Thursday, June 21, 2007

Purposeful living: Co-op housing attracts those seeking something different

Anita Weier 6/20/2007 10:34 am

Surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings and cushy fraternity houses, the Emma Goldman Cooperative at 625 N. Frances St. might be seen as a throwback to the Madison of the 1960s.

The three-story wood and stucco house is home to activism and casually dressed, relatively young people, who eat communal vegetarian meals and pay low rents near the shore of Lake Mendota.

Those looking downtown for a different and inexpensive living experience are finding that places like the Emma Goldman house and other unique co-ops are attractive alternatives to traditional apartments.

Alison Brooks, for instance, moved to the Goldman co-op last summer because she wanted to live in a place that supported her activism against racism. She likes the mutual support of communal living and believes it helps create a strong sense of community to counter the isolation of modern life.

"This is a warm, comfortable living space. We work together instead of in opposition," said Brooks, 21, a junior at UW-Madison. She grew up in Milwaukee and Boulder, Colo.

The Emma Goldman Co-op is one of 11 co-ops in the Madison Community Cooperative network, which provides low-rent housing -- usually less than $400 per month -- at various locations close to campus and on the near east side. About 200 residents are part of the Community Cooperative, and the city also boasts numerous independent cooperatives.

In the Community Cooperative network, each house has its individual personality, goals and ideals. And people who want to live in one of them must attend dinners and a Sunday night meeting before residents decide whether they would fit in and whether they are sufficiently committed to the ideals of the cooperative.

Goldman's goals: The aim at the Goldman household is to work toward a sustainable and socially just society. Members support feminism, anti-racism and fair treatment of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

Goldman was a famous anarchist, feminist, unionist and anti-war activist who was imprisoned and then deported by the United States and sent to Russia in 1919 after J. Edgar Hoover called her "one of the most dangerous women in America."

But she also didn't like post-revolutionary Russia and ended up living in Europe and Canada.

A quote from the free-spirited Goldman adorns the front of the co-op: "If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution."

Like Goldman, the 16 activists who live in the house stand up for their principles, and house decisions are made by "group-modified consensus." Community dinners are vegetarian with a vegan option. The kitchen boasts large labeled bins of bran flour, raisins, kidney beans, brown rice and brown sugar. Organic foods are sought, and produce comes from a community supported agriculture farm. A typical meal might include tofu, rice with broccoli, biscuits or muffins, and soy milk or juice.

It's an animal-friendly house with ample common space, and a great view of Lake Mendota from the living room.

'Environment of activists': During warm weather, the residents of the non-air-conditioned abode often gather for dinner on the front porch, where they notice they aren't overly popular with some nearby residents.

"Our neighbors don't complain, but we're not bringing cookies to each other's houses," said Brooks, who is the co-op's representative on the board of the Madison Community Co-op.

Christopher Sims, 33, saw a flier about the Goldman co-op. Its statements about social justice, respect and diversity appealed to him. He joined the household in June.

Sims is a writer and performance poet who hopes to be teaching a creative writing course at a community center this summer.

"Everybody here is kindred and supporting one another," said Sims, who is from Rockford.

Josh Healey, who lived at other Madison co-ops before moving to the Emma Goldman household last summer, works at the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiative. Now 23, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a B.A. in sociology and political science in 2005.

"I chose this co-op for political and practical reasons. It is an environment of activists and artists and people who want to live out their ideals. The community gets to make the decisions on how we live -- where we buy food, the types of products we use and so on," he said.

"And affordable housing is hard to come by, especially downtown."

Healey enjoys living with a diverse group of students and working people, and he likes coming home every night to share a meal that the residents themselves prepare.

Summer Wilken, 20, has lived in the house less than a year and plans to take a semester off in the fall and go to Chicago with a friend. But she enjoys the co-op and believes in its principles.

"I heard the Emma Goldman Co-op was into social justice and anti-racism. The people here are mostly activists," said Wilken, who is from Connecticut and is majoring in English and creative writing.

She noted that some co-ops tend to be white middle class, something the Goldman cooperative is not.

"We cook together. Two people cook every night. It's like cooking Thanksgiving dinner every day. It's really nice to talk to people. We clean together and play music," Wilken said. "It seems like a family."

The nuts and bolts: Organizing the communal living arrangement depends on discussions, and residents meet every Sunday evening to talk about upkeep, finance and how they can improve the co-op. The meetings, according to the Goldman house Web site, "can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours."

As of Aug. 15, rental cost for a room is $319 to $376 per month. Everyone in the house pays $90 a month for bulk food purchases. Additionally, four people do not live at the co-op but pay $90 a month to eat there. People make their own lunches.

House members contribute from four to six hours of their time each week for jobs such as cooking, washing dishes, cleaning common spaces, paying bills, grocery shopping and serving on Madison Community Cooperative communities.

Of course, things don't always go smoothly, but members work together to solve problems such as nonpayment of rent, failure to do required work or disruptive behavior.

Housing co-op network: The Madison Community Cooperative is an umbrella organization that owns the 11 properties.

"Our organization is a tax-exempt benevolent organization. We had to take the city to court to argue that point," said Tony Anderson, maintenance coordinator.

"We are a nonprofit corporation that provides low-cost housing to low- or moderate-income people."

The Community Co-op started in 1968 when some co-op houses decided to work together. Over the years, additional houses were purchased. The Goldman co-op was purchased in 1996 for $320,000, assessor's records show.

Most of the 11 households are within one-half mile of the UW-Madison campus. They range in size from five to 34 members.

"Every house has its own flavor and personality," Anderson stressed, though all appreciate a diversity in members' backgrounds, occupations and interests.

Most of the houses focus on certain types of residents: One is family-oriented, one is all women and another focuses on international students or well-traveled people.

Each house has an inexpensive meal plan that is usually vegetarian and features home-cooked dinners prepared by house members.

Those interested in joining should ask for the membership coordinator at the office at 1202 Williamson St., or phone 251-2667 to find out if there are openings. The Web site also lists available housing.

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