A Social Experiment: Communes In Cul-De-Sacs

Stephanie Smith, who founded "Wanna Start A Commune" in California. i i

Stephanie Smith, who founded "Wanna Start A Commune?," says she couldn't afford to be green by herself — and that scared her. Jennifer Sharpe for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Sharpe for NPR
Stephanie Smith, who founded "Wanna Start A Commune" in California.

Stephanie Smith, who founded "Wanna Start A Commune?," says she couldn't afford to be green by herself — and that scared her.

Jennifer Sharpe for NPR
A diagram of the cul-de-sac commune i i

In a diagram of the cul-de-sac commune project, Smith has color-coded ways to share duties in the cul-de-sac like child care, pet care, education, arts and crafts energy, technology, composting and recycling. Stephanie Smith hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Smith
A diagram of the cul-de-sac commune

In a diagram of the cul-de-sac commune project, Smith has color-coded ways to share duties in the cul-de-sac like child care, pet care, education, arts and crafts energy, technology, composting and recycling.

Stephanie Smith
A diagram depicts a cul-de-cac commune in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of Santa Monica, Calif.

A diagram depicts a cul-de-sac commune in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood of Santa Monica, Calif. Stephanie Smith hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie Smith

Ever since my next-door neighbor sent me hate mail, threatening to sue if I didn't cut down my eucalyptus tree, I've been having paranoid fantasies about how badly we'd do together in an apocalypse.

Stranded on a residential street in Santa Monica, Calif., where the neighbors hardly ever interact with each other, I realized we might all die as casualties of our own self absorption.

So when I heard about a social experiment urging people in Los Angeles cul-de-sacs to start communes together, I had to see if this strange suburban mutation could possibly survive.

So architect and social designer Stephanie Smith, who runs the company Ecoshack, took me to the first official cul-de-sac commune potluck at the end of January on a newly developed bluff in Topanga Canyon, three months after she came up with the idea.

"We're finally here," Smith said.

Weeks earlier, Smith sat in her office explaining that she launched her project "Wanna Start A Commune?" after having an epiphany in the first moments of the economy's collapse.

"It couldn't possibly be that I have to keep having to buy in order to be green," Smith said. "I have to buy a Prius. I have to buy a fluorescent light bulb. I have to buy a solar array. And I just frankly just couldn't afford to be green — and that scared me."

Stay-At-Home Convenience Vs. Divorcing From Society

Coming together to share resources is the basic premise of Smith's vision for the cul-de-sac commune. Hoping to learn what kinds of tools she should design to help facilitate sharing, Smith listened to Scott Vineberg, who lives in the commune, and his progressive-thinking neighbors as they brainstormed ways to go off the grid together, raise chickens and manage their stress levels.

"I'd like a communal massage, get somebody who comes up, you get a reduced rate, it's all outside... Ahh, that would be amazing, we should do that!" says commune member Helena Kriel.

The stay-at-home convenience of the cul-de-sac commune is, as Smith sees it, a solution to the biggest design flaw of its predecessors.

"In the past, utopian communities have often failed because people who started them have really insisted that the best way is to leave your old community, leave society, leave culture and start over, and it's a valid idea in many cases, but, it also leads to failure," she said. "So what we're interested in doing is make them effective as part of a culture, not a counterculture this time."

By some strange coincidence, the very spot where this first cul-de-sac commune gathering was taking place is exactly where Topanga Canyon's biggest 1970s commune once lived.

And if there's anyone who disagrees with Smith's strategy, it's that commune's founder, Sridhar Silberfein, whose divorce from society has gotten only deeper as his commitment to communal living has grown.

"I think there are going to be more and more people coming into communes — that's really where the future's going to be now," Silberfein says. "Because the economy is really breaking itself down, the government is breaking down, all the systems are breaking down. And all that's going to be left is going to be small communities living together and sharing the land."

I asked him what he imagines will happen to Los Angeles, for example.

"I think big cities are finished," he said. "That's why I left."

Nostalgia For Civilization

I'd driven two and a half hours outside Los Angeles to meet Silberfein, who lives in Yucca Valley, where he works as a real estate agent and is starting a new — as he now calls it — "intentional community," on 85 acres of high desert, where he plans to drill wells and build enormous greenhouses.

But as I looked out over the rocky expanse, I felt a premature nostalgia for civilization, and, despite Silberfein's pessimism, drove back to Los Angeles excited to see if the cul-de-sac communes were catching on.

"Every single neighborhood in America and around the world is a commune," Ecoshack's Smith says. "And every single apartment building is, and every office building is, and every single thing is built new using guidelines around sharing resources. Nothing less than that."

Smith's vision continues to expand. Within a month of that first potluck, at the end of February, cul-de-sac communes were bubbling up around the city, including one down in Santa Monica's Rustic Canyon, a short walk from my house. So perhaps it's just a matter of time before even my block turns, and my hostile tree-hating neighbor comes knocking on my front door.

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