Designed for living together
When Amy Crevola moved to the small college town of Corvallis in November 2003, she knew no one. Divorced, with no clear idea of what she wanted next, she had picked Corvallis because it was bigger than Newberg, the tiny town where she’d lived for fifteen years, but not as big as Eugene, the next college town down the road. Most important, Corvallis was unknown, a place where a stranger in town — even a stranger with three kids in tow — could start anew.
Crevola is a tall woman, with a strong nose and a firm chin. She has a low, rich voice and a big, generous laugh. Raised in California as a fundamentalist Christian — “a Jerry Falwell evangelical” — she married within the church and settled into wifehood and motherhood. But she never really settled into herself. “At age thirty-three, I did a painting of myself, half and half, one half the good little wife and one half with dreadlocks,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “And then came the tattoo and the piercing.” The marriage ended in the late 1990s.
In Corvallis, she was liberated, but lonely. She was nearly forty years old and had spent most of her adult life as a homemaker. So she went back to college, picking up the art classes she’d dropped when she’d gotten married at age twenty-two, and started spending mornings at a downtown coffee shop. She wanted to be out in the world, seeing people, feeling alive.
One cold night in February 2004, Crevola attended a library lecture. The speaker, a California-based architect named Kathryn McCamant, gave a slide show on something called cohousing, a social movement that McCamant and her husband had imported from Denmark fifteen years earlier. Cohousing was like living in a commune, except that all the inhabitants owned their own homes, which were usually designed by specialist architects such as McCamant. Corvallis didn’t have any cohousing communities of its own yet, but it did have a group that was trying to build one — the group that was hosting the McCamant lecture as a way of spreading the word.
Impressed by McCamant, and intrigued by the idea of a local cohousing community, Crevola decided to go to one of the Corvallis group’s public potlucks, just to check it out. “It was the potluck that really screwed me over,” she laughs. “Not just the warmth but the liveliness. The vibrancy. So welcoming. There was no wall — it was just, ‘Pull up a plate!’ I cut in line, and Juva laughed and said, ‘She’s gonna fit right in.’”
Board games in the common house at the cohousing in Corvallis, Oregon.
Juva DuBoise and her husband, Dennis Clark, had been members of the Corvallis cohousing group since 2001. DuBoise recognized Crevola’s brashness at the cohousing potluck as a sign of ease, not embarrassment. For a group that had already spent more than four years trying to foster a sense of openness and connection — to create a community by design, not chance — Crevola’s instant camaraderie was a sign that they were doing something right.
The Corvallis cohousing group — generally called the CoHo Ecovillage, or CoHo for short — began in late 1999. The group’s goal was to build its own neighborhood, a process that takes many years and involves meetings, recruitment, land acquisition, and construction. They found a forested plot of land in south-central Corvallis and hired architects to draw up a design — an L-shaped cluster of condos for about thirty households — that preserved the site’s existing trees and camas field. Eight years later, in the fall of 2007, the buildings were finally finished, and the members of CoHo Ecovillage moved into their new neighborhood.
CoHo is not simply a sluggish real-estate developer. Nor is it a religious group, its members are quick to point out, although many have spiritual practices, including Unitarianism and Buddhism. And it is most definitely not a commune, with all the connotations of free love, easy drugs, and charismatic cultishness the word implies. The CoHoians (or CoHomies, or CoHoots, depending on how they feel like addressing each other) simply believe there are real benefits to living in a community where people know and care about each other — and they recognize that such a community requires both a group of people willing to work together and a neighborhood designed to foster those connections.
CoHo is part of an international movement that has spread, slowly but steadily, for more than thirty years. The first cohousing communities were built in the early ’70s in Denmark, where the concept originated. The core design principles of those early cohousing communities remain prevalent today: a central, open outdoor area surrounded by private living units and a public common house for group meals and activities, with parking pushed off to the side so that the neighborhood becomes, in effect, a pedestrian village. Some cohousings are simply collections of houses, but most consist of townhomes and apartments; the tighter architectural density is both energy efficient and socially encouraging.
In the mid-’80s, McCamant and her husband, fellow architect Charles Durrett, spent more than a year in Denmark studying and living in various cohousing communities. They invented the term “cohousing” as a loose translation of the Danish bofoellesskaber, or “living communities,” and introduced the concept to the United States with their 1988 book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.
Within months of the book’s publication, cohousing began to catch on. It appealed to people who felt isolated by the single-family, two-car-garage, high-fences model of American housing, but who weren’t interested in the shared-income, minimal-privacy tradition of communes. As McCamant and Durrett wrote, “Cohousing . . . offers a new approach to housing rather than a new way of life . . . Cohousing developments espouse no ideology other than the desire for a more practical and social home environment.”
Today, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States, there are some 220 cohousing communities across the country that are either completed, under construction, or in development. Oregon has five completed cohousing developments (CoHo is the most recent) and at least five others in various stages of development in such locations as Portland, Ashland, and Eugene.
DuBoise and Clark, both professional counselors, resemble one another in the way that couples who have been together a long time often do, with stout figures, large glasses, and short gray hair. In personality, they are a complementary pair: she’s more impetuous; he’s more cautious. Clark and DuBoise were both in the military once, a fact they are somewhat reluctant to reveal. “It’s the part I feel I always have to explain, since it’s not who I am,” says DuBoise. But the ways in which they wound up in the service are telling: Clark was drafted, and DuBoise signed up on a whim. She’d had a fiance who peremptorily told her that if she ever joined the military, he’d never speak to her again. So that very same day, she marched down to a recruiting office and joined the navy. End of old fiance, beginning of new life. “It says a lot about me, I guess,” DuBoise says wryly.
Neither DuBoise nor Clark had ever heard of cohousing until, on a weekend trip to the Oregon coast several years ago, they stopped at Alpha-Bit, a Mapleton cafe run by a local commune. In the cafe DuBoise picked up a copy of Communities, a magazine about intentional communities, and began reading about cohousing. “I thought, ‘This is so cool!’” she recalls.
Within months, she had researched cohousing, discovered CoHo, and convinced Clark to come to a meeting. “Denny said, ‘Oh, Juva, what if we don’t like these people?’” says DuBoise. Clark shakes his head. “But they were really nice,” he says. “For me, it’s always been the people.” DuBoise agrees. “For me, it’s the people, but also the concept,” she says. “If it was really dysfunctional, I couldn’t handle it.”
Fast-forward three years, and it was Crevola who wasn’t sure if cohousing was what she wanted. “I don’t feel a huge need for a private kitchen, private space,” she says. “I preferred communal life.” When Crevola was a kid growing up in San Diego in the early ’70s, she came across copies of Mother Earth News, the venerable guide to rural hippie living, at the library. “I read stacks and stacks of it,” she says. “My jag was, I wanted to join a community and homestead.” Instead, she got married.
For a few years, Crevola and her husband lived in Portland, “in a suburb where everyone seemed to work,” and she spent her days at home alone, with two babies. “I started reading about Amish communities and their culture, and I got so lonely,” she says. “I loved having an open home — I always have — having people over, making food and eating, making music. And I didn’t have it as much as I wanted.”
When her marriage ended, Crevola decided to build a life outside the nuclear family circle. Determined this time to do more than just read magazine articles, she visited two Oregon intentional communities, Alpha Farm in Deadwood and Lost Valley in Dexter, checking out their greenhouses and yurts, wondering if she should fork over $1,000 or so in membership fees and exchange her old life for this new one. But the practical side of her said no. She had her kids to think of, and besides, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get along with everyone she met. “I don’t like all of the people in CoHo,” she admits. “But that’s okay, since there’s private space at CoHo. It’s not communal.”
Precisely because cohousing is not communal — because, like marriage, it is a structure built on compromise — it appeals to people who recognize that successful idealism must be tempered with realism. Cohousing communities are full of dedicated believers, people who not only think that intentional community is possible but that it can be successful, that a condo development can encourage social interaction and be environmentally efficient and not require suffocating debt, that a group of people can agree to live in close quarters without giving up privacy and autonomy.
They are also full of people who are middle-aged and older, people who have traded some of the giddy fantasies of youth for the more sober aspirations of midlife. A commune can be thrown together by a handful of excited people with a few acres of land, a few thousand dollars, and a few tepees. Cohousing needs more people, calmer people, patient people who are willing to agree to a group vision and an administrative system and an architect and a developer and city permits and bank loans and many thousands of dollars of their own. There’s a reason that cohousing communities been called “communes for grown-ups.”
Thirty years ago, just before she met Clark, DuBoise was planning to go live at The Farm, a well-known commune in Tennessee, and train there to become a midwife. “Back then, the whole income-sharing idea of communes was more appealing,” she says. “Back when I was in my twenties and had no income to share. Instead I got married and had babies and did middle America.” When the babies were grown and gone, DuBoise went searching again.
After that initial 2004 potluck, where she had felt so comfortable that she cut in line, Crevola attended a few other CoHo events — another potluck, a talk on voluntary simplicity, a couple of meetings. She made friends with a CoHo couple whose children were enrolled in a Waldorf school; they waxed so enthusiastic about the educational philosophy and experience of Waldorf, even setting up a tour of the Corvallis school for Crevola, that she decided to enroll her own kids there.
CoHo Cohousing in Corvallis, Oregon.
But two months in, Crevola panicked. “I felt an instant connection with this group,” she says. “But I wasn’t sure about becoming a member. I had a house already; I had just moved, and I didn’t want to put the kids through another move. I was having a hard enough time trying to be a single parent, and I was scared I couldn’t get my credit cleaned up in time to qualify for CoHo. So I ditched them.”
A CoHo potluck night came up, and Crevola couldn’t bring herself to go; she hid at home instead. Later, guiltily, she went out to pick up a DVD, and at the store she ran into one of the CoHo members. He was delighted to see her and said so, exclaiming, “We missed you at the potluck!” Crevola was startled; she’d only met him once, and had been afraid he would take her to task for shirking. Disarmed, she told him the truth: she was overwhelmed by the newness of everything in her life. “All the more reason to be in CoHo,” he answered. Crevola found herself thinking, He’s right. She went to the next meeting, where she promptly confessed, “I freaked out!” And DuBoise said, “It’s okay — we’ll help you out.”
Cohousings come, as the saying goes, in all shapes and sizes: big and small, urban and rural, new constructions and retrofits. The fastest-growing type of cohousing is “elder cohousing,” popular with older baby-boomers looking for somewhere more meaningful to live than retirement homes or assisted-living centers.
In a 2000 book, Designing Families: The Search for Self and Community in the Information Age, John Scanzoni, a University of Florida sociologist, pointed out that cohousing communities function as “fictive kin,” or as families by choice instead of by blood or marriage. There are traditional families within cohousing, of course — Crevola and her kids, for example — but the focus is on “mutual help patterns across households,” and the group has a strong sense of “we-ness,” reinforced by its dense physical design and central common house.
Parents are often attracted to cohousing as a haven for their children, a safe, car-free place where there are always other children and parents about. But parents often have the most difficulty meeting the demands of cohousing. They are already stretched thin by the pressure of providing attention and care for their children; add cohousing’s twin commitments of time and money, and many parents find themselves worn out. “I can’t imagine having kids at home and doing this at the same time,” says DuBoise. “So I understand how much harder it is for the parents in the group.”
Which is what happened to Crevola. By early 2005, the Corvallis life she had built around CoHo had broadened. She had started working as a massage therapist again. She had met and fallen in love with a fellow parent at the Corvallis Waldorf School, a man who was less invested in the idea of cohousing. She stopped going to CoHo meetings. She seesawed between missing CoHo and missing her new life. “Things were shifting with me,” she admitted. And with time, she drifted away, choosing the new life over the old.
Once a cohousing development is completed, it’s far easier for the community to retain members. Turnover, much as members may agonize over it, is an inevitable part of the process. And while it may be easier to simply buy into an existing cohousing, part of what defines cohousing is the hands-on, ground-up process of creating a community from scratch. Yes, it’s draining. But it can also be inspiring. For all of us who know families, friends, and coworkers, but hardly know our neighbors, cohousing offers an entirely different way of living.
For Crevola, CoHo had become less of a destination than a journey toward realizing what kind of community she really valued. “You know, on my street, I say hi to my neighbors when I see them, but basically, we drive our cars into our driveways and go inside and shut the door,” Crevola says. “But these people in CoHo — they’ve become my tribe.”
Caroline Cummins is a Portland-based writer and editor who spent six months following CoHo, the Corvallis cohousing community, for her master’s project in journalism at the University of Oregon.