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Rethinking the Commune

By the time he was in his mid-40s, Bob Gilby figured he had everything pretty much worked out. An engineer with a copper-mining company, he had purchased land situated at the edge of a lush green ridge that sloped sharply from the desert toward Arizona's Santa Catalina Mountains. He and his third wife, Donna, had met with an architect to design their dream home, where the couple would eventually spend a quiet old age among the tall mesquite. They would watch the sunsets and the distant glow of the lights of Tucson from their canyon perch.

It would be isolated, but that was okay. Seclusion came naturally to Bob, who was born on a Michigan dairy farm. Over the years he had held a series of solo jobs, including a stint as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service. After his first marriage dissolved, he took refuge in a town 60 miles from the nearest grocery store, "just simmering my brain on the back burner."

Intentional communities vary as widely as the people who inhabit them.

Then, just after he married Donna in 1994, Bob got together with some friends he'd met at a men's retreat weekend the previous year. He began to see just how isolated he was making himself. "I realized that hiding myself on a piece of property tucked away in the trees would deprive me of a lot of the more fulfilling parts of being older," says the lanky 56-year-old. "I'd miss the grandfathering. The uncling. Being the male elder in the tribal sense." He could only have these things, he understood, if he was part of an extended family.

The Gilbys joined in discussions with friends who were contemplating a better way: an intergenerational neighborhood where meals would be shared, milestones celebrated by all, and hardships weathered together. The group began meeting weekly to flesh out a vision for such a place. With a core of four households fronting the money, they purchased 43 acres of desert dotted with saguaro cactus and teddy bear cholla in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. Then they went to work, recruiting new residents, planning the community, and building the houses. They fought a contentious zoning battle, worked to soothe unhappy neighbors, and, in the process, incurred a lot of debt.

Despite these hurdles, the first families moved into the first houses in April of 2002; others soon followed. Eventually the population reached 60 people, ranging in age from infancy to 89 and spanning the ethnic spectrum, including six American Indians and immigrants from Japan, Turkey, China, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Venezuela. To those who had worked on the project for eight years, it seemed miraculous that their community had finally come together. So, borrowing the Spanish word for "miracle," they called their new home Milagro.

It's a sad irony that the generation of boomer Americans who popularized the commune in the 1960s and '70s went on to live through the most uncommunal period in the nation's history. As cornfields turned to exurbs and job security dwindled, more people found themselves drifting far from their childhood homes, never developing deep roots. "U.S. society has been on a steady path of alienation and fragmentation," says Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Missouri-based Fellowship for Intentional Community. "People are simultaneously more mobile and more isolated. If you ask the average adult today if he or she has as much interaction with their neighbors as they did when they were growing up, nine out of ten would say no."

The founders of Milagro were searching for a sense of community not generally available in this country.

Which explains why a growing number of people are starting to create their own communities. According to trend watchers, the past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in collective living—albeit of a more sophisticated variety than the hippie communes of 40 years ago.

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