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Rethinking the Commune

"What really drew me to this group was the concern for the earth," says Patricia, a retired Realtor.

Building a community isn't easy. Locating affordable land, assessing environmental risks, obtaining city permits, attracting families—any one of these tasks can derail an effort. Architect Charles Durrett, a pioneer in the U.S. cohousing movement and author of the book Senior Cohousing (Ten Speed Press, 2005), estimates that only about a third of the groups that start talking about creating a cohousing community actually get to construction.

And those who do succeed ultimately find out that living together takes hard work. "I've seen wives and husbands nearly get divorced over choosing carpets," says architect Todd Lawson, whose book The House to Ourselves (Taunton Press, 2004) explores innovative housing options for older couples. "Can you imagine the complexity of six or eight or more people coming together to make decisions about design?" Add to this the fact that many communities require unanimous consent on key decisions, which means hashing through issues until everyone feels comfortable—and agrees. "It can be wearing," admits Terra Nova's Hoyt DeVane. But it's worth it. "If done right, making decisions with your neighbors actually helps to build community," says Durrett. The proof: of the dozens of cohousing communities in the United States and the world that have survived to construction, not a single one has failed.

Two autumns ago Milagro's residents gathered in the common house to mark a milestone for their community, the upcoming birth of the first infant. At a special ceremony the future parents listened as their neighbors offered blessings, advice, and stories about raising their own children. To show their interconnectedness, the community members unfurled a long skein of red yarn, which each person tied to his or her own wrist before passing the skein along. Next, those in the circle cut the yarn into individual bracelets, which some people wore until the material frayed and fell off naturally. "It became for me a symbol of the cycle of life," resident Sara Kuropatkin says of her bracelet. "I wore it all the time." The baby, a healthy girl, was born January 30, 2005.

Then, three days later, another milestone. Sara's brother, Marcus Cortez, died unexpectedly from complications of diabetes. He was smart, stubborn, and only 58. His was the first death of a Milagro resident. Once again, the neighbors flocked to the common house. "I think people expected we were going to cry or talk about death," says Sara. Instead, Cortez's mother regaled them with lively stories about her son's life. To honor him, the community decorated a small mesquite tree with colorful streamers and a clay mask, an angel sculpture, and candles honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. One day Sara's husband, Michael Kuropatkin, was walking home from tending the tree. Along the way he passed a neighbor pushing a cart of fresh laundry for the new baby and her parents. At that moment Michael and the neighbor both realized they were truly part of a community pulling together to honor death and new life.

For Milagro residents these connections are the most vital part of communal living. Patricia DeWitt, the retired Realtor, explains it this way: "I have a pilot's license. I've climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I've parachuted. Living here has been the hardest thing to do—to learn to get along with people—and the most rewarding. If I was told I had to give up all but one of these experiences, I'd choose to keep Milagro."

Barry Yeoman, a journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, wrote "Prisoners of Pain" (September-October 2005).

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