Don’t Call It A Commune: What I’ve Loved About Co-Op Living
What is a co-op, exactly? The definition has little to do with whether or not the inhabitants of a house are naked vegans who hold all-night candlelit satanic drum circles. Whether a cooperative house has five people or 55, is utterly spotless or unbearably filthy, what makes it a co-op is an agreement (verbal, contractual, or otherwise) to uphold some sort of commitment to one another. Sound vague? That’s because no two co-ops are alike. Some have a weekly chore rotation and set nights for house meals, others might only have a loose cleaning schedule and food-share policy. I’ve lived in both settings and enjoyed them equally. There’s something really positive about a group of people who have an understanding about their living situation. It’s the polar opposite of a Craiglist ad that reads “$500/month. No cats. U pay H2O.”
In the past, I’ve shared spaces with random roommates, best friends, and once, accidentally and most terribly, a significant other.
I wouldn’t say that 2009 was a great year for me, but there hasn’t been another year before or since then that has held more life-changing and memorable events. It’s been long enough that I can tick off these events chronologically, sterile and matter-of-fact. Sick mom, first love, death, moving in, dumped. At the end of the year, I moved out of the apartment I’d been miserably sharing with my ex, and into a 14-person co-op. I’m eternally grateful to the roomful of people who saw what a mess I was and let me move in anyway. Winter in Wisconsin isn’t the ideal setting for pulling oneself out of a depression. The sun goes down at 4:30, it’s bitterly cold, and there’s not much else to do but drown yourself in hot toddys. My new home was warm and friendly and had structure that I needed.
When living in a co-op, you never have to be alone. Sit in the kitchen or the living room and there is either someone already there or someone who will arrive within the next ten minutes. You learn about people quickly when in close proximity, not just their everyday activities, passions, and hobbies, but subtleties that they may not even be aware of (example: occasional frenetic pacing). It’s like summer camp, only longer than two weeks, and with grownups; you get to know new housemates more quickly. On the other hand, you can also be alone whenever you want to. Sure, you sign a lease, but it’s not a friendship contract. I never felt obligated to be around my housemates, although it’s true that once I got to know them, most of my socializing revolved around our kitchen table. I’ve also found that living with friends has the opposite effect; the longer you live together, the more you feel the need to escape one another’s company.
I’ve learned innumerable things from living cooperatively. These range from the tangible to the entirely mental and internal. Yes, okay, I did learn how to make granola while living at a co-op, no surprise there. But I also learned how to have simultaneous personal and professional relationships with everyone I lived with. Where else but a co-op could one have a two-hour, intensely heated meeting about how much money to spend on yogurt and then retire to the kitchen immediately after to joke about the whole thing? It’s a unique experience that would certainly be hard to come by in another setting. There’s also plenty of opportunity to learn how to fix a toilet, weatherproof a door and properly disinfect and moisturize a large wooden surface.
Photo courtesy of Mark Leffingwell, coloradodaily.com
I’ve liked being held responsible for my actions. There was a chore system in place where everyone had 3-4 hours a week dedicated to the house: cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, taking out the trash, etc. Because I appreciated my roommates mopping the floors and clearing dishes, it made me want to work just as hard to provide a better space for them.
My intention here isn’t to brainwash anyone into living in a co-op. Instead, I wanted to explore for myself what I’ve loved so much about co-ops and moving in with total strangers, and maybe open people’s eyes to an alternative lifestyle that might sound a lot more “alternative” than it really is.
If you’ve ever lived in a co-op or another unusual rooming situation, share with me in the comments! If this sounds interesting and you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’ll be checking back and replying!
Written by Rose Shapiro