Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Takoma Village Cohousing Forges Close-Knit Bonds

“It is the most glorious feeling in the world to come home to a place where every person I see is somebody I know,” says Ann Zabaldo of Takoma Village Cohousing in D.C. “No one is a stranger.” Her community, where she has lived for twelve years, has formed into a close-knit family where people recognize one another’s friends and extended family. They celebrate holidays together, have meals together, and constantly teach and learn from each other, she says.

Ann invited me to her apartment, a bright, tidy place with a large stuffed giraffe and a Buddhist altar in the living room. The apartment sat on the second story of the U-shaped complex, above a large common area. Like the other individual units, Ann’s apartment had a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room, a common set-up in cohousing communities, giving members the choice of having privacy or being social. In this respect, a cohousing community can seem fairly mainstream in contrast to some other forms of community living, but the desire for community that brings members together forges close-knit bonds.

While members have their own apartment units—43 total, on 1.34 acres—they share a great deal, such as the common space, regular dinners, and sometimes even cars. They make decisions through a consensus process, and all play a role in the children’s lives.

This mode of living differs sharply from the standard apartment complex, where people often barely know their neighbors, much less share holiday dinners with them. In contemporary American society, “community living” typically refers to life in a nursing home or senior community. After college dorm living, we may go most of our lives without ever living in a community again. However, the communal mode of living is the most natural way of life imaginable, judging by the fact that humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to live together in tribes or villages.  in which everyone depended on one another, in tribes or villages.

People get together to share common interests in Takoma Village, Ann says—everything from singing sea shanties to meditation and exercise. Ann and one of her neighbors meditate together regularly. Others hold a weekly nonviolent communication practice group, practice arts and crafts, and teach Spanish lessons.

“In a lot of ways, we’re like a family without a lot of the issues,” she says. “How lovely to be at a Christmas dinner in which a fight did not erupt,” she laughs.

Living in community has taught Ann to be extremely tolerant, she says. She’s learned to be more flexible about people’s different ways of doing things, and to let go of the desire for strict rules. She’s also learned about nonviolent communication, computers, and meditation through shared learning experiences. After seeing the Dalai Lama with her meditation partner, they became serious about practicing early each morning. In the process, they grew to know each other very closely, becoming good friends.

This built-in support network benefits parents and children immeasurably, she says. “Imagine being a parent, and you don’t have to drive anywhere to take your kid. You don’t have to have this schedule of taking them here, there.” It’s more like when she was growing up, she says, when kids would just play with other kids in the neighborhood instead of having a strict itinerary after school. Plus, when kids do have after school activities, parents and other adults often share the driving responsibilities, she adds. “For parents, there’s nothing like community living,” she says. Whether in a cohousing community or another form of community, families have the village support that so many parents and children are lacking today.

The community has also experienced five adoptions, Ann says. She recalls one evening when a man who’d been waiting to adopt a child got a call that twins were on their way. They were right around the corner, and families flooded over to lend a hand and bring bottles and blankets, she says. “He didn’t know if he was getting a girl or a boy or how old,” so he hadn’t had any way to prepare, she says. “People came flying,” she adds. “Stuff just started pouring out. Parents came to help him get the babies settled for the evening.” Single parents like this man are never alone in the community, she says. “They don’t have to do this on their own.”

“I don’t think I could go back to single family detached living again,” Ann says. Before helping to form Takoma Village, she had been passionate about community living for years, and can’t imagine going back to a relatively isolated life.

“Social workers love us,” Ann smiles. “When they come to do the on-site visit, they just love us. They fall in love with us right away. They say, ‘This is a great place for kids to grow up.’” There’s always someone watching out for kids there, she says—and no one, child or adult, ever has to feel isolated. There have been challenges—for example, around the holidays, traditions would sometimes clash—but people worked out the kinks. The people who come to cohousing want to be there for the people, for the neighborhood, for the relationships—which makes them willing to compromise in order to resolve problems, she says. Like a family, they must cope with challenges, but they know that putting community first is crucial. And learning to compromise keeps them growing, deepening their bonds, and strengthening the community they’ve built. “Community happens in the spaces between the buildings,” she says. Community happens in the moments when people say, “I belong here. I live here. I’m important, and I need to stay here.”

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