From cohousing developments to ecovillages, communal living is a '60s concept that's finding renewed importance.
by Joe Tarr
On the side of steep, densely wooded hill north of Chattanooga, the afternoon sun is starting to burn through the day's thick clouds.
From off in the distance, you can hear the occasional popping of chestnut oak acorns falling from their trees and smacking the tin roofs of various tool sheds and cabins.
Patrick Kimmons and John Johnson survey their homea homestead known as Moonshadowwhere some 300 people will come in a week to celebrate the wedding of Kimmons and his girlfriend, Ashley Gilbert.
"So we're going to have people drive up through here?" Johnson asks. "Yes," Kimmons answers, as his eyes notice the ramshackle woodshed at the side of the path, and suddenly he sees his home from an outsider's view.
"Oh, great," he laughs. "That's the first thing people are going to see when pull up. 'Welcome to Moonshadow everybody. Look at Patrick and Ashley's new home.' This woodshed with tools."
New comers to Moonshadow will either be fascinated or befuddled.
You see, the eight or so people who reside here do things a little differently than most of us. They have no electricity or gas connected to their property. They heat by burning wood, and get electricity through solar panels. They use outhouses, composting their waste. They grow a good portion of their food, which includes vegetables and spices most would consider exotic. They ferment their own wine from scuppernong grapes grown on the property.
The folks at Moonshadow aren't isolated survivalists waiting for Y2K to cripple the world. In fact, they often welcome people to their homestead, showing them around, feeding them and putting them up for a night or two.
Rather, they are a part of a small but growing segment of the population who seek to create communities that break the mold of cookie cutter suburbs with two-car garages and neighbors who wave but don't really know each other.
Commonly known as communes, a more accepted term is intentional communities. Across the country, these communities can't really be pigeonholedthey are created by groups of leftist hippies and fundamentalist Christians alike (and many philosophies in between) to both get away from American culture and change it.
In East Tennessee, intentional communities are scarce. But some locals hope to change that, looking to build their own version of a perfect neighborhood in Knoxville and nearby areas.
There is no easy definition for what an intentional community is. Ask Diana Christian, editor of Communities magazine, and she'll start rattling off all the different types and sub-categories there are.
There's cohousing developments, which can be as small as a house or several blocks large. These are generally found in urban areas, and everyone typically has their own living quartersbut share common spaces (which may or may not include kitchen, meeting room or building, laundry, garden, walkways, park) and upkeep and management of the property.
There are the ecovillages, communities designed to be as sustainable as possibleminimizing waste and energy consumption, and trying to keep the land as close to undeveloped as possible.
There are the communities that form for community's sake, including those that are politically active and those that are isolated, like Hutterites.
The idea of living communallyor cooperativelyis as old as civilization. Communes as most people imagine them had a resurgence in the '60s, as Baby Boomers began experimenting with various lifestyles. Many of these communes were unorganized, and their members simply wanted to indulged in drugs and sex, says Christian. However, others had a structure and purposewhether it be spiritual, philosophical or political. Many of these have survived.
One of the best known is the Farm in Summertown, Tenn., west of Nashville. About 180 people live there on 1,750 acres. Each family owns its own home, but the property is owned collectively. There are many businessesincluding a non-profit educational center, a video production companybased on the Farm. Other adults commute to work. There's a small school based on the property, though some parents send their children to the public school, says Peter Schweitzer, a Farm resident.
People are drawn to communal living arrangements simply because they want more community, Christian says.
"They want to be with like minded individuals doing something they all like, growing organic food, or doing political activism, or practicing yoga," Christian says. "They very often want to flee what looks dangerous to them, which is American culture. But at the same time they have to stay in it because they need to work. People have to interact with mainstream America, but they're trying to have where they live be a nurturing, safe place, with shared resources."
It is community that Rose Banks longs for. Banks never really liked the modern American idea of a neighborhood. A native of Denmark, Banks has always preferred the European versionone where stores, grocers, restaurants, and bars are interspersed in every neighborhood, and you don't need a car to get around. Unfortunately, Americans these days like to segregate everything. You live in residential development, drive to downtown or to the office park to work, and drive to the commercial districts for food, clothing and entertainment.
"The sidewalk dead-ends at the end of my neighborhood. You're not going to meet anybody there, so who wants to walk there," she says. "I'm a big pusher of mixed-use neighborhoods. Put things in there that people will use on a daily basis. Daily use, daily need kinds of thingslittle shops, restaurants, little pubs. So you can send your kid for a loaf of bread. I can't send my 14-year-old anywhere. He's too young to drive. He should be out and getting about on his own. But until he's old enough to drive, he can't go anywhere. People who are under 16 or elderly are basically at the mercy of those who drive them around."
When Banks and her husband were looking for a place to settle down in East Tennessee, they decided they wanted to help create their own community. They met with the East Tennessee Cohousing Community for about a year. "Even though cohousing is a little too residential to meet all those community needs, there is at least an attempt to meet some common needs," she says.
In the cohousing model Banks was interested in, people would own their own homes, but the property around it would be communal. There would be a group building for meetings, dances, dinners. The group was hoping to build a neighborhood somewhere between Rockford and Knoxville. But they never got past the talking stage and disbanded January 1999.
"The initial development of a cohousing neighborhood takes time and a lot of meetings. People have to agree on what they want this neighborhood to be," Banks says. "Typically, it takes a couple of years of meetings, then you have to get a developer involved, and it's a lot of money up front to be honest. It's rare to find folks with enough money and time to do this."
Currently living in a mobile home park, Banks and her husband have bought an old house in Friendsville which they're renovating. Though it's not her dream community, there are some things within a short walking or biking distance, she says.
Another group hoped to start an intentional community right in Knoxville. Calling themselves the Knoxville Ecovillage Project, the group met for more than a year. Eugene Monaco, a civil engineer who was a key member, says he wanted not just a sense of community, but a neighborhood that wasn't so wasteful. "I never liked the fact that we never knew our neighbors and that communities were designed around pollutionyou had to use your car to go everywhere and people would rake leaves out to the curb, instead of composting all that on site."
The ecovillage would be designed to connect people. "The physical design is geared toward community interaction. There's a common parking lot, you walk along path to your home, see people playing with their dogs, getting their mail, planting flowers. Instead of the suburban model where everyone has a fence and you never see your neighbor," Monaco says.
The homes would be energy efficient, storm water runoff would be contained on site, there would be ponds and swales, and lots of vegetationmuch of edible. Its urban location would also make the development unique, putting people a bike or bus ride from downtown and work.
"Most [ecovillages] are way out in the country, and it causes a lot of problems. Young people can't live way out in the country because they end up having to commute," says Monaco, a single dad with three children.
The group looked at a number of potential sitesthe brownfield between the Fourth and Gill neighborhood and I-275; Mechanicsville and Catholic High School on Magnolia.
"Knoxville had a shot because you can get fairly inexpensive land. We thought if we could assemble a block of land, maybe we'd have a shot at it."
However, the project was put in limbo when a few key members moved away (including Monaco for a year and a half). He hasn't given up on the idea.
On a hill above the Montgomery Village housing project, is a road towered over by enormous white oaks. There's a little farm there, with goats and chickens. Three artsy houses line one side of the road, pieced together with odds and endsone incorporates a clothes dryer door for a window.
It's about the closest thing Knoxville has to an intentional community. James "Rollo" Sullivan bought the 7-1/2-acre farm here back in '82, and he hoped to make his living off the land, reducing waste, growing as much of his own food as possible. It didn't quite work out that way. Food is so cheap in this country that there really isn't a financial benefit to growing your own.
A carpenter, Sullivan eventually bought three neighboring homes and draws income renting them. Sitting out on his porch drinking a beer one night, Sullivan looks half hippie, half Appalachian mountain man. He's known for his kindness to strangersfrequently letting them camp out on his property, and once in a while putting them up in his house.
"It's a sign that nothing else is happening if you come up here to see an intentional community," Sullivan says. "Knoxville's just a gritty, blue-collar town that doesn't like to experiment much."
"There's not many people in this city that take pride in and attempt to take care of their own needs. The closest thing to an intentional community in Knoxville is probably a frat house."
One of his tenants, Marty Pleasant, hopes to change that.
An engineer, Pleasant and about five of his friends are eyeing a piece of property in South Knoxville where they hope to start their own community (Pleasant doesn't want the exact location known). An old quarry, the property is a short distance from downtown. The idea is to not only make it a sustainable ecovillage, but to reclaim the land from the effects of mining.
"I don't want to move to pristine areas and do this. That's why I'm doing this in the city. I want to bring nature back to the city," he says.
Except for perhaps a community house, the village will be completely off the gridusing solar power for energy. Sewage will be handled on site. They'll get their water from a spring. "There's spots still left in South Knoxville where you can have sustainable development," Pleasant says.
Getting off the grid requires some sacrifices, however.
"If you go off the grid with solar power, you're not going to have the energy pull you will on the grid," he says. "But people for thousands of years lived off the grid."
Pleasant says he isn't surprised that there aren't more so-called intentional communities in East Tennessee. Because it's always been so rural, the people who live out in the country are already in line with nature, in many respects. "But these people are starting to get pulled into the city," he says.
Carefully planning communities around basic human needs and utilizing land to the maximum is nothing new. Until World War II, it was the way most communities were built, he says.
"After the past 40 years of this rampant charge of development, a lot of people are starting to go back to the old way of planning communities because of necessity. People say, 'The population's growing. I remember 20 years ago this was all wooded.'"
The land of Moonshadow was largely bought by Patrick Kimmons grandparents after World War II. His parents were '60s idealists. Though they never experimented with drugs, they were politically and socially aware, working in the Peace Corps and doing things differently. With their two sons, they lived here in the '70s and taught themselves to live off the land. While their sons were in high school, the family built its own houseusing scrap lumber, scavenged wood and stone from the property. It cost them about $10,000. The home feels like an old hunting lodge. It is long, narrow and openwith only privacy doors over the bathroom and bedrooms. The south side of the house is open with lots of windows; the north is dark and shaded.
Patrick Kimmons studied at UT in Knoxville, but after graduating in '89, he came back home disillusioned. His parents were teaching overseas. Patrick started homesteading the land, inviting friends to visit and live there. "A lot of college students from Knoxville came down here to party, help out, work. It was sort of a retreat at the time."
When his parents returned home in 1993, they liked some of what they saw, but wanted a bit more structure and purpose. The homestead then began to take on more of an educational bent, inviting groups and people to visit and learn about living off the land and organic gardening.
Today, there are eight to 10 fluctuating residents at Moonshadow. Their gardens are intricate tangles of vegetationthe idea being to let nature do its thing as much as possible, rather than trying to order it in neat rows and lines. Harmless weeds are allowed to grow, harmful ones pulled. "Our aesthetics are messy wildness. It's sort of like sloppy art.
"I like to say we grow about 75 percent of our nutrition but probably only about 30 percent of our calories." A food co-op delivers the remainder of their food to them. They spend about $300 a month, which feeds themselves and the many guests they get.
The folks at Moonshadow take turns cooking. They serve one big meal a day, around 3 p.m. Most of them are vegetarians or vegans, though some do eat meat.
All the members pay $5 a day to live at the homestead. They earn extra cash making crafts or teaching or working part-time jobs in town.
"One of the ways we've done things here is without a lot of money," Kimmons says. "The incomes brought in really all along have been under $20,000. We've done things by not having a lot of bills and really being frugal."
Most decisions are made through group discussions. Sometimes where to locate a new outhouse can lead to debates that will drag on for weeks.
The group recently built a small Cobb homea construction technique similar to adobe, which uses a combination of sand and clay. The entire front of the cottage is glassed in. The floor is made from scrap marble. Imbedded in the walls are old wine and whiskey bottles, which serve as little windows. A contraflow stovewhich circulates the heat up, down, and up again, to get the most out of itsits in the middle of cottage and doubles as a staircase to the loft.
Constructed for less than $500, 20 people have so far logged more than 5,000 hours of work on it. Patrick and Ashley will live in the cottage when it's completed.
While the whole idea of Moonshadow is to not have any impact on the environment, they're not too self-righteous about their existence. They realize that to some degree, everyone makes a negative impact.
"A lot of things people use in organic gardening are byproducts of an unsustainable system," Kimmons says.
"We all recognize we're hypocrites to some degree. Some of us have cars," says Johnson.
Still, people who form intentional communities generally do so because they see something wrong and destructive and unsociable in the way Americans have come to organize their own neighborhoods and cities.
Monaco says that in East Tennessee, why it's wrong isn't blatant. He uses the environmentalist terminology of brittleness to describe various types of land. In a brittle environment, if you clearcut land, you ruin it, creating a barren place where little can grow. In a non-brittle environment of lush soil, plenty of rainfall and a temperate climate (like East Tennessee), you can clearcut and plenty of things will grow back.
"The land is non-brittle over here. It's very lush," Monaco says. "So there's not a sense of urgency over here because the land isn't being destroyed. It is being destroyed but not in a way that's as obvious. To me, that's why Knoxville is a little bit slower in terms of embracing [environmentally friendly development]."
"We could change the future of Knoxville and make it a decent place to live. But if we just let the West Knoxville suburbanization continue to consume, it'll be a terrible place to live in 20 years. That's why I think we're at a critical juncture."