Instant community

As the Danish cohousing movement gains strength in the US, one group finally gets cozy in its new digs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Elizabeth Locke envisions holiday gatherings and an outdoor campfire; Rosemary Kennedy is planning a reading group; Mike Arnott wants a woodworking room; 7-year-old Kira just needs a place to perform her play about the tooth fairy.

The expectations for cohousing - an English translation of the Danish bofaellesskaber ("living community") - are diverse in their specifics, but share a hunger for togetherness and a longing to escape the cloistered domestic privacy that can verge on isolation.

For one group in Cambridge, Mass., that longing has fueled an eight-year quest - one that culminates this winter, as they move into four red-trimmed buildings in shades of green, brown, yellow, and blue.

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The members of Cornerstone are squeezing into 32 apartments and town houses on an acre and a third: a narrow triangle of land that will hold 34 women, 14 men, 14 girls, and 6 boys. They include single parents and retirees, a 90-something and a 6-week-old. Residents' jobs range from computer expert to baker, taxi driver to nuclear scientist.

They're part of a growing movement, one that's old news in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, but has just begun taking root in the US over the past two decades.

American housing "has evolved towards greater privacy," says Katie McCamant, author of "CoHousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," (Ten Speed Press, $29.95) and a founder of the American cohousing movement. Cohousers crave "a sense of coming home to something bigger than an empty house," she says.

Though each unit has its own kitchen, a common house offers space for communal cooking, arts and crafts, a teen room, and a shared office. Every big decision is made by consensus, with discussion continuing until all present agree, and the cost of baby sitters hired during meetings is shared by everyone - not just parents.

When nuclear isn't enough

Elizabeth Locke, affectionately called the "founding mother" by members, first dreamed of the Cornerstone community around 1990, when she took an evening class on cohousing. She'd lived in communal households in the 1960s and '70s - including one group of up to a dozen "ex-hippies" that lasted 17 years.

But raising two children in a communal home, with so many surrogate parents, proved uncomfortable. Locke reluctantly moved out to experiment with life as a nuclear family.

For a while, flanked by two families that spontaneously shared meals, she had the perfect balance. But when both neighbors moved, she realized how fragile that network can be. "It's wonderful while it lasts, but it's easy to lose," she says. "I wanted a situation where, even though there would be turnover, the intention to know and help each other would always be there."

So in 1993, she launched Cornerstone. Over the years, she says, it's been "very moving to see the depth of hunger for community."

It's a hunger that moved Mary Elizabeth Ford, a 30-year resident of the Bronx, to leave friends and her work in New York for a Cornerstone apartment and a new job as a high school psychologist. "As a single person," she says, "one of the attractions is seeing people on a daily basis. When you're in a couple, you see [someone] day-to-day whether you like it or not."

Like Ms. Locke, Ms. Ford is no stranger to communal living. After college, she joined Maryknoll in Ossining, N.Y., a missionary community where she lived with up to 400 women. Now, she's ready for something less confining - a "part-time" group with men and women, old and young.

In the Bronx, she'd met other New Yorkers who wanted to live in a cohousing community - but local property was expensive, and the groups disbanded. When she heard of Cornerstone, she visited Cambridge for a potluck dinner, tagged along on a rugged retreat in western Massachusetts, clicked with the group - and within six months, had signed up.

What makes her a good fit? "I'm fun to be around," she says with a laugh. "I have skills in communication and problem solving." And a flare for leniency: When her neighbor asked if she could move her wall five feet and encroach on one of Ford's upstairs bedroom, she agreed.

Now in her third month at Cornerstone, Ford puts those skills to good use. When tasks such as snow-shoveling came up, she tacked a list of chores to a bulletin board - and watched with satisfaction as Cornerstoners filled it with their names.

When her downstairs neighbor, Jane Eisenstark, called to talk, Ford invited her up for soup - and Ms. Eisenstark brought along veggie burgers to share.

Ford eats out less than she ever has and relishes the freedom conferred by trust: "One of the nicest things," she says, "is to be home and not have your front door locked - when somebody rings the bell, you can yell out, 'Come in!' "

In a bid to welcome everyone, Cornerstone made "visitability" part of its mission. All households and common spaces have no-step entries and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. "It's incredibly hard to find [handicapped-] accessible housing in greater Boston," says Judy Brewer, who rolled into her apartment on a scooter in November. "It would be great if the rest of the world were like this."

Not utopia, not a commune

Like many cohousers, Locke is intrigued by utopias - experiments like the kibbutzim in Israel, the international Christian Bruderhof communities, and the 19th-century Brook Farm transcendentalist collective in West Roxbury, Mass.

But don't confuse cohousing with utopia. In fact, says Ms. McCamant, America's robust utopian history has had a surprisingly small impact on housing. And whereas utopias often isolate themselves, Cornerstoners are involved with city life. They plan to open common rooms to the neighborhood, hosting community meetings and political candidates.

"Cohousing creates a built environment that encourages community," says Mike Arnott, who's moving to Cornerstone in March with his wife, Mary White, and daughter, Kira. "What we do with [that environment] is up to us. It's not strongly ideological - unless you think recycling or limiting public smoking areas is ideological."

The process of creating a cohousing community hasn't been paradise. In the eight years it's taken to build Cornerstone, families have lost interest, lost faith, or been unable to afford rising costs; children have been born, started school, or left home; Mr. Arnott and Ms. White went from being engaged, to married, to the parents of 7-year-old Kira. A lawsuit added two years to the process, and sent prices soaring. Arnott jokes that for ages, the youngest children thought "cohousing" meant the same thing as "meeting," since members endlessly debated everything from pets to paint colors.

Though the community strove for diversity of all types, gaining socioeconomic breadth has been tricky. Five units are designated "affordable" and subsidized by Cornerstone, but for the rest, there's no escaping the high prices of the area.

The hunger for family

At an evening orientation, Rosemary Kennedy served soup, crusty bread, and dense chocolate cake in her living room. Cornerstone members interrupted - and affirmed - one another with an ease and familiarity bred of almost a decade's dreams and debate.

Eisenstark recalls a "check-in" at which Cornerstone members described themselves in fourth grade. "Seventy-five percent said they were 'painfully or very shy,' " she says. Ms. Kennedy suggests most cohousers are wallflowers, drawn to ready-made communities where they don't have to be outgoing.

The aloofness of many American communities took Kennedy by surprise when she moved here from Ireland. Like other members, she craves a balance of privacy and togetherness in a neighborhood.

"The big thing everyone talks about," says Arnott, "is how, in the old days, you'd wake up in the morning, knock on your neighbor's door, and [the] kids would come out [to play]." He misses those spontaneous gatherings - and the sense that every front porch led toan open door.

Arnott and White, both Peace Corps alumni, heard about Cornerstone at their local food co-op. Pleased at the prospect of an urban environment - where, White says, "our footprint on the earth wouldn't be as disruptive as if we were out in the country" - they hoped to move with their parents in tow. But during the eight years of planning, their parents passed away.

Far from damping their enthusiasm, the loss only makes them cling to the community more fervently. "We started to get really attached to everybody [in Cornerstone]," says White. "Now, we're thrilled Kira will have surrogate grandparents. With a built-in community, you'll always have someone to take care of you."

The Arnott-Whites won't move in until March, but they already feel at home. Between Friday-night pizza dinners and Monday-night potlucks, they're spending a chunk of time with their new neighbors. When Kira needed help with her Spanish homework, she asked the El Salvadoran girls in the upstairs apartment - and afterward, came down with her hair braided in intricate cornrows.

When the concrete was poured at Cornerstone, residents pressed their handprints into a small patch of cement. It's a permanence that they strive for.

Arnott and White are looking forward to teenage baby sitters. Kira thinks communal dinners "sound good, because I'll get to be with a lot of people - even though they're mostly grownups."

In fact, the only thing she's nervous about is her eighth birthday. "My friends might think I still live in [my old] house," she explains. But if the first eight years of Cornerstone are any indication, Kira will have plenty of well-wishers knocking on her door.

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