LIFE IN AN URBAN COMMUNE – a case study of alt-demographics

The demographics of human habitats have changed over its emergent history: from nomadic groups, to tribes, nations of similar tribes, villages, urban & rural systems, massive metropolis, favilas & slums, colonization, globalization, cities devastated by warfare, refuge movements and settlements. Yet, remnants of all types of habitats can be found in a few, small populations. We even have stations on glaciers in the Antarctic, in space stations orbiting Earth, and for a short period, on our Moon.

What might the distributed demographics be if&when we survive/thrive our Crisis-of-Crises and a new humanity emerges and evolves for centuries to millennia? Will most people live in high concentrations, and where will these new “cities” be located? Will there still be nuclear families living in single family homes? What might be their economic and governance systems, education, healthcare, food production and waste disposal systems? Will there be violence and wars? What about Science and The Arts? We can’t assume that in the far future, humans will be living much like they are today – even with our current diversity.

Today, we must be open to experiment with alternative housing and habitat systems. We have radically new technologies to use. Yet, variations from diverse “traditions” is rare.

A long time friend, Stan Pokras, is part of the leadership of a cooperative movement in Philadelphia, recently launching a shared housing movement. He has asked me to comment. One of my responses is this report of my experience living in a successful urban commune in New Haven, CT.


When I first went to New Haven/Yale as a graduate student, in 1958, I had prior arranged to stay in an attic room of the spinster secretary of the physics dept.  She was paranoid and had multiple locks on the front door.  One weekend I came back early from a square dance outing from a college in MA and found myself locked out. I slept in my office in the physics building. My office mate, finding me there, informed me of an opening in the Rochdale Coop, located immediately across the street from the physics building. YES, a street separated me from my lodgings and my classes.

I went, applied, was interviewed at their collective, gourmet dinner, was approved, and moved in.  I had come from living in a grad student dorm at the University of Chicago – my second experience not living at home with my parents. My first was a summer during undergraduate school, in Cleveland, again with two spinster ladies – which went well. I commuted from home for all my undergraduate years at RPI.

I immediately fell in love with Rochdale Coop and communes.

The name “Rochdale” is of the birthplace of the modern Co-operative Movement, to which more than one billion people worldwide belonged in 2012. This famous British commune, has now grown into an urban center with high rise habitats, Rochdale in Manchester, England (recently tarnished by hosting a child sex trafficking ring).  There is also a Rochdale Village in Queens, NYC.

Rochdale Coop in New Haven had been formed during WWII for families, and had become the informal International House for Yale – often half our residents were not USA citizens. The rent was very inexpensive and the “management” of the commune was very well organized and highly democratic. Unanimous approval by all voting members was necessary. I witnessed a “vote” when the one objector convinced all others to vote his way – after dialog during a post-dinner meeting.

I started with a roommate in double room, but moved soon to a single room (which cost me a bit more). The house was a three story, old Victorian mansion (once home of the mayor of New Haven – I was told) that had been remodeled for a commune. The kitchen in the basement had four, 2 oven, 4 burner gas stoves and a bank of 6 refrigerators.  These had been purchased recently when one Rochdale member (Don, the father of our family, with 2 young children), working as an architect, acquired the kitchen items from a restaurant that was being remodeled.  There was a large storeroom for food purchased in bulk.  There was a large dining room, in the basement, with two very long tables.

The criteria for membership was primarily a strong desire to be a respectful part of the community; but there was no “participation” requirement. A Japanese grad student used Rochdale as a rooming house, and never ate with us; but as friendly. He left behind a chest, from within we discovered he was the son of a very wealthy Japanese businessman, and was at Yale to study to become CEO. Laws didn’t permit him to bring enough money into the USA, so he chose to live at Rochdale. But most became part of a healthy community. There were men and women, straight and gay, different ethnicities and ages. Some were students, some were laborers and school teachers.

There were four elected “officers”, who earned  1 hr/week labor credit for their “work”: President, Kitchen Kaiser, Labor Czar, and  Secretary/Treasurer.  The work responsibilities for each office had been established years before, and new officers were quickly trained to be effective and efficient. Over my years at Rochdale, I served in two of the four offices: Labor Czar and President.

KITCHEN KAISER:  Kept accurate inventory of food supplies, and kept the shelves stocked. The KK daily ordered delivery from local grocery, with a  heavy discount; and saw that the food delivery was properly shelved. The KK created menus for evening dinners for the cook of the day (unless the cook wanted to propose his own menu – which many International students often did). There were six evening meals, with pot-luck on Sunday. Residents had to signup on a chart if they were NOT planning to attend (eat), and to indicate guests.  They were not charged for meals not eaten. The cost of a meal was about $2/meal. Every evening meal was gourmet – with 2 appetizers, 2 main courses, choice of 2 deserts, and beverage.  The number at dinner ranged from 15 to 40.

Members could prepare their own food at any time (except during dinner). Each person had a long, thin strip of paper on which they recorded what food they consumed from our large larder. Prices of all food was listed on a chart.  The Treasurer would sum up the lists each month and bill each member.  Private diners were responsible for their own cleanup – which all did – under supervision by the Labor Czar. Individuals could request special foods to be ordered by the Kitchen Kaiser, and charged to them.  Occasionally there were feasts, such as a spit roasted pig, and many parties and food/drink supplied meetings (hosted by members).

COOK & KITCHEN SERVER & KITCHEN CLEANUP. One person for each task/dinner. Cooking earned 4 hours labor credit (often took 6+ hours) – and I usually cooked once a week.  Kitchen Server and Cleanup persons earned 2 hours labor credit per meal.  I often took Cleanup, as I usually cleaned up my cooking utensils while cooking. The Server set the table and helped move food from kitchen to dining room – with the help of others.  Diners helped move items from dining room to kitchen, where the Cleanup person washed dishes and put them away.

LABOR CZAR.  I inherited an 8.5X11 template of a form that listed all tasks to be performed and labor credit to be earned. These forms were posted on the main board, for two weeks ahead.  Members signed up for their tasks.  There was a bookletwwith clear instructions for each task – which had been worked out long ago. There were always a few special tasks listed, with labor credits assigned.  I can’t remember how many hours/week of labor was required, but I think it was less than 10.  The Labor Czar kept books on labor earned and informed a person if they fell behind.  Members were permitted to go into labor debt. If some tasks didn’t have signatures just before the start of a labor week, the Czar found persons to take those labor responsibilities. The Czar monitored task performance, such as cleaning periodically all public spaces. This was a very efficient process, which I inherited.

SECRETARY / TREASURER kept financial records and paid all utilities and rent. They also participated in negotiations we might have with businesses and governments. They also took notes during meetings.

The PRESIDENT chaired meetings after evening dinners, but primarily served as Secretary-of-State, conducting “foreign relations” with other social and societal institutions. There were issues with zoning and what we could do or not do with our back yard. Most of the time we had good relations with the City of New Haven.  Our relationship with Yale University was a different matter. At some point Yale had purchased the house and were our landlord. Given our success being an alternative student housing (sometimes, up to half our residents were students – not only a Yale) we periodically suggested the model to Yale administrators.  A few residents (Oberlin College students on one year exchange at Yale) actually chose Yale because of Rochdale.  Yale expressed no interest in our model of “housing”.

We also had some controversy as to events we sponsored. Although we had no political or religions requirements, we were primarily liberal, if not progressive. The only member we had to ask to leave was a young Trotskyite, who refused to do his labor or pay his bills. Once, when the Chairman of The Fair Play for Cuba organization had his speech canceled by the Yale administration, we hosted his speech at Rochdale. As President I was called in by Yale to inform me of the subversive event that had been hosted at our house.  They were surprised that I had been the person inviting the speech. The FBI also became interested and I was invited to a large room in downtown New Haven, with very little furniture: a large desk, 2 chairs, a large American flag and an enormous painting of J. Edgar Hoover.  At the end of their meeting I was asked to spy on some members of Rochdale, which I refused.

I joined Rochdale Coop in the fall of 1958 and left in the summer of 1960 – to winter over in the Antarctic. My prior experience at Rochdale helped me function as one of twenty men isolated under the ice in the Antarctic – where one month our only contact with the outside world was garbled Morse Code. I returned to Rochdale in the Spring of 1962, and was part of a contingent from New Haven that went to DC for the freedom march     where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech.  I left Rochdale in the fall of 1963 – having completed my PhD, taking a position teaching physics in a high  school in Westchester County, NY – and got married.  I visited Rochdale a few times after leaving.

A few years later, Yale University decided to experiment with communal living for students.  They evicted a working commune and brought in about 12 divinity students, with cooks and maids. It failed within a year.

The residents of Rochdale (I was no longer there) discovered a very large Rochdale Alumni in New Haven.  These alumni arranged for Rochdale to get a non-down-payment bank loan to purchase a 5 floor building across the street from the main Yale Library. The building had been gutted and was to have been torn down. The loan also paid for a new interior designed for Rochdale.  During construction the family that had been living at Rochdale rented a large house and had many guests. I visited them at the temporary location and had mixed feelings about their future.  I visited the new location around 1970 and was very disappointed to find that the Rochdale process had been abandoned. It was full of Yale students that had no sense of responsibility or interest in coop living. I have no idea of its current status.

While living at Rochdale, groups of members would plan and do things together. We did canoe camping trips to Lake George in New York State, and went spelunking to caves in Tennessee.  We were participants in political and social service activity.

Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.