America has a long history of utopian experiments, a history that stretches far beyond the hippie communes of the 1960s. Some of the earliest European settlements on the Atlantic coast were conceived as ideal cities: Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Philadelphia, and Savannah. Utopians often led the way west: Icarians, Rappites, the Amana Colonies, and most notably, the Mormons.
In 2008, single and in my fifties, I was curious about alternate living arrangements. Was the commune still alive? I read books and articles, investigated online, and visited where I could, mainly in Virginia.
As I read, questions arose. Is desire for utopia economic or egalitarian, political or idealist? Do communes succeed because of shared religious faith? Is a monastery a commune? Some communes are secular, even atheist. Must they have a political agenda? Charismatic leaders often figure in their history. Can a commune survive without one? Does celibacy help or hinder the cause? How do age, gender, education, and personality figure?
Of those who study living communes, Timothy Miller at the University of Kansas is the foremost authority, with many articles in Communities magazine. His books include American Communes, 1860-1960: A Bibliography (1990) and The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America, 1900-1960 (1998). Miller admits that the definition of a commune is elusive, the vocabulary is diffuse, and simple questions can be hard to answer. For example, how many Americans live in communes? That depends on how long they stay, whether monasteries count, and whether you include senior citizens who live in retirement complexes. The utopians rarely agree on anything.
By using data from the Federation of Intentional Communities, which lists some fraction of all those that exist, and from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic group at Georgetown University, I made an estimate. Including all religious and secular communities, but excluding the seniors who have no ideological bent, up to 200,000 Americans live “in community,” which usually means group ownership of the real estate. In a total United States population of over 320 million, that is less than one in a thousand.
The significance of the utopians exceeds their numbers. The Shakers at their zenith in the 1850s counted about 6,000 members, but their influence on American culture is profound. Communitarians today receive frequent visits from the press and from inquiring young people. But in popular culture, they tend to be the butt of jokes. The 2012 movie Wanderlust and the 2014 television reality show Utopia are recent examples.
Literature on American communes includes academic surveys and local studies, such as Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community, by Spencer Klaw (1993). Oneida in upstate New York practiced a “perfectionist” creed and “plural marriage.” Each monastery has a foundation story that mixes historical fact with divine intervention, like a medieval legend. Two classic histories, both reprinted by Dover, are The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Visit and Observation, by Charles Nordhoff (1875), and Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880, by Mark Holloway (1951). Nordhoff is a treasure trove of facts and documents, while Holloway views the subject through a lens of irony.
Catholic Americans’ most likely brush with a commune is in the person of a nun. For a century or more, the number of Catholic nuns has exceeded the number of monks by a factor of ten. Among all nineteenth-century communities that practiced celibacy, women outnumbered men. A common explanation is that until the mid-twentieth century, women had few alternatives to marriage and child-rearing as an occupation. Women who wanted something more in life, or who were averse to a conventional sex role, could join a religious order or a utopian group. Men, according to this view, had a range of options, including military service and the merchant marine. Yet the gender imbalance continues today, when women have more choices. A popular assumption holds that women have a cooperative edge, but behavioral research on this topic is scarce. Maybe the question can be more sharply defined.
Two Catholic monasteries were within a short drive of my home. Mary Mother of the Church Abbey is a Benedictine house west of Richmond, housed in a former high school built in the 1960s. Holy Cross Abbey is a Cistercian house in rural Clarke County, east of Berryville, built mainly from1950 to 1986 in a plain modern style, without a traditional cloister. Each monastery has about ten elderly monks and one or two new recruits. This situation is typical for American religious houses, male and female, where the average age of residents is in the 70s. The Richmond monks founded and taught in a high school, Benedictine College Preparatory, but they are now mostly retired. Holy Cross Abbey, with an expanse of farmland along the Shenandoah River, put some acres into a natural cemetery, leased some acres for vegetable farming, and is looking into restoration of the eroded riverbank. It continues the Cistercian tradition of good resource management, and it is an ecological model for other small communities.
In the Church Hill district of Richmond, a former convent of Catholic nuns called Monte Maria was renovated in 2004 as a retreat and education center, and thus saved from commercial redevelopment. Renamed Richmond Hill in 1987, the complex is charming and historical, with a lovely garden, all surrounded by a red brick wall. The 1894 chapel is an architectural jewel. Headed by an Episcopal priest, Ben Campbell, Richmond Hill houses an ecumenical Christian group, a handful of men and women with a loose “rule” and no ties to any other community. Its mission is to “pray for metropolitan Richmond,” and it does not stray beyond.
Yogaville is a sprawling Hindu ashram in Buckingham County along the James River. An Indian yogi called Satchidananda Saraswati created it in 1980 for himself and his followers. The largest and liveliest of the religious communities I saw, Yogaville boasts the most interesting architecture, a complex of three temples that includes LOTUS, or Light of Truth Universal Shrine, designed by Satchidananda. Inspired by a traditional stupa, LOTUS is a pink dome ringed by shrines to all faiths and surrounded by water and gardens. Yogaville has a handful of monks and nuns who live in a monastery. A few hundred devout, married with children, live on or near the 750-acre farm. A “quad” for education resembles a college campus, with a dining hall, library, and lecture rooms. The property also houses a publishing business and the headquarters for Integral Yoga, which operates food stores and yoga centers all over the United States and abroad.
Twin Oaks in Louisa, Virginia, founded in 1967, is a rare survival of the hippie communes of that era. (The Farm, founded in 1971 in Summertown, Tennessee, is another. The Farm is the subject of the 2013 documentary film American Commune.) Twin Oaks is a going concern, economically successful. It has a working farm where they grow vegetables and flowers, run a dairy herd, and produce heirloom seeds. And it has factories where they make hammocks, wood furniture, and tofu from soybeans grown elsewhere. Membership is capped at 100 adults, with a waiting list for applicants.
Twin Oaks gave birth to at least two daughter communes, one in Missouri and one nearby in Virginia. It helped to found the Federation of Intentional Communities, which promotes education and links among communes. Each summer, it hosts a Women’s Gathering, and on Labor Day weekend, it hosts a Communities Conference. Attendance at both of these in 2015 was about 150, according to the online newsletter.
At Twin Oaks, the original impulse was to make B. F. Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two a reality. Kat Kinkade (1930-2008) one of the founders, wrote two books on her experience, A Walden Two Experiment (1974) and Is It Utopia Yet? (1994). The system of labor credits and production managers is the only Skinnerian idea that remains intact. They gave up social engineering. The early years saw a village-like approach to child-rearing, where most adults acted as parents and teachers, but children have been scarce in the past two decades.
Goals for ethnic diversity have never been met. Twin Oaks was and is a haven for middle-class whites who drop out. They claim to indulge in frolics, live music, nudity, free sex, and a complete lack of social restraint. With shabby buildings scattered in the woods and constant bickering among the residents, the commune struck me as a sad place. Twin Oakers themselves remark on their love of gossip.
Yet Twin Oaks confounds the received wisdom. It has never had a cult leader, one dominant personality. Nor does it have a common religion, a public ritual, or even much of a political structure. It has a high turnover rate of residents, up to 30% in some years. Like the monasteries, it has an aging population. The secret seems to be financial good sense coupled with strict rules on communal ownership of property, again like a monastery. The sexual free-for-all, thanks to a ready supply of condoms and the frequency of lesbian affairs, produces few babies. In 2015, they had one birth.
Contrary to the idea of a hippie commune, Twin Oaks has never tolerated drugs. The founders were acutely aware of the legal risk, and they saw it as a matter of survival. In this respect, Twin Oaks is typical of communes, which lack the resources to deal with alcohol and drug abuse. A small community can only harbor those in good mental health. Those who misbehave are expelled, or old-fashioned shunning persuades them to leave.
Cohousing and the pocket neighborhood are intermediate types of community, where residents own their homes and cooperate to some extent, sharing meals, chores, childcare, and a garden or green space. Cohousing began in Denmark in 1972 as a reaction to the sterility of suburbs near Copenhagen. It was popularized in the United States by Kathryn McCamant and Chuck Durrett in their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (1988). Cohousing caught on mainly in the northwest, in Washington, Oregon and northern California.
A cohousing group formed in Charlottesville, Virginia around 1995, bought land and built one house, then disbanded in 2002, mainly due to the cost of construction. A few years later, another group formed in Crozet, west of Charlottesville, as Blue Ridge Cohousing. They were inspired by Shadowlake Village Cohousing in Blacksburg, Virginia, occupied since 2002 by about 50 adults and 25 children. The Crozet group bought an old farmhouse with enough land to develop 26 residential units. They rezoned the property and drew plans. They hoped to foster cooperative child care, among other things, but the prospective members were mostly older or unmarried. I visited in late 2008. The old house was renovated, and a few members lived in it. No new houses followed during the economic recession, and the group slipped from view. Under another name, the same place was soliciting members in 2014. These examples illustrate the difficulty of financing cohousing, and of attracting enough members to make it work.
A variation on cohousing is the ecovillage, which emphasizes living in harmony with nature and promoting the values of ecology. So the ecovillage has an educational mission. The word “ecovillage” dates from 1978, in a paper by George Ramsey at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The idea grew out of the energy crisis of the early 1970s, a worldwide petroleum shortage that led people to question the American postwar lifestyle, especially the automobile. The zeal of ecovillagers shows how science can substitute for religion in providing a shared belief system. Ecovillage Charlottesville in 2016 calls itself “a community space and future residence promoting ecological, social, economic, and cultural sustainability.” A handful of people live in an existing house. The fledgling community hopes to develop 6.5 acres bordering the city with 24 residential units.
The pocket neighborhood is another variation on cohousing, a shade less cooperative. Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, by Ross Chapin (2011), is an excellent overview. The concept favors higher density, smaller yards, smaller dwellings, a mix of housing types including apartments, shared green space, and shared amenities like a clubhouse, tennis courts, swimming pool and walking trails. In and around Charlottesville, commercial developers are using ideas shown in the book. Across the United States, the New Urbanist movement based in Ithaca, New York, promotes many of the same ideas to county and city planners, who in turn ask developers to include these features.
To what extent does New Urbanist housing encourage residents to be friendly and caring? Human behavior and the sociology of neighborhoods are more complex than site planning and zoning. Ethnic mix, the age of residents, their income and education, the presence or absence of children—these factors may trump a sensible layout and attractive landscaping. Possibly, the better quality of new residential development relieves the need for alternatives like cohousing and pocket neighborhoods. But it seldom includes subsidized units which allow diversity.
In my communal quest, I found that new social ideas will not sustain a commune that lacks a sound economic base. Many fail in the first few years. On the other hand, the Shakers, who were widely seen as “cracked” because of their mystical beliefs, prospered thanks to their work ethic, their ownership of prime farmland, and smart management. As important as wealth is a stable membership, with not too many people joining or leaving in a short time. Leadership matters, and the cult leader who dies often leaves his or her followers unable to carry on. But some communes develop new leaders from within. Celibacy or its opposite—free love, plural marriage—seems to be a red herring, with no effect on long-term success.
As with the private home, a key ingredient seems to be permanence. Residents make a psychological as well as a financial investment in one place. Among the earliest monastic documents, the Rule of St. Benedict (around 500 AD) scolds the “gyrovague,” the monk who wanders from house to house instead of settling down. A monk today makes a vow of “stability” along with poverty and chastity. The Shakers at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky had a problem with “turnbacks” and “winter Shakers,” men who arrived in autumn and departed in spring, skipping the summer season of farm work.
Less obviously, given their emphasis on withdrawal from the world and self-sufficiency, communes including monasteries survive when they have a healthy relationship to the people who live around them. Holy Cross Abbey now actively engages Clarke County schoolchildren, hosts a “monastic immersion” week or weekend twice a year, and fosters a Lay Cistercian group similar to Franciscan tertiaries and Benedictine oblates.
The flow of goods and services in and out of a commune is vital. So is the flow of donations, visitors, and new residents to replace those who leave or die. The situation is like that of any living organism. When the flow dries up, the commune dies.
Perhaps the biggest factor, but the hardest to grasp, is the personality of those who live in community. Experience shows that utopia is not for everyone. The closeness of the group and the need for harmony weed out the loudmouths, cranks, and truly creative people. Those who stay are those who get along, those who can endure long meetings in search of consensus, and those who shrink from the larger world. On a personal level, I saw that I would not fit in.
By definition, the utopian is dissatisfied with life. She wants to create a new society. In a curious way, the utopian is much like the hermit, who does not so much withdraw from society as redefine it. The earliest monasteries were clusters of hermits, while monks and nuns today are nonconformists from the larger society. The writer, who is solitary and utopian, and who speaks through a veil of words on the page, follows this primitive way.
My hermitage is a stucco cottage. The cloister I walk is Belmont Park, a three-acre square of trees and grass. My deity is an old friend. We like to sit on the porch and take the air.