Bay Area Communal Living in the Digital Age

Jacqueline Torgerson and Dulcinee DeGuere are interested in researching the different practices of contemporary communal living in the Bay Area, its origins and connections to hippie culture, and how it differs from the individualized mode of existence in typical American society. By focusing on their dedication to entrepreneurship, independence of individual minds within a collective community as well as the utilization of technology for the betterment of society, we plan to identify the goals of these contemporary coliving spaces. We hope to capture the process of transitioning from a lifestyle of complete capitalist exchange to one that embraces communal values as well as illustrate how these new collectives are re-appropriating traditional hippie ideals by embracing collaboration, yet forming in urban environments rather than retracting from society altogether. We aim to examine the substantial effects of communal living in the Bay Area through the exploration of these questions: To what extent have these young professionals retracted from conventional society and adopted hippie ideals, and in what ways do these communes differ from the traditional communes that existed in the sixties? More specifically, how are the livelihoods and personal relationships of those coliving affected by this lifestyle choice, and what motivated these young people to retract from typical American housing? We will carry out this research by travelling to the Bay Area and living in The Rainbow Mansion for a month and The Center for a month. Additionally, we plan to research and interview various prominent figures surrounding The Grateful Dead and the communes that formed in the 60s and 70s. These people will serve as a cultural and historical reference point of the hippie culture surrounding the Grateful Dead, and can speak to the connection between hippies and technology. We plan to film our day-to-day experience living in the communes, conduct ethnographic interviews, and attend community events hosted by the collectives in order to capture the essence of each group’s personal mission and unique efforts to improve society. The data-gathering process will consist of fieldwork carried out by observing testimonies of prominent members of the collective living spaces, closely examing and filming day-to-day life in the living spaces as well as noting our own reactions to adopting a communal lifestyle. Dulcinee and Jacqueline are both well versed in film production, having been Radio/Television/Film majors since freshman year. Last year, Jacqueline took “Documentary Production” taught by Debra Tolchinsky. This course taught her ethical guidelines for interviewing subjects, ways to create gripping documentary narratives, documentary editing techniques as well as necessary legal procedures involved in documentary production. She was also a videographer for INSPIRINGLY: NUDM Documentary, in which she filmed Dance Marathon 2013 for several hours. She also took “Law and the Creative Process” this spring, which gave her further insight into the legal matters of independent film production. Dulcinee has spent the past two summers working full-time in the office of Robert Kenner, Academy-Award nominated director of Food, Inc. Working with Kenner introduced Dulcinee to all aspects of what goes into making a professional documentary, as she got to participate in pre- and post-production, as well as on location shooting. Dulcinee was given a hands-on role in many of the interviews for Kenner’s film, which gave her valuable skills in working with subjects. Tolchinsky and Kenner are both fantastic resources for any questions we have regarding the complexities that encompass making a documentary. Additionally, Dulcinee is interned with two Northwestern alumni who are in the midst of post-production on an independent feature-length documentary they shot last summer. These students began this project three years ago at Northwestern, and they have worked almost entirely on their own to create it. This internship taught Dulcinee the obstacles that face small, independent documentaries, as well as familiarized her with legal matters and distribution methods such as submitting the project to film festivals. We plan to spend the rest of our lives using art to investigate the world around us. Specifically, we are both very interested in pursuing documentary work after graduation as a way to investigate societal problems and solutions. This film will be a key addition to our portfolios, and we hope to submit it to festivals. We see this project as a stepping-stone, an introduction to a much larger and extensive exploration in search for what we deem to be authentic culture amidst what Debord dubbed the “society of the spectacle.” Jacqueline and Dulcinee are funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Grant program run by Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research, which also sponsors these blogs.

Thursday Afternoon at the Dead Houses

 

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We made our way back to Ithaka to meet with Rob Levitsky on Thursday afternoon. The home was quiet, once again, when we arrived, so we decided to open the fence and walk into the backyard. The “backyard” spans nearly an acre. It includes several other houses that are used as community homes. There’s a positive, playful, and environmentally friendly attitude surrounding Ithaka’s yard – a basketball hoop, a garden, a large tree with a swing, tie dyed t-shirts fading in the sun, and good people.

Rob, who lives in one of the Dead Houses next to Ithaka, was sitting at a table when we arrived. There were three empty glasses, apple cider, bananas, blueberries, and ice cream on the table – this couldn’t be a coincidence. Rob provided an exceptional historical context regarding the Bay Area and entrepreneurship. He brought up the Gold Rush, and explained how he believes there has always been an air of entrepreneurship in California. He talked to us about his experience with alternative living styles, and told us about some of his past residents who have decided to take a more radical approach to communal living. A couple of his previous tenants started the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri – check out their website here!

We were particularly interested in his thoughts about whether or not communal living within the tech and startup worlds here are in a coincidence or not.

“OK, now we’re going to do something hippie,” said Rob as he picked up the apple cider. He then started pouring the cider into a blender that was attached to a bicycle to the left of the table. He put the rest of the ingredients into the blender and asked one of us to get on the bike and start peddling. At this point, one of the other house residents, a Stanford graduate turned musician/filmmaker, had joined us to chat after asking if we were the girls who were coming to film.


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“So do you guys want to see the music room now? I recorded an album there last summer,” said the Ithakan at the table with us. We left the table and walked a couple houses down to a little shed with several string instruments and drums hanging on the wall, monitors, a whiteboard full of lyrics, and art pieces sitting on shelves. Two guys, also residents, were in the room working on music when we entered. After a couple minutes in the music room, Rob turned to us and said, “well, I guess now we should go tie-dye some t-shirts outside, right?” What an uncanny afternoon.

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Sunday Dinner

family: a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head

Every Sunday, the Rainbow Mansion has a “family dinner”, in which friends and extended Rainbow-community members come over to enjoy a meal with the house residents. Each week, a different member of the house is in charge of preparing a meal for the house residents and guests. This week, Andrea was in charge of cooking, and she made a traditional Venezuelan dish. It took hours for her to make, so I spent almost the entire day in the kitchen with her. We shared stories about our families, both good and bad. There wasn’t much small talk. Although we have only known each other for a couple of weeks, I find that the conversations I have with Andrea are those I have only with my closest of friends. We’ve quickly connected, as we share similar world-views despite our vastly different cultural backgrounds, and we are both interested in engaging in intellectual discussions (even if it is on Saturday night at a party). I’ve found this connection with others in Silicon Valley, including all of the residents of Rainbow. This aspect of Rainbow illustrates the belief that the co-op is an “intentional community”, and because of the diversity of age, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds, I would call it an intentional extended family. Several people passed through the kitchen throughout the evening to help Andrea prepare the meal by offering to do different cooking tasks.

As I set the large dining room table with as many plates as I could fit, a nostalgic wave came over me. I felt like I was about to have dinner with my actual family. Not my “nuclear family” – my extended family. It felt like a Sunday dinner, in the middle of the summer, at my grandmother’s house, with all of my aunts and uncles, cousins, and other relatives. The cross-generational nature of The Rainbow Mansion is palpable at large meals. It was especially noticeable this Sunday, because an older man, who is considering moving into the mansion, came over to meet all of the residents.

I think part of the reason I feel so at home here is because of the large age differences between different members of the house. We all come from such different backgrounds, but the traditional familial roles remain in a different way. While the 21st century has caused many young people to move away from their blood-related family to pursue careers, this is an opportunity to feel like you always have a true extended family close by. This is so much more than “young kids living together to save money on housing” – this is truly a reconstructed model of how people can live and grow together within a “family”.

Our Journey to Ithaka…

When our roommate Andrea asked us if we wanted to go to a “Chocolate and Dance Party” at “Ithaka”, we had no idea what to expect. Alas, we took her up on the offer and decided to attend the event with her. As it turned out, Ithaka is another co-op in Palo Alto that houses many artists and Stanford graduates. We immediately noticed that was very different from The Rainbow Mansion. There were no opulent chandeliers, vast counter space, or large living and dining areas like in The Rainbow Mansion. It was a quaint little space – warm, inviting, and cozy. A large garden. Clotheslines. A massive bike rack. Giant tubs of cooking ingredients. Herbs. Spices. An effort toward self-sustainability within a collective. This was a huge contrast to the grocery system at Rainbow, in which food is delivered twice a week. Still, it was remarkably similar to The Rainbow Mansion in the sense that there was a collective energy between all of those in attendance at the party.

The event was a fundraising effort for Firefly Chocolate, which is an organic chocolate making startup founded by Jonas Ketterle, who is also a founder and resident of Ithaka. It was inspiring to see the outstanding support he was receiving from those in his community, who he may or may not live with. Jonas was presenting his Kickstarter video to those in attendance when we arrived at the party. Everybody was silent and giving him their undivided attention, including Andrea. He passed around a bowl of chocolate that everybody enjoyed, and then people socialized (and yes, danced!) for the rest of the evening. There truly was a communal spirit. Please feel free to donate to Firefly Chocolate here!

It was only after leaving that we realized that Ithaka is one of the original “Dead Houses” of Palo Alto – one of 15 homes owned by Rob Levitsky, who named all of the co-ops after Grateful Dead songs. Although only 9 of the 15 homes are still running, they are all next door to one another, which truly fosters a community. As we stumble across more of these communities throughout the area, we are truly being led to believe that this is a movement. The people and places in these houses might be very different, but the concept of communal living and embracing the community seems to be a constant force.

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We Code Because…

Wait,  we don’t code. How did we end up at this IBM Mixer? Glen Tona (pictured below) is one of our roommates at the Rainbow Mansion, and he works for “BlueMix Garage”, which is an IBM powered company dedicated to help startups develop by connecting different people with various areas of expertise. It is an innovative company that provides a platform for rapid development and change as well as an open workspace.

 

Glen invited us to photograph BlueMix’s rooftop launch party on July 14th. We were a bit out of place, as most of the guests were computer programmers. Yet, we were in great company, as many of the Rainbow Mansion residents attended the event to support Glen and BlueMix, which reflected the community-oriented nature of the house. In fact, several of us piled into a minivan for the hour long commute from the mansion in Cupertino to San Francisco, which couldn’t help but vaguely remind us of a hippie van! We met several interesting characters at the event, ranging from the “Community Experience Coordinator” at Galvanize SF to a professional dancer with a degree in Chemistry. Andrea Malave (pictured below) is a Rainbow resident who attended the event with us.

 

We met many other people at the event, including a young woman (pictured below in pink shirt) from Germany who works with Rainbow guest-resident Johannes Heidecke (pictured below, far right) as a software engineer at SAP. She will soon be moving into the mansion for a short-term stay, which brings up an interesting facet of contemporary communal living. Perhaps reflecting the “on-the-go” nature of our generation, the Rainbow Mansion often hosts young professionals for short periods of time, allowing them to frequently move and work on various projects in different locations. Despite this, many residents decide to stay for longer periods of time. Mike Grace and Diana Gentry, for example, have lived in the home for about 4 years.

 

Overall, we had a great time photographing the event and experiencing the BlueMix community. It was our first time going downtown with the Rainbow community, and we were more than impressed by the event. More updates coming soon!

 

Co-op Living!

We have been living in a co-op in Silicon Valley for roughly a week. In fact, a number of homes and vacant spaces in the Bay Area are beginning to be occupied by large groups of people, creating a new type of “commune” in the Digital Age. The Rainbow Mansion, where we currently live, is a collective of 11 young professionals from a wide range of careers. Brought together by a shared passion of entrepreneurship and innovation, these people have a common mission to bring extraordinary people under one roof to live, work, and change the world together. The contemporary collectives in the Bay Area are passionate about the belief that cohousing offers a socially responsible, environmentally friendly, creatively stimulating, and personally meaningful alternative lifestyle. They share groceries and household responsibilities, host events for the surrounding community, and embrace a lifestyle with little distinction between work and play.

The Rainbow Mansion was founded by Jessy Kate Schingler, a young engineer working at NASA’s Ames Research Center. It has now housed over 60 people from 12 countries. Inspired entrepreneurialism is a central facet: residents are carefully chosen for their ideas and ambitions, and they are often working on individual projects. The house regularly hosts events for the community in order to facilitate open political discussions and create a space for people to present projects and research for feedback. Current residents include Mike Grace and Diana Gentry, who are to be married in late August. Both Grace and Gentry work in NASA’s Ames Research Center. Molly Newborn, originally from Montreal, is an independent biotech investment consultant. Rainbow is also home to Google programmer Loredana Afanasiev, who is originally from a village in Moldova. Resident and entrepreneur Daniel Faber recently moved his company, Deep Space Technologies, which mines astroids, from the mansion’s garage to NASA’s research center. Principle engineer Shevek and entrepreneur Chris McCann also inhabit the large home. The last permanent resident is Andrea Malave, who currently works in childcare management at Stanford University. The house also has a guest room that can host up to 5 additional residents including Glen Tona, an Albanian software engineer working for IBM, and Johannes, a software engineer from Germany. We have been staying in the guest room with Glen and Johannes, and another woman is arriving on the 20th!

Last night we had a large “family dinner” (these dinners occur every Sunday), in which several guests, including past residents and potential future residents, all came over to enjoy a meal and after dinner hike with us. Several students who intern for Mike at NASA also came over. It’s hard to imagine that one family could live in a house that so comfortably fits so many people!