Thursday, June 28, 2007


So Imperatrix asked to know more about growing up in a commune. It wasn’t what most people imagine when they think of communes as it had both an urban base and a farm. At the time, the Canadian government supported social housing through subsidised mortgages to what where known as Co-ops. This was essentially a mutual society for housing. All residents would be members of the society which owned the housing. However, members did not own the equity, the society did. There were strict rules for what happened if a society failed, ownership would revert to the government who would recoup any mortgage amounts, and distribute any profits to charity. They didn't fail much though, as a means of social housing it actually worked very well, though a later conservative government stopped any new co-ops forming (which is a shame as it was an inexpensive means of social housing that worked).

That meant that alternative ideas had a means of funding. The particular idea my parents bought into was a rural-urban commune. There would be a base in the city, and a farm in the country. You could live at either, but have access to the other. The urban base was a wonder of greenness. It had (has, the place is still running) solar panels, the best in insulation, built in composting facilities, and the landscaping was all “edible”, ie it was all veg.

The units ranged from four bedroom to eight. Every resident had their own bedroom, but shared common living space, including bathrooms. There were also shared spaces like a library, a large common room, offices, a workshop and what was meant to be a gym but never really got kitted out. I lived there from the age of 12 to 18.

The farm had only 20 acres, but actually has been hugely profitable. It was organic before the word got coined. In its early days someone had the bright idea to grow specialised salad vegetables. All the top restaurants glommed onto it, and it still runs a good earner in selling premium organic carrots to the discerning gourmet.

As you can imagine, it collected a wide variety of souls from the fringes of society. There was at the core a stable set of liberal professionals. As well as my parents, there was a tenured genetics professor, a registered nurse, a manager high up in the public service and the like. There was also folk singers, workers in really off the wall charities, holistic healers, and a lot of people who didn’t seem to do anything at all.

When I bring this up I’m often asked what it was like to live in a house of people I wasn’t related to. Its kind of hard to answer, it was what it was. My parents where my parents (my three older sisters had left home at that point), and always there. Over the years the others moved in and out. Looking back it was quite itinerant. Other than my parents and the nurse, few people lived there more than a year or two. So I had both the stability of my family, but this constant change flowing around me.

As a teenager it had a lot of advantages. I had access to the common room, and as I was a nerd of the first degree, having a big space to have my mates over to play dungeons and dragons was a good thing. I also had to learn to be pretty independent (which oddly enough I thought was a good thing at the time, meant no one bothered me) . I washed my own cloths, had a few regular chores and from day not had to cook one evening meal pretty well every week (there was a rota of course (and even then I enjoyed cooking)).

I didn’t get involved in the community around me much, that was my parents thing. Other than interacting with those I lived with my life was school and my mates. In that way frankly, it was no different than any Canadian teenager.

Yet there where differences. I did have to interact with those I lived with, and some of those were pretty odd. The community, for many reason, seemed to attract people with mental illness. I suppose it was the supportive nature of it. My parents in particular had a habit of housing strays, even before we moved into the co-op. Over the years I seemed to have the bad luck of always being the first to come across people when they went into psychotic episodes. Nothing violent, thankfully, but pretty weird all the same. There were also a couple people I didn’t really like much, but still had to live with. I just did my best to avoid them.

For all that, it wasn’t bad. I had good friends at school, and even the occasional weirdness at home was by no means traumatic. I had a freedom in my teen years not a lot of kids get. Being the sort of stable responsible type I rather naturally am, I didn’t abuse that (much), so frankly I was pretty happy. Even occasional stints at the farm to do the chores wasn’t a bother. It was kind of fun.

However, having reached my age of maturity I moved out pretty fast. I had no wish to stay on, and I would not choose to live in that sort of lifestyle again. I think my parents, lovely people that they were, often were taken advantage of. Certainly they financially supported the co-op heavily when some of the residents couldn’t pay the rent. Doing that didn’t build them any equity, and their pension fund suffered as a result. They were emotionally taken advantage of too by the string of the needy that lived for a time with us.

My parents eventually got disillusioned and moved out, though not for over 20 years. It even caused them to live apart for a while as my dad moved out before my mum (he’d had an irreconcilable argument with a couple other residents, I never quite understood the details). They still spent a lot of time together, but they lived apart until finally they couldn’t bare it any more and my mum moved out of the coop.

As an experiment its still running. The farm is arguably the more successful, and is self supporting financially. The urban coop still stutters on, but other than a few die hards its almost a transient hotel where people live for a year or so and move out again. Because of that its not well maintained, and looked a right mess last time I took my mum to visit.


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