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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.

"Aging children of the '60s are coming around for another look at intentional communities," says Diana Leafe Christian, author of Creating a Life Together  (New Society Publishers, 2003) and editor of Communities magazine, "although this time, unlike in the '60s, they want equity ownership, shared cooperative decision making, and clear structure."

Intentional communities vary as widely as the people who inhabit them, from rural land-trust properties to renovated hotel buildings. They're often built around some commonality, such as a religious calling, political perspective, or ecological imperative. At Ashland Vineyard, north of Richmond, Virginia, six families live on 40 rural acres with a common commitment to Quaker principles in conducting community business. In Silver Spring, Maryland, an 1880s farmhouse called Brindledorf serves as an intentional community for schoolteachers. An old tin-roofed house, a 100-year-old sharecropper's shack, and an assortment of other homes once destined for demolition make up the ecologically efficient Blue Heron Farm near Pittsboro, North Carolina. And a group of longtime friends who decided to retire together share Cheesecake, an efficient cluster of shared buildings on 19 acres of California's Mendocino County.

There are communities of Christians, artists, lesbians, and gay men. In Columbia, Missouri, the two-house collective called Terra Nova goes one step further in the sharing department: three of its four members pool their outside income into a common account. "For me it really has to do with pulling together, feeling like a team," says 52-year-old Terra Nova cofounder Hoyt DeVane. Whatever they share, almost all of these communities emphasize the benefits of living in close proximity to one's friends. "I can't imagine not living this way, surrounded by supportive people who care about me," says Peggy O'Neill, 57, one of Ashland Vineyard's founders.

Another community model is "cohousing," an idea imported from Denmark in the late 1980s. Families in cohousing communities each have their own private home with a full kitchen. But there's a separate common building where neighbors can share evening meals, hold meetings, or just watch movies together if they want. And the residents make all of their decisions, from marketing to landscaping, collectively. Homes in a cohousing community cost about the same as similar homes in the surrounding neighborhood. In addition, each family helps pay for the common house and shared land. The number of communities using the cohousing model is growing, with more than 80 already in existence across the United States and dozens more in the planning stages. It's this model that the Gilbys and their friends used when they started planning Milagro.

Cheesecake residents talked for years about retiring together until 1993, when their dream was realized.

Cradled by five mountain ranges, with broad views of the Tucson Valley, Milagro has the feel of a desert hideaway, even though downtown is less than 10 miles away. The focus is strongly environmental. The community's homes are built on nine of the 43 acres, designed to make the most of passive solar energy, and connected by wheelchair-friendly sidewalks that meander in gentle S curves. Cars are parked on the periphery. The clustering of buildings allows for most of the land to remain a nature preserve.

Along the pathways, silvery-leafed brittlebushes sprout clusters of yellow blossoms. Hummingbirds flock to the pink and orange penstemons. "We chose these plants specifically to attract birds and butterflies," says Patricia DeWitt, 69, who heads Milagro's landscape committee. In an area that averages just 12 inches of rain per year, Milagro residents use a minimum amount of drinkable water to grow flowers. The houses are constructed of energy-efficient adobe block, topped with sloping metal roofs that, on many of the houses, funnel rainwater into cisterns.

"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).