MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And we continue now with our in-depth hard-hitting coverage of the cul-de-sac. In Southern California, reporter Jennifer Sharpe has discovered a nascent social movement that centers on these quiet suburban enclaves.
JENNIFER SHARPE: 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 where the neighbors hardly 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 L.A. cul-de-sacs to start communes together, I had to see if this strange suburban mutation could possibly survive.
This is the first one, right?
Ms. STEPHANIE SMITH (Architect, Social Designer): The first official cul-de-sac commune potluck. Three months in the organization, so we're finally here.
(Soundbite of unpacking)
SHARPE: Weeks earlier, architect and social designer, Stephanie Smith, sat in the office of her company, Ecoshack, explaining that she'd launched her project, Want to Start a Commune? after having an epiphany in the first moments of the economy's collapse.
Ms. SMITH: It couldn't possibly be that I keep having to buy in order to be green. I have to buy a Prius. I have to buy a fluorescent light bulb. I have to buy a solar array. And I frankly just couldn't afford to be green at a certain point and it scared me.
SHARPE: Coming together to share resources is the basic premise of the cul-de-sac commune, an idea that finally hatched on a newly developed bluff in Topanga Canyon.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, like, personal.
Mr. SCOTT VINEBERG: (unintelligible) with the oil.
Ms. SMITH: Yeah, there will be blood.
Mr. VINEBERG: There will be blood. There will be (unintelligible).
Ms. SMITH: Yes, exactly.
Mr. VINEBERG: There will be water.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: Exactly.
SHARPE: Hoping to learn what kind of tools she should design to help facilitate sharing, Smith studied Scott Vineberg and his progressive-thinking neighbors as they brainstormed ways to go off the grid together, raise chickens and as Helena Kriel suggested over dinner, manage their stress levels.
Ms. HELENA KRIEL: I'd like a communal massage, you know, get somebody who comes up, you get a reduced rate, it's all outside…
SHARPE: As Smith sees it, the stay-at-home convenience of the cul-de-sac commune is a solution to the biggest design flaw of its predecessors.
Ms. SMITH: In the past, utopian communities, people who had started them, have really insisted that the best way is to leave your old community and start over. And it's a valid idea, in many cases, but it also leads to failure, so what we're interested in doing is make them effective as part of a culture, not a counterculture this time.
SHARPE: 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 '70s commune lived. And if there's anyone who disagrees with Smith's strategy, it's that commune's founder, Shridhar Silberfein, whose divorce from society has only gotten deeper as his commitment to communal living has grown.
Mr. SHRIDHAR SILBERFEIN: There are going to be more and more people coming back into communes because the economy is really breaking itself down, the government is breaking down and I think the only thing that's going to be left is going to be small communities living together.
SHARPE: What do you imagine is going to happen to Los Angeles, for instance?
Mr. SILBERFEIN: I think big cities are finished. That's why I left.
SHARPE: I'd driven two and a half hours outside Los Angeles to meet Shridhar, who lives in Yucca Valley, where he works as a realtor and is starting a new, as he now calls it, intentional community. He's bought 85 acres of high desert where he's planning to drill wells and build enormous greenhouses for the community to farm.
Mr. SILBERFEIN: It's wonderful, beautiful, great place for greenhouses - you have sun all day long.
SHARPE: But as I looked out over the rocky expanse, I felt a premature nostalgia for civilization, and despite Shridhar's pessimism, drove back to Los Angeles excited to see if the cul-de-sac communes were catching on.
Ms. SMITH: Every single neighborhood in America and around the world is a commune, and every single office building is, and every single apartment building is and every single thing is built new using guidelines around sharing resources, nothing less than that.
SHARPE: Smith's vision has expanded since I first started working on this story and within a month of that first potluck, cul-de-sac communes have begun bubbling up around the city, including one down in Santa Monica's Rustic Canyon, just a short walk from my house. So maybe it's just a matter of time before even my block turns and my hostile tree-hating neighbor comes knocking on my front door.
For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Sharpe.