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Instant community

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

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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."

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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.