The Commons:
“Personally, I Can’t Imagine Living Anywhere Else”
by Gail Snyder

workdayMy first year of college, I lived in one of the older, funkier, nonsleek, noncinderblock dorms reserved for freshmen. We were our own tiny community of maybe 35 residents, tops. It was like a slumber party every night, too many of us clogging into someone’s tiny room, sprawling across the bed and draping over chairs, bumming cigarettes and comparing most-embarrassing-moment stories. When anybody needed a shoulder to cry on, one of us was always there; when we had papers due the next morning, two or three of us would pull all-nighters, camping out together at the Formica table in the dorm’s kitchen, pouring over indecipherable notes while mainlining Oreos and No-Doz. And while there were some of my dorm mates I liked better than others (and some I outright avoided), still I knew every single person on my hall, intimately. I could identify their laughs. I found out the hard way who could keep a secret and who could not. I can picture all their faces to this day. They each contributed to the vibrant Brueghel-esque tapestry that was my first year away from home.

This dorm experience is familiar to many of us across the country. It’s the closest the majority of us ever got to life in a village, where this weaving of our lives with those in our community is alive and well. Too often, as we’ve moved into adulthood, including career and family, we’re seduced by the self-sufficient suburban model. And as our lives speed up and it seems all we find ourselves doing is rushing from one place to the next and then, exhausted, home, we don’t even know who our neighbors are anymore — in many cases, we don’t want to know. Yet in our insistence on privacy, on going it alone and doing everything for ourselves, what are we giving up?

The chance for achieving true intimacy, according to Erica Elliott, one of the earliest residents of the Commons, a Santa Fe cohousing community sandwiched next to the arroyo between West Alameda and Agua Fria. “I had a beautiful property [elsewhere in Santa Fe] with nice views, but I felt incredibly isolated there,” Erica recalls. “After five years, I wanted to have the feeling of being part of a tribe, especially as a single mom — I wanted to give my son the feeling of living in a real neighborhood, where people all know and care about each other.” So she moved to the Commons in 1993.

Planning for this intentional community started back in 1989. Potential future residents were brought together by Diego Mulligan, then-executive director of the Center for Sustainable Community, with a professional developer, architect and planner through the CEED (Community Economic and Ecological Development) Institute to map out the new neighborhood. Their basic intention, says Diego, now host and producer of KSFR’s The Journey Home radio show (90.7-FM), was to create a community that balanced individual homes with a design meeting the community’s needs: a traditional Santa Fe–style compound with one plaza, four smaller plaza areas, or placitas, the houses at the center and cars around the edges, the better to accommodate pedestrian flow.

They were so successful in the physical layout of buildings and grounds that some years later, when Diego did a recent walk-through of the Commons with Andreas Duaney, recognized internationally as being one of the preeminent town planners worldwide, Duaney enthusiastically responded that, in his opinion, the Commons is the finest architectural expression of cohousing in the United States. Wander through it yourself and his response won’t be at all difficult to understand. Each home, flooded with sunlight, is surrounded by thriving trees and gardens providing plentiful outdoor seating and children’s play areas grouped around the plaza’s burbling fountain and the “Commonshouse,” heart of the community, where meetings take place and neighbors prepare meals together. It’s a veritable paradise (so beautiful, in fact, that Diego, who never actually lived in the Commons himself, chose to have his wedding there a few years ago).

On the surface at least, the community is successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Once Erica made the move, did she find the Commons to be the answer to her prayers: instant tribe? Not initially. Although nowadays she says she can’t imagine living anywhere else, during those early years, “it just felt like a lot of people who happen to live close to each other.” There was friction between residents who, after putting so much into building and maintaining the physical space — housing, grounds — didn’t have a lot of energy left over for building interpersonal skills.

“We had a lot of personal conflicts — some of them I was a part of, like I was against using pesticides,” she admits now. And these conflicts often pitted neighbor against neighbor. “In fact, after three years,” Erica recalls, “I came to a point where I needed to make a decision because the discomfort of living in this fledgling community was so great for me. I saw I had three choices: to change the community, to move away or to change myself.

“Well, I couldn’t change the community — that happens when it happens, not according to my will!” Laughing, she continues, “Moving was out because I was too overwhelmed, what with a young child and a busy medical practice. So the only viable option was to change myself.

“The first step in the process was to forgive myself and others. From there, everything around me seemed to magically change for the better. And the community offered me tons of opportunities to work through painful interactions! I grew as a result, with a depth that I might not otherwise have achieved.”

In the last few years, the Commons has begun attracting young families to its fold, which Erica especially appreciates (“I get to watch the children grow up”). She also enthuses about the way members of the community take turns cooking for each other two evenings a week (“You get to experience someone else’s cooking — and someone else’s cleanup, too!”) and the beautiful grounds that the residents share in planning, planting and maintaining. “I also love the way we’ve come to accept each other’s quirks,” she adds. “My son and I are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Another long-term “Commoner,” Lynnwood Brown, moved there in the spring of 1992. He was already familiar with traditional village life, having spent the previous 10 years living on San Juan Pueblo. The Commons community, now 28 households, “avoided making any elaborate vision statement for what we stand for,” he says of those early days. “People too often just use those as a tool to control each other. Our vision is implicit in what we’re doing, in the way we structure it: the communal meals, which are the yeast that makes the bread rise, in my opinion; our self-management by consensus; and the design of the social space, which we intentionally made pedestrian so cars don’t dominate. It works fabulously.”

treeAt present, there are approximately 13 kids living at the Commons. “It’s a great place to raise a child,” claims Paula Baker Laporte, who lived there for seven years. Everyone knows everyone else in the small community. The children are safe to run through the grounds together, which they do, often in exuberant packs, in and out of each other’s houses. And they have a wealth of extended “aunts” and “uncles.”

Lynnwood particularly appreciates this aspect of Commons life: “Kids, when they’re around a group of adults they know but who have no agenda for them — they’re not teachers or coaches or church-related — get to have conversations and interact with them.” That, too, he believes, is rare anymore in our world of fewer and fewer outside relationships.

“And adults get to have their own richness of conversations,” he adds. “Professional people here all get to talk about their work, bounce ideas off each other and network. It’s like that old TV show — remember “Cheers”? More and more, people want a place where everyone knows you, where you get to share your stories, your life with people.”

This is something we all yearn for, Diego Mulligan is convinced. “In this country,” he says, “we don’t know how to live together anymore. We’ve gotten away from the clan and tribe — the suburbs have done everything to pull us apart.”

Lynnwood hastens to make clear that the Commons isn’t perfect. “It’s no utopia. Conflicts still occur. That’s ongoing.” It helps, he believes, to have the benefit of a circle of people who can provide some measure of objectivity and can help ground the conversation between the conflicting parties. And the community has worked hard to come to the point of being able to work through the conflicts.

According to Erica, residents took it upon themselves to develop the skills for listening and communicating with each other: “We hired people to work with us, and we also did workshops to help us learn consensus building and conflict resolution.”

In the general sifting-out process of time, not all of the original Commoners have stayed. Amidst the early physical and emotional struggles to come together as a community, one family moved away. Another original resident, one of the early founders, went on to create a new cohousing community, this one more upscale for his retired friends. And several who got married after moving in had to concede to their new partners, who were not amenable to the cohousing concept.

“Cohousing may not be for everybody,” Diego agrees, “but it’s a great option that should be available to more people. It’s an important step toward building the kind of communities that were once the primary way people lived together in the world.”

What if you’re more and more dissatisfied with our modern isolationist tendencies, you feel that something is missing from your own neighborhood, and you’re feeling envious of the Commoners, but picking up and moving to a whole new community just isn’t a realistic option? You could stay right where you are and, like Erica, be the change you want to see in the world. “Have block parties to get to know each other,” Lynnwood suggests to those who want to incorporate more of the “village” aspect into their own neighborhoods. “And evening salons and book groups. Share childcare together. Do projects in your neighborhood, like making a park.”

neighborPaula, who with her husband moved out of the Commons recently for work-related reasons, loved her experience there. “After living in a place like that, you really value your neighbors anywhere else you move.” She now feels a heightened commitment to working toward community in whatever neighborhood she lands. “If we can’t make it here,” she reasons, “how are we going to make it in the larger world?”

Looking back over her own years as a Commoner, Erica says of herself and her neighbors, “We have a shared history over this past decade — you carry the archives of somebody’s history in your heart and they yours. That’s so special in these transitory times.” She pauses and then adds, “We grew up together.”