our responses than they expected.
They let us in. And on our two-year wedding anniversary we moved into 89 Munroe St, Roxbury MA, joining 17 other residents and a few pets in a 16 bedroom, four story house.
For the eight months we lived there our only private space was our 135 square foot bedroom, cut into by the roof line. We slept on a couch bed, converting it every morning and evening for the little bit of extra space. Other than that we had a desk and some IKEA bookshelves for our clothes. Most of our belongings ended up stored in the basement.
Bathrooms and kitchens were shared, with nightly communal meals, a system for distributing chores, and a weekly all-member house meeting.
In addition to our communal meal prep and cleanup tasks, I was assigned community engagement (which I never once put any time into), and Livvy was assigned grocery shopping (which she put many hours into). There were also weekly house meetings to discuss progress on all of the things related to keeping the house going. And all of this—the chore structure and the responsibilities and the house meetings—were all described in the House Manual.
It was an ambitious project but we were very optimistic. It had grown out of a longer-running (though smaller) co-op called Lucy Stone, and was organized by Unitarian Universalist Community Cooperatives. And the goals of that organization—roughly to align people around a certain set of values and to remove housing stock from the speculative market to provide affordable housing options—seemed really in line with our earlier ideals.
The project fell apart quite quickly though, and we left after 8 months. There are many reasons why it might have failed: the poor communication around the chore schedule, the ensuing chore strike, the reaction to the chore strike, the departure of some members because of the chore strike; the random act of violence against one of the members, which led to him experiencing a severe mental health crisis, which led to him making racist comments, which led to major tensions in a majority minority house; the abject lack of compatible communication styles, and the lack of ability to commit to previously agreed-upon communication methods; or the unfortunate lack of competent financial knowledge. But the reason that seems to be the most significant is that values are not enough to hold a community together, especially when the community is new and the house is old.
In talking to Matt Meyer, then the leader of UUCC, he shared something that we think captures things well. He suggested that, were he to do things again, he would organize a community around practices instead of values. He had previously started and still lived at that time in Lucy Stone, which had had their own (though much less dramatic) struggles. Values, he thought, were great but too subjective. And the tensions that can occur when people feel strongly that a value matters but differ on how to practice that value can be very hard to reconcile.
In our own experience this seemed true: the refrigerator protocol, the laundry debates, the chore strike—they all came from very well-intentioned, deeply value-based places. But this meant that people were often unwilling to compromise, because they felt that their own interpretation of the values were more correct than others’.
After Livvy finished her coding bootcamp she got a job in Somerville, an hour-long commute from the co-op. Around that same time Types & Symbols finally stabilized, and I started taking a salary. And with enough money for the four-months-worth-of-rent needed to get an apartment in that part of the country, we found a place closer to Livvy’s job, and we left the experiment, having learned a good deal about how not to run a co-op.
So we moved to Davis Square, in Somerville, and started another life. While at Margaret Moseley, busy with bootcamp and work and house chores, we didn’t have much time for anything else. We remained friends with one of our housemates and her son, and had friends from our church still, but we restarted life in Somerville and began building things up from scratch.
It was a very good life that we were able to build. Sitcom-levels of socializing. What felt like a delayed adolescence where we rode bikes to a climbing gym and hung out with friends all of the time. It was, except for a few snags here and there, a far easier way to have community than living with people.
But the vision for something cooperative still persisted. We’d tell our new friends about our old housemates, show them one of our prized relics from that time, and insist that we should all go in on a house together instead of going on forever with these exorbitant rents.
Livvy and I were most interested in someday finding a mixed use building, with a ground level space for community events and living spaces above, but were open to other options too.
Some of our friends were really interested in the shared housing but less interested in engaging with an outside community. Some were close to being ready for something like this but ended up moving away. Some were already living something close enough to this with their own housemates. And others wanted to be far away from the city, and a bit more recluse.
But throughout all of those conversations, and following our move to Denver, I’ve understood a bit more clearly what I’m after, at least these days. While the religious aspect has long ago fallen away for me, I have felt more and more that building and supporting inclusive communities—interconnected groups of people—doing something creative—is much more interesting to me than a residential communalism.
Working on this site and looking back on the kinds of projects Livvy and I have worked on or groups we’ve started or joined—the stuff we don’t make money from but have kept returning to—so many of those things have been around or for communities of some kind. Satellite, Group, The Sound of Keys Crashing, Glint, Prose & Poetry, The Refinery, Free Intelligent Conversation, Church, Sabbath Breakfast, Margaret Moseley, Sabbath Dinner, Church (a different one), Moonlight, Summery, PowerPoint Parties, and the assortment of other one-off events (Campfire, The Low-Bar Talent Show, The Brazil Live Show, How To Learn Stuff Better, The King of Qatar listening parties) have all been things we’ve done for fun, for and with people, that have involved some organizing. And that seems worth paying attention to. It’s things like that—creating things around community—that lights me up, much more than anything I do as a designer.
Living within walking (or elevator-riding) distance from friends is still preferable to me, and I still think there’s immense value in co-housing arrangements or looser forms of intentional communities, affordability aside. But I’ve become more interested in the idea of third spaces; gathering places where people can end up with the kind of repeated, unplanned interactions that lead to friendship; about just that ground level community space from the previous plan.
At the prodding of a good friend, Livvy and have decided to be more intentional about these ideas, and to work towards starting something like this.
Writing up this long background post is part of that. Another part is setting up a project/proposal page to make it easier to share with people, which you can see here.
From that page:
The Company is a concept for a membership-based mixed-use creative space in a city. The primary goal is to provide a third space where people can meet and gather and create, after work and before home. The most basic elements would include a sitting area, a maker space, a performance space, a gallery, and a library (the scale of any which can change as it grows, and may overlap at times). Together with regular programming and events, these elements would help create the kind of atmosphere where community can form through repeated, unplanned interactions with a kindred crowd. Ultimately, the goal is for The Company to become the kind of place that makes someone want to move to or stay in a city or neighborhood; to foster a cherished community.
Up until now we’ve not had a dedicated space. In college there were plenty of free spaces we could use; in Somerville we hosted things at our home or in the microcinema of the theater across the street; in Denver we’ve repurposed our living space as needed.
But a separate, shared space, that can exist outside of us, seems like the way to go. Toward this, we’re interested in finding ways to make that sustainable. We may experiment with renting spaces in the city here and there for events and charging for tickets to cover the cost. We may restart Moonlight with a different fee structure. We may look at setting up a storefront for some of our products and looking at pop-ups to see whether a brick-and-mortar location could make sense.
Our goal is to put together a business plan by the end of this year (2023), and ahead of that to learn as much as possible about existing creative and maker spaces. We’re planning to talk to and learn from people running these kinds of spaces in Denver and elsewhere, and to start building up a list of people who might be interested in being members of something like this. If that’s you, let us know.