By: Charlene Scott
The American dream is alive and well in Tampa, Florida. Complete with yachts, white picket fences, and indoor pools, a large percentage of the population live in luxury unknown to the rest of the city's residents. Among the upper/middle class Americans with wealth and families who will likely never lack any material possession or influential connection, there are some whose children have chosen another direction for themselves. Accepting a “counterculture” approach as their new way of life, my communal living informants, Brian S., Jon D., and Ryan I. risk the marginalization that comes from siding with the poor, prostitutes, and inner-city minorities (Schulterbrandt & Nichols, 1972). These stigmatized populations are now their friends and neighbors as a result of intentional communities they helped create and live in, scattered throughout the poorest Tampa districts.
Communal living provides a viable alternative to the traditional American single-family housing structure offering practical access to sustainable living, community involvement, and pooled resources, while not necessarily undermining traditional family roles with its unusual logistics. In order to better understand this alternative way of living, I visited community gatherings, talked with members and non-members, participated in community activities, and observed casual interactions between community members and their neighbors.
Communal living, or intentional community, as it is often referred to today, is not a new practice. Popular understanding of community living often harkens back to the hippies of the 1960s and anti-government sentiments as depicted in the 2007 Black Bear documentary Commune, but secular and religious types of community living situations have existed in the U.S. as far back as Ephrata, a community established in 1732 (Near, 1994). Jon D. of the Lake House community (named this due to its location on Lake Ave.) credits historical figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day for having influenced their community's focus and way of operating. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes specifically about community living in his book Life Together, which two of my informants separately mentioned as a type of manual for many people in intentional communities. Dorothy Day, along with her teacher Peter Maurin, set up Hospitality Houses in the late 1930s in an effort to practice the hospitality they were writing about in The Catholic Worker, the newspaper Dorothy helped produce (Zwick, 1996). Some of the Hospitality Houses that served food to the poor and acted as shelters in the 1930s are still in existence today and serve as a model for interacting with the poor and disenfranchised from a Christian perspective of resolute hospitality.
Other references of influence made by community members include Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Dr. J. Matthew Sleeth's Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, and Tom Sine's Live it Up! How to Create a Life You Can Love. As much as history has to teach current community members about how to avoid pitfalls suffered by some in the past, every community member I talked to said that they had to go through stages in order to learn how to interact as a group in a healthy way. Brian, who helped establish the web of intentional communities associated with Tampa Underground, says that everyone needs to go through that disillusionment where they realize, “this person is a liar, this person is a bastard – because everyone is something” and realizing that is part of being able to operate as a working community (Interview, Nov 23, 2010).
Beginnings of Tampa Intentional Communities
The Tampa Underground string of intentional communities located throughout the South Tampa and Ybor area, primarily along Nebraska Avenue were started by Brian 15 years ago. I was first introduced to the communities in the Tampa area by a friend who read one of Brian's books, which somewhere in his biography mentioned the fact that he lived in an intentional community with his wife and six children on a salary of $24,000 a year. Even if one had no prior interest in communal living, this might be enough to pique anyone's interest. I contacted Brian via email, who agreed he would help me in whatever way possible, but due to his busy schedule, he recommended I get in touch with Jon at Lake House who might be able to offer more time to my project. Jon also offered up a contact for a secular community in Sulphur Springs that was involved in non-profit community gardening and was made up of a group of artists. Thus these became my primary informants on the communal living experience.
Brian began to live in an intentional community for the first time 17 years ago, and through his creation of Tampa Underground, a non-profit/church three years ago, he has helped establish and inspire a web of other intentional communities in some of the poorest and most crime and drug ridden neighborhoods in the area. St. Petersburg Times writer, Alexander Zayas presented an article on Brian's household of 13 in mid-2008 and pointed out that they are not polygamists. There are men and women who are not married living in this community as well as six children (it was five at the time of the article). The fact that it seemed a necessary side note to mention that they are not polygamists reflects one common public view of communal living: that extremely abnormal and deviant behavior must be present due to the abnormal nature of the living situation. This seems especially true when there are far more than the average number of children in a household. Brian and Monica have six when the average in America is 0.94 per family household according to the 2010 census (U.S. Census Bureau).
Jon, who helped establish Lake House, was introduced to community living six or seven years ago when he met Brian and stayed at Tampa House, an introductory home for intentional living started by Brian geared toward college students. The house was for those in the Tampa area going to Hillsborough Community College (HCC) or University of South Florida (USF) and Jon said the motivation was “to connect college students with the poor in their neighborhood” and that those involved were committed to campus ministry, their neighborhood, volunteering, other house members, and their individual relationship to God (Interview, Oct 21, 2010). After moving out of Tampa House, Jon married his wife, who actually bought the home that Lake House is established in presently. Jon described the first attempt at community in Lake House with a group mostly made up of females as a one with “no form” and said that “in my assessment it went...uh, horrible […] then we mixed it up [...to] put some more leadership in the house” (Interview, Oct 21, 2010).
Ryan is a member at Birdhouse, a community established in Sulphur Springs, an area also located off Nebraska Ave., further north than the Tampa Underground homes. Of the communities I visited, Birdhouse is the youngest; they have only resided at their current location since February, 2010. Originally the group was started on a different property which had two buildings on it and was co-ed. They had four girls in the back building and four guys in the front building, but decided the dynamic of two buildings was not what they were going for, so they found the house they currently are living in. They currently rent the home, but plan on purchasing it at some point – especially since the landlord said they can alter the property as long as they return it to its original condition when they leave, and many of their alterations are rather permanent. In a 2009 WMNF interview, Ryan credits Jon from Lake House as the inspiration for his community's beginning (Sustainable Living).
Who Chooses Intentional Community
The demographics vary widely among the small intentional communities I have spent time with. Three different communities house a total of 27 people, with 18 males, 9 females and an array of ethnic groups represented: Caucasian, Latina, Puerto Rican, Filipina, African American, Cuban, Costa Rican, and multi-racial. It was interesting to note that Brian, Jon, and Ryan, the founders of their communities, all grew up in upper/middle class America and had more to lose than to gain financially and socioeconomically from their decision to live in community with people from lower classes and in the neighborhoods they currently reside in.
Brian began living in community before he got married and has helped create Tampa Underground to mobilize others toward achieving their non-profit goals. Jan*, a resident of Brian's community, helps lead a ministry that works with women in the sex industry and getting out of prostitution and has lived in the community here for nearly a decade. She is getting married soon, and her fiance, who lives at Lake House currently, is moving in and joining the community after their wedding. Jordan*, another resident, is an early-30's hospice nurse who is actually planning on adopting a teenage girl out of the child welfare system and bringing her into community. Brian said in his interview that the home-study done by social services for the adoption was an interesting experience because the social workers had no idea what to expect from a community living environment. They were pleasantly surprised by the setup, even though it requires a great deal more fingerprinting and background checking with a dozen people in one “family” unit. Living in a community system that can help take care of the new members and also includes other children close to the new girl's age provides an extra buffer from the difficulties normally associated with being a single mother carrying all the childcare burdens on her own.
Jon emphasized that one of his primary ideas about what community should be focuses on its diversity: he wants it to be as varied as possible. Just like the neighborhood he works in, which is full of people from various backgrounds with tragic and beautifully different life stories, Jon and his wife Lydia* work vigilantly to heal and bring the hurt of the streets into the hope of their community. Their community has taken in Mama, a 60-something woman from the streets who has earned the respect and friendship of all the people of house. She lives in an added room/nook which is no larger than 40 square feet, disguised in the dining room behind a false bookshelf door. Nick* finds refuge nightly on the living room couch at Lake House. He is a still-technically homeless man, likely in his mid-seventies, and is reminiscent of a retired and exhausted, but still jubilant Santa Claus. He wears shirts advertising the Tampa Children's Home and shares his adventures in a friendly way with the house members and their guests.
Ryan went to a private high school and grew up in a wealthy family. His mother is a news anchor and both his mother and step father have a great deal of influential connections, but he largely rejects the ideals that come with that plane of society. Instead he expresses a desire to funnel his energies and time into community efforts working with youth and his Community Stepping Stones group “Seeds in the Springs,” which promotes community gardening efforts and teaching others how to be more self-sustaining. When their neighbors were evicted from their home, one of the boys who had just recently graduated high school came to live with them at Birdhouse. The boy, Sonny*, earns money by gleaning fruit from unharvested trees in the neighborhood and selling it back to wealthier consumers in Northern Tampa. Birdhouse is home to primarily mid-20's Caucasians (Sonny is the exception) living in a predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhood. Marshall* is a PhD candidate for Social Psychology at USF, who previously lived in a highly organized commune in Pennsylvania, and met the Birdhouse members while interviewing for the doctoral program and decided to move in. From the unemployed and uneducated to the highly motivated entrepreneur and ivory tower educated, intentional community is home to people of every demographic.
Purpose of Community
Voluntary simplicity. This is a resounding sentiment shared by every community I spent time with. Benji, a good friend of Lake House community members, is in the process of trying to start his own intentional community with his wife and two young daughters. While my husband and I helped rake leaves, break down old dressers, and build a fire pit on his rented property one Saturday, he discussed with us the necessity of simplicity and living with little while being a part of a community.
The idea of community originally was appealing to Brian because of the efficiency of shared goods and shared space. This efficiency is still a by-product of turning a 4 bedroom/3.5 bathroom home into an 8 bedroom/nook/1.5 bathroom home for a 12 or more people, but community means much more to him than the mutual ownership of a lawnmower and yard after 17 years. In his travels, Brian was struck by the contrast between America's fierce individualism and the lack of community, tribe, and collective sense with the rest of the world.
In most of the world, the world understands itself as a collective, it understands themselves as social units, but here we do not do well understanding ourselves as collective. But here we really have a broken concept of that. We do not do well understanding ourselves as a collective. In fact, it's almost offensive to say that to an American because we are ruthlessly, ruggedly, individualistic. [Brian S., Interview, Nov. 23, 2010]
This collective experience and identity, Brian believes, helps not only save them from excessive usage of resources, but also promotes a sense of solidarity with a group of people you can maintain a commitment with that does not come from sharing the same genes or legal papers.
Over its first summer, Lake House devised what they refer to as their “Declaration of Interdependence.” This document can be found on their public blog and describes in detail their common purpose, beliefs, and goals (Lake House, 2010). Because Lake House is a part of Tampa Underground, a Christian-based organization, their declaration consists largely of principles found in the Christian Bible. They value hospitality, good stewardship of their material possessions, creativity, being environment friendly, and being committed to the members of their house, their church, and their community. To carry these purposes and goals out, Lake House has an open door policy and they offer up use of their computer, televisions, porch space, and resources to those in the neighborhood, and to those who know of them. Every Wednesday evening at 7:30 pm, Lake House serves an open dinner for anyone who wants to come and then has a time for talking and fellowship or for studying the teachings of the Christian Apostles. I have attended several of these gatherings and noticed that some people even come just for the food and then leave – and nobody reprimands them or comments on them taking advantage of the free meal! The meals are simple – a basic curry with rice or a soup that can be cooked in a large crock pot – and the dinnerware may be more simple than the food: non-matching plates, silverware, and cups that came from Taco Bell or other restaurants and have been washed out for reuse. The backyard is brimming with various gardening projects and the curry that was served the first time I attended on a Wednesday night contained some unknown zucchini-like plant from the garden they had picked earlier that day. They hold public parties and events for the people in their neighborhood and are very much the friend to the friendless and disenfranchised.
Ryan freely admitted that the intentions of the Birdhouse may be “tough to clarify. You'd probably get five different answers from all five of the guys about why we're here” (Interview, Nov. 17, 2010). Despite not having been around for 17 years and being as comfortable as an old married couple like Brian's community or having drawn up a clearn declaration like Lake House, his view of their purpose is simple. Ryan believes that the goal of Birdhouse is to leave as little an impact on the environment and as large an impact on the community as possible. His house tracks their utility costs on the wall to keep them aware of what they use too much of. They do not own a dryer in the house and try to keep from using air conditioning whenever possible. Ryan volunteers with CIW (Coalition for Immokalee Workers), which is an activist group promoting fair wages for migrant workers in Florida who help harvest the year-round crops of the local farms. He also encourages community efforts in efficiency and ecologically friendly existence with his program “Seeds in the Springs” where he promotes awareness and teaches others how to grow their own garden. Ryan recognizes that his family and girlfriend may never understand the way he lives, but says he doesn't want to ever live any other way. ”I love the kind of transparency that this forces you to embrace” (Ryan I., interview, Nov 17, 2010).
Brian's wife Monica has had four of their six children while in the community they live in presently and she values her community life greatly. Brian's high-volume travel schedule early in their marriage would have left her at home alone with a great deal of responsibility had they lived in a traditional single-family home. Instead, with her children's “five 'aunties' and two 'uncles'” around she “was so happy [she] had others to share [her] joy with” (Sanders, et al., n.d.). Eve, their 12 year old daughter writes in the QA section of their community's recently finished book about Intentional Community and says that “even though we are not related by blood, we are all part of a family. […] Since I have lived in community since birth [sic] I really didn't have a choice to be part of community but I am really glad I have community in my life” (Sanders, et al., n.d.).
While two other couples with children in this community homeschool their children, Brian and Monica choose not to. Brian explained in his interview that he feels like having his children in public school offers the community the same thing that his family living in poorer neighborhoods does – an influence from the inside. If something is unjust or inadequately being handled in the public school system and Brian or Monica goes to the school to address it, Brian views this as a service not only to his own children whose education he values, but also to the other children whose parents may not value their own children enough to take time out to be an impetus to change.
Jon expressed some concern about raising children while in community because of the stigma that the public holds toward alternative family arrangements. Kienzler mentions in her 2005 article that the belief that “communes and families are antagonistic concepts that compete for their members' loyalty” is argued for by many researchers of the phenomenon (198). Brian, Monica, and their six children are an example that challenges this position and Jordan's adoption will soon shine a light on the social service system and their interaction with intentional communities and other alternate living arrangements.
Whether you choose to water your proverbial grass in a single-family dwelling or share it with a dozen other like-minded people is your own choice, and Brian, Ryan and Jon made it clear that they don't believe either is more correct than the other. Community members may clearly advocate on behalf of less consumption, increased efficiency, and a tribal mentality among neighbors that includes values such as honor and commitment, but as Brian emphasized in his interview, he doesn't care what path other people choose, so long as they recognize that intentional community is a viable option. It worked for him even while raising kids, getting multiple college degrees, starting up his own international non-profit, volunteering in the community, and traveling the world. It appears that intentional community has actually made such far-reaching dreams and endeavors more possible due to the shared resources and passion among its members.
It's about being willing to fight for the land that you're on. Everyone always thinks the grass is greener somewhere else and I've come to understand that it's just as brown as where you're at. It needs as much watering and care. You can go somewhere else where everybody else has made their grass green, but it won't feel as good. [Ryan I., interview, Nov 17, 2010]
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